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He'd always hoped for a quick death. As a soldier, such a demise was likely the kindest he'd ever meet. A clean stab or a fatal shot and gone in moments. Even though the chances of a slow bleeding out or lingering fever dragging on far outweighed the mercy of a swift passing, he still prayed that when his time finally came, the Almighty may favor him with only brief suffering before calling him home. 

But as Jamie Fraser stood atop Craigh na Dun, his wife wrapped in his arms and battle preparations happening only an hour away, he knew he'd have no such luck. 

Tears streamed down both their faces as they held each other close. Seconds ticked by as they each worked up the nerve to approach the center stone of the circle. Wind howled in his ears and chilled him through his jacket; he felt her shivering, too, though from cold or anguish, he could only guess. His heart shattered further with each breath, echoing in his mind as he desperately memorized the lines and curves of her face. He dared not blink. Every second counted as his eyes drank in her eyes, the wild curls he loved so dearly, her slender nose, those full pink lips.

No, his death started now, and it would be slow.

She looked up at him, chin trembling as he maneuvered them within inches of the dreaded stone. Jamie clenched his own jaw, willing himself to don a brave face for her. For as slow as his death would be, hers would take longer. This moment would haunt her all her days, he knew, and he couldn't send her away with his broken soul reflected in his eyes. It wasn't fair to her. 

Once she was gone, he'd ride back to battle and face his bodily death as surely as he now faced the death of his spirit. It may be slow, but the hours were still numbered, and that brought some modicum of relief. 

He wouldn't be alone long. 

It was time. Unable to gaze into her whisky eyes any longer, he turned her in his arms, still clasped tightly around her middle. Now, his face hidden from her, tears finally escaped and rolled down his stubbled cheeks. What would it be like when she went? Would she just disappear from his embrace altogether, or would it be gradual like water slipping through his fingers? Would her warmth linger on his coat? Would he collapse? Would he perish right here from the sheer agony of it?  

Jamie layered his hand atop his wife's perfect, elegant fingers and guided them toward the granite. He buried his face in Claire's curls one more time, inhaling the scent of her. Earthy. Herbal. Sweat and dirt. For however many hours he had left, he wanted that aroma seared into his mind. He wanted to close his eyes and remember it as he drew his last breath and ascended to Purgatory to wait for her. 

His head pounded from the anticipation as he held his breath, bracing for the separation. The wind tore at his hair and whistled angrily in his ears as though it, too, felt the sharp ache of loss soon to come. 

"Goodbye, Sassenach," he breathed. Another sob wracked her chest as he pushed their hands that last inch and touched rough stone. 

Perhaps he did die then and there. He'd expected the heartbreak, acute as a knife wound. But the pain that engulfed his entire body -- his entire being -- exceeded any he could have expected or imagined. Was that him screaming? Was she screaming? Why was Claire screaming? 

The pain departed as instantaneously as it had arrived, and Jamie panted on his back. As he struggled to breathe, he felt bile rising in his throat and turned to the side just in time to vomit in the grass. Coughing and wiping his mouth, he stayed on his knees, head resting on his forearms against the grass, and sobbed. Christ, he knew sending her on would be painful, as though he'd tied his arms to two different horses and spurred them onward to tear him apart. But for the pain to be so immediate, so visceral and all-consuming...he never could have predicted it. 

He'd had her for so little time, and now he'd lost her.

The tears slowed, and Jamie sat up, breathing deeply and gazing at the grass as he recovered. He placed his hands on his thighs, preparing to stand and make his way back to Donas when he finally looked up from the ground to see a mass of dark green skirts just before him. 

"Sassenach?" he whispered, crawling cautiously toward the mass. 

It was. His heart sped again, all calming progress lost as he moved toward her face and brushed the curls away. More tears blurred his vision, tears of gratitude that God hadn't let her leave. 

"Taing Dhia," he whispered, pressing his lips to her forehead. 

She was cold. 

Sitting up abruptly, Jamie lifted shaking fingers to touch Claire's face. Cool and clammy. Nothing like the warmth he'd felt from her only moments before. Just as he'd watched her do so many times, he put two fingers beneath her jaw, feeling for a pulse. A shaky sigh escaped him as he felt that strong if quick beat beneath her skin. 

"Wake up, Sassenach," he murmured as he moved her head to his lap, brushing more hair from her face and caressing her cheeks. Oh, that he could still touch her milky skin! He searched out and grasped one chilled hand in his as the other continued to stroke her face, encouraging her to wake. 

As minutes continued to pass and Claire lay immobile before him, fear bubbled up in his chest. Had the stones hurt her? Had they rejected her in some cruel twist of fate that left her body here with him but stole her life away? Shaking his head, he fought to tamp it down. Jamie leaned over and put his ear beside her mouth, thanking God again that strong, steady breaths warmed his cheek. 

They couldn't stay there. The hilltop left them exposed should Redcoats stumble by on the way to battle. Nodding with decision, he eased Claire off his lap. Making his way to his feet, he gathered her in his arms and cradled her against his chest, pressing his lips to the crown of her head. As thoroughly as the pain had crippled him only moments ago, love and tenderness flooded his veins now as he felt her within his arms. He'd bring her back to the cottage at the bottom of the hill until she woke. Then they'd concoct a plan. 

As he made his way carefully down the hill, he knew Charles would be searching for him at Culloden, as would Murtagh once he'd sent the Lallybroch men home. But he'd leave Claire unguarded and unconscious for no one on earth or in heaven. Nothing could pull him away. 

A low rumble reached his ears. Distant cannon blasts had boomed through the air several times as he and Claire had bid final farewells, so Jamie didn't notice immediately that this sound was different. Not a single muffled blast, but a prolonged and growing hum. A roar and a whine mingled together. The skin at the back of his neck prickled as the steady volume increased with each of his own thundering heartbeats. He'd never heard a sound like that. Turning sharply, he searched around him for a source but saw none. 

Just as he resolved to break into a run for the cottage at the tree line, a shadow passed over the grass. He looked up. 

And they just stay aloft, like birds? he remembered asking her once. 

Well, no, she'd replied. Her voice came to him as he watched the gray monstrosity crawl across the blue, cloudless sky. He nearly forgot to breathe. The wings are stationary. They don't flap. 

When Claire had described it to him, he'd pictured something like a ship coursing through the clouds as though on water. No masts, maybe, but big fat oars -- wide as the ship itself -- sticking out of each side. The wings. And even though she'd said they didn't flap, he had grinned to himself imagining massive oars paddling through open air. But his mental image built from Claire's descriptions hadn't come close to the cross-shaped object sliding over him. 

Must have God's own view of the world from that height, he'd chuckled back then.

The whine and roar of the vessel began to decline again as it flew from view, but Jamie's own pulse hammered in his ears just as loudly as his mind raced. Realization dawned on him slowly like a piece of paper falling through air. 

Eyes wide, Jamie looked down at his still-unconscious wife in his arms. The stones hadn't rejected her. They'd worked. 

They'd just taken him, as well. 

Chapter Text

Jamie stood frozen, looking down at his wife in his arms, long after the rumbling of that...thing faded to nothing. The name eluded him. She'd called it something...what had she called it? He cleared his head with a shake then forced his feet to move once more, taking them to the abandoned croft. 

"She'll ken what to do," he muttered under his breath over and over, a mantra to drown out the looming dread and uncertainty taking over his mind. "She'll ken."

More fear rose up within him as he came upon the place where the cottage should be to find only grass and dirt. Another hint that they weren't where they should be. Improvising, Jamie walked further into the tree cover, searching for a suitable place to lay Claire down so he could pace and think. A shady spot caught his eye, a moss-covered log and boulder bordering the minuscule clearing only as wide as he was tall. But the log would hide Claire's form from view, and the boulder made a large enough landmark for him to find again. 

Kneeling with care, he laid Claire on the grass. Tightness had gripped his chest the moment he'd seen the skyward evidence of their travel through the stones, so he stroked his fingers through Claire's locks and focused on his breathing, on soothing his racing heart. She looked almost peaceful, and her skin wasn't as cold, which Jamie took as a good sign. He stood then with crossed arms and paced, thinking. Flashes of stories flickered through his mind: horseless carriages that could cover great distances with unbelievable speed, magic hot water baths without the backbreaking prep, flying contraptions that could traverse entire oceans in a single day, wartime carnage that would boggle even his soldier's mind. He flipped through them like pages in a book, desperately seeking any scrap of information that would help them now but found none.

Well, if I canna remember anything useful from the future, what can I remember from the past? he thought to himself. The cottage had long perished. But if memory served, a stream passed nearby. Surely it would still be around? The taste of sick lingered in his own mouth, and Claire may need some water once she woke. Still, he debated. More than before, Jamie sensed danger around each corner, dangers as yet unknown. And if she woke in his absence, what would she do? 

Doing something beat doing nothing, though. Waiting for something to happen would drive him mad; better to take what action he could.

Decision made, Jamie stood. What signals could he leave for her to stay put? He stripped his coat off and draped it over Claire's inert body. With another moment's hesitation, he pulled his dirk free and wrapped her fingers around the hilt, careful to leave the blade on the dirt beside her so she wouldn't twitch or rouse and cut herself. Finally, spotting a nearby patch of dirt, he bent and traced the word WAIT there. Hopefully between the change of scenery, the written order, and the coat and dagger left for her, she'd be able to deduce enough to await his return. The thought of leaving his sword as well crossed his mind -- she'd know he couldn't have gone far without it, and certainly not to battle -- but he'd need it himself if he stumbled across trouble.

"I'll be back soon, mo nighean donn," he whispered and bent, kissing her cheek. Leaning his forehead against hers, he closed his eyes and breathed her scent in again, one thing unchanged by their otherworldly journey. "Please, Sassenach, wait here." Perhaps his words would seep through her mind as she slept, compelling her to stay. Jamie then set out to find the stream. 

As though out on a hunt, Jamie weighed each step with care, moving through the woods without a sound. One hand remained on his hilt, eyes scanning through the trees as he made his way. The telltale gurgling and splashing of a stream soon reached his ears and quickened his pace. There it was, another landmark that had stood the test of time. The thought buoyed his spirits. If this still remained, and the stones and the trees and the sky, how much could really have changed? He pushed the memory of that flying carriage away. 

Why can I no remember what it was called? 

Until Claire awoke, he'd wrap himself in the comforting warmth of as many recognizable details as possible. 

Cold water splashed in his face lifted his spirits further, as did a cleansing swish and spit. Jamie pulled the bladder from his belt and, after a quick rinse, set it in the water and let it fill. Still on alert, Jamie cast his eyes around, but nothing seemed amiss. Bladder filled, Jamie took a long draw, gulping down delicious cold water before setting it back to refill again for Claire. It tasted the same still, another reassuring familiarity. 

Another minute, and Jamie corked the bladder and began the trek back to Claire, calmer now than before but still cautious. 

The boulder caught his eye from yards away. Of their own accord, his feet sped their pace then, hurrying back to where he left Claire. As he approached, he heard a voice. 

"Miss? Miss, are you alright?"

Sprinting. Before he even registered the words he'd heard, Jamie sped through the trees, closing the distance in a matter of seconds. By the time he stepped into the clearing, Jamie's sword was drawn and pointed at the man bent over his wife. 

"Back away, sir," Jamie growled. The man snapped up, eyes wide as he took in Jamie's towering form and the blade only inches from his chest. 

All the mental work Jamie had done grounding himself in the familiar came to naught as he took in the person standing before him. He wore dark breeks cut off above the knee and a yellow-colored shirt, the collar coming to sharp points and open at the throat. Straps of some kind ran down from either shoulder and attached to the waistband with gold clips. His shoes looked different, too, and he carried a huge satchel on his back. 

"M-m-my apologies," the man whimpered, hands up in surrender. "I was hikin' through, and I just f-f-found her here. Was checkin' if she were okay, ye ken?" he stammered, backing away. Jamie let him, coming to stand between the man and Claire in the meantime. The sword never lowered. 

A rustling came from behind him, then a groan. 

"Jamie?" Her soft voice hit him square in the chest like the cannon blasts that had shaken their bones only hours ago. With one last warning look at the man before him, Jamie sheathed the sword and bent to his wife. 

The gold of her eyes had always been enough to take his breath away, but amidst the tribulations of the last hours, seeing that sweet amber looking back at him brought him near to tears. "Oh, Claire," he whispered, helping her to sit up and lean against the log. "Christ, it's good to hear yer voice, Sassenach." 

"What--" she began, running her fingers through her matted curls, until a voice broke in. 

"Claire?" the hiker asked as he motioned to take a step forward then backed away again at Jamie's glare. "Claire Randall?"

"Claire Fraser," she answered automatically, voice still thick and drowsy as she recovered. Her fingers pressed into her temples, and she sighed again, eyes closed. 

"Aye," Jamie said. "And ye see she's fine now, so off wi' ye," he barked to the man, still staring wide-eyed at Claire on the ground. 

"But she..." The stranger trailed off as Jamie rose, hand going back to his hilt. "Okay, okay," he said, backing away. "I'm goin'. Best o' luck to ye both, then," he added with a touch of bitterness. Then he turned and ran into the trees, gone from sight in a moment. 

Jamie nodded once in triumph as the man vanished. He turned back toward Claire. Brushing hair from her face, he kissed her forehead again. "Ye gave me a fright, mo nighean donn," he murmured with teasing approbation. "I feared ye wouldna wake."

"Jamie," she said again, taking the water bladder he offered, "what happened?"

"I dinna ken," he answered with all honesty. "One minute I was holdin' my breath, dreadin' the moment ye'd be gone. The next, I was lyin' in the grass wretchin' my guts out wi' ye right beside me." 

Her eyebrows knit together in confusion, and Jamie held back the chuckle of delight at that face she made. Would he ever stop thanking God for this woman, no matter where or when they were? The tiniest expressions and most mundane of moments overwhelmed him with love for her, and each time he sent up his thanks. 

"It didn't work, then?" she asked, taking a long sip. 

His face grew serious, and he felt his own forehead wrinkle in thought. "Well..."

"Jamie?" she questioned again. "You're scaring me."

Slowly, he shook his head. Not a denial, but of disbelief. "Do ye remember, on the way to Lallybroch for the first time, ye told me of the...the carriages that ride across the sky?"

Her eyes narrowed, slits of gold staring back at him. "Airplanes?"

"Airplanes," he repeated deliberately, tracing the word with his tongue and committing it to memory. He'd need to do that with so many more words to come. "Aye."

"I remember." 

Silence between them. 

"Jamie--"

"I saw one, Claire," he cut her off. "When I was carryin' you from the stones, I heard this sound. It seemed to come from everywhere at once. And then I looked up..." He couldn't continue, instead waiting to see how she'd react to what he'd shared so far. 

"No," Claire said, her tone clipped. "No, you couldn't have. You must have been knocked out, as well. You dreamed it."

"I didna dream it, Sassenach!" he cried, standing in frustration to pace again. "'Twas not how I'd drawn the thing in my mind when ye told me. 'Twas cross-shaped with a fin up the backside, gray and shiny wi' portholes all down the length of it. And a thin white cloud comin' out the back." Shaking his head, he plopped onto the ground beside Claire, who looked at him with wide eyes and a pale face. "And the noise it made...like a man and a woman yellin' and screamin' together. Deep and rumblin' but high and shrill all at once."

"Jamie..." she repeated his name once more. Maybe she wanted to anchor herself somehow, just as he had been doing all afternoon. 

"The stones did work," he said. "We're in...your time now."

 

#

 

The words couldn't be true. Yet, somehow, Claire knew they had to be. How else could he describe so precisely the sound a jet engine makes as it tears across the peaceful sky? And this had been, after all, the plan. She was supposed to end up here in the future. But how had he come through?

"You," she breathed, bringing her hands up to cup his face. He smiled at the contact, and she followed suit despite the confusion that still fogged her brain. "You came through, too?"

"Apparently," he said with his signature smirk and eyebrow raise. One large, warm hand came to cover hers, his thumb stroking her knuckles. "I dinna ken how, but as soon as I saw ye lying beside me, I thanked God he hadna ripped us away from each other."

"Yes," she breathed out. "Whatever happens, it's the two of us."

Before he could speak again, she leaned up and met his lips with hers. There on the forest floor, their kiss spoke of tender thanks, of heartbreak averted and plans to be made together. For as many tears as she'd shed in thinking the rest of her years would be filled with aching for his touch, she touched him now. Hands on his neck, in his hair, caressing his perfect face. A growl deep in his chest sent sparks flying through her body. His arms encircled her and grasped her almost too tight to breathe. The strong fingers of one of his hands cradled her skull, tenderly massaging the spot at the base of her neck. His other arm remained curled around her waist. They pulled each other closer, mouths opening and breathing labored as they soaked in each other. 

They were both safe. They were together. Anything else, they could handle.

Then an unwelcome thought wrenched her from his loving embrace. 

Claire Randall. 

It had been a long time since anyone had known that name, a long time since she'd hastily adopted her pseudonym to hide it. If Jamie's tale of witnessing a plane soaring across the sky hadn't convinced her, that sure would have. 

"Sassenach?" he asked as she broke away. 

"Who was that?" Jamie looked at her blankly. "The man," she explained, standing in exasperation, "who was it?"

"I dinna ken," he replied, standing beside her and dusting off his kilt. Speaking as he re-stowed his dirk and bladder, he added, "I came upon him standin' ower ye. Sassenach!" he cried out as Claire took off running. 

The man had only been gone a few moments. Surely she'd catch his trail. 

"Hello!" she called out, skirts in hand as she jogged through the trees. The sound of Jamie running behind her allowed her to push on without turning to check that he was still there. "Hello, sir! Are you out here?"

Jamie grabbed her by the elbow. "Claire," he said through clenched teeth, "what the devil are ye doin'? Ye dinna ken that man. He could be dangerous." Looking in his eyes, Claire could see shadows of doubt, fear. And she understood it. If the residual stress and sorrow that had driven them to the stones to begin with weren't enough to instill a deep-rooted terror in him, then the shock of finding himself thrust into a time not his own would have been. So she calmed, breathed deeply, and elaborated. 

"He called me 'Claire Randall,'" she said as explanation. 

"Aye, he did," Jamie spat out. "Shoulda knocked him flat on his back for that alone."

"No, Jamie," she said, imploring him to understand. "I didn't get a good look at him as I was coming to. Maybe I do know him." And with that, she took off running again. 

They jogged through the trees, calling out for several more minutes before finally receiving a shout in reply.

"Hello?" he called with trepidation in his voice. Following the voice, they finally met up with him, and Claire slowed. She didn't recognize the face. But he clearly knew her, and she needed to know how. 

Ignoring his look of bewilderment as he assessed their attire, she asked, "You know me?" When he looked warily at Jamie again -- who was, thankfully, keeping a bit of a distance, shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot with his coat clutched in his fist -- she touched the man's shoulder apologetically. "He won't harm you. We've had a bit of a fright, and you just startled him."

"Oh, aye," the stranger said with venom. "Startled him, I did."

"Sir," Claire intoned, forcing his focus back to her. "Do you know me?"

He shook his head. "Only from the flyers in town, miss." 

Hearing that, Jamie approached with slow steps, hand at the hilt of his dirk. "Flyers?" he asked of Claire. 

The man nodded. "The missing person flyers," he expanded. 

Claire turned to her husband. "Like broadsheets. It's how we find people who've gone missing," she explained in low tones. "Though I'm surprised there are any still up after three years."

"Three years?" the man butted in, and Jamie shot him a heated glare.  "Since ye disappeared, ye mean?"

"Yes," Claire said with an admonishing grip on Jamie's arm. 

The hiker shook his head. "No, Mrs. Randall." Confusion and concern lined his face. "'Tis only been six months, ye ken?"

All the air left her lungs. She'd have fainted again, but she must have wobbled as she felt Jamie's arm grasping her around the waist, keeping her on her feet. 

"The date, man?" Jamie demanded as Claire absorbed the man's words. 

Six months. 

"April 16th," came the terse reply. 

"Aye, the year?" Jamie asked, impatient. Had she been in a clearer state of mind, she'd have warned him how dangerous a question like that could be. With time, she'd have prepared him for how to act, what to say and not say, shared the painstaking sleuthing that she'd undertaken herself to answer that very question when she'd passed through the first time. But now, head spinning, she only listened for the answer. 

"Why," the man said, taken aback, "nineteen hundred and forty-six, o' course."

Chapter Text

Another hour passed in a blur. Jamie must have dismissed the hiker again (or perhaps he'd simply run away from the madman and his just-as-mad wife in terror), as Claire couldn't remember bidding him farewell or even watching him leave. She also had no memory of Jamie guiding her back to their small clearing or sitting her on the mossy log. 

Six months. 

"Drink, Sassenach," Jamie said, raising the bladder to her lips and tilting her head back. The cool liquid running down her throat helped revive her from the dense fog that had enveloped her mind. Nodding, she grabbed the bottle for herself and drank heavily. 

"I'm sorry," she muttered as she finished, handing it back to Jamie who sat squatted down in front of her, his hands resting on her knees. 

"Why, mo chridhe?" he asked, surprised. 

Claire shook her head. "For...disappearing like that. I just...that was a shock."

"Nothin' to apologize for," he assured her. Warm hands wrapped around hers on her lap, and she relinquished a trembling breath. "Speak wi' me, Sassenach. Tell me what troubles ye."

"I don't know, exactly," she murmured. Fingers intertwining with his, Claire held onto his hands as though afraid she'd float away if she didn't. "Just the shock of it, really. I've lived three years of my life, but only six months have passed here. And the implications..." She paused but continued when Jamie remained silent before her. "If the missing person flyers are still posted, are the police still searching for me? Is F-Frank--" Stumbling over his name, she blushed and looked away from Jamie's eyes for just an instant, allowing him to muscle his way through his own displeasure at hearing the name. "Is Frank still here, still searching? And all this, everything that happened would've been difficult enough to explain before. How can I tell anyone that I've lived three years in six months?"

Panic began to rise in her chest as she laid out every hurdle they had before them. "We're not even married in this time. I...I don't know where we go from here."

"Shh, mo nighean donn," Jamie whispered. He swung up to sit beside her, pulling her head to his shoulder and wrapping his arms around her for just a few breaths. Backing away just an inch, he leaned his forehead against hers. Claire loved this position, how close they felt as they sat touching this way, creating their own isolated cave between the two of them that no one else could invade. And in this intimate cave, Claire released more tension with every breath. She felt his hand come up and caress her neck, and she willed the hysteria within her to simmer down. 

"Focus on one thing at a time, Sassenach," he said, fingers smoothing their way up and down her neck. "We're both safe, and we've had water. Food next would be nice, or a roof for the night." Jamie let out a sigh, then went on. "We dinna have coin that will work now, so do ye ken anyone here who may no ask too many questions at the least?" 

Claire knew only two people in Inverness, assuming Frank had left: Reverend Wakefield, Frank's fellow historian; and the Reverend's housekeeper, Mrs. Graham. The woman had read Claire's palm shortly before her journey through the stones, and Claire had witnessed her dancing with the druids through the circle at sunrise that morning she'd traveled. But would she believe the power of the stones? Waking up early a few times a year for a half-hour ritual did not guarantee that Mrs. Graham knew the capabilities of the stone or would believe them if told. The group could just as easily be a sorority of sorts, engaging in slightly scandalous behavior without any deep connection to the actions or the place themselves.

But as Claire ran down the tiny list of Inverness acquaintances, she conceded that the housekeeper may be the only choice. 

"There is one person," Claire said. "Mrs. Graham. But she works for Reverend Wakefield, who's friends with Frank." Tension stiffened her neck at the thought of confronting her first husband, and Claire rotated her head around, sighing as she felt the satisfying pops. "I have money in this time, but I can't get it without attracting attention."

"All right," Jamie said, backing up but keeping her hand in his. "So we go to this woman, this Mrs. Graham. And she'll help us?"

Claire shrugged. "I don't know, but it's the only choice."

Jamie nodded. His eyes shone with apprehension and anxiety, but the confident set of his shoulders showed the trust he placed in her to guide them through this time. And that terrified her.

With effort, Claire choked down the fear. Jamie had protected her when she had fallen out of time, had guided her and shown her the way of things, even if he hadn't fully realized just how much she needed it at the time. Here and now, armed with knowledge of precisely what had happened them and her husband beside her, Claire willed herself to be brave. 

They stood together, hands still clasped. With a nod, Claire turned and led them toward Inverness. Most of their walk for the next few hours passed in silence. A few times, a distant grumble of a car motor or the overhead keen of an airplane reminded them how far away from home they truly were. Jamie flinched the first few times but seemed at least superficially accustomed to the noises as they reached the outskirts of the town. 

Claire remembered the way to the reverend's home, but she brought them up short before they stepped from the wilderness.

"Jamie, before we go further, I have some things to say, and I need you to listen." He furrowed his eyebrows together and his jaw clenched, but he nodded once to show he was paying attention. "I need you to let me take the lead here," Claire insisted. Her hands rested on his chest, seeking closeness as she spoke. As he listened, his hands rose to cover hers there. "I know how frightening a lot of this will be, but I need you to trust that this is my time and that I won't let anything hurt us. After we were married, I agreed to follow your orders because you knew best how to protect us in your time." A shaky breath covered her pause before she continued. "And I need that same promise from you now."

Her husband stood stiff before her, weighing her words. But she saw understanding in his eyes. Grim acceptance overtook his features as he nodded. "Aye, I'll listen to ye, Sassenach."

"Good," she said, unable to keep the smirk from her face. "On that note, you must not pull your sword or dirk out. Law and order is different here. There shouldn't be the same kind of threats to us as there might have been before. And pulling blades on people is the easiest way to draw attention to us or worse. Understood?"

Again, reluctant acquiescence. 

Claire didn't move but also didn't speak. Jamie waited, but they remained frozen in place. 

"Sassenach?" he asked, uncertainty coloring his features. 

She had to tell him. But how does one even string such words together? How on earth could she admit to her husband that Frank -- the man who'd placed the first wedding ring on her hand, had known and loved her body just as Jamie had, the man she had turned her back on and who may walk around any corner in town -- shared a face with Jamie's tormentor, the monster who'd tried to break him body and soul? 

A chance encounter without any warning or preparation would end badly, if not bloody; of that, Claire was sure. Which meant he had to know, and he had to know now. 

Determined, pulling on all the love and strength within her heart, Claire readied the words on her lips. She let her hands glide up from his chest to rest on his neck, her thumb rubbing soothingly back and forth along his jawline. 

"There's something you need to know about Frank," Claire started slowly. The muscles of his neck tightened beneath her fingers. She massaged him there, steadying her voice. "You know he's descended from Black Jack Randall, or at least his brother."

"Aye," he answered, tone hollow. 

"Jamie, Frank looks like him." She paused. Confusion knitted Jamie's brow together. "The resemblance between them is...unsettling. Jack Randall is the first person I came across when I traveled through the stones, and at first I thought he was Frank." Unpleasant memories of her first moments in the past flooded her senses. Such must have been visible, as Jamie wrapped her then in his arms, clutching her desperately to his chest. The frantic pounding of his heart thumped beneath her ear. 

"And yer tellin' me in case we come face to face wi' him," Jamie finished for her. "So I dinna kill the man on sight."

A shiver shook her frame, but she nodded into his chest. "I need you to know that Frank is not Black Jack." Claire pulled herself away so she could look into his face. "And there's probably no avoiding the shock that may come with seeing him, but I need you to focus on that they are different people. And that Frank hasn't any of the...depravity of his ancestor. 

"And know that I love you, only you, and I won't let anything or anyone hurt you, James Fraser." Love for her husband clenched at her heart. Standing on tiptoe, she pressed her lips to his, showing him how dear he was to her, how she would protect him here. 

"Aye, mo graidh," Jamie muttered a moment later. "I ken it. And I trust ye."

 

#

 

The walk through town had gone smoother than Claire had hoped for. Her hair flowed freely on the windy day, hopefully obscuring her face from any direct comparison to the flyers they saw posted on nearly every building they passed. 

Upon seeing the first of these, Jamie had drawn up short, breath hitching audibly as he stared. "Christ," he'd breathed, eyes glued to the photograph. "I've never seen a painting so..."

"It's not a painting," she explained, gently pulling him onward. His eyes remained wide, unbelieving as they walked and she explained photography to him. 

Claire had worried that their attire would be too difficult for passers by to ignore, and they did garner a few stares. Luckily for them, though, most seemed to assume their getup had to do with the anniversary of the slaughter at Culloden. For every judgmental stare directed their way, there came a salute or friendly, knowing smile from someone else. 

Finally, the familiar manse loomed up before them. Claire stopped, staring from the opposite side of the street. Only one car sat in the driveway, and she was relieved not to see Frank's. 

"This is the place, then?" he breathed, squeezing her hand.

"Yes," she replied, returning the pressure. They looked to each other, each pulling strength from the other, before carefully crossing the road and walking up to the door. 

Claire stepped before Jamie and, without further delay, rang the bell. 

The thick front door cloaked any footsteps that approached from the other side. A car puttered by behind them on the street. And they waited. 

Finally, without warning, the door swung open. A short woman with crinkled eyes and curled gray hair beamed up at them. She opened her mouth to say hello, but the word never made it out as her eyes grew wide and her jaw dropped. 

"Mrs. Graham?" Claire tested, swallowing. "I hope we aren't disturbing you, but we need your help. Please." The pleading in her voice left Claire a tad embarrassed, but there was no hiding it. They were at this woman's mercy. 

"We?" the older woman gasped. Her eyes then found Jamie slightly behind Claire, their cupped hands still clasped. The pit-pat of his fingers on his other hand tapping against his sword hilt broke the silence as they three stared at each other in awe. 

"Aye," Mrs. Graham said. "Do come in."

Casting a reassuring smile to Jamie, Claire wove their fingers together and pulled him in after her. 

"I don't suppose the reverend is home, by chance?" Claire asked uneasily as Mrs. Graham shut the door behind Jamie. The shock had yet to leave her face and only grew as she looked upward at Jamie's towering form. 

"No, Mrs. R--" The woman stopped herself, apparently picking up on enough clues to gather that Claire may not appreciate the title about to escape her lips. "No, he had a meetin' at the church until this evenin'." 

Awkward silence overtook them in the doorway until Mrs. Graham gestured for them to follow through to the parlor. She bade them sit while she prepared tea in the kitchen, and all parties took the time to compose themselves. Sitting on the plush leather sofa before the hearth, Claire pressed her forehead to Jamie's once more. Their breaths flowed in and out in sync. They had yet to relinquish their urgent hold on each other's hands since making their way to the city. In the moments as they waited for Mrs. Graham's return, they were alone and at peace. 

When the woman rejoined them, incredulity had morphed into fascination and excitement. Her eyes seemed to twinkle as she set out the refreshments for them. Claire sipped quietly, but Jamie didn't seem to have a stomach for tea just now. 

"Now, Claire," Mrs. Graham said slowly. "Why don't ye start at the beginning."

Well, if there was a time to lay out the entire truth, this was it. And so she did. Over the next hour, Claire told the reverend's housekeeper about her terrifying, unexpected journey to the 18th century, her attempts to come home, the love she found with Jamie and the home she made with his family once she'd decided to stay. 

Claire revealed their attempts to thwart the Bonnie Prince's war, to prevent the dreadful Rising from coming to pass, and the heartbreaking farewell they'd taken when their plans failed and they believed they'd be parted forever. She finished with the miraculous passage of Jamie through the stones and their current predicament. 

"Three years," Mrs. Graham breathed. "Ye've lived three whole years since we last saw ye?"

"Aye," Jamie spoke up for the first time since entering the house. Just as Mrs. Graham had gazed at them with reverent awe, he now returned the look. "So ye believe us, then, Mrs. Graham?"

The smile that spread across her face rose to her eyes. "Oh, aye, Mr. Fraser. The stories of the stones have been passed down for generations, ye ken," she said, nearly giddy. "Since I was a lass, I've imagined the adventures to be had if the stones sang for me, the places I'd travel to if I could. I've never known anyone who could travel before. 'Tis like a dream come true to hear it from the both of ye."

Relief flooded through Claire in that moment. If they had nothing else, they had one ally. Hopefully that would be enough. 

"Mrs. Graham," Claire said, leaning forward. "Is...is Frank still in Inverness?"

With a shake of her head, the woman responded, "No. He went back to Oxford probably three months ago. He returns every now and again, though," she added, a hint of warning in her voice. "I guess whenever he has a free weekend, he comes into town to speak with the police about their investigation. He--" Mrs. Graham swallowed. "He's convinced someone's taken ye, ye ken? The police believe ye ran away wi' someone, but he wouldna accept it. Even told Reg he wanted to bring in private investigators from Oxford to take over the search."

It made sense. They'd loved each other. After years apart, they had been thrilled to both be alive and beginning life anew together. The war had been akin to the end of the world for a time; chaos around every corner, never knowing if you'd woken or eaten or laughed or kissed for the last time before becoming just another casualty of violence. Living through such horror only made them both eager to build a life and family, a routine to take them through their remaining years in boring, amazing bliss. 

And one stone on one hilltop had killed that dream. 

A part of her appreciated Frank's continued faith that she hadn't deserted him. With the pain of loss so sharp, doubt could easily have allowed him to paint her a disloyal harlot who'd intentionally trampled his heart. Claire wondered if that would be easier. Could he have moved on with his life sooner if he believed (not believed, knew, she corrected herself as her eyes flickered to Jamie beside her) that she'd moved on as well? If he had written her off as just another woman chasing a wartime lover, could he have healed and found happiness in someone else? 

His continued search, his unwavering insistence on finding her showed how completely she still had his heart. That knowledge and the knowledge of how she'd shatter it brought tears to her eyes. 

Yes, if he'd simply given her up as lost, one way or the other, life may have been easier on him. And it certainly would've been for her when it came time to see him. 

"Good," Claire said, standing to pace. She regretted the loss of Jamie's warm hand in hers, but she needed space to think. "I'll need to speak with him, of course," she muttered nearly to herself. "But I want us to have a moment to breathe first, to plan the best way forward for all of us."

"And what'll ye tell him, lass?" Mrs. Graham asked. 

"The truth," Claire said without hesitation. "He deserves to know it. And I won't feed him some lie about running away with Jamie or an affair in France. Frank was my husband, and I loved him. He deserves to know that I didn't throw away what we had, even if we can't have it any longer."

Anxious eyes searched for her husband's, and his steady gaze soothed her soul. 

Mrs. Graham nodded along in the chair across. "I did try to tell him that ye may have traveled," she said slowly. "I tried to tell him about the stones. He didna believe me."

Still standing, Claire shrugged. "And he may not believe me. But he deserves more than lies. If I can't give him myself or my heart any longer, I can at least give him the truth."

Chapter Text

Jamie sat in silence as Claire spun their tale, sharing the details of their lives with the jovial woman before them. He kept his eyes fixed on his wife, willing himself to ignore the myriad strange objects scattered about the room. Just the few he'd noticed on the way to their seats had his head swimming with some mixture of wonder and trepidation. Portraits like the one on the flyers lined the walls and sat on tables throughout the home, unfamiliar faces gazing back at him from behind glass. Globes attached to the ceiling emitted bright lights, brighter than any candle or hearth back home. Electricity. He remembered that one; he remembered how the word had tickled his tongue when Claire first taught it to him, how he'd chortled and repeated it over and over. Now, though, to see every inch and corner of the room bathed in yellow light set his stomach to churning. Electricity was just another way in which his world, the only one he'd ever known, had been left behind. 

She was speaking of Frank now, of sharing the truth with him as they'd done with Mrs. Graham. Jamie knew enough to keep his mouth shut, at least for the time being. But hearing how Claire hoped to tell Frank how they came to be together, how she'd found herself separated from him, the actual truth...it didn't seem like the best move. Claire had said Frank shared a face with Black Jack. Despite her assurances of Frank's character, all he could picture was the demeaning laugh Black Jack would let out at hearing such a tale, the way his black eyes would gleam with pleasure at declaring them mad before exacting his torture upon them both. 

But Jamie had told Claire he'd trust her. This was her world, and Frank had been her husband. 

Was still her husband, Jamie had to remind himself with a jolt. 

Regardless, he resigned himself to abiding by his word. If Claire believed the truth was the best approach, then the truth they shall tell. 

The sunlight coming through the windows faded the longer they spoke. Growing darkness outside only served to emphasize the electricity lights that much more. 

"'Tis gettin' late," Mrs. Graham sighed. "I'd prepare ye a room here, but the Reverend would likely feel compelled to phone Mr. Randall...."

Claire, who had sat beside him again and taken his hand, nodded. She knotted her fingers back through his, squeezing them and giving him a small smile in encouragement. Jamie smiled back, willing the tension to leave his chest. 

I trust ye, Sassenach, he thought to himself and released a slow exhale, careful to keep it soundless so as not to worry his Claire. 

"Of course," Claire was responding. 

Before she could open her mouth to ask, Mrs. Graham cut her off. "I'll give Mrs. Baird a call when ye leave," she said. "She'll prepare a room for the two of ye discreetly and bill it to me."

Jamie released a louder sigh this time, and Claire matched it with one of her own. He looked to the woman with her curled hair pinned back and her eyes still looking dreamily upon them. "Thank ye, truly," he said, imbuing as much sincerity as he could behind the words.

"Yes," Claire said. "It's more than we deserve. Once I can access my accounts, I can repay you--"

"No need to fuss over that just now, my dear," Mrs. Graham shushed Claire. She stood from her spot, and Claire and Jamie stood as well. "Ye two head on over to Mrs. Baird's place, and I'll try to come check in on ye sometime tomorrow."

The woman led them to the door. As they crossed through the hallway, Jamie paused. His grip on Claire's hand forced her to draw to a stop, as well. 

"Jamie?" she asked. Before Claire could say anything more or turn her attention to the frame on the wall, Jamie nodded and they followed Mrs. Graham to the door. She opened it, ushering them into the growing twilight. Jamie bowed respectfully to the woman and preceded Claire out. Before exiting, his wife turned and wrapped the older woman in her arms with another "thank you" whispered into her ear. 

And then they were back on the path toward town. Without another word exchanged between them, Claire kept hold of Jamie's hand and guided them back toward the main square of the village. With dusk coming on, fewer pedestrians passed to take in their appearance, for which Jamie was grateful. The more he saw of the modern garb, the more out of place he felt with his waistcoat, stock, blades, and even his tartan and plaid. Claire even more so in her woolen skirts and bodice. 

They arrived at the inn before full dark descended. True to Mrs. Graham's word, the woman behind the desk -- Mrs. Baird, presumably -- sent them to their room with hardly more than a surprised look at Claire and an assurance that she'd send up their meals presently.

Entering the chamber felt surreal. Not unlike the tavern rooms he'd frequented in his own time, surely, but differences nonetheless. The electricity lights, for one. More attention seemed to have been paid to dressing up the room with artwork and decoration compared to the mere utility of the taverns of his time. It felt homey in a way the inns he'd experienced never had. 

"How are you, then?" Claire asked him, startling him out of his reveries. 

He swallowed, working to maintain the brave face he'd clung to in the hours since arriving in the twentieth century. 

"Are the lights bothering you?" she asked him then, placing a gentle hand on his bicep. Only then did he realize he was squinting. The light in this room was brighter than the one at the Reverend's house, and his eyes had trouble adjusting to the harshness of it. Claire flashed him a comforting smile as she strode toward the door and flicked a switch, extinguishing the light and casting them in near total darkness. Only the meager light from the final sun rays filtered in from the window. 

"Sassenach, we canna sit here in the dark," Jamie chided her. But she only grinned at him as she walked to the fireplace, adorned with a vase of flowers on its mantle (another attempt to make the room cozy, he noted with fascination).

"We may have luxuries light electric lights in the future," she purred to him, pulling a long, thin box from atop the mantle. She took out a twig about the length of her forearm from inside it and brushed its end sharply against the side. Jamie gasped as it burst into flame. "But we still have things like fireplaces and candles, made all the easier with matches and fire logs." 

With a flourish, Claire held the flame to the lowermost log, and Jamie watched in amazement as it caught nearly at once. She dropped the twig and pulled another one forth, creating the lick of a flame once more and touching it to the candles sitting atop the mantle. As she walked about the room, Jamie noticed that a fair amount of candles were, indeed, scattered throughout on the dresser, the night tables, the windowsill, even in a dark room Claire disappeared into for a moment before returning. 

"Are there usually so many candles at hand?" he asked once she'd set the box down, satisfied with the light coming from the numerous flickering flames. "I wouldna think ye'd use them so much with the..." He gestured upward. "Electricity," he pronounced. Unlike the first time he'd heard the word, no laughter followed the speaking of its name, though he did still appreciate the feel of it on his lips and tongue. 

Claire sighed and sat on the edge of the bed, leaning back on her hands. "Well, it depends. Here in town, the electricity," she said with equal intention, "is unreliable in bad weather. Most places you go, you'll find candles at the ready in case the power fails."

Jamie nodded. The softer orange glow of the room helped to acclimatize him. It felt familiar in a way nothing truly had since they'd emerged from the trees and walked through the village that afternoon. 

Before either of them spoke again, a soft knock sounded at the door. Claire jumped up to answer it, and Mrs. Baird came in with a tray of food, which she set wordlessly on the side table near the window. Casting a curious glance to him, she left with a muttered, "Let me know if ye need anythin' else, dearies," and shut the door behind herself. 

Jamie was suddenly ravenous. Well, not suddenly. They'd both been slowly starving for the better part of four months now as food dwindled on their retreat back to Scotland. But in the flurry of activity since the morning of the battle, he'd all but forgotten about such mundanities as hunger. Eyes wide with anticipation, Jamie sat in one of the plush chairs flanking the small table while Claire claimed the other.

The plates contained a simple meal, but the portions made Jamie want to weep. One plate could have fed them both. Bread and butter, sausages, carrots and cabbage, a few slices of ham, and tea. They both dug in, all propriety and manners set aside to devour the supper before them. 

Claire cleaned her plate, and Jamie saved the last few bites of his own vegetables and ham, pushing it toward her. But she shook her head at him. "I've had plenty, Jamie. You need to eat, too. We've both gone too long without a proper meal."

With a small smile, he pushed the plate her way again. "For the bairn, Sassenach. Please?"

She opened her mouth as if to argue again. Whatever she saw in his eyes -- perhaps she recognized the desperation within him to care for her, protect her in the one way he knew he could at this moment -- made her close her mouth. The smile she flashed as she stabbed one of his carrots with her fork and brought it to her mouth held no condescension. Again, he was grateful. The sheer volume of information about this time and world he would need to learn threatened to overwhelm him. Not to mention the memories of what and whom they had left behind...

For the time, though, he pushed that from his mind. He had Claire by his side, carrying his bairn in her belly. They were safe. Warm. Fed and watered with a soft bed for the night. Anything else could bide. 

 

#

 

After they finished eating, Claire suggested washing up before getting into bed. Dead on her feet as she was, the idea of climbing between the soft, clean sheets with the grime of months on the road still coating her skin seemed absolutely depraved. Watching Jamie take in the sights of the lavatory had been a treat. Nearly as much as watching him strip down and climb into the steaming shower with her.

How many weeks had it been since they'd been truly alone? With solid walls instead of canvas ones (or none at all) guaranteeing their privacy? Even so and even as they lavished touches and kisses on each other, neither strove to take it further. Maybe it was the shock, the exhaustion, she thought. For her, at least, just being able to let their guard down and hold each other close was enough. 

When they emerged from the shower some time later, they remembered their lack of clean clothes to climb into. Claire, though, with a smirk, simply toweled herself off then hung it to dry before crossing to the bed and climbing in. She eyed her husband who, after closing his gaping mouth, followed suit, though he had the good grace to blow out some of the candles on the way over. 

Beneath the bedclothes, they lay facing each other. Her whisky eyes swam in his ocean blue ones, their fingers brushing against each other in the stillness. 

"'Tis so quiet," he whispered after a time. 

"Quiet?" she asked, surprised. "I'd think with all the automobiles and planes and people, you'd think it was too loud."

"Aye, 'tis," he amended. Jamie brought her fingers to his lips, pressing a kiss against her knuckles before continuing. "I only meant I'm used to sleepin' where I can hear the sounds of nature outside, ye ken? The wind or rain or animals and insects. Leaves rustlin' together and horses snortin'." He cast his eyes downward, and his lips turned down similarly. "In here, the walls are so thick ye canna hear anything from outside at all."

Claire ran her fingers through his damp red curls. "I understand," she said. They lay in silence for some time more, and Claire took the time to truly look at her husband in the light from the one remaining lit candle. All day, he'd stood by her side with determination, gusto, strength, protection should she need it. As much as she'd clasped his hand to guide him, she'd done so to comfort herself as well. 

But here, in the security of their room, for the first time, the mask fell away. His eyes looked tired, yes, but afraid. Even with the scars that marred his beautiful body, the russet stubble coloring his cheeks, Claire imagined she could see the young boy he'd once been staring out of this grown man's face. 

"How are you coping?" she asked. Her fingers lifted to stroke his cheek. Jamie's eyelids fluttered shut, his breath trembling at the sensation. "We've been just...rushing forward all day now. You haven't really gotten a chance to talk about any of this yet."

His eyes snapped open, and at once the mask was back in place. A smirk graced his lips and one eyebrow cocked as he said, "Well, Sassenach, the hot baths ye told me of...surely didna disappoint."

An eye roll and chuckle later, Claire tried again. "I mean it," she whispered. "I know it's...a lot. I was there not so long ago, if you remember." Claire scooted forward until her lips could reach his. With exceeding tenderness, she kissed him. She felt the groan in his throat rattle her to her core as his strong arms pulled her against him. The lines of his body melted into her soft edges. Yet, just as before, even as she felt both their bodies heating, even as he kissed her and nipped at her, somehow Claire knew now wasn't the time for seduction. And as Jamie broke off the kiss with a shuddering breath, she sensed he understood the same. 

Closeness was what he sought. Sanctuary.

"Really," she insisted, putting her hand back to his face. "Please talk to me."

Jamie squeezed his eyes closed. When they opened, Claire could see herself reflected in the layer of moisture over them. With a single blink, droplets spilled over, taking her breath away.

"I just think about..." He paused, lips trembling. Jamie bowed his head to break their gaze, but Claire pulled him back up by his chin. 

"What do you think about?" she murmured. 

"I think about," he repeated, "all the ways in which I canna protect ye here." Jamie's hand came up to cup her cheek, mirroring her own posture. His thumb grazed back and forth in a touch so gentle it tore at her heart, which raced beneath her ribs. "I ken nothin' of the dangers here or how to navigate them, Sassenach. Instead, ye must watch ower me like a bairn while ye handle all the other...complications of arrivin' back here."

"Jamie..." she muttered. She cursed herself then. So quick had she been to panic, to let the details overwhelm her. How could she have so thoroughly forgotten what it would mean for him to be here, to see her come unraveled even just for a moment? "I'm sorry," she apologized. "Things are different here, but it's not so hard to learn. And I'll help you." Claire smiled, pecking him on his lips before uttering the words that she believed he yearned to hear. They came easily, as they were nothing but truth. 

"And no matter what century we're in, I know I'm safe with you. I know you'll protect us and keep us well. No matter what."

"I will," he vowed, the corner of his lips turning up slightly. 

But the despair didn't leave his eyes. 

"There's something else?" 

As he considered his words in the ensuing silence, Claire had a pretty good guess at what else weighed on his mind. 

His fingers tightened against her neck and released, a gathering of courage. "I also canna help thinkin' on Jenny and Ian and Murtagh, everyone at Lallybroch." Jamie swallowed, but his eyes never left hers. Even as the tears continued to dampen the pillow beneath his cheek. "At the Reverend's, there was a flag on the wall. All tattered at the edges like it'd been wavin' in the wind for ages. Except I recognized it, Sassenach." Another pause. Another swallow. 

"'Twas the flag carried by the bannermen for Charles. And last I saw it, 'twas vibrant and new, hardly even wrinkled, held high by a pair of cotters as we marched toward doom at Culloden Moor." 

More tears escaped, and his eyebrows drew together, tight over the bridge of his nose. Claire felt the heat of tears behind her own eyes at his jagged voice as he spoke through the sobs he fought so hard to hold in. Like a leak in a dam, the words rushed out of him, gaining in speed as his distress grew. 

"They're...all gone, Claire. Aside from ye, mo nighean donn, every person I've cared for has been dead for centuries. The second I awoke wi' ye on this side of the stone, every friend, every member of my family and clan turned to dust. Even the grave where our child lies in Paris is likely rubbed smooth wi' time by now, if it still exists at all.

"My entire world isna just gone...there's no' a trace left of it. Sassenach, every person and place I came from has been rotted and blown away, and here I stand wi' air in my lungs and my blood flowin', my wife and child in my arms. How..." He fought for breath. "How can I be here and they're all gone, Claire?"

The dam ruptured then, and he clutched her as the sobs shook his body. Jamie didn't mask them or smother them. The agony wrenched through him. Claire could only hold him to her, stroking his hair and kissing him anywhere she could reach as she let his cries course through him. Her tears landed in his hair, but she remained silent. Jamie needed to feel her strength, to feel safe in her arms. That, she could give him tonight, if nothing else.

No amount of platitudes or positivity would change the truth of what he'd said. In the weeks following her journey to the past, she'd grappled with a similar heartache. In the blink of an eye, her world had vanished and every person she knew had ceased to exist as quickly as the popping of a bubble. If she'd succeeded in coming back without Jamie, Claire knew she'd be sobbing as he was now. Even imagining the pain she'd have felt had she woken up at Craigh na Dun alone felt like enough to turn her inside out. 

Yes, Claire understood all too well the turmoil of Jamie's heart just now. 

So she held him, shushed him, caressed him and loved him as his pain overtook him, body and soul. Even as his grip on her arms grew uncomfortably tight, Claire never wavered. 

As his tears slowed and his breathing quieted, he whispered to her so softly she would have missed it had his lips not been beside her ear. 

"How did ye survive it, mo graidh?" he asked. "And ye, wi' no one at all. How did ye bear it?"

Claire measured her words as she massaged Jamie's scalp. She felt and heard his sigh of pleasure at the feeling, even as he awaited her response. 

"I've thought a lot about the nature of time," she began. "How it works, how it's ordered. How we understand it, it's like a line. Yesterday happened, then today, and tomorrow will come after. There's a formula, a pattern that cannot be broken.

"But maybe it's not quite like that. Maybe, if you're able to step outside of it, time happens in some other way, some other pattern that we can't recognize because we're in it. Like standing inside a maze," Claire added. "You can see the walls around you, but only by being outside the maze can you see the twists and turns for what they are. And perhaps the stones are a doorway outside the maze, that lets us see it for what it is."

Jamie grunted his understanding and waited for her to carry on. 

"I got through it before," Claire said, "because I didn't think of anyone I knew and loved as gone. I thought of them as being in another room, almost. A room I couldn't find or enter, but living and moving in some other space parallel to mine. A different part of the maze."

A sharp exhale tickled the skin of her neck. Jamie moved backward then, letting his eyes connect with hers. 

"Don't think of them as dead, Jamie," she whispered. "They're just in another room. Their lives are moving parallel to us here. We can't reach them, but they're there, just on the other side of the door."

"Aye," he breathed. If the subject at hand hadn't been so significant, the look in his eyes may have made her giggle in its childlike awe. Instead, Claire nuzzled her nose against his. 

"Thank ye, Sassenach," he breathed. Another of his tears slid down the bridge of his nose and dropped onto hers. 

Minutes later, his breathing evened out in slumber. Confident that he was, for a time at least, at peace, Claire relaxed and followed him into sleep. 

Chapter Text

Waking the next morning, Claire hummed contentedly and turned toward her husband. Relieved, she found Jamie breathing deep, still asleep with his arm draped heavily across her own torso. The hour must've been early, as light was just starting to creep in through the window. Shadows from the lacy curtains tinted his face and chest, and she heard an occasional motor of an automobile out on the road below. 

He'd wake before long, no doubt. Claire took these blessed moments to watch him at rest. Bare chest rising, the twitch of an eyelid, how his gorgeous curls fell just so over his cheek. 

Carefully, Claire reached over and ghosted her fingertips across his brow bone and down along his jaw. There, there it was. The upturning of his lips, that beatific smile that signified the calmness of his spirit. With a grin of her own, she pushed his curls off his face and continued to caress him. Perhaps she should've let him sleep more. But his skin felt too perfect beneath her fingers. So she brushed them over his forehead, down the bridge of his nose, around and up over his cheek to his temples and scalp and the shell of his ear. 

As she stroked his full bottom lip, his shuddering breath breezed over her thumb. Claire looked up. Deep blue eyes dotted with flecks of ice stared back, focus trained on her. 

"Mornin', mo graidh," he purred once he'd been caught at his own watching game.

Claire stretched her body without pulling her hand from his face. "Good morning," she responded. "How'd you sleep?"

"Well enough, though 'tis a bit...bouncier than I'm used to," Jamie replied, a smirk in his voice as he buried his nose amongst her curls. "And...louder."

Giggling, Claire scooted closer, eliciting a few squeaks in the process. "Yes," she breathed against his lips. "It's definitely harder to be discreet with a spring mattress."

"I dinna ken what the season has to do wi' it," Jamie replied. "But perhaps I dinna want to be discreet wi' ye, Sassenach." 

The mischief behind his words buoyed Claire's heart. His mood had vastly improved since last night, she sensed. Heartache had been replaced with relaxation, loss with lust. Hooded eyes traced her features. She wondered abstractly how he could halt her breath with nothing but a look.

The time for sanctuary had passed. Want -- no, need burned from him and licked at her as well, tangible as his breath easing across her face. She felt his yearning for her. A yearning that echoed under her own skin, which tingled as he uncovered her body and raked over it with his eyes. 

Gently, so gently, he wet his lips and brushed them against hers. Heat radiated from the point of contact through her throat, chest, spreading and warming with every second. 

Closer. Nothing else mattered until she was closer to him. 

Claire struggled to keep still as his mouth moved, delivering kisses down her neck and over her collarbone. But neither of them wanted slow. Impatient, they rolled together until Jamie settled atop her. 

Two satisfied moans erupted from them as they coalesced together. As lips and hands sought purchase on bodies hard and soft, sighs and gasps filled the room with no thought as to volume. No thought as to the creaking of the mattress or how the headboard thumped the wall behind it.

So many ways had she made love to this man before, and he to her. Silently, tenderly, barbarously. In beds of feather and grass, with audiences just out of sight as well as in isolation where their sounds could carry for miles without being heard. They'd come together in passion, solace, fury and redemption. Frenzied. Exhilarated. Devastated. Elated. At some times drawn out, at others hurried. 

With Frank, sex had been a bridge across the cracks of their lives. Insecurities, infidelities, loneliness, frustration, confusion...all emotions that had been silenced and bypassed with the use of their bodies. Even when they'd reached for each other in joy and when the act had left them sated and glowing, they'd taken their pleasure from each other without seeking anything more. That's all Claire had believed the marriage bed could offer. 

Not until Jamie had she realized that lovemaking could unearth more between two people than either knew existed. Sex, for them, wasn't a bridge. It was a confessional that allowed their souls to communicate beyond words. Even from the first time, Claire had glimpsed pieces of Jamie he couldn't have otherwise revealed had he tried. 

Here, they were safe. And they were known.

Barely twenty-four hours earlier, they'd joined with feverish urgency, souls crying out in agony. Through their bodies, each had begged forgiveness for the separation they were powerless to prevent but which threatened to damn them regardless.

Now, they soothed the wounds of that parting. As his fervent fingers clutched her to him with bruising force, Claire deciphered the message in his embrace: his assurance that he'd never let her leave again. And in turn, she breathed his name again and again in a promise that she was and always had been his, and his alone. All of this, they confessed and swore and understood with perfect clarity. 

Approaching and diving off the precipice of ecstasy one after the other, they lay together as their breaths slowed and the sweat dried. 

This morning, their souls vowed never again to part. His needed hers, and hers needed his. Claire knew there would be no surviving the loss of either. 

 

#

 

Mrs. Baird had been kind enough to send up some breakfast only a few minutes after the quiet from their room announced that their morning tryst had concluded. Mentally, Jamie knew he should've felt mortified. Between the racket from the bed and his Sorcha's not-so-wee sounds (but, Christ, they were wonderful sounds), anyone in the building had likely known how he'd served her and she, him.

Yet the embarrassment never came. He and Claire loved each other, cherished each other, and sought succor where no one else could lend it. Whatever any of these strangers thought or said, never would he hide that. 

Lacking any clean garments to wear, Jamie had donned his sark and kilt while Claire wore her shift and shawl before bringing in the food from the hallway and then sitting down to eat. Again, the bounty amazed him. They dined on toast and butter, eggs, bacon, berries, bannocks with jam, and coffee with cream.

Jamie hadn't spoken a word since before they'd taken each other, and neither had Claire. In blissful silence, they'd lain together, dressed, and eaten. Even as the morning hours passed, they contented themselves with reclining on the bed, lost in gazes and touches, ensconced in peace. 

These were moments of thanks, of disbelieving gratitude to the Lord above for allowing them to keep each other. 

Just before lunchtime, a firm knock startled them both. Claire opened the door slightly at first, then wide upon seeing Mrs. Graham standing in the hall. 

"Good morning, Mr. Fraser, Claire," the woman beamed, carrying several bags in her hands as she entered. Jamie rushed to stand at attention, and Mrs. Graham set the parcels on the unmade bed. "I figured ye'd be needin' some clothes to tide ye till ye can get out and about to handle it yerselves."

"Mrs. Graham, you are a godsend," Claire raved, taking the bags and digging through them with excitement. 

"Aye, madam," Jamie echoed as he bowed to the woman. "Thank ye."

"'Tis no trouble at all. And please," she said, "call me Maura, the both of ye." 

"Indeed, Maura," Jamie said with a smile. "Then you must call me Jamie." Her eyes shone and crinkled at the corners with giddiness. 

The more time they spent with her, the more grateful Jamie was that she had been the person Claire had entrusted with their secret. From the first, Maura had believed them with no hesitancy. Not just believed them, but respected them. In this place where he felt so ill-equipped, Mrs. Graham made him feel worthy. Jamie felt serene around her, which was more than anything else this side of the stones had offered thus far.

They could trust her. Somehow, deep in his bones, he knew this to be true.

As Claire dug through the bags, taking stock of what Mrs. Graham had brought them, the woman herself spoke. "Now, we should prob'ly come up wi' a plan from here. Ye ken you are still a missing person, Claire."

His wife paused, looking up. "Yes." Face drawn in thought, Claire moved to sit in one of the armchairs as Jamie guided Mrs. Graham to the other before taking up a perch on the corner of the bed facing them. Jamie watched them both, waiting for someone to speak. But as Claire looked at her hands, fingers twisting together on the table, silence permeated the room. 

"We need to leave Inverness," Jamie said. 

Claire looked to him, eyes wide. He had given his word, he knew, to follow her lead. And whatever she deemed fit to do next, they would do. He'd follow her through fire and plague and blood.

Even so, desperation to take Claire and flee as far from Inverness as they could grew within him. The idea of running away chafed his honor, sure. But the longer they waited, the more he felt the pull of places familiar but changed with time. Places he had no desire to ever see on this side of the stones. Lallybroch was less than a week away from Inverness by horse...how quickly could they arrive in a car? Culloden they could surely reach in less than an hour. And then there were the stones themselves, the closest of them all. 

Claire's words the night before had eased his anguish. More so than he'd expected at the outset, if he were honest. In his mind and heart, Jenny, Fergus, and the rest truly lived on in another part of the maze, another room of a great house he couldn't explore. Not dead. Not dust. Pink with life, they were. They had to be. 

But to see the places where they walked and lived would be too much. To see his home, if it even still stood, without the noise and warmth of his family would break down that comfort his wife had bestowed upon him. 

As these emotions and fears bubbled up in him, he gave voice to a different reason to leave. Taking a breath, Jamie continued, "We canna hide here forever, Sassenach. If we go somewhere else to some neutral ground, we can find some way of contactin' Frank, settin' matters to rights on our own." 

Claire's face, usually so easy to read, now revealed nothing as she watched him from her place by the hearth. Jamie pushed on. 

"And I ken ye say things are different now, that the...the law men are'na so fearsome as they once were." Jaw clenched, he broke eye contact for only a moment, eyes casting downward before meeting back up with Claire's. 

Jamie continued, "I trust ye, mo nighean donn. But I dinna trust them. And if we can keep the law out of this, the better for it, then."

A moment passed in silence as both women considered his words. Without warning, Claire stood from her chair. She crossed the room to sit beside him at the end of the bed. Wariness that had begun to seep into his mind eased as her face softened and she took his hand in hers. 

"I think you're right," she finally whispered. 

Jamie released an exhale, his shoulders sagging a bit as the tension departed. "Ye do?"

"Yes," she replied. "I would rather approach Frank on my own terms, without the police involved. Then we can worry about alerting the authorities and ending the investigation."

Mrs. Graham fidgeted with the hem of her cardigan, eyebrows drawn. She glanced back and forth between the Frasers with lips drawn down in a pout. "Lass, are ye not worried about what should happen if ye delay goin' to the authorities? Would it not be worth poppin' in, just to let them ken yer alive and well and they can move on?"

Claire worried her bottom lip between her teeth. She rose then, walking over to the window and looking out. 

"I dinna want to cause any trouble wi' the law," Jamie added slowly, now doubting his earlier statement. "For us or for Maura."

"No," Claire said, her voice sure. "We've committed no crime. Maura told us yesterday that the police already believe I've simply run away with another man. It's Frank who's keeping the investigation open at this point. Right?"

The older woman nodded, face still contorted with uncertainty. 

"Right," Claire said. "Then a week or two won't make a difference. I'd rather Frank hear from me directly than the police. 

"Besides," she said, returning to Jamie's side. Cool hands cradled his face, and Jamie leaned into his wife's touch. Even as fear niggled at his mind and churned his wame, feeling Claire's skin against his calmed his nerves. "We need more time to come up with where I've been for the last six months. You don't exist on paper in this time. It would cause more problems for us both to try to go in now. We need to get our story straight before bringing in any officials."

That much, Jamie couldn't deny. If anyone asked them right now to explain Claire's absence, they'd have nothing to say. Nothing anyone other than Mrs. Graham and perhaps -- hopefully -- Frank would believe. 

"Aye," he murmured. 

Breaking his gaze with Claire and disregarding the third person in the room, he kissed her then nuzzled into her neck and pulled her into his chest. 

"Tha gaol agam ort." Jamie mouthed the words against the skin of her neck, too quietly for her to hear. Claire must have felt the sentiment, though, as she brought his face up to look into her eyes. "I love you, James Fraser. And we will get through this," she stated. Chuckling, she added, "Between the two of us, we're stubborn enough to change the world."

Laughter bubbled up from his chest, and even Maura giggled quietly to herself. But as he embraced Claire again, Jamie couldn't help but think that not being able to change the world was exactly what had landed them here. 

 

#

 

With a few strokes of his pen, Frank completed the comments on the last essay of the night. Darkness had long settled over his office, only the one lamp at the front of his desk providing the dim light by which he'd been grading for the last five hours. 

Yet, he didn't stand. He'd planned to finish and head for home more than an hour before. But when he'd completed the paper at hand then, the prospect of returning to his quiet apartment -- too big for just himself -- had crushed him. As it tended to do most evenings. 

Now, another eighty minutes gone and three essays marked, Frank knew the time had come to pack it in.

The office had become his sanctuary these past three months since returning from Scotland. A place she had never lived in, had never even stepped foot inside. And, unlike the apartment he now avoided returning to, he had never expected her to be here, either. Where the barrenness of the apartment served to remind him that she hadn't been there to transform it into home, his office had never wanted for her touch. From the leather chair, the dark oak desk, the crowded but well-organized bookshelf, historic artifacts adorning walls and end tables and the mantle over the hearth, the atmosphere of his office was of his own making. 

Claire's ghost couldn't haunt him here. It was his domain, and no one else's.

Still, he did allow her some small space in this place of peace. One square foot, in fact. A photograph, situated on the corner of his desk, turned so only he could see it. 

Some days, Frank couldn't bear to look at it and upended it onto its face. But today, it sat tall and proud. The day they'd married. Her curly bob coiffed around her ears. His affectionate gaze turned toward her. Sunlight, gray in the photo, lighting their faces so it seemed to emanate from the newlyweds themselves, both grinning with unrestrained glee. 

God, they were so young in that photo. She was so young.

Again, Frank found himself cursing the unfairness of it all. Barely two years they'd had before the war. And then, just as they were ready to pick up the pieces of their life...

Shouldn't have had that fourth glass of port, Frank chided himself. He always grew morose with port. 

With a sigh, Frank stood to file the essays in the letterbox outside his door. It was time to go home, get some sleep. He had an early meeting with the investigator in the morning to discuss how to appease the Inverness authorities enough to conduct their own search for Claire. It was important. He should be well rested. 

He'd just reached for his jacket on the back of the chair when his phone rang. Sitting again, Frank picked up the receiver. "Professor Randall speaking," he intoned. 

"Mr. Randall," came the Scottish brogue across the line. "'Tis Inspector Gordon. Wi' the Inverness sheriff's office," he added, voice hesitating. 

As though Frank could possibly forget the man who'd utterly bungled the entire search for his wife. Who'd flat out admitted that they all believed she'd run away under her own steam. Whose insistence on said abandonment had all but halted any progress on the search to find her. 

"Yes," Frank croaked. "Inspector Gordon. To what do I owe the pleasure?" Worry writhed in his stomach. Had they somehow heard that he'd hired his own detective to take over the case? Would they bar him from doing so, cutting off his last chance before he had even begun?

Gordon cleared his throat, and Frank thought he could hear the man tapping his fingers on his desk. The rapid drumming made his heart race to match. 

"Mr. Randall," Gordon repeated, "we've had three separate reports yesterday and today claimin' to have seen yer wife in Inverness."

If it had been speeding before, his heart stopped completely then. The air vanished from his lungs. Could he actually feel them caving in? He couldn't get a breath. 

Ringing filled his ears. The shadows cast by his lamp seemed to waver as he felt his own body rocking side to side. Frank rested his elbow on the desk and leaned into his hand, face hidden in his palm. Through the shock, he forced breaths in through his nose and out his mouth. 

Don't pass out, don't pass out, he begged. 

Once he'd caught his breath, "What?" was all he could respond. 

"Yer wife has been sighted in Inverness," the inspector repeated. 

Another pregnant pause. "Mr. Randall," Gordon continued slowly, "she was seen wi' a man."

Chapter Text

Inverness to Edinburgh.

Edinburgh to Sheffield.

Sheffield to Oxford. 

Jamie repeated the route in his mind to distract himself from the anticipation of the journey to come. Climbing from the car, he moved carefully, unused to the stiff gray trousers and white shirt Mrs. Graham had bought him. His shoulders, too, felt tight and restricted in the matching gray jacket. A hat, perched precariously forward over his eye just as Claire had fashioned it, helped disguise his still too-long hair but impeded his peripheral vision. 

Beside him, Claire wore a handsome brown coat unbuttoned at the front to show a simple navy dress waisted with a thin gold belt. All morning as they'd dressed and made their way to the station, he'd been unable to shake the feeling that Claire looked more familiar in these clothes than she should have. Then it had hit him. The dress wasn't dissimilar to the white gown she'd worn the first time he'd laid eyes on her, covered in rain and mud and shivering like a leaf in a storm. When they had thought her to be wearing naught but a shift. 

Upon remembering, Jamie had wanted to encourage her to cover up further but quelled the instinct to suggest so. Having seen enough other women milling about in their short time here, he knew that Claire's outfit was normal. But it just didn't feel normal to him yet. 

Atop her head, a more feminine version of his own hat covered her wild curls. Looking at her now, no one would guess she'd spent the last three years covered up in wool and tartan. He only hoped the same could be said for him as he cast a peek down at himself with uncertainty. 

Mrs. Graham had purchased the train tickets and driven them to the station. After helping them unload their single suitcase, she pulled Claire in for a lingering hug. They parted, and Jamie bent to take and kiss her hand. An antiquated gesture, surely, only underscored by his new modern attire. But the act brought a pink glow to the woman's cheeks, and he smirked to see it. Before turning back toward the car, Mrs. Graham quietly slipped Claire a small tan-colored envelope. 

"No, absolutely not. We can't take anything else from you," Claire protested, trying to hand the package back. 

"What is it, then?" Jamie asked. 

"Money," Mrs. Graham cut Claire off. "To tide ye over until you can reach yer own accounts. And I won't hear another word."

"You've done too much already. We can't--"

"And what happens when ye arrive and the banks are closed?" Mrs. Graham interjected. "Or there's an issue retrievin' your funds? I willna leave the two of ye without a roof over yer heads or food in your bellies."

A flash of shame tore through him, white hot and intense, that he must depend on the charity of another for their providence and safety. Even telling himself that such deficiencies weren't his fault, that he'd learn with time, he felt his ears going warm with the frustration. Every hour seemed to illuminate more of his shortcomings since arriving here. 

But Jamie sighed, standing up taller and forcing himself to disregard it. Once they'd taken care of Frank, then he could focus on becoming a man of this century, a man of worth once more for his Sorcha. No more would he be dragging her across cold battlefields, able only to provide the most meager essentials, not even enough to keep her from wasting away before his eyes, and while carrying his bairn, no less. No longer would his time be spent pleading with inane princes and shortsighted generals, scrambling to prevent destruction that even those without knowledge of the future had seen coming.

As soon as possible, Jamie determined, Claire could depend upon him once more for protection, stability. 

Jamie marveled again at the strength of his wife. All of these tribulations, these unknowns that watered the seeds of self-doubt planted deep within him, she had muddled through without any assistance. No one to comfort her. Not a soul to confide in or ease, for even a moment, the ceaseless burden of hiding oneself in plain view. Every day since meeting her, his love for her had grown to eclipse what had come before. Now, he found that the disparity between his feelings just two days ago and in this moment felt as wide as an ocean. How he didn't simply burst with the feelings of pride, admiration, desire, and respect baffled him. 

If she'd survived it alone, he could survive it with her.

Without any further debate, Claire put the money away in her purse and hugged the older woman again. Mrs. Graham stood by the auto while Jamie gathered up their luggage and led Claire by the hand into the station. 

They boarded the train to Edinburgh and found their seats with only seven minutes till departure, hoping to minimize the time for Claire to be spotted and recognized. Looking out the window of the carriage, Jamie watched a few last-minute passengers rush to board the train before departure scheduled for 10:05 a.m. He looked to the wristwatch Mrs. Graham had also gifted him that pinched the hairs on his arm. 

10:09.

"Is it usual, this delay, Sassenach?" he murmured to her ear. 

Shrugging, she glanced at him before looking out the window on his other side. "Not usually, but there's no telling if there's an issue with the tracks ahead. Or perhaps the conductor was held up in the office."

Words of alarm rose to his lips, but he swallowed them back. Novice though he was to this time, frightened as he felt beneath the surface, he need not feed her fears with his own. That much, he could control.

Huffing a sigh, he wrapped his arm around her shoulder and gave it a squeeze. Planting a kiss on her temple, Jamie pulled her further against his chest. "All will be well, mo nighean donn," he whispered. 

Despite the near-constant uneasiness that had plagued him since departing Mrs. Baird's that morning, despite feeling as though every person they passed could tell outright that he didn't belong, Jamie believed the words he spoke. He had Claire. They had a plan. And before long, they would be free. 

So when he looked up to see two men in dark suits similar to his own making their way down the aisle of the train, his heart dropped into his stomach. His fingers must have tightened on Claire's shoulder, as she looked up and stiffened at the sight as well. 

She whipped back to look at him. "It's all right," she whispered, bringing up her left hand to stroke his cheek in comfort. Breath trembling, he turned his focus from the men to his wife. Reaching out, he wrapped his fingers around Claire's. "We knew this may happen, yes?"

Nodding, he kept silent. They had discussed the possibility, true enough, but he'd refused to linger too long on such an event coming to pass. Watching the men approaching now, though, he ran through the list of instructions Claire had given him in case of this eventuality. 

We'll go without a fuss. Follow their instructions. 

They need to see I'm acting of my own accord. I should do most of the speaking. 

Stick to the bare-bones truth, if it comes to it. 

Remember, we've only been together and missing for six months. 

Left arm wrapped around Claire's shoulders, right hand clutching hers and held between their chests. His heartbeat reverberated through his ears. As they waited, shallow breaths passing between them, they never broke their gaze. All but ignoring the impending confrontation, Jamie lost himself in the force of her whisky eyes that promised love and security to come.

They cleaved to each other in a space that seemed frozen in time. Neither of them spoke until, seconds later, the men paused beside their seats. Jamie cursed himself then for having listened to Claire and taken the window seat (to ease your stomach, she'd insisted), which meant he couldn't stand between Claire and whatever was to come. 

No time for regrets. Jamie donned his mask of impassivity and squared his shoulders, keeping his arm protectively around her. 

"Excuse me, folks," grumbled the taller official with the dark mustache. He flipped open a case of some kind to display a metal insignia that caught the light shining from the ceiling of the train. Jamie guessed it somehow denoted their authority. "Inspector Gordon, Inspector McEwan." He gestured to the man beside him. "We'll need ye both to step off the train."

Neither feigned ignorance over the matter at hand. Cooperation bred trust, Claire had said, and trust that they were simply moving about their own lives would put a hasty end to this uncomfortable scene.

So as Claire stood and followed the officers, Jamie grabbed their luggage, then followed Claire. They garnered a few curious whispers from fellow passengers, but Jamie cared not. Through the cramped confines of the train and into the openness of the station platform, he stayed within inches of Claire, their fingers twined in a crushing grip. 

Without speaking, they both followed the two men to a remote corner of the platform, though they hardly needed it, deserted as it was. The men turned then, the mustachioed one taking a domineering stance with his thumbs hooked into his belt and eyebrows turned downward in a glare. Jamie resisted the urge to wrap his arm around Claire again once he'd set their suitcase down, only squeezing her hand tight enough to turn his knuckles white while drawing up to his full height.

"Our apologies for makin' ye miss your train," the lead officer began, turning to address Claire. "Am I correct that you are Mrs. Randall?"

She sighed beside him but nodded once. "Yes, you are."

Short answers. And only to the questions they ask. 

"Ye ken there's a lot of people searchin' for ye these last six months?"

"Yes."

"Yer husband among them?"

"Yes."

Inspector Gordon paused then, eyes moving from Claire's face to his. Jamie fought to remain stoic. "And yer name, sir?"

Deep breath. An easy question. "James Alexander Malcolm Mackenzie Fraser, sir."

"'Tis a mouthful, that."

"Aye."

The inspector seemed to mull for a moment, lips pursed and shoulders tense. Behind him, the other officer only stood, awaiting command. 

Finally, Inspector Gordon spoke once more. "Well, under the circumstances, ye'll understand we need to speak a bit more wi' ye both."

The brim of Claire's hat brushed his shoulder as she nodded. "Of course. We'll be happy to come with you, and--"

"Actually, Mrs. Randall," the inspector interrupted. "I'll need ye to go wi' Inspector McEwan here, and Mr. Fraser can accompany me."

"No." 

It slipped from his lips before he could stop it, nearly a growl. Panic gripped him. He knew his grip on her hand was likely painful, but to loosen his fingers felt as impossible as running to keep up with the train that now pulled away from the station in an explosion of sound and steam. The commotion should have startled him, unused to it as he was, but he felt numb to anything but the nightmare playing out before him. 

If he held on to her tightly enough, they couldn't be separated. 

Claire's other hand reached across her middle and rubbed the inside his forearm, holding his arm and their joined hands against her side. When she spoke, her accent seemed crisper, more formal and imbued with a cold sort of respect. "Sir, I understand you're trying to do your job. Neither of us has done anything criminal. We simply want to make the situation right. We had only hoped to meet with my husband before involving the authorities, but we'll cooperate however you need us to now."

"Good," Gordon said. "Then ye can go wi' Inspector McEwan, and Mr. Fraser can come wi' me."

"Whatever for?" Claire insisted, her tone losing its controlled cordiality. 

"Frankly, Mrs. Randall," Gordon said, and Jamie bristled at his rising voice, "we have a few other troublesome reports regardin' your companion tha' we must investigate. And we wouldn't be doin' our jobs--" the condescension dripping from his tone made Jamie shiver with the effort not to throttle him "--if we didn't take precautions to ensure yer safety. All things considered, madam."

McEwan, heretofore still and silent, stepped forward to ease Claire away from him. Her eyes locked with Jamie's then. For the first time, terror looked back at him, all former confidence and calm stripped away. Ice flooded his veins. Jamie didn't drop her hand. 

"Claire..."

Together. They were supposed to do this together. Any obstacle this cursed place chose to torment him with, he could face alongside Claire. But not alone. 

Promise or not, he couldn't simply let them take her away. Jamie had six inches or more on both the men before him and at least fifty pounds on McEwan. Swords or no, he could take them both out. And then he'd take Claire and they could go. Far away. Frank could go hang. Perhaps not the freedom he'd envisioned, but freedom enough with Claire safely at his side.

She must have sensed his intention, as the hand not locked in his vise grip came up to cradle his face. 

"Jamie, look at me." He obeyed. Face paler than usual, none of the lively pink coloring her cheeks. Lips pressed together, chin trembling so faintly as he watched her struggle for control. "Jamie, go with him."

"Mo graidh--"

"Don't fight them," she whispered, soft so only he could hear. "Don't give them a reason to fear you." She drew a shaking breath that cut him to the marrow. Her face began to blur as moisture pooled in his eyes. "We'll both be safe. I will sort this out. And I will come for you. Do you hear me?" 

Frozen, Jamie couldn't answer her. 

"Jamie, please." As a single drop escaped her eye, so he felt his own tears mirror it. Nausea so strong he felt it in his limbs threatened to erupt and his knees, like water, to collapse. But with an unprecedented force of will, he stood tall. 

Trust. Trust in Claire. Trust in God who had let him keep her. Trust that He wouldn't be so cruel as to tear her away now, not after all they'd endured, all they'd fought and conquered and earned. Jamie held on to that trust. Only through it and the love he had for the woman before him could he unleash her fingers and let her hand drop away.

"As ye say, Sassenach," he whispered back as more warm tears fell. 

 

#

 

Five months and eighteen days. That's how long Frank had gone without seeing his wife. Looking down at her now, face lax in sleep, he couldn't shake the sense it must have felt so much longer for her. She looked older, somehow. Cheekbones more prominent, lines just that much more defined around her eyes and across her forehead. 

The doctor prattled on in his ear. She'd been sedated since just before noon, after being rescued and her "companion" detained, due to hysteria. Dangerously thin, the doctor had noted, with some minor healing cuts and bruises. Some looked like the pressure points where fingers had grasped at her, he reported. 

"Now, Mr. Randall," the doctor's tone sobered, "she did disclose some information before we had to sedate her. Normally, I couldn't share it, but under the circumstances at hand and ye bein' her husband..."

"What is it, Doctor?" Frank snapped, eyes not leaving Claire's face. 

Eyes wide with sympathy, the doctor gripped his chart tighter in his fingers. "She's pregnant, Mr. Randall."

Still, Frank stared down at his wife. So much to discuss. So much healing to do. "How long will she sleep?" he asked in a steady voice that took him by surprise. 

"She's been out for about five hours already," the doctor said after a check with the clock on the wall. "But we'll likely keep her under till morning. Give her a rest, ye ken."

Nodding once, he turned and walked out the door. 

She's pregnant, Mr. Randall. 

The words echoed around his mind like a shout in a cave. All the way to his car, on the journey from the hospital to the sheriff's office, across the parking lot, and to Inspector Gordon's desk. 

"Mr. Randall," the officer said, sitting up straight. "We weren't scheduled to meet till five, sir. Yer a tad early."

"Yes, well, I was anxious to discuss exactly what you know about what happened to my wife." Fire behind his words. Livid didn't begin to describe the rising emotion that made his hands shake and the skin around his eyes burn with rushing blood. 

The inspector nodded. "Let's find ourselves a private room, aye?" 

Passing silently through the grouping of desks, Frank caught more than one fellow officer twisting to ogle them, some more obvious than others. He followed without a word until Gordon led them into small room with a window on the opposite wall, through which Frank spied a large redhead sitting at a table. 

All the air seemed to evacuate the room. The man behind the window, unaware of his being observed, stared down at the tabletop and tapped the middle two fingers of his right hand against his knee. Otherwise, he did not move. 

"That's him, then?" Frank asked as Gordon shut the door behind him. "The bastard who had my wife for six months?"

Gordon didn't answer, only biting down and averting his gaze. He turned back to the man beyond the window. Curly red hair. Long, brushing the collar of his shirt which hung open to the second button. Was he a vagrant, or just naturally unkempt? No, not vagrant. Clean but with a glisten of sweat on the bit of face and neck that Frank could see. Probably the stress. Long legs cramped beneath the bare table. Likely tall. Muscular. Strong. The clothes looked too bright, the creases and lines too sharp. New, then. Palms roughened, it looked like. Worked often with his hands. 

With his face cast down as it was, Frank couldn't make out much more than that. He could imagine, though. This man stumbling across Claire at the hilltop -- or had he watched, planned? -- deciding to have her as his own. She'd have been powerless against him. Images of Claire fighting, crying invaded his mind and turned his stomach. 

She's pregnant, Mr. Randall. 

"What do you know of him?" Frank asked then, turning back to the inspector and taking a seat across the small table from him. 

Gordon sighed, opening a case file. "Not much so far. We haven't attempted questionin' yet. We're lettin' him sweat it out a bit first."

"I didn't ask what you don't know," Frank hissed, eyes narrowed.

"James Fraser," Gordon said. "Mrs. Randall referred to him as 'Jamie.' We haven't found anythin' on him yet. Not from the war, not from Scotland Yard, but it's only been a few hours."

"You mentioned concerning reports on the phone."

"Yes," Gordon said, hesitating. "We had three witnesses call in, as I mentioned. One saw them crossin' through the square evenin' before last, recognized her from the flyers. Another saw her yesterday mornin' looking out a window from Mrs. Baird's, says she pulled away quickly after bein' spotted."

The inspector paused again, leaving Frank waiting. "And the third?"

Gordon swallowed, referring to a rather lengthy handwritten page before him. "Marcus MacLean," he said. "Came in two nights ago. Says he was hikin' and campin' out in the north of Inverness when he came across a woman he later recognized to be Mrs. Randall unconscious in the woods. When he approached her, a man matching the description of Mr. Fraser--" Gordon nodded to the window behind Frank, but he didn't turn to look "--pulled a blade on him and threatened him until he left. 

"Some time later," Gordon went on, "the two found him again. He reported Mrs. Randall seemed disoriented, called herself 'Claire Fraser,' and didn't seem to recall what the date or year was. In particular, she believed three years had passed since her disappearance. He also noted they both wore strange clothes, old-fashioned. We did recover some...unusual garments in the suitcase they were travelin' with and logged it as evidence."

The very veins in his body seemed to vibrate with disgust. If the image of the man behind him had stoked his ire, then looking at the officer before him only fanned the flames. "Thirty-eight days," Frank murmured.

"Pardon, sir?" 

"Thirty-eight days after my wife went missing," Frank breathed, "you told me she'd run away with another man. That she'd left of her own accord and I was delusional to think otherwise. Thirty-eight days after she disappeared, you all but gave up."

"Mr. Randall--"

"Now," he spoke over the officer, "she returns bruised, malnourished, not knowing her own name or what year it is, and under the physical control of a man accused of assault and threat of deadly harm."

"I assure you, I understand your--"

"You understand?" Frank barked. He jumped up, knocking his chair backwards as he glared back through the glass. The man -- Fraser -- in the next room must have heard the sound, as he flinched. Frank ran his hand over his mouth, wishing he could reach through to pummel him into mulch. "You understand?"

"We dinna see cases like this too often, Mr. Randall," Gordon said defensively, voice raised. "We're trained to follow the evidence, but we had no evidence to speak of. Nothin' indicative of a struggle, no' even footprints to follow. We used every resource we had. The logical conclusion--"

"Was that my wife had abandoned me," Frank finished for him, words tainted with anger. "Leaving behind everything she owned, including her passport and personal papers, not to mention a quarter million pounds that have sat untouched in her accounts since she disappeared."

Fraser hadn't moved since that single twitch, still as a statue save for the tapping fingers. Turning from the window, Frank grabbed the chair and sat again. He rested his head in his hands. "And what happened when you found her?"

Thankful to be returning to familiar ground, Gordon shifted in his seat and sat up taller. "Inspector McEwan and I intercepted them on the 10:05 a.m. train this morning', headin' for Edinburgh."

"Did he--" Frank cleared his throat. "Did he do anything to her?"

"No," Gordon assured him. "They came off the train without a fight. Mrs. Randall answered to her correct name and acknowledged that she kent of the search for her. Claimed they were comin' to speak with you before involvin' any authorities."

Frank sat up wide-eyed as Gordon pressed on. 

"Mrs. Randall treated him as someone...close. We observed them holding hands. They stayed in close proximity, and she seemed genuinely distraught to be separated from him, as he was from her."

"So, what are you saying?" Frank asked. His voice, weak with exhaustion, cracked. "You think she left, after all?"

"I dinna know what to think, Mr. Randall," Gordon admitted. "Based on what we do know so far of Mr. Fraser, though, if Mrs. Randall...adapted as she needed to survive whatever she went through, it wouldn't be so hard for me to believe, aye?"

He nodded. Claire was a fighter. She'd seen bloodshed and horrors, enough to fuel a different nightmare every night until her deathbed. But seeing such atrocities was different than experiencing them, feeling them with your own body. A fighter, yes, but smart, too. And if acquiescing had spared her any ounce of pain...

It didn't matter. Not anymore. When Claire awoke in the morning, he'd hold her, assure her that she was safe. A new home where they could forget James Fraser existed, locked away as he soon would be. In time, they'd put this episode behind them. 

She's pregnant, Mr. Randall. 

The child's father was of no consequence. Only its mother. 

Only Claire. 

For her, Frank knew he could learn to love her child. A child created in captivity, in misery, but born in love and harmony and freedom. 

"When will you speak with him?" he croaked. 

"Now, actually," the inspector said, standing. He halted at the door. "We can only hold him for two days wi'out a charge, but if we can get a positive identification from Mr. MacLean, that'll be a start. And once Mrs. Randall is feelin' stronger, we can get her account, as well. 

"Stay in here, watch and listen, if ye'd like. I'll have a bit more to discuss wi' you before you leave for the evenin'."

Then the man opened the door and vanished through it, leaving Frank alone. A speaker sparked to life somewhere in the room, and Frank heard the facsimile of another door opening and closing. Standing, turning back toward the window, he watched as Inspector Gordon sat with his back to him. Fraser looked up for the first time, and Frank gasped. 

It was him.

Chapter Text

He didn't pace. He didn't rave. For hours now, Jamie had hardly even moved. With no window to the outside, time slipped by like the trickle of melting snow. Slowly, achingly slowly. He had no clue how much time had actually passed since he and Claire had been separated on the train platform. 

I will come for you. 

No matter how long it took, she'd come. Or he'd find her. Whichever way didn't matter. All that mattered was finding Claire. 

The room was too bright, lights shining harshly overhead. Beams of the blasted electricity seemed to reflect off the stark white walls to stab at his eyes. After some time sitting beneath them, a headache began to pound behind his eyes. Sweat broke out across his chest and neck. Hunger came and went, and his ears eventually began to ring in the never ending silence. 

Through it all, Jamie didn't shift in inch. Because to move would be to think, to feel. And if he did that -- if he gave his frustration, fear, and anger space to breathe -- he'd fight. If he had to, he'd kill every last bastard in this place until they took him to Claire. 

But that wouldn't do. Instead, only his tapping fingers confirmed him to be a man and not a statue, lifeless and still and cold as the stones that had started this entire mess. One small outlet for the nervous energy coursing through him, a minuscule but constant release to keep the pressure within him from building up and exploding. Movement, but mindless. Restricted.  

Upon first entering the room -- with only a table, two chairs, and a mirror situated high on the wall opposite him -- Jamie had forced aside memories of other prisons, other interrogations. 

Chills had erupted on his skin regardless, though, and scenes had flashed through his mind. His father standing before him in a stone corridor, eyes worried but determined. Jonathan Randall, smug and indifferent, offering a trade in flesh. The whipping post, smelling of blood, and the way his pained body shook involuntarily as he walked, stoic as he could, to be chained and lashed once more.

"No," he'd whispered, squeezing his eyes shut. Harnessing control of his emotions as he would a bucking stallion, he had sat, exhaled deeply, and allowed his mind to slowly shut down. One breath followed another without plan or thought, and thus the day had passed in waiting. 

A dull thud interrupted the silence, the first sign of any life carrying on outside his too-bright cell. Despite himself, Jamie winced. So long had he focused on quieting all thoughts and emotions, allowing the humming silence to wash over him and infiltrate his skin, that even that muffled sound landed upon him with the force of cannon fire. Recovering, he breathed deeply, waiting once more. 

And all the while, his fingers kept on tapping, the only thing grounding him, reminding him that he lived even as he worked without pause to numb himself in the unnumbered hours.

Only minutes had passed since the disruption when the door opening behind him wrenched him from his nearly meditative state. He looked to the mirror, watching the officer's reflection as he rounded the table and sat across from him. The man opened an envelope, withdrawing papers and heaving a sigh, all without uttering a word.

"Where is Claire?" Jamie asked at last when it seemed like the man -- Inspector Gordon, that was the name -- would never speak. 

"Mrs. Randall was taken to the hospital," the man answered in a flat tone, eyes still reading off his pages, "to determine the state of her health while we contact her husband and sort out this mess."

Jamie nodded. "But she's well? And the bairn?"

Gordon snapped his head up at that, only the motion itself betraying his surprise. The inspector had nearly as convincing a mask as Jamie, features betraying none of the thoughts undoubtedly scampering about in his mind. 

"Mrs. Randall is none o' yer concern, Mr. Fraser," Gordon answered. Jamie fought the urge to argue, to demand news of Claire's whereabouts and safety. Cooperation breeds trust, she'd said. Shoving down his own indignation, he sat up tall and folded his hands on the tabletop, waiting. 

Straightening up and sitting back in his chair, the officer looked Jamie over with eyes aloof and calculating. After another moment of silence, the interrogation began. 

"Mr. Fraser, why don't ye tell me how ye and Mrs. Randall came to be acquainted?"

How many times had the name Randall rolled off the bastard's tongue in the last five minutes? Every time it did, the pyre of fury beneath his heart grew larger. Not even fury for Frank, whom Jamie -- with exceptional effort -- regarded with only the disdain appropriately reserved for his wife's first husband. But for Frank's predecessor, the one who'd hauled Jamie into the 18th century version of this very room to proposition him before whipping him nearly to death, who'd tortured him body and soul for years, whose face still plagued nightmares that left him clammy and trembling in the darkness beside his wife. To have that name now attached so firmly to her brought forth the taste of bile. 

Of course, that was likely the inspector's very goal: to reiterate again and again that Claire didn't belong to him. She wasn't his to claim.

Jamie swallowed, considering. Planning as they were to tell Frank the full truth, still Jamie and Claire had rehearsed the watered-down and slightly altered version of their time together in case of exactly this type of situation. But they'd never considered that they may be parted while telling the tale. He'd always assumed they'd be side by side, hand in hand. Here, now, the absence of her felt tangible as he debated how to proceed. Cooperate he would, but if the questions got more in-depth, without knowing precisely how Claire would answer, would they find themselves in worse trouble if they gave conflicting details? Could he answer some questions and refuse others to prevent either of them being caught in contradicting lies?

Stick as close to the truth as you can, she'd said, relating Frank's own words spoken to her, likely never believing she'd actually need to them survive, only changing that which absolutely must not be revealed. Internally, Jamie chortled and wondered how Frank would feel knowing that his own advice was being used to validate Claire's relationship with the man she'd chosen over him.

Deciding that this question was easy enough, Jamie clenched his jaw briefly before answering. "We met in Inverness nearly six months ago now," he said, voice level. "She repaired my dislocated shoulder."

"And how ye came to be together today?"

"We've been together since then," Jamie answered, voice strong. 

The inspector hmmphed and shuffled through his papers. "And why ye were at the train station this morning?"

"Claire told ye already," Jamie snapped. "To go see her husband." So vile did the word feel on his tongue in reference to another man that he had to force it out. 

"Why now?" Gordon asked. 

Breathe, man, he told himself. Ye practiced this part. 

"When we found out she was wi' child, we agreed to face him together. She wanted to tell him the truth, aye? And divorce him so we could marry and have a proper family. Do right by the bairn."

Gordon made a note on his paper, the strange quill scratching quietly on the page. "Were ye aware that Mrs. Randall was married when ye left Inverness?"

"Aye. After a time."

"So she didn't tell ye before you left that she was married?"

Jamie focused on keeping his fingers, interlaced and clasped together before him, from tensing. 

Stick as close to the truth as possible. 

"Not immediately." 

"Mrs. Randall left behind everythin' she owned. Her money, her papers. Why would ye need to leave so abruptly if no' because there was something to hide? That wasn't strange to you?"

Trickier territory. "I dinna ken," Jamie hedged. 

Gordon narrowed his eyes as though he wanted to pick the thoughts directly from Jamie's brain and lay them flat on the table like the papers strewn between them. "If you werena runnin' from her husband," the inspector said slowly, "the next logical explanation for leavin' wi' no trace is that she didn't, in fact, go wi' you willingly at all."

"That isna true," Jamie countered immediately, working to keep his temper in check. Even though, technically speaking, he and the Mackenzies had taken Claire quite against her will at the outset. Just another altered fact, another truth massaged that would hopefully end this entire ordeal. 

"No?" the inspector said, incredulous. 

"Was that no' yer own theory, then?" Jamie asked, annoyance bursting forth. "Did ye no' tell her man just that: that she'd run away and left him wi'out so much as a letter for explanation?"

The officer's mustache fluttered as he exhaled sharply, eyes still narrowed. "That was our view at one time, yes," he admitted. "Though recent reports cast doubt upon that version."

"Oh, aye, then?" Jamie responded with sarcasm as he fell back in his chair, arms crossing over his chest.

"Indeed," Gordon replied, pulling one small packet of papers from the pile before him. "Includin' one witness who claims ye shouted and threatened him wi' a blade for even approachin' and speakin' with Mrs. Randall. Claimed ye wouldn't let her speak, as well."

Jamie's mind drifted back to that day in the forest -- Christ, had it only been three days ago? -- and Claire's warnings to him as they headed into town. A chuckle bubbled up and spilled from his lips as he cast his eyes to the ceiling and muttered, "Uill nuair a tha thu ceart, tha thu ceart, Sassenach."

When you're right, you're right, Sassenach.

"I'll thank ye to stick wi' English, Mr. Fraser," Gordon reprimanded. 

Puzzled, Jamie searched the officer's face for any comprehension. Claire had mentioned that, following the Rising, much of the Highland way of life had been stamped out. Their tartans, their language, their weapons all outlawed. Had such measures truly rendered so much of their lives, their culture extinct, centuries later? 

The thought should have mortified him. And on some level, an aching chasm opened up in him to realize that his generation may have been the last to experience the Highlands as they were meant to be.

But such destruction may yet benefit him. 

"Do ye no' have the Gaidlig, then?" Jamie asked conversationally, leaning forward once more with his head cocked. 

"Mr. Fraser--"

"Innsidh mi dhut a h-uile dad mu far a bheil mo bhean agus mi air a bhith airson na trì bliadhna a dh ’fhalbh ... mas urrainn dhomh innse dhut ann an Gaidlig."

I will tell you everything about where my wife and I have been for the past three years...if I can tell you in Gaelic.

"Mr. Fraser," Gordon repeated, voice raised, "I won't instruct ye again tae keep your testimony to English."

Examining the inspector's face, Jamie saw disgust, indignation. But no indication he had the faintest clue of Jamie's offer. Surely he'd have responded to "my wife" and "three years" had he understood, Jamie reasoned. 

"Sincerest apologies." Jamie sat back in his chair again with his still-folded hands resting on one knee, hoping this revelation would become of some use.  "'Tis only a shock to come across a Scot who doesna ken the language of our land." 

"Is that where you've been, then? Somewhere that Gaelic is still widely spoken? Where might that be, Mr. Fraser?"

Trickiest question. Jamie had no concept of the current landscape of Scotland. What towns still existed? Was there anywhere that Gaelic still survived to this day? Rather than answer, he locked Gordon with a resolute stare, lips sealed shut. 

Unperturbed by his silence, Gordon moved on, pulling another sheaf of paper from his stack. "We also have a report from Mr. Randall that the night before Mrs. Randall disappeared, he'd encountered a man outside her window, staring in at her. He says he asked her about it but she appeared to have no knowledge of who it might have been." 

The inspector laid the paper before Jamie. It looked like a broadsheet, a portrait at the center and a notice for a $1,000 reward detailed beneath. Dumbstruck, he leaned over to study it more closely. The sketch was rough, elementary, lacking in fine detail. 

But it was, unmistakably, him. 

His straight nose. His pursed lips. The set of his eyes, the curve of his brow, the curls that fell around his ears and over his forehead. Christ, even the circular brooch at his shoulder, the clanless one he'd worn while living under his pseudonym. 

"Is this me?" Jamie breathed in earnest, forgetting for a moment his position as a suspect under interrogation. 

"You tell me, Mr. Fraser. Were ye standin' outside Mrs. Randall's room the night of October 30th, 1945?"

"No," Jamie answered with certainty, bewildered though he was. The one absolute truth he could tell. He had never lived through 1945 at all, so he couldn't have been there. 

But Frank had seen him. How had Frank seen him?

"F-Frank drew this?" Jamie asked with urgency, pointing at his image on the page as his wide eyes swung back up to the investigator. "When Claire disappeared, six months ago, he drew this then?"

The inspector gave him a funny look before responding. "This was produced by our sketch artist based on Mr. Randall's description of the man six months ago, yes. Are ye sayin' 'tis not you, then?"

Doubt threatened to swallow him whole. Even knowing it was impossible, knowing it couldn't have been him, Jamie looked again at the page. How could he say it wasn't him when, even in just these few simple lines, it so clearly was?

A flutter of a half-forgotten memory tickled in the back of his mind.

"Were you no' in Inverness by the next day anyway, Mr. Fraser?" Gordon's tone turned predatory, as though sensing his hesitancy. As the inspector continued, he drew out his words, a drawling brogue with the merest touch of smugness as he painted a scene with words.

"Perhaps ye saw Mrs. Randall through the window that night." He leaned forward a hair, leaning against his elbows as he spoke. "Perhaps, the next day, ye followed her. And when you saw her alone up at Craigh na Dun, ye decided to keep her for yerself, aye?"

"No," Jamie insisted, still not looking up to the man across from him, his attention fixated on the portrait. Gazing at it, Jamie tried to grasp at the vague pictures dancing in his mind just out of reach.

"Yer sure, then?" Gordon asked, unbelieving. "You know, it wouldn't be surprisin' that she caught yer eye. She's a beautiful woman, is she no'?"

Jamie's head popped up at that. Blood thrummed through his ears as the inspector's words landed. The accusation unsettled him. And, damn him, Gordon could tell. 

"Yes," Gordon continued with a nod. "Gorgeous woman, indeed. Any man wi' eyes would be desirous of her, that's certain. And up on that hill, alone wi' no one around for miles, it wouldn't be so hard to pull out yer blade as ye did to Mr. McLean in the forest, force her to follow quietly, no? Tae do as ye bade?"

So strong was the urge to throttle this man that Jamie's hands shook beneath the surface of the table. Willing he had been to take the black mark upon his character that he'd absconded and lived in sin with a married woman. To have her at his side in a place of safety and plenty, away from threats of starvation and Redcoats, he'd have lived with such imposed shame. But the man's postulations put him on equal footing with the likes of Jonathan Randall who'd beaten and threatened to rape her, or the Redcoat deserters who'd very nearly succeeded as he was forced to stand by, impotent. It proved almost too much for Jamie to take. 

Beyond that, though, the man's words regarding Claire incensed him most. How he spoke of her beauty with a sliminess that rankled him to the bone. The insinuation that a man's natural reaction to encountering her, breathtaking as she was, would be one of violence and domination. An almost comradely intonation, as if to say, I could hardly blame ye, lad.

Chest heaving, breaths puffing through his nostrils, Jamie struggled to reign in his wrath. With a moment of thought, Jamie imitated the officer's posture. He leaned forward, resting his weight on his elbows with fingers interlaced and shoulders taut. Seated though he was, Jamie seemed to tower over Gordon. The shine of his eyes and the aggressive furrow of his eyebrows spoke of a man for whom anger was a weapon as surely as dirk or pistol. 

"Let me make myself abundantly clear, Inspector Gordon," Jamie growled through clenched teeth, and for the first time, the officer seemed to physically shrink from the Highlander's overpowering presence. "I am no' a man to take from any woman what she doesna wish to give, much less the woman who exists as the other half of my own self. Claire is the breath in my lungs and the beat of my heart. I would protect her life at the cost of my own. Any man who wished her harm would have me to answer to, and many have. I have forced nothin' on her. She had a fair choice between livin' as Fraser or Randall, and Fraser she chose.

"Ye can impugn my character all ye want for covetin' my neighbor's wife, for I did so and still do. And I shall one day answer to the Almighty for that and all manner of other sins." Pausing, Jamie leaned forward another inch. "But make no mistake. Claire has ne'er come to harm by my hand and ne'er will. And any hand that does try to hurt her will find itself in a world of pain all its own."

Jamie leaned back, the flush of confrontation still warming his cheeks and ears. Affecting a calmness that couldn't be further from his true state of being, he asked dismissively, "Are we finished, then, Inspector?"

Chapter Text

Consciousness returned to Claire in a single stroke. One moment, she hardly knew she existed at all outside the foggy endless space of sleep. The next, the blackness of oblivion transformed into the blackness behind her eyelids. Sounds of traffic outside met her ears, and cheap linen scratched at her hands. 

With effort, still sluggish, Claire wrested open her eyes. As she looked around, waiting for her vision to un-blur itself, she noted a figure sitting beside her bed. He seemed to be sleeping, face hidden with his head laid on his crossed forearms next to her body. 

Claire smiled. Disoriented and slightly dizzy as she felt, having Jamie by her side put her at immediate ease. Her arm felt heavy as she raised it to run her fingers through his curls. Strangely, the hair she touched felt shorter, bristly and thin. Odd, she thought. His hair had never felt like that before. Her touch must have roused him, as she felt the mattress shifting beneath her as he moved and sat up, rubbing at his own eyes. 

All it took was a look from him. His face turned towards hers as the grogginess of sleep finally departed. Coldness overtook her like an icy shower. Her heart pounded in her ears and her jaw slackened in surprise and terror, eyes wide with denial. 

"No," she muttered. Kicking at her blankets, struggling to sit up and move away. 

Had their entire journey back to the 20th century been only a dream? How could she be back here, staring into the face of Black Jack Randall? And where was Jamie? What was happening?

"No, no, no."

"Claire, my darling, you're all right."

She froze. Turning back to the man at her side, who hovered anxiously over the bed as she'd struggled to climb off the other side, Claire took a closer look. Blinking a few times, her vision finally cleared.

"Frank," she breathed, eyes growing somehow wider.

He exhaled, and a relieved smile lit his features as he sat back down. "Yes, dear. You're all right."

A humming filled the space of her stunned mind. She cast back to the last thing she could remember. They'd boarded the train. Then deboarded with the officers. She'd watched Jamie's tense back following Inspector Gordon in one direction as Inspector McEwan had pulled her in another. She'd had a basic physical examination in the hospital, disclosed her pregnancy, and prepared to leave. 

Then...memories got hazy. 

"What's happened?" she croaked, sitting up and leaning against the cold bars of the bed frame. "Where am I?"

"You're still in hospital," Frank answered. Movement caught her eye as he shifted his hand to grip hers atop the blankets. Before his fingers could close, though, she pulled away and crossed her arms tightly across her chest, hands balled into small fists under her arms. Hurt crossed his face before he shook it off. "You've been here since yesterday."

"Yesterday? What...what time is it?"

"Half past eleven now," Frank answered. 

Just at twenty-four hours, then, since she'd been parted from Jamie. A day! A full day! Panic bubbled up in her. She needed to find him. Needed to make sure he was all right. 

"Why have I been here so long?" She swung her legs over the side of the bed and made to stand, wobbling as the room spun. Groaning, she raised her hands to cradle her head as the world shrank away from her. From some great distance, Frank's hands grasped her and guided her gently back to the bed, where the spinning slowed then finally stopped. 

"The doctors sedated you," he replied slowly, tucking her back beneath the bedclothes. To his credit, he didn't try to take her hand again as he sat back down and simply folded his hands together. Claire noted, though, a certain edge to his voice. "They said you'd become hysterical after...after everything."

Something small and fragile within her seemed to shatter quietly at his explanation. Hysterical? She'd been sedated for a day and a night because she'd been deemed hysterical?

Huffing and rolling her eyes, she ran her fingers through her untamed curls. "Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ," she snarled. "If we're not smiling and nodding and telling them what goddamned brilliant doctors they are, we're bloody hysterical, aren't we?"

Frank's eyebrows quirked in question, and Claire continued as more of the previous day became clearer in light of this revelation. "I was not hysterical. After acquiescing to the officers' demand for a physical and after receiving a clean bill of health and assuring everyone that I was not being held captive against my will, I tried to make arrangements to go back for..." Claire paused, cheeks reddening. "Well, I asked them to call me a taxi to the police station to meet with Inspector Gordon."

Sighing, Claire closed her eyes and leaned her head back, tilting her face toward the ceiling as she added, "Only they refused to discharge me under order of Inspector Gordon himself." Opening her eyes, she took in Frank's impassive expression. "Last thing I remember clearly is insisting that Inspector Gordon speak to me so we could put this entire episode behind us. I suppose that's when they decided it would be easier to put me under than deal with a non-obedient woman." The last sentence came out sharp, bitter. 

After Claire finished, Frank didn't move. His hands remained folded calmly on the mattress beside her, his face nearly as difficult to read as Jamie’s. In silence, they watched each other, a shared wariness to their posture, a stiffness to their features. Not the reunion he was hoping for, Claire thought with a sting. The air between them pressed against her as the tension mounted. 

Finally, Frank broke the silence. 

"Claire, I need to know what happened."

Much like when the inspectors came to them on the train, Claire didn't bother pretending not to understand exactly what he meant. She sat up straighter and wrapped her arms around her middle, hugging herself tightly as she responded. 

"And I will tell you," she said, softening her tone. None of this was Frank's fault. Not the doctors, not the officers, not the rending of his heart that was soon to come. She had to remember that. "But we need to go see the inspector, and I need to find Jamie."

"Jamie," Frank spat, his neutrality slipping as rage filled his visage. "The red giant with you on the train."

Annoyance flashed, but Claire bottled it and kept a lid on her defensiveness. She reminded herself just what Frank was dealing with, what Jamie's presence with her must mean to him, one way or the other. 

"This wasn't how we wanted to approach you," she said quietly. "That's what we were trying to do when the officers pulled us from the train. We wanted to find you, explain...everything without having the added stress of the law on any of us."

"Well, explain it now."

"Frank--"

"You're not leaving this room until you tell me where you've been for the past six months, Claire," Frank said, voice stern but not cruel, insistent but not angry. Unshed tears glistened in his eyes amidst a mask of control. He shook his head, blinking back the moisture, before adding, "I've spent the last six months not knowing if you were dead or alive. Every...waking...moment was spent wondering if you were hurt or scared. Everyone wanted me to believe you'd left me. It would've been easier on them, I think, if I had. But I couldn't believe it. Because I knew, Claire."

"Frank, please--"

"I knew," he cut her off. The facade of control was melting quickly. Thick brows turned up, watery eyes pleading, the pitch of his voice rising as quickly as his emotion. "We were happy, Claire. I felt it. After years apart, I felt us coming back together. I felt it, and I know you did too." A tear streamed down his cheek, but his voice didn't shake. "I've replayed those last days too many times to count, and I'd have known if you were looking to leave. And you weren't. 

"So, Claire, I beg you. Please tell me what happened. Please tell me the truth."

A lump in her throat threatened to strangle her as Frank sat back and waited, desperation and pain breaking through. The way he peered at her then seemed so much like a child left heartbroken and alone, and her heart beat frantically to see him brought so low. Heat prickled at the corners of her eyes, but she fought to keep the tears from falling. She had to be strong.

The truth. She'd been planning on telling him the truth. All of it. No, she hadn't wanted to leave. And, yes, she'd felt those connections bringing them closer, too, like pieces of torn cloth being stitched back together. But how could she explain to him that no matter how precise the stitches, how clean the mend, there would always be evidence that they were but two separate beings clinging to one another? How could she convey the notion that Jamie, rather than being sewn to her with needle and thread, was simply part of her same cloth, one unbroken piece never to be shorn? 

And that, realizing that, she'd known she could never be Frank's again? 

As she searched for words, her eyes scanned around her room. Sparse but cozy, still. For a hospital. A radio sat silent on a table near the door. A window to her left looked onto a rather busy street. Curtains on wheels and medical machines around her were the only reminders of just where she was. 

With those reminders, though, the words with which to spill the truth simply wouldn't come. Fresh horror at just what had happened to her -- her physician sedating her without her consent -- threatened to make her ill. The officers clearly believed Jamie to be a threat to her. Why else would they have separated them and gone to such lengths to keep them apart until Frank could arrive? 

Frank. She trusted him. Truly, she did. But what would he do if -- already thinking her unstable, hysterical, possibly under the influence of a dangerous aggressor -- she spun a tale about time-traveling stones and stories of three years compressed into the span of six months? When she'd declared that Frank deserved to know the truth, she'd imagined telling him with Jamie by her side, his hand in hers, in the safety of an apartment or perhaps Frank's office at Oxford. Not while under guard in hospital. Not after having already been detained without her permission simply for speaking out of turn. Not with Jamie locked away God only knew where. 

Before, her worst case scenario had simply been that Frank wouldn't believe her. That he'd banish her from his life with words of anger, hatred. That her abandonment would tarnish for him even the good remembrances. Maybe even that he'd strike out at Jamie with his fists, which could've led to any number of other disasters. 

But now...would telling him exactly where she'd been land her in an entirely different hospital, locked away where Jamie couldn't reach her, where she couldn't reach him? Besides the visceral agony that tore through her at the thought of never being with Jamie again, she had a duty to her husband. He needed her guidance here, her protection even. 

If there was even the minutest of risk that Frank would respond that way, the risk was too high. 

Claire choked on the truth now. Frank still deserved it, she knew. But here, now, she did not feel safe enough to share it. 

You have to break his heart, Beauchamp. 

Swallowing her guilt and putting on as brave a face as she could muster, Claire clutched at herself, fingers digging into her sides where her arms wrapped around her waist. With the tiniest of nods, she finally began. "I met Jamie in Inverness six months ago. We..." She swallowed again, the muscles of her throat burning with effort. She cast her gaze down at her lap, away from Frank's scrutiny. "We couldn't explain what there was between us, but it was...immediate. And we couldn't deny it either. So we left. We went where we thought we could live without being found. 

"When we found out I was pregnant, though," Claire said, eyes still avoiding Frank's gaze, "we agreed it was time to do the right thing. So we came back, looking for you. To tell you the truth. And to ask for a divorce so we could be a proper family for the baby."

Claire didn't dare look into her first husband's face. To see the disappointment, the pain there and to know she'd caused it...it would break her. So instead, she stared down at the linen covering her legs. 

When he spoke, she marveled at how smooth and calm he sounded but still didn't look up to see if his face matched. "Did he..." Frank paused, cleared his throat. "Did he ever hurt you?"

"No," Claire answered without hesitation, finally looking into his eyes so he could see the sincerity ringing forth from hers. "Never once." 

She wished she could look away from him, but they were locked in a torturous gaze. Brown eyes, waterlogged and red-rimmed but steady, looked back at her. The lines in his face were soft, his face slack in disbelief. Claire could see the cogs of his brain whirring, processing what she'd just confessed to him. 

After another beat, Claire added, "I know they think he's a bad man, Frank, and that he did hurt me. But it's just...a misunderstanding." Tears finally escaped her lids and slid down her face. She struggled to contain the sobs that rose up without warning, voice trembling as she went on. "Frank, I'm sorry for what this must be doing to you. There's a part of me that will never forgive myself for this." She paused, taking a gasping breath. "But I don't regret it, and I can't change it. And I need to find Jamie and make sure he's all right."

Frank stared back at her, nonplussed. Finally, he closed his mouth and nodded once. "I'll fetch the doctor," he murmured, standing. For the first time since Claire had woken, he couldn't seem to look at her. Instead, he kept his gaze fixed firmly on the edge of the bed. "I'll make sure you're discharged."

A rattling exhale exploded from her chest as she sagged against the pillow. Frank turned toward the door to leave. 

"Frank," she called. He didn't turn around. "Thank you." Giving no acknowledgement of her words, Frank paused only another moment before exiting.

An hour later, Claire sat outside the hospital dressed in her clothes from the day before. The final aftereffects of sedation seemed to have worn off, and Claire tapped her foot on the ground as she waited. Finally, she stood as a familiar vehicle pulled up to the curb and Mrs. Graham stepped out. The older woman rushed to the bench where Claire sat and wrapped her arms around her. Claire melted into the hug, letting the burden of these last few days slip from her shoulders just for a few seconds. 

Claire pulled away and smiled. Surprisingly, it felt genuine. "Thank you, Maura," she said. "Now, let's go get Jamie."

 

#

 

Much like the room where Inspector Gordon had interrogated him, the cell where Jamie had slept was easily the best he'd ever stayed in. But that fact was little comfort as the grueling hours of the day, then night, then day again passed in isolation. 

Claire had been gone now for more than a day. Worry permeated his spirit like dye on cloth. The previous day, he'd sat still as death awaiting what was then unknown. But since being brought to this cell, he'd hardly stopped moving. Walking to and fro, swinging his arms around in circles, running his hands through his hair. When exhaustion had demanded he rest, Jamie lay on the cot and slept fitfully before standing to take up his march once again. He'd likely walked the length of Culloden Moor with as many passes as he made across that ten-foot block.

At least here he had a window. The color of the light streaming in helped orient him to time of day. Overcast though it must be outside, the light coming in was bright and had been strong for a while now. Midday likely, perhaps later. Besides a brief interaction to receive a meal the night before and again this morning, no one had come to him. No one had spoken a word to him since locking him in. 

No matter. Being ignored was leaps and bounds preferable to being flogged. Still, though, his fear for Claire grew with each passing minute. 

A door at the end of the hall opened and closed, and Inspector Gordon led another man to stand on the other side of the bars. "Ye have a visitor, Mr. Fraser," the officer said, nodding to the man behind him. Jamie took his first decent look at the man and paled. He felt a weight like iron drop in his stomach as he looked into a face he wished never to see again. 

Frank looks like him, Claire had told him outside Inverness. The resemblance between them is...unsettling.

Unsettling, indeed. Though he saw more unhappiness in Frank Randall's face than he'd ever seen in his ancestor's. The man before him in a suit similar to Jamie's own, hat tucked under his arm, stood with a weariness that had never weighed Black Jack's frame. 

Breathing deep, Jamie forced his face into some semblance of casual and looked back to the inspector, waiting. After another moment of awkward silence, the inspector looked to Frank Randall, muttered something that sounded like, "Ten minutes, then," and exited through the same door at the end of the hallway. 

Jamie was grateful for the iron bars separating him from Frank. He didn't fear the man, and Claire's warning had granted him enough control over his own actions that Jamie doubted he'd have gone after Frank. 

Still, having the barrier between them was a comfort. 

Neither spoke for a moment. Jamie stood with his hands clasped behind his back and feet spread, shoulders tall and straight as he stared silently at his wife's first husband. Frank, for his part, seemed to be dissecting Jamie with his eyes, examining every detail of him from his red curls to his brand-new brown shoes. Surreal as the moment felt, there was a certain calm to it too. 

"'Three years,'" Frank stated without warning. 

Confused, Jamie narrowed his eyes. "Sir?"

"You told the officer 'three years.'"

Jamie thought back to the inquisition the day before. I will tell you everything about where my wife and I have been for the past three years...if I can tell you in Gaelic.

Surprise didn't begin to cover the emotion making Jamie's skin tingle. "Ye speak Gaelic, Mr. Randall?"

"So you know who I am, then?" Frank asked, avoiding the question. 

Jamie nodded. "Ye were watchin' us yesterday, then."

Frank stood taller, chin held aloft. The arm that didn't hold his hat was clasped firmly at his side while the other, bent at the elbow, gripped the brim so tightly his knuckles shone white. "I was," he answered.

"And the Gaidhlig, then?"

Jaw clenching, Frank pulled his shoulders back further, making himself as tall and broad as possible, though he still came up a few inches shorter, a detail Jamie noted with petty delight. "I'm not fluent by any means. I don't even know all of what you said yesterday. But I've spent enough time around Scotland and in my research to have a rudimentary understanding in reading and listening, if not enough to speak it. I picked up enough to understand 'three years.'" Frank pursed his lips briefly before continuing. "And 'my wife.'"

Mind racing for how to respond, Jamie stood rooted to the spot. Frank, however, did not yield.

"Funny enough," Frank said in his clipped, deep baritone, "the man whom you met in the woods, the one you threatened with your knife...he said Claire said the same thing. 'Three years.'"

"Funny enough," Jamie echoed softly, eyes narrowed as Frank stood before him. 

With a throaty chuckle, Frank looked down to the ground, shaking his head for a moment before looking back up. "You know, there's no record of your service in the war. Nor of your citizenship, period, so far as the inspector can find. Maybe it'll turn up, but still..." Frank furrowed his brows. "Makes me curious as to how either of you can talk about 'three years.'" 

Of course, Jamie knew such records wouldn't exist. At least, not for Claire's war. Not where they'd be searching. Still, dread settled upon him as he pondered having to explain away such absence. 

He could feel Frank sizing him up, and he felt uncomfortably as though Frank could see right through him. Even so, he maintained his Fraser mask, the one that hid all manner of anger and fear and frustration and displeasure. Jamie pressed his lips in a sharp line and waited for the man to continue. 

The wait wasn't long. Frank took a step toward the bars, then, only inches away from them. "What's your name, sir?" Frank asked. 

Only a heartbeat's hesitation preceded his answer. "James Fraser."

"No," Frank snapped. "Your full name."

Jamie crooked his neck, gesturing with his head toward the door where Gordon had disappeared. "I told the inspectors before they brought me in. I'm sure they could tell ye."

"Yes, but I'm asking you," Frank insisted. "And as the man who, by force or not, has been sharing a bed with my wife, I think sharing your name is the bare minimum you could do."

Warmth tinged his cheeks and the tips of his ears. Looking at Frank, though, Jamie sensed none of the callousness of the inspector and none of the vileness of his ancestor. Only that same bone-tiredness, the same despondency lingering just below the surface, barely perceptible if you didn't look too closely. 

So, taking a breath, Jamie answered. "James Alexander Malcolm Mackenzie Fraser," ending with a small bow out of habit. 

A twinkle in Frank's eye made Jamie's heart race. Why was that important? 

"Thank you," Frank said. Without further explanation, the man turned toward the door. 

"Wait," Jamie called, rushing toward the bars, grasping one in each hand as he looked out. "Have ye seen Claire, then?"

Frank turned. The coldness that had emanated from him until now melted into fury. Just for a moment, Frank looked so much like Jack that, again, Jamie thanked Christ for the bars between them. But just as quickly as it had flashed across his features, it disappeared, like lightning at midnight. In its place stood the proud but broken man again. 

"Yes," Frank answered, taking half a step back toward Jamie. 

A sigh gushed past his lips. "Is she well? Is she safe?"

The hall seemed to echo with his unanswered question. Frank levied a look at Jamie that was at once plaintive and penetrating. As Jamie made to speak again, Frank waved his hand to stop him. 

"She's fine," the man said, and Jamie felt himself wilt against the bars, eyes closed against an onslaught of emotion as gratitude for her safety overwhelmed him. 

"What..." Jamie composed himself. "What did she tell ye, then?"

"Same thing as you did," Frank answered, and that glint in his eyes returned. Perhaps it was the ghost of a smirk that appeared then vanished, or maybe only how the electricity lights shone off the glassy surface of his eyes. "In fact," Frank carried on, "her story was near verbatim to yours."

Jamie did not respond. His eyebrows drew together as he watched Frank watch him, the two men dueling with their gazes. 

"You needn't worry," Frank said gently as he made to turn again. "I'm sure you'll see her shortly."

Chapter Text

During her years in the eighteenth century, Claire had grown somewhat used to being dismissed as a woman. Even in the beginning, it never came as any great surprise. Grating, yes. Infuriating, of course. But not anything unexpected.

But with time and persistence and more than a few emergencies along the way, Claire had broken out of that narrow role most men (and, in all honesty, women) of the time felt she should assume. She had proven herself useful. And in her usefulness as a healer, she'd gained a certain amount of respect. If someone needed stitches or a bone set or a salve to ease aching muscles and joints, her gender did not much matter. She watched with no little satisfaction as the same men who'd belittled her and admonished her and viewed her as window dressing at best and a damned nuisance at worst came to value her for her skills. She'd earned her place. 

Still, though, in her three years living in the past, Claire often found herself at odds with the time, comparing it to the world she'd left behind. And at times of peak resentment at the various ways men made their disparagement of her known, she'd regretted that she'd never again live in a place where her equality and worth didn't require repeated proof.

So as she gaped in disgust at Inspector Gordon before her, two centuries in the future, Claire was convinced she'd misheard him. 

"Tell me again what you just said, Inspector," she demanded, voice so sharp it could have sliced clean through a diamond. 

Gordon's lip twitched in annoyance. Claire had been sitting in his office for half an hour now, and she was sure by the increasingly red tint of his skin that his patience had long since expired.

"I said, Mrs. Randall," he replied with as much ire, "we can hold Mr. Fraser for another 24 hours wi'out a charge. And we'll need Mr. Randall to confirm by then whether he plans to prosecute." 

Claire's hands sat folded in her lap in a crushing grip, knuckles white. "As the supposed victim here, why is my decision not the one that matters?"

She knew why, of course. The same reason why it hadn't been her decision to stay in hospital or why Frank's colleagues had often scoffed at her attempts to engage in the political discussions at various university mixers. Why the Mackenzie men hadn't forgiven her for her capture by the Redcoats until her husband had whipped her. For the first time, Claire confronted the notion that, in some ways, not very much had actually changed between Jamie's time and her own.

Frank was Mr.; she was Mrs. A fact the officer continued to emphasize each time addressed her. 

Rather than address her question honestly, Gordon evaded. "We're still tryin' to reach Mr. MacLean, as well, should he wish to press charges for assault."

"Who?"

"The man in the woods," Mrs. Graham put in helpfully from behind. 

Huffing out a sigh, Claire closed her eyes as she worked to rein in her temper. "But if neither of them decide to press charges," she said slowly, hating every word as she forced them past her lips, "then you'll release Jamie?"

Gordon leaned back. "Wi'out any hard evidence o' his wrongdoings or pressin' of charges, come 10:30 tomorrow mornin', we'll have no choice," he admitted. Claire wished she could take him to task for the disappointment behind his voice. But that would help no one.

One more day. Twenty-four hours. She focused on that. In the end, the sexist mores of the police didn't matter. The only important thing was getting Jamie free. 

"Good," she replied tersely. Sitting straight up, she adopted her most commanding tone as she added, "Then I need to see him. Now."

Sputtering, wide-eyed, the inspector began to list out all the reasons why that just couldn't happen. The safety, the impropriety, the undermining of the power of the police. Claire silenced him with one raised hand. "Inspector, I understand my word means nothing to you. I understand that only my husband's," she practically growled the word, "assurance that no crime was committed will convince you. But I will see Jamie. Today. And if not," she raised her voice as Gordon made to cut her off, "I shall sit here in your office or out in your lobby until you allow it. You'll have to either drag me outside or put me into a cell of my own. It's your choice."

For all his condescension, Claire didn't imagine Inspector Gordon relished the notion of forcibly removing a woman from his office or his precinct, particularly one who wasn't causing a scene but who was just...there. 

Bushy eyebrows narrowed across the bridge of his nose as Gordon stood, fists clenched at his side. "Christ, but ye Randalls are far more trouble than yer worth," he muttered. He stomped to the door, a single bend of his neck indicating she should follow. Claire looked to Mrs. Graham, who just shook her head with a small smile, encouraging Claire to take the time with Jamie in privacy. 

Inspector Gordon led Claire down a long hallway toward a door. Stepping through it, an unbroken cement wall extended on her right as far as she could see. On the left were the bars that caged in Inverness's assorted drunkards, brawlers, and thieves. And halfway down, she spied a familiar flash of red. 

"Jamie!" she called out, rushing ahead of Gordon toward where he sat behind the bars. 

"Sassenach," Jamie breathed in return, rushing to meet her at the iron boundary. The openings weren't wide enough for them to truly embrace or even kiss. Instead, Claire reached her hands through and cradled his head in them, gripping at his curled locks as he did the same to hers. His eyelids fluttered closed and a shuddering breath eased from his lips, the warmth of it caressing her face as he murmured, "Chunnaic mi thu agus thòisich mo chridhe a ’bualadh a-rithist."

"Five minutes," Gordon grumbled as he crossed his arms and leaned against the wall opposite where the couple stood. 

"Are you well, mo nighean donn?" he asked immediately. 

Emotion rising in her chest struck her mute, so she only nodded in response as his face blurred behind her tears. His relieved chuckle warmed her as he reached to smooth away the moisture from her cheeks. "And the bairn?"

"Yes," she gasped, fingers stroking along his jaw. "We're all right." 

Their moments together were precious and too few to fully explain all she'd undergone since they'd parted. Besides, Claire worried what hearing of her forced hospital admittance would do to Jamie's nerves or, worse, his anger. Instead, she shifted focus to him. "And you? How are you?"

His crooked smile she loved so much didn't fool her. Dark circles draped below his eyes, reddened with lack of sleep. And his grip on her hair at the base of her skull spoke to the anxiety that had likely gripped him since he'd spotted the officers on the train. "I'm well, Sassenach. Dinna fash for me, lass."

Though Claire nodded, the ball of tension in her chest didn't loosen. Neither of them would breathe easily until Jamie stepped into the sun, free. Until they were both free. 

But, again, too few moments together now to fret on that. 

"You should be released tomorrow," she shared, explaining as succinctly as possible the circumstances surrounding his detainment. 

Listening, Jamie's brow wrinkled as he listened. "Do they no' need yer word that we were..." He searched for the words. "...that ye werena taken away by force, then?"

Claire cut her eyes toward the officer, whose blank face did nothing to hide his eavesdropping. "Apparently not."

Concern crossed Jamie's face. Eyes flicking to the inspector, he lowered his voice and whispered, "A bheil dragh ort mun duine agad?" He spoke the simple words slowly, obviously willing her to comprehend, and Claire's chest clenched at the intensity with which he uttered them. Luckily, she'd picked up enough Gaelic to get the gist of it. 

Are you worried about your husband?

Smart, she thought, to avoid using Frank's name.

Was she worried about Frank, what he would say and do? Having just come here from feeding him the lie he was never meant to hear, Claire couldn't say she was un-worried. Knowing he had Jamie's life in his hands, would Frank push forward just to keep them apart, whether he believed Jamie to be dangerous or not? 

So she answered honestly, haltingly and likely with poor pronunciation. "Chan eil fios agam." 

I don't know.

Another hot tear slid down her cheek. Jamie's thumb swiped it away. "Dinna weep, mo chridhe," he said with this lovely lopsided smirk. "Whatever forces brought us all this way didna go to all that trouble just to part us now, aye?"

"I hope not," Claire whispered. She leaned forward, pressing her forehead against the bars and wishing so much that she could feel his meet hers there. Mimicking her posture, he leaned forward. Unable to connect physically, they shared the same air, breathing in and out, letting their heartbeats calm them like a mantra. 

"Time to go," Inspector Gordon spoke up from behind. Claire could've strangled him for disrupting the peace she had managed to cobble together in Jamie's presence. Before she could argue, Jamie grasped her hand and, after planting a kiss on her knuckles, gently pushed her hands back through the bars. "Go," he said. 

But she couldn't make her feet move away from him. She turned to Gordon with her chin jutted out, but it did nothing to hide the distress in her voice. "I'd like to stay," she said. 

"I said five minutes, Mrs.--"

"No," Claire said, her hand not yet having released Jamie's fingers. "I mean here, in the cell, until morning."

"Are ye mad, woman?" Jamie barked from beside her. Looking into his eyes, Claire saw some mixture of anger at her suggestion and fear that the inspector would take her up on it. And she could read in his bright blue eyes all the thoughts he didn't speak. How it would rip him apart for her to be in a cell, prisoner, even by her own doing. His yearning to hold her but not in a place where he couldn't guarantee her security. 

It was a mad request, she knew. But she'd sleep better wrapped up beside Jamie in a cold cell than she would in the room at Mrs. Baird's on her own. "I don't want to leave you here," she whispered, her words shaking. 

Jamie's eyes softened then. They, again, wrapped themselves in the serenity of their shared heartbeats, their gazes locked together to the exclusion of all else. 

Faintly, she heard Gordon take a step toward her, and her husband's face flashed again as he pulled his eyes away from hers. Gordon's footsteps stopped. When Jamie returned to her, eyes shining with tears, he raised his hand to stroke her cheek. 

"Tomorrow," he promised, his voice husky with emotion. "Go, Sassenach. Go back to Mrs. Baird's where yer safe. I'll bide here until I can see ye again come mornin'."

This time, he pushed her hands through and released her before stepping away from the bars. She felt cold again. But Claire refused to let any more tears fall in front of the inspector. Jamie was standing strong, and so would she. Nodding, she stepped away as well. "I'll see you tomorrow," she echoed. Before following the officer down the hallway, she added, "I love you, Jamie."

Blue eyes, irises bright as the sky, impaled her with sheer emotion. He jerked his head in a single nod, and she saw that he didn't take his eyes from her as she turned and began to walk away. 

Perhaps it was the quiet of the hallway, or maybe she was simply so attuned to him that his words reached her soul more than her ears. But before Gordon led her through the doorway, Claire heard Jamie pray, "A Dhia, feuch an cùm mi i."

Unfamiliar words, but Claire felt their intensity. So she added a prayer of her own. 

I'll give anything. Just bring him back to me. Please. 

 

#

 

Frank sat in the reverend's study, papers strewn about the room. He'd hoped the distraction would be enough to force the words -- hers and his -- from his mind. 

We couldn't explain what it was between us. 

We've been together since then.

When we found out I was pregnant, we agreed to do the right thing. 

She wanted to tell him the truth, aye?

I don't regret it, and I can't change it. 

So we could have a proper family. Do right by the bairn.

I'm sorry. Thank you.

No such luck. The words zipped around his head, sometimes quiet as a whisper and other times exploding like a bomb. Flashes of her face, twisted in pain as she relayed the words that had gutted him, blinded him. 

A knock reoriented him, pulling Frank from the echoing chaos of his mind into the humming silence of the study. Reggie had stuck his head in. 

"I'm sorry to bother ye," he said, tone as kind as it always was. His friend's eyes were burdened, lips drawn tight. Upon returning from the hospital, he'd of course shared everything with Reg. Claire's words. Fraser's words. His own sense of disquiet and disbelief wrapped up in fury and rage. He nearly wished he'd told the man nothing, as his pervasive sympathy only served to emphasize the pain growing in his center with each passing second.

"It's all right," Frank responded, leaning back in the chair. "It's your study, Reg."

The reverend nodded but still didn't fully enter the room. Maybe he didn't want to drown in the thick air of despondency that seeped from him like blood from a corpse.

"'Tis only..." Reg hesitated, and Frank nodded once to encourage him to finish. "Claire is at the door. Said she wanted to speak wi' ye."

Frank's heart gave a lurch as his stomach seemed to drop all the way to his heels. 

"No," Frank said, turning toward the papers on the desk. "Please tell her...I don't care what."

"Frank..."

"I'm not certain I can control my words right now," Frank cut him off. He looked up to Reg, pleading. "I don't want to regret what I say to her, but if I see her now, speak to her, I know I will. So, please, tell her what you will. But send her away."

Reggie shut his mouth and retreated without another word. 

Frank couldn't hear them through the door, and he was glad. His eyes fell on the drinks cart across the room. To get lost in the oblivion of the port or the whisky...or the port and the whisky. He was tempted. But the alcohol could have the opposite effect, as well, amplifying the agony of the raw cavernous wound that was his innermost soul. He wouldn't risk it. 

Just as the voices rebounding in his head had begun to pick up volume once more, another knock came at the door. Frank bade Reggie to enter again. 

But when he door swung open, Mrs. Graham faced him instead. 

"Mrs. Graham," he said, surprised. He stood to greet her. "How can I help you?"

The woman entered the room, an object wrapped in a blanket in her hands. "I wanted to check in on ye." She regarded him as she ventured further into the space, wading with seeming ease through the thickness that seemed to solidify the air of the room. Sitting in a chair opposite him, Mrs. Graham placed the object on her lap and folded her hands. "How are ye, Mr. Randall?"

Looking into her face, Frank saw nothing but sincerity there. Her eyes, glittering and gentle, did not search him or try to read him. They simply took him in as he was, conveying comfort and acceptance without asking anything more. 

"I've..." Frank swallowed and sat once more, eyebrow twitching. "It's been a difficult few days."

Mrs. Graham nodded. "I think it's been difficult for everyone involved." 

Frank scoffed, an incredulous smirk tilting his lips. "Yes," he chortled, an edge creeping into his words as he leaned back in his chair, seeking distance. "I'm sure they're both just eaten up with it, then."

A shadow passed over Mrs. Graham's face, lips turned down and the glow leaving her eyes. "Mr. Randall--"

"Mrs. Graham," he interrupted. "Listen, I appreciate what you're doing. I know you and Claire were friendly before..." He couldn't bring himself to vocalize it. "I know you're trying to help, but I don't think you really understand--"

"I've seen them together, Mr. Randall," Mrs. Graham interjected, raising her voice only enough to be heard. That stole his breath. Coherency fled from him as he looked at her, wide-eyed. She nodded, her pinned curls bouncing, and continued. "I dinna ken what she told ye, but I know they are both strugglin', immensely. Just as ye are."

Frank stood then, wandering the perimeter of the study as he tried to string together a sentence with which to respond. Mostly, though, he just wanted to shield his face from her. He didn't want her to watch him crumble. 

"They both seem pretty decided on the matter." His fingers ghosted over the stacks of papers and book spines crowding the shelf. "Neither of them seemed to struggle very much. Their intentions are quite clear."

"Mr. Randall--"

"She's made her choice," Frank said, turning and putting his hands in his pockets. He worked to keep his face neutral but feared he landed closer to pitiful. "I know Claire. Hardheaded as rocks and just as immovable." All at once, he felt his spirit flagging. His posture drooped, shoulders folding forward and his chin hanging against his chest. "I don't know when it was I lost her, but I did. And now I have to figure out how to live with that knowledge and wonder at how."

Mrs. Graham made a noise in her throat that caused Frank to look up. She hardly seemed aware she'd done it. Deep in thought, her eyes were on the bundle in her lap. He watched her, entranced by what seemed to be indecision haunting the lines of her face. Head bobbing softly in affirmation, she suddenly rapped the knuckles of her joined hands once against her lap and sat up straight. Her eyes sought his. A fierce determination shone from her. 

"I know 'tis all very fresh, Mr. Randall," she said as she stood, placing the bundle on the desk. "But when things have settled, I think it may be worth speakin' to Claire. She may have more yet to tell ye."

She turned then to leave, and Frank stepped toward the desk. "What's this?" he asked, gesturing to the blanket-wrapped parcel covering his papers. 

Her answer didn't come immediately. Slow steps toward the door, a hand on the knob. Then a pause. She turned. "Somethin' I offered to keep safe while they traveled to meet ye in Oxford. Their story, 'tis not mine to tell ye." Pausing again, her fingers gripped the knob tighter and spun it. "But trust me when I say they wanna tell it to ye." As the door opened and she passed through, she added quickly before closing it behind her, "As soon as yer ready to hear it."

The silence pressed in on him, but the voices in his mind never spoke up again. Where his assignments and work hadn't been distraction enough, that final ambiguous encouragement certainly did the trick. He looked down at the parcel on the desk. Carefully, he pulled the tartan-printed fabric away from the items. 

When Inspector Gordon had told him that Fraser had threatened the hiker with a blade, he'd imagined a pocketknife or a hunting knife. So as the plaid covering revealed the antique sword on the desk along with a pistol and a traditional Highland dirk, the picture in his mind morphed. Where before he'd imagined the red-headed giant shoving the sharp metal of a switchblade into the stranger's face with menace in his eyes and violence seething beneath his skin, now an image of a soldier drawing his war weapon from its sheath filled his vision. The imagined snarl of aggression transformed into a grimace of defense. 

Frank couldn't explain it, but in that moment, the second image felt so much more fitting of the man he'd watched from behind glass. The man whose face had darkened at the inspector's cruder remarks about Claire the previous afternoon, remarks that had had steam billowing from his own ears in affront. 

An electric strike of decision rocked through him. Claire had made her choice, and now he'd made his. He searched for the clock. Damn, how was it only a quarter of two? How had he somehow lived a century in the last three hours? 

Grabbing his coat, he moved with purpose from the room, from the house, and began a quick pace down the sidewalk. He mentally concocted a plan and a list.

Starting with a bottle of whisky.

 

#

 

As she and Mrs. Graham made their way back to the manse, Claire rehearsed in her mind the speech for Frank. Understanding but firm, with feeling but held in tight control. The words formed themselves, rearranging and editing themselves into the best order as Mrs. Graham drove.

More than once, Claire considered the wisdom of saying nothing at all. Why antagonize him? Why do anything that may push him more resolutely to keep her and Jamie separated for as long as he could? 

Undoubtedly, he already knew that Jamie's fate rested in his hands. And her fate, as well. Then, Claire reasoned, she needed to be as clear with him as she could: whether Jamie walked free or sat locked away forever, she could never be Frank's again. He would not win her by exiling the man standing between them. 

But as they pulled up the reverend's home and Claire asked to speak with Frank, Reggie barred her entrance. With regretful eyes, he told her that Frank wasn't ready to speak and asked her to respect his desires. Mrs. Graham offered to drive her back to the inn, but Claire denied her, preferring to walk. The woman grasped her hand for a moment before following the reverend into the house. 

Fear and heartache gripped at her as her feet steered her back toward Mrs. Baird's. Seeing Frank's face, knowing what he would do would've soothed her unease, though she could hardly blame the man for keeping away from her. Were the roles reversed, Claire likely wouldn't want to see his face, either. 

How could this be more difficult than the months of trudging from battle to battle? How could the consuming worry that had gnawed at her since separating from Jamie a day ago be more painful than the weeks-long ache of a starving belly? Guilt tore at her as she thought of Frank and of Jamie. One, she'd broken. One, she'd failed.

For over a year, their goal had been clear: stop the slaughter at Culloden before it could happen. As they'd walked along that path toward that singular mission, they'd often not known where their feet would land even as they took the next step. But there had always been ground beneath them. Even if the terrain were unfamiliar or unsteady, even if she'd stumbled along the way, Jamie's arm had always been there to catch her. Never once did she hit the ground. He'd protect her, they'd reset, and they'd take another step. 

Here, now, Claire had been unable to do the same for him. In so many ways, Jamie needed her supporting arm more here than she'd needed it before. But as the earth had vanished from under him, she'd reached for his hand only to let him tumble to the ground. There he now lay, waiting for her to pick him up again. 

And she bloody couldn't. 

With Frank's refusal to see her, Claire's only card to play had proven useless. Now, all she could do was wait though she itched to move, to do something to free Jamie. Guilt burned at her like acid, but tears never came. Entering their room at Mrs. Baird's, Claire willed the hours to go by faster. But the sun never seemed to move. She lay on the bed as she waited for night. Because once night came, then morning would come. And she needed morning to come. Once she could hold him again in her arms, she promised never to fail him as she had. She would protect him if it cost her life to do it.

A pounding at the door wrenched her awake. Confused, not remembering having succumbed to sleep, Claire opened her eyes. Darkness filled the room, and she exhaled in relief. That much closer to freeing Jamie. Just as she laid back down to try to sleep again, the insistent knock returned, reminding her of what had woken her to begin with. 

Wary, Claire stood, still fully clothed. She approached the door, hesitating. A third round of knocks came then, impatient. Holding her breath, Claire unlocked and then swung the door wide. In the space of a blink, she felt rough hands gripping her face and pulling her against a familiar solid body. Warm lips she knew so well greedily covered her own. After a moment of shock, Claire wrapped her own arms around his neck, letting her fingers tangle in his beautiful, thick curls once again. 

Minutes later with panting breaths, Claire pulled away and looked into the ice blue eyes of her husband. Speech evaded her as she reveled in the surreality of feeling him against her. 

"I ken I promised I'd see ye tomorrow, Sassenach," he breathed then as he pressed his forehead to hers. "But I couldna wait."

 

Chapter Text

Seeing her had been both reward and punishment. Heaven and hell. To touch her, hear her voice, breathe the same air as she did had been an answered prayer. But the sight of her retreating from him, eyes swimming in pained regret, gutted him further. Hope for his freedom come morning coexisted with doubt, fear that something -- or someone -- would wreak some new havoc between now and then. 

After the door had clicked shut behind her, Jamie lay on his cot in the silent isolation and simply breathed. Deep inhale, heavy exhale. How he wished whatever force had pulled him two centuries forward in time could pull him just another twelve hours. 

Then he'd be free. With Claire. And they could make their plans. 

Only the knowledge that she was safe and well allowed his feet to rest from their beaten path back and forth across the cell. All the better, though, since exhaustion claimed him like a crushing wave out at sea. He hoped for sleep, but the weariness of his bones had yet to infect his mind. His gaze shifted from time to time. Ceiling to walls to floors to window to iron bars. And so he whiled away the afternoon in impatient solitude.

Darkness overtook the cell soon after his lackluster supper had been delivered. Demoralized and bleary, Jamie could only pick at the food before lying back down. As full night finally descended, he felt his eyelids begin to flutter. The muffled sounds of the station and outside world drifted further away. His limbs grew heavier, his breathing deepened. 

Finally, he thought to himself just before falling off the cliff of sleep. 

In the dream, he was back in Leoch. Gwyllyn's harp resonated throughout the great hall and within his own chest, and Claire had just arrived. Donas-sized butterfly wings flapped within his wame as he closed the space between them, grabbing her hand and pulling her to sit beside him as the music rose.

Somewhere in the recesses of consciousness, Jamie recognized this was more memory than dream. She'd looked so bonny with her rosy cheeks and her curls let down around her shoulders. Beautiful as she'd been, though, he'd sensed a somberness about her. Her whisky eyes had been downcast and her brows turned upward just a tick, hinting at a poorly hidden disquiet hanging over her. Lips pinched together. Shoulders rolled forward, nearly defensive in their posture. Unlike the first night they'd enjoyed Gwyllyn's songs, Claire had never sipped the Rhenish she clutched in hand. 

Noticing her mood as he did, Jamie had yearned to be the one to rescue her from the shadows plaguing her mind. To put the spark back in her eye, to draw the corners of her supple lips into a laugh. And so he'd leaned over, whispering the translation of the song into her ear, watching her reactions as the story drew her in. Careful he'd been, though, to keep a breath of space between their bodies, no matter how he wished to feel the softness of her hand back in his once more. Every so often, she'd exhale a breath that danced across his cheek and his mind would go blank and lights would burst behind his eyes like lightning.

Then, finally, she'd smiled. Elated tears had shone in her eyes, and she'd sat up straighter with a gulping breath as though she'd been underwater. 

Ye did it, Jamie had congratulated himself. Ecstasy beyond belief consumed him as, with the transition from the soulful ballad to the upbeat tune, she'd begun clapping along beside him, the apples of her cheeks round and bright as a renewed energy coursed through her and from her. Never had his heart felt so full as when she'd finally thrown her head back and laughed, knowing it had been he who brought her to it. 

The scene changed abruptly as dreams are wont to do. It was dark and raining now. Soaked to the bone, he was, yet he didn't shiver. Dark, but he could see with perfect clarity.

Could see her. Framed in the window. 

Claire was younger here, dressed in a lovely pink gown that flowed over her like mist. Her hair, shorter, frizzed about her head in a halo of candlelight.

"Wake up, Fraser." 

The voice broke as thunder over him. Lightning cracked over the street, illuminating a drenched and wary Frank Randall, eyes narrowed in...suspicion? wrath? envy? Jamie couldn't tell in the split second that the angry sky lit his face. 

"Fraser!"

Jamie bolted awake then, sitting up sharply. The electricity lights flooded the room, but the window showed it was still night outside. Jamie turned his eyes to the bars. Inspector Gordon stood there. 

And the door was open. 

"Inspector?" Jamie asked, easing his legs over the side of the bed and cocking his eyebrow as he watched the officer. 

Gordon's red face betrayed his annoyance. But he moved to the side, clearing the way for Jamie to exit the cell. 

"What's happenin', then?" Jamie stood slowly, keeping clear of the door in case this were a trick or a mistake. "I wasna to be released till morn, I thought?"

The portly officer heaved a sigh and blinked rapidly. Jamie suspected he wanted to roll his eyes. "We were awaitin' news on if charges were bein' pressed against you," the man said as Jamie approached, still moving slowly. "We've just received word that neither man will be doin' so."

He inhaled sharply. They'd been waiting on two men, yes, but only one had Jamie truly worried about. 

Frank wasn't pressing charges? 

The next twenty minutes passed in a blur of shock. Jamie sat before Inspector Gordon at his desk signing paperwork, receiving his belongings, answering discharge questions. He noticed a bottle of amber whisky sitting on the corner of the desk with a note attached. For some reason, Jamie wished he could read it. 

By the time he opened the door into the crisp night air, the clock inside read 12:56 p.m. The street was deserted at this hour, most lights extinguished. Despite himself, Jamie sucked in a cleansing breath, the chilly air raising goosebumps as relief swept over him. 

"You made it out, then."

That feeling evaporated as the words and voice registered. Jamie's body tensed, and he jerked to his right. Frank Randall sat on a bench, the ankle of one leg propped on his opposite knee and arms spread and resting atop the backside of the bench. 

Lowering the suitcase in hand, Jamie kept a watchful eye on Frank. A sinking feeling set in, but surely if Frank meant him harm, he wouldn't dare do so just steps outside of the lawman's door? 

"No need to fret," Frank intoned as he peeled himself from the bench and stood. His hands went to his pockets and he took half a step away, as though to demonstrate his non-violent intentions. "I'm not here for a fight. I doubt I'd win such, regardless," he added with a scan of Jamie from head to toe.

"Aye," Jamie responded slowly. With effort, he rolled the tension from his shoulders and unfurrowed his brow. "Then just what have ye come for, then?"

Frank didn't answer immediately. With only the glow of the moon to illuminate him, the similarities to Jack Randall blurred. If Jack's features had been painted in aggressive strokes, Frank's were molded from the softness of clay. Where Jack had exuded haughty disdain, Frank seemed to emanate something quieter. Prideful, certainly, but diluted well enough that Jamie could begin to see Frank as his own man rather than the centuries-removed copy of his forebear. 

"The story you both gave," Frank finally spoke up, eyes narrowing just a hair. "There's more to it, am I right?"

If Frank had, indeed, allowed for his release, then Jamie knew he deserved the full truth now more than ever. "Aye," he answered. "'Tis no' an easy story to tell, but a story we both want to share wi' ye, if yer willin' to listen."

Only a single nod answered Jamie's offer. Frank cast his glance at the ground between his feet for a second, perhaps gathering his faculties as Jamie swore he heard a stifled sniffle before the man raised his head again. "Claire's still at Mrs. Baird's, I believe. I'm at the manse. I leave for Oxford day after tomorrow." He paused. "If I don't see either of you before then, I'd prefer not to meet again." 

Both men stood on the pavement, parallel, a world of unspoken animosity stretching between them. 

"The whisky," Jamie called out suddenly as Frank had begun to turn. "On the inspector's desk. Was that you?"

Frank's eyebrows twitched up and back down so quickly it reminded Jamie of a cricket leaping. "Yes. I..." He fidgeted with a thread on the cuff of his jacket. "As an apology for the inspector coming in late at my request. And for...various other uncharitable exchanges between us two."

And with that, Frank Randall pivoted and walked away. 

Jamie stood, stunned. Nothing could have been more antithetical to Jack Randall than his descendent freeing Jamie from captivity, permitting him to return to Claire without impediment, then giving him the free choice whether to face him again at all. Through each encounter with the man, Claire's assurance that Frank was not the same as Jack had echoed within him, a mantra he'd repeated to himself to settle his stomach as he looked upon the face he so reviled. But in this moment, Jamie finally accepted the truth of it. 

As Frank's form faded from view, he let go of the remaining dregs of jealous disdain for the man who'd had Claire first. 

Later, he wouldn't remember picking up the suitcase and sprinting down the sidewalk toward the town square, nor would he recall bursting through the door of Mrs. Baird's inn and making his way up the stairs three at a time, breathless and panting by the time he reached their room and found the knob locked. All he'd remember would be that the seconds between his frenzied pounding on her door and its giving way would feel unbearably long, each heartbeat the length of his entire life. And when he finally saw his Claire standing there, amber eyes going round with surprise, he'd remember that overwhelming surge of need to touch her, feel her lips against his. She stiffened against him for just a moment before pressing her body flush against his and entangling her fingers in his hair. 

They remained in the doorway for some minutes in their heated greeting. When they finally parted, breaths coming hard and fast, Jamie finally grabbed his case and eased her back into the room. 

"Jamie," she breathed, hands never leaving his face and neck as he closed the door with his heel and guided her toward the bed. "Jamie, how--"

"Later, Sassenach," he growled, the necessity of joining with her, possessing her nearly painful in its intensity. He claimed her lips again. They seemed to boil with their combined heat and want, her hands caressing the planes of him with just as much greed as his own, which sought her curls, her waist, gripping and kneading her glorious arse and pulling her hard against him. A perfect, beautiful sigh escaped her lips. He devoured it. 

Still, she gasped out a question as her hands slid below the collar of his shirt to touch his bare shoulders. 

"But, Jamie, you didn't--"

"No, mo nighean donn," he responded, fingers trembling as he searched for the buttons at the back of her dress. Nearly blind with lust he was as he retreated an inch and looked into her hooded eyes. Lungs strained for breath, and the words he murmured against her lips trembled. "I didna fight nor escape. And I promise to tell ye." A groan rumbled from his chest and through his throat as he tasted her neck where her pearl-like skin fluttered with the quickening of her pulse. "Later."

 

#

 

Standing outside the manse at ten o'clock sharp the next morning, Claire's trepidation nearly surpassed that of the first time they'd arrived on this stoop mere days previously. They waited a moment, gathering themselves for the confrontation to come. 

Because even after Jamie's account of his release from the prison and Frank's words to him, his sense that Frank truly meant them no harm, Claire found it all too good to be true. Uncertainty about his motives and actions had haunted her since awakening in hospital to find him at her bedside. She loathed her continued distrust of Frank, yet she struggled to banish it. 

Grateful though she was Jamie had managed to dissociate Frank from Jack despite their shared face, such a feat eluded Claire. 

Finally, after nearly a full minute of avoidance, Claire raised her fist and knocked. Mrs. Graham opened the door and, with only an anxious smile, gestured for them to follow her into the study. Too nervous to sit, they both hovered in the center of the room. Jamie wrapped one arm around her shoulders. She didn't even mind his fingers digging in at five points, anchored as she felt to him. 

Minutes later, the door opened again and Frank entered. He crossed to the desk without greeting, only a momentary flicker of surprise betraying him. Taking their cue from him, she and Jamie sat in the worn wingback chairs across from him, hands still joined.

No one spoke for some time, none quite sure who bore the responsibility for opening the discourse. When the air grew so thick she could hardly breathe, Claire took the mantle upon herself. 

"Frank," she said, imbuing as much tenderness and sincerity as she could in the name. "I just...want to thank you for what you did for Jamie. Having him released." Unexpected tears pooled at the corners of her eyes as memory of the wretched days spent apart from Jamie clawed at her. "You had...every motivation to leave him there, to override me and keep him out of your way. And I cannot convey to you the weight of our gratitude that you didn't."

She watched as he only nodded vaguely, almost as though in thought himself rather than in response to her words. His eyes darted every so often to her hand joined with Jamie's resting on the threadbare arm of her chair. Though she blushed, Claire refused to release it. In truth, that contact was all that kept her together as they prepared for the arduous task to come. With his touch -- his palm against hers, their fingers intertwined -- Claire felt calm and complete. Prepared for what was to come.

Silence enveloped them once more before Frank finally spoke. When he did, he trained his eyes on Jamie, speaking as though Claire weren't present at all. "If you've known her for any length of time, you know there's one thing she absolutely cannot do."

Jamie's lips quirked into a slant. He twisted to look at Claire, one eyebrow cocked as he answered Frank with a hint of cheek aimed at her. "I call it her glass face. Shows whate'er she's thinkin' clear as day. Which means she canna lie to save her skin."

And he does mean that quite literally, Claire thought as her gaze shifted back to Frank. 

A weak chuckle whispered from his lips before he continued, still looking to Jamie. "In the war, I worked in intelligence where the ability to lie and, more importantly, to spot a lie are matters of life and death."

"And yer still breathin'," Jamie replied in understanding, turning back to the man across from him. 

Frank nodded once. His gaze, when it landed upon her at last, ripped through her like a bullet. "I knew the story you gave was a lie. Would've known even if you could've shielded your face. It echoed his too carefully." He crooked his head to Jamie without taking his eyes from Claire. "Too obviously constructed, rehearsed even.

"But..." Frank swallowed visibly, cheeks reddening, "when you finally looked into my eyes and told me that you weren't..." A hand still bearing the gold band that had once bound them together came to rest against his chest. "...weren't mine any longer, I knew that was the truth. And when you said he hadn't hurt you, I knew that was the truth, as well. 

"And at that moment, I was tempted to press charges. Tempted to lose every material possession I owned to lawyers and court fees if it meant he rotted in prison. To spite you both." Lips turned downward, eyes cast to the space between Claire and Jamie where their hands still held one another, he nodded slowly. "Sorely tempted."

Jamie's fingers squeezed hers, and she took a steadying breath. Frank shrugged then, leaning back in the wooden chair in a casual posture at odds with the atmosphere of the room. "But in the end, whatever crimes he's guilty of, I knew he wasn't guilty of hurting you. And I knew letting my own...anger at the both of you goad me into pretending that he was wouldn't win you back to me. So the decision wasn't all that hard, in the end.

"Why did you lie to me, Claire?" 

Claire froze. Panic that the moment, long awaited, had finally arrived rendered her speechless. A lump lodged in her throat, aching and tight. She breathed. In, then out. Again. And again. 

Two years ago, she'd sat herself on a stool and, terrified, set herself to the task of mending her husband's demolished hand. To this day, Claire had no notion of just how she'd managed to push through her own pain and Jamie's to do what needed to be done. But sitting across from her first husband, knowing that the coming hours would, in their own way, be as painful and painstaking as the ones spent sweating over Jamie's broken body, Claire found herself resolved now just as she had been then. Determination settled over her as she sat up taller, chin raised. 

"I didn't want to lie to you." Her voice remained soft. Sharing a look with Jamie for support and strength, Claire turned back to Frank. "We'd intended from the time we returned to tell you the truth. But in the moment, I was alone, and I was afraid."

"Of me?"

Claire pursed her lips. "In a way, yes." She paused for just a beat. "Perhaps once you hear, you'll understand better why." 

Breathe, Beauchamp. 

"When we spoke, I'd only just awoken from the bloody drugs those doctors forced on me--"

"What?" Jamie blurted beside her, eyes squinted in unexpected ire. Claire flashed him a look that said, Later, and again turned her focus to Frank. 

"I still felt...ill and disoriented. And I was concerned that if you heard the truth, you'd think me mad, perhaps even have me hospitalized further. And with Jamie locked away and alone as he was, I couldn't risk that."

The sardonic laugh that cut through the room had Claire's stomach lurching and, she could see, the vein below Jamie's eyes pulsing. 

"You must have so low an opinion of me," Frank muttered through the dark laughter. "Thinking I'd lock you away, thinking I'd lock him away..."

"Ye did say ye were tempted not five minutes ago, did ye no'?" Jamie burst in, defensive frustration deepening the timbre of his voice. 

"If we were all judged by our temptations, not a single man, woman, or child in existence would be spared from hell." Frank rebutted, eyes and tone cold. Jamie and Claire both remained silent. 

"If my opinion of you has diminished," Claire conceded after a time, "please know it's not your fault."

"Whose, then?" Frank insisted, leaning forward. All understanding and tenderness seemed to have dissipated as his tone grew heated. 

Jamie's fingers tightened in hers. "Jonathan Randall's," he snarled. Frank turned to him, astonished. Claire looked to Jamie and he to her. A sharing of courage, an assurance of support. 

The telling of it took longer, somehow, than it had with Mrs. Graham. Perhaps Claire was more hesitant with the details of hers and Jamie's growing relationship or their run-ins in Black Jack considering her audience. But in as exacting detail as she could remember, Claire divulged the details of her three years parted from him, excluding only the worst of Black Jack's deeds from her retelling, painting blurry pictures of his crimes against Jamie. Enough for him to understand why they both had such visceral reactions to Frank himself but not enough to victimize Jamie further in the sharing of it. Frank deserved the real story, the fully story, but this piece -- the worst hours of Jamie's life -- belonged to neither her nor Frank.

At various times, Frank stood, paced, sat. 

Faced her, turned away. 

Flipped through pages in books or fidgeted with the items sharing the shelves with them. Tobacco pipes. Bottles. A clock. One porcelain figurine of the Loch Ness monster. 

Ran his hands over his face or hung his head in his palms. 

And through it all, Claire never stopped speaking, uninterrupted for hours.

Lunchtime had come and long gone by the time she fell silent. They sat there, a triangle of tensed anticipation, eyes shifting amongst each other. Just as Claire decided to speak up, Frank reached behind the desk and pulled out a bundle of familiar tartan, handing it over to Jamie. "Mrs. Graham shared this with me yesterday," he said. As Jamie unwrapped his weapons, wary, Frank sat back in his chair. 

"Do you..." Claire swallowed. Now that the truth had been told, nerves attacked her. She grasped harder at Jamie's hand. "Do you believe us?"

Frank cut his eyes toward her then to Jamie, looking at him briefly before severing the connection and focusing on some point just over his shoulder. "When I heard your name, I recognized it. I thought at first it was simply a family name, or that your parents had a ghoulish sense of humor. Historians, maybe, or nationalists even. Or maybe by pure coincidence, if such a thing fucking exists." 

With a deliberation of movement, Frank stood and lumbered across the room. The clink of glass rang out in the still room as he poured a dram from the decanter and returned to his seat. 

"But the more I saw of you, heard from you..." He nodded to the sword now balanced across Jamie's knees. Frank's voice had deepened, but his face was slack, relaxed even, which only fed her growing unrest. "It was clear you're made of different stuff. I knew just who you were early on. I just couldn't...admit it."

"Frank, what--" Claire attempted, but he cut her off. 

"When I was working toward my doctorate, I was a professor's assistant to my mentor, Dr. Menzies." The Frasers exchanged a curious, confused look, of which Frank apparently took no notice. "My final year working beneath him, I was helping him research a book on the rise and fall of Charles Stuart before and through the '45." 

Rage coursed through her at the thought of the pale-faced manchild who'd led thousands of men to their deaths, doomed an entire culture to extermination. Jamie, likewise, squared his shoulders in his seat as Frank stood to perch on the corner of the desk facing them. 

Anxiety buzzed through her like static electricity.

"We combed through...must have been thousands of letters, notes, diaries, military dispatches together. Dr. Menzies was meticulous. The man had detailed histories on all of Charles's advisors. Generals, politicians..." His brown eyes slid over to Jamie, whose chest rose and fell with increasing speed, the only thing betraying his mounting emotion. 

"Except there was one. Close to the prince. Inner circle, prized place at his war table." Frank took a swig of his drink, settling the glass against his thigh to continue. "The broadsheets called him Red Jamie. And at his side always, his wife -- his English wife -- the Stuart Witch. Firsthand accounts of him in battle depict either a folkloric hero or an inhuman monster, depending on who's writing. Though it's clear that his influence contributed heavily to the Jacobites' early victories.

"But where historians have been able to track the fate of Charles and his other associates following the failed rebellion, no one has ever found a trace of either Red Jamie or his wife." Frank frowned contemplatively, as though faced with a particularly challenging puzzle. His eyes seemed brighter, and Claire realized he'd slipped into the role of lecturer, offering him an escape from the weight of his own circumstances for a time. "Best anyone can tell, they're not included in the casualties. Were never arrested, never tried. They don't show up anywhere in Europe or the Colonies. Red Jamie attended a war council the morning of Culloden, then..." Frank shook his head dramatically. "Nothing. 

"Dr. Menzies concluded, as most others have, that they must have escaped under assumed names or died nameless away from the fighting."

"But you know better now?" Tears streamed down Claire's face, and her body vibrated with rushing adrenaline at his words. Jamie's hand, still linked with hers, shook as well. 

The mask of the detached professor evaporated, but so did all anger and malice. Frank deflated before her, his eyes somehow both awed and utterly despondent. "Yes," he nodded. "Now I know better.

"When Mrs. Graham tried to tell me this was a possibility, back when you first vanished..." Frank cleared his throat, swiping at the moisture escaping his eyes. "I wanted to believe it. So badly. If it meant you hadn't...that I hadn't lost..." 

Resigned devastation rolled off him as he stood and walked back to his chair behind the desk. She understood the instinct to put a barrier between them. For all he knew the truth -- and, Jesus H. Christ, believed it -- she could see the hopelessness in his eyes.

"I climbed that hill before going back to Oxford," Frank revealed before taking another sip of his drink, cradling it between his hands as though it were precious. "Climbed up to those stones and screamed for you. I wanted so badly to believe it, I thought I heard you screaming back to me." The tears rolled down his cheeks with abandon now as he dipped his head, chin tucked into his chest as though he wanted to burrow himself into a place of safety. 

"If he hadn't come back with you," Frank burst out, snapping his head up to lock eyes with Claire. "If you'd ended up back here alone, could we have..."

Her controlled tears verged on wracking sobs as she shook her head. "I would have tried," she whispered to him. She stood, her back stiff from the prolonged tension, and approached him behind the desk. Falling to her knees before him, face screwed up as she struggled for composure, she reached for his free hand. Slowly, so he'd have time to pull away if he wanted. Palms smooth as ever, such a contrast to Jamie's work-roughened touch. 

"I would have tried because it's what Jamie asked me to do," she said again, her voice only slightly stronger as she gasped for breath between suppressed cries. "But I couldn't have given you what was no longer mine to give. We'd never have gotten back what was taken from us, Frank. And we would have ruined our lives in the chasing of it."

A rueful smile spread on Frank's lips as he drained his glass. "Likely," he agreed as he set it on the desk and exhaled long and deep. Looking down to Claire, she read a question in his eyes, but he never gave voice to it. 

Instead, in a quiet, steady monotone, he said, "I'll sign whatever you have sent to me. And I wish you both happiness."

It was a clear dismissal. Watching the emotions warring in him, pride and desolation and fury and resentment all battling for dominance, she nodded once. She gave his fingers one last squeeze before standing and returning to Jamie, who'd stood and reached for her. Jamie released a breath as though he'd been holding it. 

"Thank you, Frank," Claire said as they moved to the door in a gross mirror of the moment he'd departed the hospital only a day ago. 

Before she could turn the knob, though, Jamie whipped around to Frank again. 

"I thank ye, truly," Jamie said, stepping toward the desk. "For all ye've done to help us, to help me, when ye've no cause to do so. But I have to ken..." Claire saw the muscles of his neck contracting as Jamie clenched his jaw. "I need to ken why yer steppin' aside so willingly to trust that yer genuine in yer word."

"'Willing,' am I?" Frank said with another resigned laugh. 

"Are ye?" Jamie pressed in earnest. 

Frank met his eye, possibly for the first time since they'd arrived. "After Claire told you where she came from, you brought her to the stones and told her to come home. Were you willing?"

Eyes softening, Jamie relaxed his stance. "Far from it."

Point made, Frank nodded but said nothing. Claire grasped Jamie's hand once more, the one not cradling his prized weapons and tartan, and pulled him to the door. With only a brief backward glance, amber eyes meeting brown, Claire shut the door on the man she'd first known as husband. Holding on to the second, she led them through the door, from the manse, across town, and back to the inn at a harried pace. 

Safe within their rooms, Jamie pulled her into his arms. She broke then in the shelter of him, guilt and sobs tearing through her with a brutality that made her all but incapable of moving, of standing, of controlling any of her body or limbs. 

"Ye were right, mo chridhe," Jamie whispered in her ear, rubbing his hands along her back in comfort. "He's a good man. I ken, if it came to it, he'd have protected ye and the bairn where I couldna."

Claire nodded against his chest, clinging to him, letting the solidity of him soothe her fragile spirit. 

Jamie had proven his devotion to her time and again. The lengths he'd gone to, the agony he'd endured in the name of her own salvation humbled her beyond comprehension. And though Frank's body would not show the evidence of the love he bore her as Jamie's did, Claire knew that Frank's own sacrifice in the name of her happiness carried no less weight. 

To be cared for so deeply and selflessly by both these men touched a piece of her soul tucked deep within her like water trickling through the soil to her deepest roots, the roots that fed the very core of who she was. It was overwhelming.

Pulling back, Claire looked into Jamie's face. His cheeks shone with tear tracks, evidence of his own tamer release. She leaned her forehead to rest against his, their heartbeats slowing to echo one another. 

Two men loved her, and in her life she had loved two men. But only one whose very presence made her blood hum in her veins. Whose understanding of her penetrated to the deepest layers within her, a knowing that could not be shared or learned. Only one who, when their skin touched, ignited a spark of recognition that they were but one soul split into two bodies. Separate but inextricably woven together so that, even when apart, she felt the presence of him still with her.

"Blood of my blood," she murmured to him, eyes closed. 

"Bone of my bone," he answered, his fingers caressing her neck. 

Claire brushed her lips against his and opened her eyes. And, despite the still-heavy guilt cloaking her and the fatigue from the difficult day, she smiled and brought Jamie's hand to her stomach. His grin as he pressed his palm against the tiny life he'd given to her brought the blood rushing to her cheeks as tears, now of joy, rained down her face. 

"We're free, Jamie."

End of Arc I

Chapter Text

Never had Jamie seen Lallybroch so quiet. The halls were still. The hearth lay cold. Even the light, catching the swirling dust motes pirouetting through the air with lazy abandon, seemed to whisper upon each surface it touched, soft and gentle. 

He walked across the upper landing, but his footfalls made no sound. Pushing open the door to the Laird's room, it greeted him with familiarity but no warmth. Almost as though no one had ever lived within these walls. 

But that wasn't true. Brian and Ellen had lived there, and he'd been witness to the love and life they had shared here. And then, briefly, he and Claire, too, had called that room home, every corner christened with memory. By the window, where he'd first confessed his love for her, and she to him. The fireplace, where Claire had tearfully revealed her barrenness, where he'd comforted her and promised her it made no difference to him even as he felt that particular dream die inside of him. Their bed, where he and his lady had came together with passion and where their first child had come to be, resurrecting that dream once more. 

A home like Lallybroch sheltered spirits, Jamie believed. Each soul who moved within it left their mark, echoes reverberating across all time. Which is why as he stood there, sensing naught but the wood and glass and stone around him, it had never felt so empty. That lack sent goosebumps prickling across his skin and unease niggling at his heart.

Collapsing upon the bench at the end of the bed, Jamie bent down and reached beneath it, searching for the sword of his father, just as he had on his and Claire's first day home. Something to connect him to his family, to prove they'd been there. That the images in his mind were more than figments. 

That they had been real, blood and bone and breath. 

Just as his fingers grazed the metal hilt, Jamie awoke with a gasp. Disoriented, he blinked his bleary eyes until they focused and sharpened. Claire lay in his arms, spooned against him, none the wiser to his nocturnal visit to his ancestral home or his rude awakening. His eyes swiveled around the room. Not the Laird's room, but the bland one in the small flat they'd been renting for the last three months in Inverness. No stone fireplace or blue tapestries on the walls. No sword hiding just beneath the mattress. No portraits, painted in his mother's hand, lining the hallways and breathing new life into her each time his gaze fell upon them.

Sighing, Jamie closed his eyes, rubbing them to dispel the dream. He'd been having more like this recently, walking through Lallybroch or across its fields, within its forests. And every time, the home stood deathly quiet, as though his ears had been plugged with wool to block all sound. And each time, Jenny and Ian and Fergus and all the rest were nowhere to be found. Like they didn't exist. 

Like they'd never existed. 

Beyond the obvious, he knew why the dream returned again and again. Why tonight, of all nights, the visions plaguing his mind had felt more lucid, more vivid than ever. 

Ever since his father had told him that he'd one day meet a lass and know in his deepest self that she'd been made just for him, Jamie had dreamed of marrying her at Lallybroch. A ceremony in the kirk with the priest, then a jaunt back to the house for celebrations, where his family and his tenants would welcome the new Lady Broch Tuarach with zeal. They'd have eaten and drunk and laughed and danced till her curls fell around her face, her breathless laughter colored her cheeks, and he could stand to be separated from her no longer.

Then, when the time came, he'd have pulled his perfect bride -- his brown-haired lass, still adorned in her wedding gown with a mischievous smirk and heaving bosom and bright eyes -- into the Laird's room. 

A room that was his. 

Not at an inn with a dozen coarse Highlanders pressing their ears to the door. And not this soulless place that was only the placeholder until they knew where home would eventually be. 

Such discussions had had to wait. The thirteen weeks since their arrival in 1946 had been enough to keep Jamie's head constantly spinning. Those first few days -- the constant dread that accompanied their arrival and Jamie's imprisonment, then their confrontation with Frank -- had truly been the worst of them. But the ensuing weeks, filled with endless learning and discovery and preparation, had still left him weary.

True to his word, Frank Randall had received and returned the divorce papers with such haste Jamie had wondered how the man even had time to sign them at all. Which meant that, five weeks after coming through the stones, Claire was free for Jamie to claim once more. But it wouldn't be that simple. 

Of course not.

Before he could call Claire "wife" in this time, Jamie had to exist on paper in 1946. A nerve-wracking process of interviews with officials in Edinburgh that turned Jamie's wame just to think about. 

The sweat building on his forehead as he explained that, being born to a poor family in a remote village, his birth had never been properly registered. 

His fingers tapping a staccato rhythm against the side of his knee as he confessed, no, he hadn't served in the recent war, eliciting a scornful huff from the official taking notes behind his desk. 

Jaw clenching as Mrs. Graham beside him, prim and cordial, corroborated his background and vouched for his character as he petitioned for the documents that would breathe life into his new identity. 

In the end, after ten grueling weeks of applications and meetings and fees and inquisitions, the brown envelope had arrived. James Alexander Malcolm Mackenzie Fraser, born May 1, 1921 in Broch Mordha read the information on his new birth certificate and passport. 

That very day, after Claire had wrapped him in an embrace that erased every shadow of self-doubt, they'd made their way toward the courthouse. Jamie couldn't have said in that moment which of them was more eager to get down to the business of remarrying. But as they approached the outer doors, her steps had slowed and stopped, her grasp on his hand pulling him to do the same. Blue eyes met amber, then, and they'd known.

Known that, this time -- without threat of capture and harm driving them to haste, without the specter of a faraway husband weighing down Claire's spirit -- they'd wanted to do it proper. In a church, in his Fraser tartan, Claire in a dress she chose herself. And Mrs. Graham at their side, their one loyal ally amidst it all. 

Tomorrow, after another two weeks of rushed planning, proper it would be. 

Hence why, the last several nights, he'd found himself drawn to Lallybroch in his dreams. A second marriage -- to the same woman, forbye, but his second wedding regardless -- and still that hope to bind himself forever to the woman who possessed his soul upon the land that lived in his blood was not to be.

Jamie tried not to dwell on it too much. For all their planning and fussing over it, the place and time and garb didn't truly matter. All that mattered was, by afternoon tomorrow, Claire would once again be known as Fraser. His bairn would have a name here, one of which he hoped it would be proud. One he'd bring honor to again.

With that assurance settling his soul, he closed his eyes, sighed deeply as he pulled his past and future bride closer to him, and drifted back to sleep. 

 

#

 

After weeks wearing (and cursing) the constricting garments of this the twentieth century, Jamie breathed a sigh of relief to finally be back in his own family's colors again. Weeks ago, Mrs. Graham had secreted him to a local weaver who, after careful inspection of Jamie's worn plaid, had declared he could indeed reproduce the pattern. Mrs. Graham had had to pull Jamie from the shop, reluctant as he was to leave his beloved tartan -- the one bit of his own life, his time, still afforded to him -- in the hands of a stranger. 

But standing here now, admiring himself in the mirror (with his original safely tucked away in the wardrobe), Jamie admitted it had been worth it. The new tartan -- crisp and clean without unknown quantities of blood, mud, and other contaminants dulling its hue -- matched to perfection. Standing in his own boots and the new white shirt and jacket Mrs. Graham had helped him purchase -- reminiscent of his own attire but updated so as to fit in Claire's time -- with his sword and dirk hanging from his waist, Jamie felt like himself for the first time since climbing the hill of Craigh na Dun months ago. 

Claire had left the flat just after eight that morning. Mrs. Graham had tried to insist she stay at the manse the night before the wedding, though Claire had staunchly refused, stating that she would not put Reggie in the position of hosting his friend's ex (and believed adulterous) wife. In reality, Jamie knew she didn't want to leave him on his own yet. He was grateful. Just existing in this time still spun his head, and he was glad to not muddle his way through a day and night without her to lead him just yet. 

So instead, she'd compromised and arranged to meet Mrs. Graham at Baird's inn that morning to dress and prepare. 

"And," Mrs. Graham had added to Claire in a conspiratorial yet conspicuous whisper last night before departing, "to build the tension for yer man 'fore the ceremony, ken?"

Now, suffering Claire's absence a mere four hours, the longest since his days spent in the Inverness jail, the woman's words had proven themselves true. 

Christ, he was marrying his Sassenach. Again. Even knowing she was already his before God, his beyond the words and laws of men, his stomach writhed in anticipation.

With only an hour until he was set to become a husband anew, Jamie began the half-hour walk toward the kirk on the outskirts of town, having mapped the route diligently in his mind. Clouds obscured the mid-July sun as he marched through town. Even as he garnered more than one curious glance with his plaid swinging behind him and his hand resting upon his sword -- Yer still right about the blades, Sassenach, but if I'm to wed ye again, I'll wed ye as a Highlander true -- he found that the stares couldn't dampen his mood. Today was about one thing: taking Claire to bride. And, to him, this was but the next step in his assimilation. 

Today, he'd be her partner in name. And he'd spend the rest of his days working to be worthy of such an honor.

By one o'clock, Jamie stood at the altar, fingers tapping against the hilt of his sword. The priest waited beside him, and Mrs. Graham sat in the front pew, grinning like a child with a secret. Preternatural silence vibrated in the room as they waited. Then the door opened. 

He swore he died that moment. 

The dress flowed over her body like moonlight on water. Silver with floral embroidery creeping over the bodice to dissipate over her hips, delicate tendrils that seemed to move just like a vine in the breeze. Sheer sleeves just hugged the curves of her shoulders. A satin ribbon gathered the fabric just beneath her chest, allowing the skirt to flow loosely to her mid calf. And under it, the small but growing mound of his child -- their child -- made itself just barely known behind the bouquet of wildflowers clasped in her hands. Only a few curls fell around her face, the rest pinned atop her head with small white buds stuck in to adorn her. Her silver shoes -- heels, he intoned to himself -- clacked against the floor as she made her way toward him. 

By the time she finally reached him, his heart had started again. Heat and moisture rose to his eyes, and he leaned in to kiss her briefly, eliciting a kindly ahem from the priest. 

Claire pulled away, eyes crinkled in delight. "I thought you'd done this once before, soldier. Shouldn't you know the order of events?"

A laugh bubbled from his lips before the emotion rendering his heart raw overtook him again. He shook his head in wonder. "When we did this before, and I saw ye in yer dress," he breathed, too low for the priest to hear as he traced her cheek with his thumb, "I didna think I'd ever seen ye so bonny. I told ye true that night: 'twas like the first sunshine after a cold, gray winter, Sassenach. It warmed me to my backbone.

"And yet here before me, I find that yer even more beautiful than I remember. So much so I ache wi' how much I love ye."

Beaming, Claire swiped at the solitary tear that dropped from the corner of her eye before brushing her knuckles against his jawline. "You're one to talk," she whispered. Her eyes closed as she leaned forward, and Jamie met her halfway, their foreheads pressed together. "To see you here, Jamie, in Fraser colors...you take my breath away."

Forgetting for just a moment where they were and why, Jamie held her this way for a dozen heartbeats. One hand cupping her neck, the other resting against her waist. The air they shared cloaked them in tender communion. Only the priest's renewed grunts broke them apart, both grinning sheepishly, to get on with the main event. Claire reached over, giving his fingers an excited squeeze, before they both turned toward the altar. 

In many ways, this ceremony mirrored their first. Traditional vows followed by the Gaelic ceremony that bound them by blood. There were, however, noticeable differences. Claire, for one, looked radiant and joyous. Lovely and in love. He still remembered her face that first time, lips trembling and eyes downcast in despair. She hadn't wanted him, then. 

But he had no doubts about what she wanted now. 

They ended on a kiss, just as before. Mrs. Graham held a camera to capture the moment, and the click of the machine barely registered as the feel of Claire's lips upon his -- now as his wife, truly, again -- drowned out all other sensation. Greedy and giddy, he pulled her closer and continued the kiss, his lips arcing in a delirious smile against her own. One hand cradled her head, the other held the bump where their child resided. 

This was his world, resting beneath the palms of his hands. And, for all the trouble they'd taken to reach this point, it felt so very much like arriving home after a long, tiring journey. 

Warm. Safe. And complete. 

 

#

 

"It reminded me of the first dress, ye ken," Jamie murmured against her neck hours later. They lay skin to skin, her curls covering his face and his arms wrapped around her body. One palm rested atop their child, much more prominent now that he'd stripped her naked and lay with her in the growing dark. 

Her chest shook with a chuckle. "It was meant to," she whispered back, and he felt her lips press against the crown of his head. "Do you have a favorite between them?"

"Nah," he answered immediately, turning to rest his chin on her breastbone and cast his eyes up toward hers. "They were both expressions of ye, mo nighean donn, and I loved them each for different reasons."

"Oh really? And what would those be?"

Soft fingers combed through his curls and massaged his scalp. Jamie closed his eyes and pressed his cheek against her bosom. A sound that may have been a purr hummed from his chest. 

"The first," he began, voice low and lazy, "e'en though ye didna pick it yerself, was everything I coulda hoped my bride would choose to wear for me someday." He paused, weighing his words. "Ye didna love me that day, Sassenach, but I did you. And I wanted ye to have some finery that maybe, when ye looked back, it wouldna all be about what you were runnin' from. And to see ye in such a fine gown, wi' the plants growin' all o'er it...I hoped it felt true to ye. And I hoped it made ye feel special, Claire, and precious."

She lifted him by the chin, pressing her already swollen lips to his in a gentle kiss, tongue probing for more. Gentle melted into urgent, her tongue dipping into his mouth as his own rose to meet it. As his hands came up to frame her face, she pushed against his shoulders until he rolled and she floated to straddle him, fingers clutching at his curls as their breathing sped and their skin flushed. 

"And the second?" she asked, voice husky as her body pressed against him from above. 

Thinking of her in that new dress, now crumpled just inside the door with his kilt, brought forth a groan of desperation from his throat. Claire smiled against his lips as she pulled back just an inch. He followed, searching for her. 

But she wanted an answer. 

"The second, ye wicked besom," Jamie growled, laying his head back against the pillow, "I loved because ye chose it, mo chridhe."

"Come, now," she said, teasing him with kisses along the length of his neck, across his collarbone to the opposite shoulder. "There must be more to it than that."

Just breathing now became an active effort as his fingers gripped her hips, anchoring her center against him. Warmth so inviting his whole body shivered in anticipation of it. When he spoke, his words were hardly a whisper. "But ye chose it for me, Sassenach." Impatient hands guided her to move against him as he continued. "'Twas further proof that, this time 'round, ye were already mine before the priest had anythin' to say about it."

Jamie gasped as Claire reached down and gripped him. She held him for a breathless moment before fitting them together with matching sighs of relief. She lay her forehead against his, rocking slowly as the color rose over her chest and cheeks. 

"Were you ever in doubt?" The breeze of her breath enlivened him, brushing over his face as they moved together, bodies and voices speaking to each other in tandem. 

"Nae." A hungry growl tore from him then without thought, instinct and desire causing him to regress near unto beasthood. "Ye were mine and I was yours from near the moment I met ye. But 'tis a comfort all the same to have the proof that ye ken it, too."

"I do, Jamie." Ah, Dhia, the sounds she made as the sensation built in her. Her promise to him came on the crest of a choked sob. "I am yours."

Animal need consumed him. Jamie flipped them so his Claire lay beneath him, his fingers still clutching her close as he returned the vow to her in his own shuddering tone.

"And I'm yers, mo graidh."

Later, as Claire slumbered beside him, Jamie lifted his right hand into the air above his head. He marveled at how the moonlight glinted from the silver band he now wore to reflect the ring he'd fashioned from his own key and bestowed upon her years ago. Wearing such an adornment should've felt...foreign. Yet somehow, it didn't. Already it was a piece of him as much as the woman who'd placed it upon him. 

Finally, he felt sleep take him over. Misty visions of Claire danced before his eyes, of the child she carried, of the ones yet to come. Of all he would teach them, the life he would grow and nurture alongside his wife. Every wish for their future, his sleeping mind whispered to God.

All night long, he dreamed of home.

Chapter Text

Jamie found himself before the hearth this time, staring into the empty grate. The quiet of the house again weighed upon him. Even his own breaths failed to disturb the air around him, as though he himself barely existed at all.

He sighed, sad eyes surveying the space. Jamie dreaded these nighttime sojourns to Lallybroch, all the more for the lucidity, the knowing that these visitations were but pale imitations of the life that had thrived within these walls. The house wasn't what he missed, truly. But the people with whom he'd shared the space, the memories that had been born there. In waking, he'd refused to look into Lallybroch's history or step upon its lands. It belonged to those he loved, living their lives there elsewhere in the maze. 

Turning, he took slow, even steps toward the laird's study and stepped in. Never before had it looked quite like this, as though it were a room on display. Bookshelf pristine, desk neat and organized, ledgers stacked tidily in the very center. His father's pipes sat, unblemished, upon the mantel. They looked like they'd never once been lit and enjoyed. 

Regret churned his stomach as he reached up, his fingertips mere inches from the spines of the books on the shelf, not daring to touch. Worried that if he went to make contact, he'd feel nothing but empty air. He didn't think his heart could take it. 

Inspecting the spines, his eyes halted on the worn binding of the family Bible. An all-consuming urge to lift it from its resting place and flip through its delicate pages overtook him, an itch he dared not sate. 

Yet he stared at it. Yearning to hear the creak of the stiff binding opening, to smell the age of it, run his fingers over the smooth pages his father had also cherished. This was to be an heirloom, passed down through the Fraser line, documenting the ever-diverging paths of their family tree. Jamie wondered what secrets it would reveal from the last two hundred years. 

Or, worse, would it suddenly end, his own line presumably cut short and Jenny's...

No, Jenny was safe. Ian and Fergus and all the bairns were safe. Claire had prepared them. And without Jamie there to attract unwanted English attention, there was no reason to fret. 

But to know for sure...to check the front and see record of the nieces and nephews born after his departure, the ones he'd never meet. Just to know their names, that they'd come into this world and lived well, kept the halls of his ancestral home thrumming with life and noise...

Temptation gnawed at him like a vulture, feeding on him, breaking him down and cleaning him of every ounce of resistance. With each silent heartbeat, he felt his resolve waver. Without his permission, Jamie's arm rose from his side, wrist limp and hand dangling. Jamie willed his arm to still, for his feet to carry him away. But his fingers stretched, reaching for the black spine with the fading letters. 

No, he tried to cry out. But no sound came from his lips. The house stood around him as soundless and vacant as ever, even as the struggle within him grew violent. 

The moment his fingers grazed the cover, he snapped awake. Just like every other time. To lay his hands upon that world, to touch it seemed to expel him from it. Tonight, he was grateful. 

It was his second dream in as many weeks since he'd married Claire again. She knew of his dreams, of course, and always regarded him with extra concern and tenderness when she woke to find him agitated and exhausted. Never did her sympathies vex him, though. Just as when they'd first met, when he'd allowed her to witness the carnage of his back, Jamie understood the nature of Claire's heart and knew that pity played no part in her reaction. Only care and love and a wish to ease his suffering. 

A fatigued groan rumbled from his chest as he turned to his side to gather Claire into his chest. Holding her close, smelling her hair, he closed his eyes and prayed for a dreamless slumber.

 

#

 

"Over my dead body, Sassenach."

Despite the words themselves, Claire grinned, her mischievous smirk meeting his own. "Why not?" she asked. "You seemed mightily curious when I first told you about planes before."

"Aye," he responded. His elbows rested against the edge of the pub table, his hands folded before him as he insisted in a playful tone, "Back when they were as much a myth to me as the stones themselves. No' when I thought ye may try to drag me onto one."

Claire rolled her eyes and popped a chip in her mouth. The three and a half weeks since they'd remarried had been nothing short of dreamlike. With their legal troubles behind them and enough of her own money to live on comfortably until they figured out their next steps, they'd taken the time to simply relax and enjoy each other. For the first time since the days spent at Lallybroch before the Rising, they could simply exist with each other without some larger threat hanging over them. 

It had been intoxicating. 

They'd chosen to stay in Inverness, opting out of a traditional honeymoon. Both were too exhausted from the past months' constant errand-running and planning to do much more than stroll about town or -- most days -- not leave their flat. 

But as their one-month anniversary approached, they both knew it was time to figure out where they would build their life together. To find a path for Jamie to follow. Plan for their futures -- hers, his, and wean's. Such was the pet name Jamie had bestowed upon their child when he whispered to it in the early morning or prayed over it before drifting to sleep. 

Just thinking of wean now coaxed an easy smile across her face. She caressed her now-apparent bump fondly as she thought about their doctor's appointment earlier that day. 

 

Jamie had been nervous about the appointment; that much was clear from the impassive mask he adopted as soon as they entered the exam room. The nurses' reactions had ranged from curious to affronted that he'd accompany her into the room -- 'don't you know what will be happening in there?' they all seemed to cry out. But following the tragedy of losing Faith, neither of them wanted to be separated for a moment of this pregnancy. Claire wanted him near, his very presence a balm against the sometimes crushing weight of anxiety that something would happen to this child, as well.

Waiting in the room, she tried to prepare him for what was to come. Still, as the doctor entered and, after minimal conversation, set about the brief yet uncomfortable portion of the exam, Claire nearly laughed to see her husband's wide eyes trained on the ceiling, ears and neck red as he strained to keep himself in check. 

After the pelvic exam concluded and (to Claire's continued amusement) Jamie could peel his eyes from the ceiling, the doctor assessed mother's and baby's vitals and asked a few questions before assuring them that all was on track. As he stood to depart, Claire motioned for him to halt. 

"Doctor," she asked, uncertain for the first time. "I wondered if it would be possible for Jamie to...to hear the heartbeat." Jamie's eyes widened, whether at the suggestion or the possibility, Claire wasn't certain. 

Both with Faith and with this second child, she'd had the privilege of feeling her children move and grow in her, nurturing them with her own strength, experiencing the near-indescribable sensation of her body's cohabitants dancing within her own skin. Jamie could only experience these things from the outside, as a bystander. In the eighteenth century, that's all he'd have ever been capable of sharing in. 

But here, perhaps there was just a bit more Jamie could partake in with her. 

Dr. Stalworth, an older gentleman, had been all business the entire appointment. His stern face and eternally furrowed bushy gray eyebrows gave him the aura of a particularly disgruntled troll, she'd mused after first setting eyes upon him. Claire half expected a scoff and a dismissal. Instead, his face relaxed and a kindly smile spread over his lips. From grump to grandpa in three seconds flat. 

"What do ye say, then, Dad?" he asked in his gruff voice as he crossed to the cupboards, reading the answer already from the look of terrified awe on Jamie's face. 

She gave her husband an encouraging smile as he looked toward her, trailing her fingers along his forearm. "Aye," he answered to the doctor's turned back.

"Hmm," the man said, as he looked back over his shoulder. "Dinna get many fathers in exam rooms. Much less wantin' tae hear the inner workin's." Neither Fraser answered, only waiting, and Dr. Stalworth shrugged. "'Tis a shame, really. Nothin' quite like listenin' to 'em when they're still hidden away as they are."

The older man then pulled out the stethoscope he'd used himself to monitor the baby's heart only moments ago. With eyebrows raised in invitation, he held the earpieces out for Jamie to take. With a look to Claire, Jamie accepted them and, imitating the doctor from before, stuck them in his ears. 

"May take a second tae find," Dr. Stalworth said as he placed one of the flat circular disks back on Claire's belly. "Tell me tae stop when ye hear it."

The doctor began at the same spot he'd found the baby before. Keeping an eye on Jamie's face, creased in concentration, the doctor slowly began to move the instrument to different nearby spots. 

Claire knew the moment he heard it. The lines between his eyes deepened as he listened harder, as though unsure what the sound was. After only two of her own heartbeats, though, his head snapped up, and his wide, disbelieving eyes met hers. 

"That's him, then?" he breathed, his two hands pressing the pieces deeper into his ears. Tears flooded her eyes, and Claire just nodded, not wanting to detract from the moment by speaking. 

Only once had Claire seen such unbridled joy on his face before: when she'd told him she was pregnant with Faith. In that moment, a dream mourned had come back to life for them both. But he'd never gotten to touch Faith or hold her. See her, even. And Claire knew, even with this their second child coming so soon, their dream was still just that for Jamie. Something still not quite real, something he knew to be true but still purely theoretical. Even the occasional kick he got to feel against her belly were but hints of what was, honest to God, a growing life beneath her heart. 

But to listen with his own ears to the life blood that pumped through his child's veins...she knew this made it so much more immediate for him. Their child was alive.

"'Tis so fast," Jamie gasped through a laugh, cheeks wet with tears. "Christ, for ye to be so tiny, wean, and yet ye sound so strong..." Jamie's hand sought hers, grasping it tightly as he closed his eyes to relish the sound, memorize it. Claire allowed him this moment alone, to cherish their child in a way unique to him.

Reluctantly, he pulled the buds from his ears and handed them back to the doctor. As Dr. Stalworth turned to clean and put the instrument away, Claire pulled her husband toward her for a deep kiss. Her fingers swiped away the moisture from his cheeks, her lips planting small kisses on the tip of his nose and to his forehead before he stood again and composed himself. 

She knew he'd carry that sound with him for the rest of his days. 

 

Leaving the doctor's office, they'd meandered about town for a while, neither content to go sit at home after such a joyous experience. They'd embraced the cooling late summer weather as they wandered about the city. By dusk, both famished, they'd entered a pub and ordered what had become Jamie's favorite supper these last few weeks: fish and chips and beer. She always delighted in watching him scarf down the salty, greasy fare, and tonight was no different.

And here they now sat, squeezed into a tiny table by the front window of the pub as the light of day faded and the crowd around them grew. Only crumbs and a few scraps, now cold, sat on their plates as conversation turned to their next steps.

"There are other ways to get to the rest of Europe or even America, if that's where we wanted to go," Claire insisted, taking a brief swig from Jamie's mug. "But a plane is fastest. So even if your stomach didn't agree, it would only be for a day, not weeks or months."

Jamie shook his head, a lighthearted glint shining from his blue eyes that failed to detract from the firmness of his declaration. "No, Sassenach," he repeated, leaning forward on his elbows resting on the table. "Far be it for me to defy the will of God should he decide my time on earth is done, but at least on a horse or a ship, I have myself a fightin' chance should the worst come to pass. But I dinna think I want to be ridin' in that contraption should the Lord decide he doesna wish to hold it aloft any longer. 'Tis no' the death I'd want for myself, Sassenach."

Claire pursed and bit her lips to stop from laughing at the sudden solemnity behind his eyes. But as he squeezed them shut and shook his own head at himself, she cackled without restraint. Grinning ear to ear, Jamie balled up one of the napkins on the table and threw it at her, hitting her squarely on the nose. 

"Aye, laugh at me, ye wicked besom. 'Tis a wonder I took ye for a wife...twice!" 

Gasping for breath, Claire leaned back in her chair. Through gulps of air, she retorted, "'Tis a wonder...you survived...without me until you could. With as many times as I've stitched you up, I doubt you could afford my services were I not your duty-bound wife." Shaking her head in mock consternation, she added, "You'd be highly in debt, for sure."

Redness spread through his cheeks, face crinkled in mirth. He stood from his seat abruptly, leaning across their tiny circular table to take Claire's lips with his own. Pulling away after half a dozen pounding heartbeats, he murmured against her lips, "When I get ye back home, mo nighean donn, we'll see just how I go about payin' that debt, aye?" He pecked her cheek before sitting back down.

Despite herself, Claire felt a blush rising over her chest and face. "Well, wherever we want to be," she said, returning to the topic at hand, "we either need to decide and get moving quickly," Claire said as she swallowed the last cold morsels of her own food, "or be content to wait till the baby's born. Wherever we go, I have no desire to be on a boat, train, or plane and setting up a new home while eight and nine months pregnant."

As she licked the salt from her fingers, Jamie's eyes darkened sharply, his gaze trained on her mouth. 

"Jamie?" she said, pulling him from his trance. She raised a solitary eyebrow as he met her eyes with his own. 

"Sorry, Sassenach," he murmured, voice rumbling. He leaned forward so only she could hear his words. "But ye canna expect to have a productive conversation when yer doin' such...lustful things wi' yer lips like that." The corner of his own mouth twitched upwards, eyes intent upon her, equal parts teasing and desirous. 

Heat shot through her core at his words, anticipation stealing her breath. But they still had a decision to make, and she was determined to make it. "Well, I suppose since I want to have a productive conversation, I should go wash my hands properly, then." Without waiting to hear his response Claire climbed from her chair and headed toward the back washroom. She didn't miss the dissatisfied Scottish hmph behind her and, knowing precisely where he'd now be looking as she walked away, put a bit of a sashay into her step. As much as she could while edging through the crowded room, anyway.

Minutes later, Claire emerged, sighing to see that somehow the crowd had grown even thicker and louder. Once she reached Jamie again, she decided, it would be time to call it a night. 

With one hand shielding her belly and one elbow breaking through the swarms of people, Claire began the trek back to their table. Only three steps from the washroom door, though, she found one large body firmly blocking her path. 

"Excuse me, sir," she said, trying to creep around him. 

The man turned, greasy hair falling in his face as he looked her up and down. "Have we met before, darlin'?" he asked, turning to face her but not moving aside, as though settling in for a conversation.

Annoyed, in no mood to play along, Claire renewed her attempts to scoot by without a response.

"Och, I ken it now," the man said as he placed his hand on her arm, sending shivers down her spine. "Yer the runaway wife, then? Ran off wi' ano'er man, ye did. Yer photo was plastered all o'er town for months, wasn't i'?"

She sighed. Of course, many still recognized her as the former Mrs. Randall. Word had spread of the supposed sequence of events, and the news of her second marriage had also became semi-public knowledge in the small city of Inverness.  Since then, Claire had often found herself the subject of scathing disapproval from the women and lascivious glares from the men. 

A harlot to one and all. 

Frustration mounted in her as she pulled her arm from the man's grasp. "Excuse me," she repeated, stepping to the side to go around. But he moved to stand in her way, swaying heavily as he did so.

The volume of the room gave him an excuse to lean over and whisper next to her ear. "Well, I figure if ye'd run off and fuck one Scotsman, mebbe yer up for ano'er, then?" Cold dread trailed down her back as he grabbed her forearm, this time with a tight grip. 

"You're mistaken," Claire stated sternly, tugging her arm. She couldn't free it from his grasp, though, as he pulled her close against him. 

"C'mon, sweetheart," he breathed against her cheek as Claire struggled to turn and pull away, "Ye can have my bastard next, hmm?"

His rank breath made her gag as he leaned in to place a sloppy kiss against her cheek. Pressure in her chest sped her breathing, and her pulse pounded in her ears. She tried to call out Jamie's name, but she couldn't find the air to do so. A harsh hand grabbed at her face and turned her towards him as he made for another kiss. 

It never landed.

Claire found herself freed from her assailant, stumbling backward as her efforts to get away were suddenly unimpeded. Then Jamie's arms were around her, encasing her in security as he used his size to muscle their way through the crowd. 

"Och, come now, lad," the man cried out as they approached the door. "Fair's fair, ken? Ye've had yer fun. Let the o'er fellas have a go at her, eh?"

Clinging to him as tightly as she was, Claire felt the vibrations of his muscles as Jamie physically restrained himself from pivoting on the spot to pummel the man behind them. But even that paled in comparison to the wave of nausea that overtook her as, before they made their way into the brisk night air and the door closed behind them, multiple booming laughs met her ears. 

They didn't exchange a word the entire way back to the flat, but Jamie's arms never left her, one arm tucking her into his side as the other clasped her hand the entire four blocks home. Not even a second after they arrived, door locked safely behind them, Jamie pulled her fully into his chest. Only then did she feel how hard she was shaking. 

Silence floated around them as he rubbed his palms up and down her arms before capturing both her chilled hands in his. He kissed her knuckles, his lips lingering before embracing her once more, soft Gaelic streaming from his lips as he held her. Minutes ticked by as they stood this way, both calming from the events in the pub. 

They'd stayed in Inverness far too long, held in place by uncertainty of what came next and their friendship with Mrs. Graham. Even one friendly face amidst a town of foes felt somehow better than braving an entirely new terrain surrounded only by neutral strangers. When Claire finally broke away and looked into his eyes, taut with anger and sorrow, she lifted her hand to his face. She knew then, and he probably did too. 

As she stroked his face, allowed her heart to slow, she took a deep breath before whispering, "It's time to leave."

 

#

 

He recognized this stretch of forest. As a bairn, Jamie had played here often with Willie and Ian, Jenny usually trailing behind. Sunlight dappled through the thick tree cover, patches of bright overcast sky visible through the dense leaves. Jamie walked, his footsteps crunching. 

Moving over the familiar landscape, though, Jamie felt oddly constricted. He looked down at himself. Grey slacks, brown leather shoes, his own hat held in his right hand at his side. The thick white Oxford-style shirt the men of his new time wore. Hardly the kilt he'd run amok in as a bairn and surely not the most practical clothing for a stroll through the woods, but he supposed it would do. 

Walking through the trees, Jamie knew he was dreaming, as he always did. But this one was different. His other visits to Lallybroch had been so cold, empty, still. All senses robbed of him. He'd felt lifeless in each one, like a ghost with only the barest of connections with the environment surrounding him. Standing as he'd been within his own walls or on his own land, it had felt unnatural. Sound and smell didn't exist. Touch tore him away. 

But now, birdsong serenaded him. The wind whistled through ears and ruffled his hair. Beams of sunlight, fighting through the cloud cover, made him squint, and a chill in the air raised goosebumps along his skin. That beautiful scent of wood and heather rolled over him, and Jamie inhaled until he thought his lungs would burst as though starved for it. Perhaps he was. These last months spent in the future, in the city had drained him of that essential earthiness that embodied his homeland. Jamie soaked it in now, even if it was only within the realm of dream. 

And then, there were voices. Only snatches of them, far away as he was, but Jamie followed as best he could, hardly breathing as he strained to pick up the sound once more. Then finally, a shrill shout brought him up short. 

"Ta mère a couché avec des cochons, et tu étais le faible!"

Your mother slept with pigs, and you were the runt!

Fergus!

Jamie nearly laughed to hear Fergus's taunts, picking up his pace to find the son of his heart among the woods. Was he exploring with the McNabb lad, then, traversing the land as Jamie himself once had? Surely he wouldn't speak to any of his cousins that way, implying such a thing of Jenny, even in jest.

The giddiness died on his lips as a smarmy English accent assailed his ears. 

"Mind your tongue, you dirty frog!" 

Jamie stopped short, muscles clenched in sudden dread. Only one English voice belonged at Lallybroch. Frantic, Jamie sprinted down the path, following the sounds like a dog with a scent. 

"You are harassing us!" Fergus's sharp tone reached him, deeper than he remembered. "You've torn apart the house and searched the land a hundred times. When will you get it through your thick heads that they are not here?" These last words, the boy choked out on a sob. 

Vague sounds of a scuffle close by finally brought Jamie to the scene. Ice cold horror washed over him. 

Three Redcoats stood around a solitary Fergus, two holding him by the arms. He was thin, taller than when Jamie had sent him away from Culloden. But that cocky set to his shoulders, defiant chin raised in a way that had always reminded him so vividly of Claire he could almost believe Fergus was theirs by blood...that was the same. 

"Hold the bastard down!" one red-faced soldier cried as a second wrestled Fergus to the ground. "Hold his arm!" 

The next moments happened in slow motion. The second Redcoat extended Fergus's thrashing arm as the third, eyes cast around doubtfully, sat on his chest after only the briefest hesitation. And the loudest Redcoat, sweat rolling down his nose and eyes manic, unsheathed his sword. 

Jamie should have moved. But he couldn't. Terror flooded his veins as the shadow of the rising blade fell across Fergus's face, his young eyes widening with realization. 

'Tis a dream, Jamie chanted to himself, willing himself to awaken from this nightmare, unable to tear his gaze away. 'Tis just a dream. Wake up. 

Details danced before his eyes, crisp and discrete. The mad grimace on the Redcoat's face as his arm began to swing back downward. The leaf that had fallen on the back of the soldier bracing Fergus's arm, green on red. A horse snorting, unconcerned with the violence happening only two steps away. Fergus's body stilling as though frozen. 

In seeming slow motion, the sword arced through the air. Jamie gasped to watch it, and Fergus's face snapped toward him. Jamie's ice blue eyes met Fergus's deep green. In the final breath before metal met flesh, the lad's face went slack, mouth gaping, eyes bright and hopeful with recognition. 

Then there was red. Then black. And they were both screaming. 

Chapter Text

Claire lay restless in bed for hours after Jamie finally dozed off. Following the commotion of the pub and the quiet moments of mutual calming upon returning home, they'd climbed into bed and held each other in the dark. Waiting for sleep to take them, vague plans carried over whispers began to take shape. They'd leave for Edinburgh by week's end. Likely, Edinburgh would present similar problems; while Claire's story was not front-page news there as it was in Inverness, word trickling in was an uncomfortable possibility. But there, they would have some breathing room to plan, and their child may still be born on Scottish soil before they made their home elsewhere. 

Jamie's eyes had drifted shut long ago, his breathing even and deep. Still, Claire's mind wouldn't settle. With Jamie's arms wrapped around her, his soothing comfort still echoing in her ears, she knew nothing could harm her. He'd keep her safe, as he always had. But in so many ways, the men in the pub reminded her of the worst kinds from the eighteenth century. Highland men who, whether gone with drink or sober as Sunday morning, viewed women as little more than playthings to use then condemn for what they themselves had done to them. 

The idea that that sort of depravity still lived in the hearts of men today -- perhaps men she'd healed, or men she'd gone to battle alongside -- felt unutterably devastating. 

Wide awake and staring at the dark ceiling well past the midnight hour, she noticed Jamie's body beginning to stir. Not to awaken, but as he often did in the midst of nightmare. Claire rolled to her side, placing her hand just above his heart. Sometimes, this was enough to calm him unconscious mind and ease him to more pleasant slumber. Putting just a bit of pressure behind her touch, she willed away the demons she could almost see plaguing him behind closed eyes. 

But he didn't stop. Head rolling back and forth on the pillow, brow furrowing, arms and legs twitching. Soft whimpers pierced her heart as his eyes squeezed tighter. 

"It's okay, Jamie," she whispered into his ear, moving her hand to cup his cheek, thumb caressing him. Her heart ached for the pain he still carried and likely would never be rid of until his dying day. Prayers for peace to descend upon his mind filled her, and her stroking hand never ceased.

Many nights, she'd held him this way, her soul crying out to his that he was safe, willing him to hear it and feel it. So many nights, she'd watched him struggle before either coming awake with heaving breaths or drifting off to milder dreams. 

Never in all the nights she'd spent with him had she heard him scream.

His shouts boomed in her ears and reverberated through the room. Claire sat up straight, hands crushing against either side of her head. Shock and terror flooded her. Panicked thoughts fell upon her like quickening raindrops, one after the other. Should she wake him? In this state, would he hurt her without meaning to if she tried? But surely she couldn't leave him as he was, straining hard enough that the tendons on his neck were taut and bulging, eyes clenched shut, still howling.

In the space of just a few seconds, though, it didn't matter. Jamie's eyes sprang open and, as his final cry faded from his lips, he jumped panting from bed and stood with his back to her. Trembling hands covered his face, shoulders quaking as his breaths wheezed from his lungs. 

"Jamie?" Claire kept her voice soft as she moved to stand before him. She placed her hands on either side of his neck, waiting for him to come back from whatever hell he was still seeing against his palms. "Jamie, love, you're safe."

She dared not inch any closer. Only the touch of her hands on his skin, usually enough to calm his heart. Now, though, the fingers sheltering his face still shook. 

Finally, after minutes of standing there, Jamie lowered his hands to hover in the air between them and looked into her eyes. Claire couldn't help the sharp intake of breath when she saw him. Tears shone on his cheeks. All the familiar emotions that followed his night terrors lurked behind his eyes. Pain, fear, furor, helplessness. 

But there was something else there. Something she couldn't put a finger on. 

"You're safe," she repeated, knowing that above all else, these were the words he needed to hear.

Droplets escaped the corners of his unseeing eyes as he shook his head. "Not safe." Syllables fell from his lips, cracking. She nearly flinched at the desolation in his voice.

"Yes, Jamie, you are--"

"No' me," he said, fingers closing around her forearms as she moved her hands to cradle his face. His hand contracted hard enough to bruise if he hadn't immediately eased to a lighter though still firm grip. "Fergus."

Surprise erased all thought from her mind before she narrowed her eyes in confusion. "Fergus? You dreamed about Fergus?" 

As he gulped and nodded, his horrified expression never changed. Hesitation only slowed him for a second before he detailed the nightmare that had brought him to this fragile place.

She never let go of his face. He never released her arms. 

Understanding and sympathy flooded her as he reached the end. The picture he painted, even sanitized as she suspected it was for her own benefit, certainly explained his reaction, his continued distress. 

"I'm so sorry, Jamie," she whispered to him, touching her forehead to his. "That's just...horrible. But it's only a dream."

Still connected, he shook his head, his forehead rolling against hers. "No, Sassenach. It was..."

"I know," she cut him off before he could continue. Her grip on his face tightened with import. "I miss them all too, and I worry. And with what happened this evening, it's clear how it bled into your sleep, too."

Jamie huffed a sigh and grunted, a surefire sign of his mounting frustration. "No, that's no' what I meant." He pulled back from her, blue eyes swimming, plaintive and helpless. "'Twas no' just a dream, Sassenach. 'Twas real. I ken it."

"You've been dreaming of Lallybroch for weeks, Jamie," Claire reminded him, her fingers swiping across his cheekbones. "You still miss them, and with us leaving soon, it's no wonder th- -- what are you doing?"

Mid-sentence, he'd torn himself from her grasp and stalked to the chair in the corner. Claire watched with some mixture of hurt and annoyance as he began pulling on his trousers. 

"Jamie?"

"Get dressed." He tossed her the favorite blue dress from earlier that day, lazily deposited on the chair as they'd climbed into bed hours before. There was no malice in his voice, which had grown smooth once again, if distant. 

Catching the dress, Claire stared at it a moment before returning focus to her husband. "What are you doing?"

Halfway through the motion of sitting to put on his brown leather shoes, Jamie looked up at her through his red curls. And even in this chaotic moment, lit only by the moonlight through the open window, she was struck by the beauty of him, blue haze sharpening his features and giving him an ethereal glow.

His jawline twitched as he clenched his teeth together. Standing up, eyes imploring her to trust him, to listen, he reached out to graze his fingers over her arm. The hairs stood on end. 

"I need to show ye somethin', Claire."

 

#

 

The night air chilled her exposed face, a breeze teasing her unbound curls. Jamie hadn't relinquished her hand since grabbing it and dragging her from the flat, across the town square, and down six blocks, all without a word. Even as their destination grew ever clearer, it only befuddled her further so that by the time they paused before the Inverness police department, both gasping from the brisk pace as much as the anticipation, only stunned silence permeated the air between them. 

But Jamie glanced to her with a squeeze of his fingers that bade her again to trust him. A command she was powerless to resist. She nodded back, and he led her inside. 

Inspector Gordon wasn't present, but as the night-duty officer looked up and groaned at the sight of them, Claire chuckled. If Inverness's citizenry delighted in the scandal of the Frasers, Inverness law enforcement were simply exhausted by it. Unperturbed, Jamie walked up to the man behind the desk, either not noticing or wholly disregarding the wary look the tired official cast to them. 

"Mr. Fraser, Mrs..." The officer swallowed. "How can I help ye both tonight, then?"

"When ye were searchin' for Claire," Jamie dove right in, leaning forward on the desk with one hand and still clutching Claire's with his other, "ye had a broadsheet of a man wi' a reward."

The officer screwed his face up in confusion. His eyes cut to Claire then back to Jamie, as though biting his tongue in her presence. Something heavy flipped in her stomach at the look. 

"Yes," he answered slowly, as though unsure just what Jamie was asking. Claire felt much the same.

Jamie, though, only nodded. "I need one. Now," he added sternly. 

Chewing his lip, the officer crossed his arms. "I'm sorry, Mr. Fraser. Once the case was closed, we disposed o' most of the flyers involved. We only have a few left, archived in the basement."

Claire felt the irritation growing in her husband. She tightened her fingers around his for a moment before stepping up to imitate his posture, leaning against the desk with her other hand. "Well," she said, adopting a low, solemn tone, "considering we decided against retaining a lawyer to address Jamie's wrongful imprisonment, I think the least the Inverness police could do is find an old flyer for us." An arced eyebrow punctuated her statement, and the young officer muttered beneath his breath as he stood and disappeared behind a door. 

Jamie looked to her, a soft smirk playing across his lips. Despite the tension of the last several hours, Claire breathed a sigh of relief to see that spark of her husband return. 

"Thank ye, Sassenach." He pulled her close, then, holding their clasped hands between them as his opposite arm reached across her shoulders and held her against his chest. Protective. Possessive. Claire felt his lips press against the crown of her head, felt the force of his exhale as he calmed himself over the ensuing minutes. But beneath her cheek, his heart still pounded, a rapid drumbeat against his ribs. 

The officer finally returned and handed Jamie a single folded piece of paper. Claire didn't get a good look at it, but Jamie looked it over and nodded before leading her from the building without another word. 

He didn't speak, either, as he walked back toward their flat, and her impatience seemed to magnify with each step. By the time they reached the statue in the center of town square, deserted and dark, she pulled against his grasp. "Jamie," she said, her resistance causing him to turn. "What is going on?"

Nearly an hour had elapsed since he'd woken screaming and hauled her through the night without explanation. She wouldn't wait any longer for one.

Jamie must have read as much in her expression, and his eyes fell, shoulders sagged. The sigh that passed between his lips made hardly a sound, but she saw how his chest heaved then collapsed with it. He gestured with their joined hands for them to sit on the bench beside them.

Noises of night flooded her ears. Jamie gathered himself to speak, and Claire struggled against herself to let him. The wind picked up, and she tugged her coat tighter about her, free hand unconsciously drifting to her middle. And still, she waited. Even in the silence, they never relinquished each other's hands.

"When they were interrogatin' me," Jamie said finally, his voice impossibly small, "Inspector Gordon showed me this." He handed her the paper then, and Claire unfolded it. 

"This..." she breathed, not believing her eyes. "It's you."

He nodded. "Aye," he said, and his warm fingers squeezed her chilled ones as she brought the paper closer to her face. "He said Frank saw that man standin' outside yer window the night before ye disappeared."

At that, a memory stirred. Frank entering the room at the inn, soaked to the bone and rattled just as deeply. You look like you've seen a ghost, she'd said. With an expression of battling helplessness and wariness, he'd responded. 

I'm not all too sure I haven't.

"I remember that night," Claire said, eyes glued to the page before her. "He thought..." She swallowed. "He thought it was someone I may have met in the war. Someone who was...was looking for me once it was over. But there was no one." Even though it was long before she'd ever known that Jamie and his entire world awaited her, Claire looked up and begged him to believe her. "I didn't--"

"I ken, Sassenach," Jamie cut her off. He gestured back to the paper with his head, eyes locked with hers. "But the fact o' the matter is, Frank saw that man the night before ye went through the stones and gave the law a description of him days later. And...and he's clearly me."

Jamie looked away, then, eyes turned toward the empty street before them. "He showed this to me in that room, and every wall I'd built to withstand what was comin' just...crumbled around me." Remembered despondency flooded him as she watched, a vein jumping beneath his eye and his hand gripping hers even harder. 

Goosebumps prickled her skin. Claire handed the sheet back to Jamie, suddenly not wanting to touch it anymore. Her hand returned to her belly, rubbing it through her buttoned jacket as her brain worked overtime to connect the dots that still seemed completely disparate to her. 

"What does this have to do with your dream? And Fergus?" she asked, scooting closer to him. 

The muscle in Jamie's jaw twitched, his lips pressed together so as to be bloodless. Even in the dim light of the moon, Claire could see how pale he was, the thin sheen of sweat that dewed his forehead and chest. 

"I remembered," he whispered, still not looking at her. "The night they released me from the jail, I remembered. But wi' everythin' that followed that night and the next day, I just..." 

"Go on," Claire encouraged after Jamie's pause lengthened. 

A steely look of determination hardened his features, and he turned on the bench to face her. After folding and pocketing the flyer, he grasped both her hands in his, rubbing her fingers to warm them. "Do ye remember the night Gwyllyn came to Leoch?" he asked. "The night ye sat beside me and I translated the songs for ye?"

Every step of his explanation only seemed to draw her deeper into the dark of confusion. With this newest question, Claire found herself unmoored even further. "Yes. The day I healed Tammas Baxter."

"Aye," Jamie said, and a look of tender nostalgia melted the hardness of his features. "If ye hadna already held my heart by then, Sassenach, I would've given it to ye freely that day. To see the strength o' yer mind and heart both come to full life..." 

"Jamie, please," she begged. 

Composing himself, he nodded and twitched his lips into an apologetic half smile before sobering. "I climbed into my bed that night smilin', mo nighean donn, no' only from the time spent wi' ye, but..." Jamie cast his sheepish gaze toward their hands, his thumbs massaging her palms. "I kent ye were feelin' out of sorts that night, but then the longer we sat there, the happier ye grew, and I..." He grinned and met her eyes, then, with a look that brought heat spiraling through her chest. "I felt like ye were happier because of me.

"I went to sleep wi' joy in my heart that night, and I dreamed of ye, Sassenach." Jamie stood then, pulling Claire up beside him. He walked to the corner of the statue and touched one hand to the stone. "'Twas rainin', and I stood just here. And ye were there." 

He pointed then to a window across the way. The window of Mrs. Baird's inn. The window to the room she and Frank -- not she and Jamie -- had shared. 

Claire began to tremble. 

"I stood here," Jamie repeated, "and watched ye brushin' out yer curls, yellow light all around ye. I thought 'twas the light o' heaven shinin' on ye. I ken now it was just the electric lights." He chanced a glance at her before looking back to the window. 

"And ye were dressed, I remember, in sheer pink. It looked so soft I yearned to feel it beneath my fingers. A fanciful garment, aye, strange even. But 'twas a dream, ken. I assumed it was merely my own lustful longin' for ye that created such a beautiful sight. I was right fashed about it the next mornin'," Jamie added in a teasing lilt. "To think I'd had such indecent thoughts about a proper lady such as yerself...I couldna look at ye for days wi'out blushin'."

She only nodded, remembering the filmy pink nightgown and dressing robe. The set she'd bought in Oxford before the trip to Scotland, wanting something special for Frank to see her in...and not in. 

Jamie's words broke into her remembrance. "As I was standin' in the rain, starin' up at ye in awe, I heard footsteps behind me. And Randall's voice comin' closer." Claire felt the shiver that passed over him. It passed to her, too, like a static shock. "I didna ken why Randall would be in the dream. It just seemed like another oddity that didna bear too much thought. That, too, I understand better now." 

He turned fully toward her, his eyebrows drawn together so as to nearly meet above the bridge of his nose. "Claire...I dinna ken what or how or why, but...what I dreamed that night was real. And..." The way his lips trembled nearly undid her. "All my other Lallybroch dreams, they were empty, like I was the only bein' in existence. Or a ghost. The place was...lifeless and quiet. 

"But I watched what was happenin' to Fergus, and he heard me. He turned and he saw me, just like Frank did. And I'm terrified because I think that was real, too."

Speech still eluded her as the shivering increased to violent shudders. As though noticing for the first time, Jamie wrapped his arms around her, crushing her to him. Without another word, he guided them toward home, arm still laid across her shoulder, much as he had after leaving the pub. And she let him, his final words numbing her.

Claire remembered that night, indeed. How trapped she'd felt when her miraculous intervention to save Tammas's life, rather than helping her to escape, only tightened the shackles binding her to Leoch. She recalled the way she'd sulked, hope that she'd ever get home eroding more each passing second. 

And she remembered the fire that had ignited within her as Jamie translated the story of the Woman of Balnain to her. How the words had assured her that, yes, she could -- no, she would -- get back to her time, to Frank. 

As she'd renewed her schemes to return to Craigh na Dun, had something beckoned Jamie toward her on this side of the stones, giving him a glimpse of who she was before she ever considered what they were to each other? A warning, perhaps, of the life she was fighting to return to even as he surrendered his heart piece by piece to her? 

Then what about tonight? Why would his dreams, unsettling though tame as they'd been, suddenly shift? Was this another warning, a sign not to leave Inverness as they'd planned just that night? 

A sign that they were needed back home? 

 

#

 

His heart would surely burst if it didn't slow soon. But as Jamie pulled Claire, still sheltering within his embrace, into the flat, he found himself breathless and nearly dizzy with the speed of his pulse. Slowly, he released Claire and flipped on the light switch. They stood apart, no physical contact between them for the first time since their earlier departure. Lost in thought, the both of them.

Telling Claire about the broadsheet, about his dreams and what he now knew had to be the truth, had been freeing in a way. Unburdening himself to her always was. But the guilt remained. The guilt that, in the moment before Fergus's blood spattered the forest floor, Jamie hadn't moved. Hadn't spoken. Had done nothing to save his son. 

He could tell himself there was nothing to be done for it all he wanted. Even in his first dream of Claire, the one he'd just shared with her, touch was forbidden. Just like all the Lallybroch dreams. Though both Frank and Fergus had seen him, both times he was but an apparition hardly more tangible than light. Jamie knew this. 

In truth, he'd been paralyzed with fear, and that inaction would haunt him as would the atrocity he witnessed. The sight of Fergus's face growing pale, his green eyes screwed shut, the sound of his strangled sobs...it would never leave him. He doubted anything on this earth, even Claire, could ease him of the remorse, the shame for standing by and allowing it to happen, for not even trying.

Maybe he couldn't have saved Fergus. But maybe he could have. 

And maybe he could still. 

They hadn't spoken a word to each other. So as he turned to Claire now, took in her stricken face, his heart raced on.

"I have tae help him, Sassenach," he breathed. 

Whisky eyes snapped up to his, going round as her lips parted before clamping back together. Seeing the fight brewing behind her eyes, he rolled his shoulders up and back before squaring them again. "I must, Sassenach. I canna leave him--"

"'I'?" she cut him off, blood coloring her cheeks. "'I' have to help him?"

An entirely different pain ripped through him then. Knives coursed over every inch of him. Sharp points that grew more agonizing with each breath. In thinking of Fergus, he hadn't even considered what else that meant.

That he'd have to leave Claire. 

"Sassenach..." White-hot pressure built behind his eyes as he paused, unsure what to say next. 

She had no such dilemma. 

"If you think," she growled through gritted teeth, arms crossing over her chest, "for a second that you're leaving me here while you go back, I swear to God I will throttle you."

The declaration cut him as surely as the mere thought of parting from her did. He thought back to her words after they returned to Leoch after Fort William. 

I will cut your heart out and eat it for breakfast, James Fraser. 

Looking at her now, wind-tossed hair wild with pink cheeks and glassy, angry eyes, he believed she would, too. The fighting spirit within her that he alternatively cherished and loathed, depending on its target, radiated from her. Settled upon him. An all-too-familiar Fraser ire rose up in his own chest, heating his limbs and inflaming his mind. 

Taking half a step toward her, he narrowed his eyes. "Ye dinna expect me to laze about here, eatin' fish and chips and...and....learnin' to drive if there's a chance -- a single breath of a chance -- that I could save him, do ye?" 

"Of course not," she spat back at him, wrinkling her brow in distaste. Tall as Claire was, Jamie still towered over her, though one would never know it for how large she loomed in anger. 

"No, we have to help him," she added. "We must try."

Jamie shook his head, turning on the spot to pace away from her. "No, Sassenach."

"Jamie--"

"No!" It was hardly a word, more of a roar in the room, and he immediately regretted it. It only reddened her neck and face as she bit the inside of her cheek. With sharp, jerky motions, she unfolded her arms and stripped her coat off, letting it fall to the floor. 

Her lips parted as some heated insult or reprimand rose to them. In the moment before they found purchase, he crossed the room and took one of her fists, balled at her side, into his grasp. "Please listen to me, mo graidh," he begged. Indecision warred across her features, upper lip twitching. But she nodded. 

Jamie led her to the edge of the bed, and they sat. Before speaking, he grabbed her other fist as well, easing them open. She allowed him to intertwine their fingers, four hands woven together, a connection that helped him to release the anger. To focus on the calm, the love for her and fear that escaped him in the form of harshness. 

"Sassenach." He nearly choked on the word, pain and terror clawing at him. He regained control and started again. 

"Sassenach, 'tis no' safe for ye to go wi' me. Ye ken better than I, even, what came of Scotland after the Rising. 'Tis no safer for ye and the bairn there now than it was the day I tried to send ye back wi'out me. No' to mention the journey itself! We came through before, and ye were out cold for nigh on an hour. What will happen next time?" 

Inhaling a shaky breath, Jamie unlaced one hand to place on her stomach. "Mo nighean donn, there aren'a words to tell ye how much love there is in my heart for you and this child. Ye are both...miracles granted to me that I dinna ken what I did to deserve. I canna risk either of ye comin' to harm."

Stony faced and still flushed, Claire shook her head at him. Fury emanated from her features, her cheeks dry even as he fought to hold back the moisture fast overwhelming his lashes. "We've already almost made this mistake, Jamie," she whispered to him. "And it's only by the grace of God that we still have each other this very moment."

"Claire..."

"No," she said, laying one had over his still pressed into the swell of her that sheltered their child. "Where you go, we go."

"And what happens if yer hurt?" he demanded. "Or if we come across the Redcoats and they recognize one or the both of us? What of our child then?"

"How can you--" Jamie watched her throat work as emotion finally threatened to overpower her. "How can you think I'd sit here, twiddling my thumbs, not knowing if Fergus is alive, if you're alive, much less if we'll ever see you again?"

The knives returned, carving fresh trails across his skin. Christ, how many times must he be forced to give them up, each time worse than the previous? 

"Better wi'out a father than hurt or killed. Or--"

"And don't you dare utter the name 'Frank Randall' to me," she seethed. "Once, there was a time I would've gone back and let him take care of this child in your stead. Hating it, every second of it feeling empty without you, but I would have." Claire shook her head then, curls swaying about her shoulders. "But that time is gone. I am Claire Fraser, and I will die Claire Fraser, one way or the other. 

"And this isn't just about us, Jamie!" In a flash of movement surprising for her size, Claire bounded from the bed. Jamie stayed seated, waiting. "This is about Fergus more than any of us. I cannot sit here -- how did you put it? 'Eating fish and chips' -- when he's back there and needs us. Us."

"No," Jamie remained firm as he stood, facing his wife and the blood beginning to boil again. "I can go back, I can stop this."

"What if it were Faith, Jamie?" Claire cried, the first tears finally escaping down her face though her voice remained steady. Only the wavering of her chin betrayed how hard she fought for composure. "What if it were this child?" She gestured to her belly. "Would you have me leave them behind if they needed us?"

"It's because of Faith ye must stay, Sassenach," he countered again. "We canna lose another child, Claire. I couldna bear it."

She hesitated for the first time, only a blink's worth, before shaking her head. "The doctor has said all is well. We're strong and healthy. This isn't the same as Faith."

"Ye canna ask me to risk one child to save the other!"

"That boy is as much mine as yours, James Fraser." Tone still firm, but the words imbued it with a certain tenderness, an earnest plea for him to understand her, to hear her. "I cannot abandon him any more than I could either of ours."

Salt stung the gashes of his soul then, his breath catching in his chest. Christ, if she'd fought him this hard before Culloden, they'd not be standing her now. He'd not have had the strength to bring them to the stones at all. Every sentence she uttered tore him down. Every argument he made for her to let him go, for them to part, shredded him. He focused on her belly, the lad or lass that already owned every piece of him as surely as Claire did. 

She pounced on his faltering.

"This isn't the same as before," she repeated, gently taking both his hands in hers again. "We know what's coming. We can be careful, be safe. And we know something else, too."

He cocked a brow at her. "Aye?"

She nodded as the ghost of a smile lit her features. "We know the verdict of history. Red Jamie and the Stuart Witch are never found. Neither of them. Now, that could be because they're standing right here," she said, her pitch rising as she posed her duality, "or perhaps they just got away.

"We know we must go back. So whether you go back alone or we go together, no one ever found out what happened to us. Which means that's one threat we know doesn't come to fruition."

Jamie grunted, fingers stroking her knuckles. "We dinna ken that for sure, mo chridhe. Maybe we were only lost to history because we came here. Goin' back could change it."

"History happened, Jamie," Claire responded. The anger had fully left them both now, and they collapsed back onto the edge of the bed, never breaking their link. "Frank can't unread the sources that say we disappeared without a trace. The knowledge can't suddenly just change in his head. Whatever we're going to do -- did -- has already happened over two centuries ago."

He shook his head at her, words commanding but tone gentle. "Dinna pretend to understand this any better than I do. Everything we've been through, all we've seen wi' our own two eyes...it's so far beyond our ken we likely willna learn the truth o' what it means 'til we face the Almighty Himself. And if there is any danger that bringin' the both of ye back there ends with losin' ye, I canna."

The sound of blood rushing through his ears made him lightheaded, his heart never having stopped its blasted pounding. Claire watched him, eyes furrowed in thought. 

"Okay," she said, her hand coming up to caress his face, lined with distress and grief. "Then what about this: What if you go back there, alone, and he needs medical attention?" The idea seemed to upset her as much as it did him as her fingers halted just a moment on his cheek. But then she drew a breath, and her fingers resumed their path back and forth across his skin. 

"Jamie, you can't ask me to sit here and wait. Not just because it would be hard on me or because I want my child to know his father, even though both are true." Exhaling, she leaned forward and he met her halfway, foreheads kissing. "You're right. We don't know what could happen. It's a risk. For all of us, it is. But I won't be separated from you for anything, Jamie, and I certainly won't stay here in safety while Fergus fights for his life. If there's a chance -- a breath of a chance -- that he'll need me, I have to go, too."

A smooth tear rolled down his cheek and fell from his chin. Not of heartache as all the others had been. Joy. Pure selfish joy. 

Months ago, with cannon blasts echoing behind them, he'd rent his very heart into jagged shards to send them away. But he'd done so knowing he'd soon be dead, that the bleeding torment of sending her away would be brief. To be separated by time itself, on either side of cold granite, but without the promised respite of impending death was nearly more than he could bear. 

But he would. He would tear himself apart every day of his life if that was the price for their safety. 

Claire's words, though, rang true. If Jamie arrived to Fergus's side unable to stop the attack he'd witnessed in his dream, the lad would need Claire. And that was the only reason strong enough to sway him. Bringing Claire endangered the bairn she carried, but leaving her could mean Fergus's death, as well.

No matter what he did, he would risk one child for the other. But one risk meant Claire stood beside him. Greedy bastard he was, he lunged for it.

She must have read the decision in his breathing, the softening of his forehead, the heartbeats that had finally begun to slow. Leaning away, Claire stood from the bed without preamble. Jamie watched her cross the flat and rummage in the wardrobe. When she returned, she handed his dirk over to him.

"Your word," she whispered as he reached for it, their fingers brushing against each other. 

Jamie slid to the floor and kneeled, holding the flat of the blade before him. Echoing the vow made before her mere weeks after they first wed, Jamie recited the words, altering them slightly, eyes closed in supplication. 

"I swear by the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ and by the holy iron I hold that, be it within my power, I shan't be parted from ye; that every day from this day until my last will be spent by yer side, in protection of ye as well as our children, both those ye bear me and those the Lord sees fit to put within our charge by other means."

Before he could finish, entreating this very blade to pierce his heart should he break this vow, Claire lowered herself to the floor beside him with only minor difficulty. With love shining from her eyes, she pried the dirk from his own fingers, holding it up before her own face just as he had. Lips pressed together rose in a smile as her other hand guided his to rest over their child beneath her own.

"I swear," she said, voice strong and smooth as more tears streamed down his own face, "by the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ and by the holy iron I hold that, be it within my power, I shan't be parted from you; that every day from now until I die will be spent by your side, in protection of you and of our children, those I bear and those the Lord bestows upon us by other means."

The dirk clattered against the wooden floor as Jamie dove forward, taking her lips with his own. Emotional crests and troughs coming one after the other so quickly these last hours had drained him, his body aching with the unending turmoil. 

Nevertheless, passion raw and consuming set him aflame. He never wanted to stop touching her, knowing she existed beside him, would always exist beside him. The knowledge galvanized him. And as he devoured her, gratitude and elation stealing his breath as surely as Claire now was, he prayed. Prayed that they'd made the right choice, prayed for her safety and Fergus's and the bairn's and all the bairns to come. 

God, shield my beloved. Preserve them from violence and from harm, in this place and every place, on this night and every night.

Pulling away, Jamie breathed heavily as he placed a kiss on her forehead and held her against his chest. His hand cradled the back of her head, anchoring her against him as her arms encircled his body. Three unsteady breaths later, he felt the bairn move in her belly, pressed as it was against his own, and smiled into her curls. 

"What do we do now, then, Sassenach?" he muttered into them before kissing her crown. 

Sighing, she pulled back, looking into his eyes. "Well, I don't suppose you have a date or time of when it'll happen?"

"Sorry," he murmured with a smirk, his recent relief tinting his mood toward good-natured despite the subject matter. 

Claire nodded, eyebrows furrowed as she thought. Tenderness overwhelmed him, and he nearly leaned to kiss her again, to undress her and take her where they knelt. But this was important. Jamie held himself in check and waited. 

After a moment, Claire met his eyes. "I think I know where to find out. At least where to start."

As though he'd read her mind, another of his dreams came to mind, and he met her gaze. Ice and amber coalescing together, they both nodded in perfect understanding, Jamie with some mingled sense of dread, excitement, and impatience. 

They were going to Lallybroch.

Chapter Text

Jamie clamped his lips together, willing his wame to calm. As the midday sun tried its best to burn through the cloud cover above, Jamie drummed his fingers against his thigh, mind whirring, stomach flipping. The swaying of the car set his stomach to roiling, of course. But today, that wasn't the only culprit. 

Lallybroch should be in view within the next five minutes. At least, according to Claire. 

Sleep had been elusive for the both of them after the events of the previous night. For his part, no matter how he focused on slowing his breathing or relaxing the muscles of his face and body, his mind simply wouldn't quiet. Her own even but shallow breaths betrayed Claire's wakefulness beside them. Instead, he lay with his wife wrapped securely in his arms through the night, his fingers sometimes smoothing her curls or tracing up and down her arms.

Even so, they'd risen early and walked straight to the Inverness records office, where the attendant helped them research the ownership for Broch Tuarach over the last two centuries. Tied as it was to the mysterious missing Jacobite -- him -- the estate had always enjoyed a sense of local fascination and even mild renown within the Scottish historian community. Which, for their purposes, meant the paper trail was organized and easily traceable. 

To Jamie's dismay, though, Lallybroch had been foreclosed upon near the turn of the twentieth century and had been sitting empty since. 

"'Tis a right pity," the kindly clerk sighed regretfully, glasses perched on the tip of her broad nose. "I've driven up that way a few times, and 'tis a lovely place, e'en from a distance. A few of the historical societies have tried tae purchase the property tae restore it, ken, but have trouble raisin' the funds. To see it in such condition now..."

Claire had interceded with an abrupt question, something inane to stop the woman blabbering. But just those few words, though uttered without malice, filled him with sorrow. 

Not that hearing the words a few hours before laying his own eyes upon his neglected ancestral home made much difference. As the car crested the hill, Jamie turned his attention from the passenger window to the windshield before him. His sharp inhale hissed in the quiet car.

The roof was missing. That was the first thing he noticed. The barn had caved in. Broch Tuarach itself still stood, to his relief, though it looked a bit more precarious than he remembered. Had it always been quite that lazy?

Warm fingers intertwined with his, and he looked to his right. Tears shone in her eyes, as well, but she smiled, offering her strength to him as they drew ever closer. Mrs. Graham -- the manse having been Jamie and Claire's next stop after the records office to fill her in on the previous night's events, after which she'd insisted on accompanying them -- cleared her throat but remained otherwise silent. 

By the time Claire was parking the car, Jamie had composed himself, donning the mask of control that shielded his heart from the outside world. 

The world, minus Claire. 

She glanced to him then.  Gifting him with a comforting smile completely lacking in pity -- Christ, how he loved this woman -- she took the first steps toward the front door with Jamie and Mrs. Graham on her heels. 

How often had he heard these doors booming open and shut? As a lad, too young yet to leave the main house, he'd sit as the sun trailed lower in the sky and await his father's return from the fields. Or at Quarter Day, they'd be thrown open in welcome, people and children and the stray dog or chicken passing through. Tall and wide and crafted of heavy, solid wood. These doors had been the stronghold of this home. As a bairn, Jamie imagined not even a cannon could tear them down, strong as they were. 

Now, after more than two centuries of strain, the "No Trespassing" signs and rusting chain and lock seemed redundant, hanging as they were over massive holes in the wood where panels had rotted out. Even so, the holes weren't large enough for him to pass through, let alone Claire with her still-expanding womb. 

"How do we get in, then?" Each word was weighed to keep the waver from his voice. 

Mrs. Graham pulled a key from her purse. Despite the mood, she shrugged and flashed them a pleased smirk. "Reggie's a respected man about town," she crooned, striding forward to fit the key in the lock. "The bank president attends services at Reggie's church, ken? And so when Reggie had a...historical interest in explorin' the property some years back, well..." Mrs. Graham shrugged, pausing as the loud clinking of dropping iron rang in his ears. "Lucky for us, the bank ne'er asked for the key back."

"Yer a gem, as always, Maura," Jamie said, the first genuine smile of the day stretching across his face. The woman beamed and stepped aside. Claire did, as well. 

Jamie would lead them inside.

Blue eyes swept through the entry, and his breath came shallow as he creeped past the entry and into the sitting room. The further he ventured, the more he drank in, the more he preferred the dreams, empty as they'd been. 

Somehow, empty seemed better than dead. 

Holes in the floors, furniture either missing or destroyed beyond repair, the paintings absent from the walls. Dust covered every surface. Windows -- the ones not broken or missing entirely -- so grimed over the sun couldn't warm him. Scents of rot and mold reached him. Scampering sounds hinted at vermin on the upper levels hurrying for cover as the three humans made their noisy entrance. 

His face was wet with tears before he even knew he was crying. Jamie stepped a hesitant foot onto the staircase and made his way up slowly, testing the strength of each step as he went. 

Even knowing their purpose for stepping into this tomb of his former life, even as he felt the pain erupting from within him and threatening to drown him, Jamie had to see more. Through the bitter disappointment, he felt a certain kinship. Lallybroch certainly wasn't of this time any more than he was. This estate, its walls and life, were of the past. Much as he was. 

In a way, Jamie was relieved to be returning to the century in which he'd been born. Only a few months had passed in this future time, the time he'd planned on making into his permanent home with Claire. Maybe he couldn't expect to adjust and acclimate in that span. But a dark part of his soul had yearned for the familiar scents and scenes of home. Of the past. Every step he'd taken to cement himself here -- becoming a legal citizen, exploring what trades he may choose once the bairn arrived, framing the photograph Mrs. Graham had snapped on their wedding day, even the sense of pride that filled him as he learned the proper names for every new piece of technology he encountered -- had felt more like a bog weighing him down, trapping him. Through it all, a sense of panic simmered below his outward calm. 

Jamie didn't belong here. Could never properly belong here. 

Standing outside the Laird's room, he looked down to his right hand, the silver ring still shining there, and smiled. Only two moments in all the weeks spent here had felt natural and right: Marrying his Sassenach and hearing the bairn nestled in her belly. So rich those memories were in his mind that if those two moments were all he'd have had to cling to until his homesickness dissipated, they would've nourished him for years. 

Still, pushing into the room of his parents, the room that should've been his and Claire's, Jamie sent a silent, slightly guilty prayer of thanks to the Almighty for calling them home. 

He tried not to think about the horror that was at the center of that call. Deep down, hope burned strong that the Lord wouldn't show him what he couldn't change. Wouldn't be so cruel as to taunt him with his child's life, his children's lives.

The blue tapestries that had adorned the walls were long gone. Missing stones on the hearth created gaping spaces. Spots along the floor had warped and buckled with water damage. The estate's eponymous tower stood perfectly framed in the glassless window. 

But the bed remained. Amongst all the decay, the bed stood bare but firm. Jamie bent and reached below, searching. Alas, after minutes of fruitless feeling and even laying on his stomach to look beneath the bed, he heaved a resigned sigh. Brian's sword was long gone. 

Jamie took another breath to look around the space, reminding himself he'd soon see it returned to its rightful splendor, before making his way back downstairs.

Mrs. Graham and Claire had stuck together, wandering about the place in silence. Giving him space to take it in. Love buoyed his spirits as he approached his wife from behind and encircled her in his arms, sweeping her curls aside to plant a kiss on her neck. 

"Let's find out what happened to our lad, then," he said. Claire smiled and grabbed his hand. 

He braced himself and drew them into the study. Just like the rest of the house, the room showed its age in the worst possible way. Even his father's desk was gone. Dust evenly coating the floor told him it had been for a while. But it wasn't until he turned for the bookcase that doubt infected his mind. Various volumes -- some shredded, some waterlogged, one or two sitting somehow pristine and untouched -- littered the sparse bookcases. So many were missing. 

As was the family bible. 

"Ifrinn," Jamie breathed. Of course, assuming it would be sitting here just as it he'd seen it in his mind had been foolish. What chance had mere paper and ink against two centuries?

"Hold on, let's think." Claire reached up, rubbing her hands between his shoulder blades to relieve the tension. "Some descendant may have donated it to a historical archive. We could try here, or Edinburgh even."

"And if it isna there?" Jamie asked, frustration warming his skin and harshening his tone. "We dinna ken when it'll happen -- when it happened," he corrected himself. "Christ, we canna even be certain the dream was true."

"Does it matter?" She stepped back and put her hands on her hips, regarding him. "I mean, if it's even possible that it's true, we're going back, aren't we?"

"Aye, it matters." Wiping the sweat from his upper lip, Jamie began to pace. "I willna put you and the bairn in harm's way wi'out cause, Sassenach." Jamie ran his fingers through his curls, fear and stress seeping in. He felt his mask slipping with every breath.  He shook his head again, eyes meeting hers. Desire for the Lallybroch he remembered and the lad he'd left there overwhelmed him, but he throttled it before speaking. "I ken we must return if it's tae save our Fergus. But if all is well there, if I was wrong and my dream willna come tae pass, I canna risk ye and the bairn for naught."

Before Claire could voice her rebuttal, Mrs. Graham raised her eyebrows and cleared her throat with a soft ahem. 

"Regardless o' what ye find...or don't find," she said, face solemn but alight, "time is runnin' short to decide."

"What do ye mean?"

Mrs. Graham cleared her throat again. "Once Claire has the bairn, we won't know if it can travel. And if it can't..."

"We can't leave." Claire finished her sentence for her on an exhale, leaning against the doorframe as the realization took over her. Jamie mirrored her. He rested his weight against the near-barren bookcase and pressed the heels of his palms hard against his eye sockets.

"Beyond that," Mrs. Graham continued, "certain times o' year are safer to travel. Claire went through the first time on Samhain. The two of ye came back a few weeks before Beltane. There are two more windows before the bairn will come: Mabon in September and Samhain again."

Jamie shook his head. "And I dinna care owermuch for the idea of draggin' my nine-months-pregnant wife through a hostile wilderness." Granted, he didn't much care for the idea of Claire trekking through the Highlands at seven months pregnant, either. Jaw clenched, eyes unseeing as the enormity of the task and decision at hand settled fully upon his soul. Heavy enough that the idea of planning their future around a Pagan calendar hardly fazed him. "So Mabon it is."

"What if we can't find proof before then?" Claire demanded, arms now crossed atop her belly. "Would you risk Fergus? You said yourself you believe what you saw was real."

"Aye, and I do."

How could he explain to her the war raging in his mind? The mindless need to go home, to shirk the feeling of imposter that had clung to him since landing here? All heightened by the peril their son would soon fall into? Not to mention the combatting sense that bringing his wife and child into that world was foolhardy, begging for their own damned history to repeat itself? 

No matter which choice he made, it felt both right and wrong. 

Words may not have expressed his conflict, but she must have read it in him regardless. Her features softened, and she crossed the room to graze her fingertips over his face. Jamie, feeling raw, leaned gratefully into her touch, allowing it to act as a salve on his frazzled mental state. 

"Think," she whispered to him. "You know Lallybroch better than anyone. We know what came after Culloden, and we warned them as best we could. If they wanted to...protect anything, where might they hide it?"

A flicker of hope burgeoned in his chest. But over the next hour as they scoured the house, all the hidden spots he could remember -- the priest's hole, the hidden door in the attic, the secret compartment in the nursery, even knocking on the wooden staircase and stomping across floorboards looking for spaces that may have been hollowed out after his departure -- that flicker was in danger of extinguishing. 

But there was one more place. 

"Wait here," he said simply before tearing from the house, leaving two baffled women in his wake. 

Decades had passed since the last time Jamie took this trail. But climbing up the wooded embankment and navigating to the nearly invisible cave entrance came as naturally as though he'd made the journey every day since his boyhood. Broad as he was now, Jamie had to squeeze through the narrow entrance and drop in. 

He remembered it being bigger, though he reasoned he'd just been smaller. The ceiling hung too low for Jamie to stand, and so he hunched down and bent his knees. Hardly any light shone into the dark hole, only as wide and long as he was tall. But in the back corner, hidden in shadow but immediately visible to his searching eye, sat a large wrapped bundle. 

Reverently, Jamie lowered himself to his knees. Shaking hands unwrapped the layers and layers of cloth, the final piece stiff with long-eroded wax, to reveal a large chest. Lifting the lid, his lungs seemed to collapse as the air whooshed from him with force. Right on top sat his father's sword wrapped in Fraser tartan. Other treasures brought tears to his eyes. His mother's paintings removed from their frames and rolled with care. Various pieces of Fraser and Murray tartan. The varnished box of Apostle spoons with one missing, he knew. Various books and letters and other trinkets that Jenny and Ian had deemed worth the risk of secreting away. 

And, beneath it all, the worn family bible. Droplets rolled down his cheeks and onto his shirt as he lifted it from the box and ran his fingertips over the cover. 

Ye did it, Jenny, he thought to himself. It all survived. 

It didn't matter that no one until him would touch it or know it existed. That it would sit here in the dark perhaps forever. The Redcoats hadn't stripped them of everything. Tried as they might've, they couldn't eradicate every bit of the Highland spirit from these lands. Their tartan and their language and their heirlooms and art and weapons breathed still. This chest proved that the culture he cherished was endangered, certainly, but not extinct. 

 

#

 

When Jamie returned to Lallybroch, Claire could have slapped him for how he'd run off with no explanation. But when she saw the volume grasped in his hand and the look of elated wonderment on his face, all frustration evaporated. 

"Well?" she asked. 

Jamie shook his head. "I havena looked. I was waitin' for ye." 

Mrs. Graham hovered nearby, hands wringing, and Claire allowed Jamie to guide her to one of the benches that had been dragged from the kitchen at some point and now sat diagonally across the sitting room. Claire threaded an arm around Jamie's waist as they each took a steadying breath before Jamie flipped the Bible open on their laps and turned the first few pages until he came to the Fraser family tree. 

"Jenny added him," he breathed through a smile. Seeing Fergus's name in print, even unattached as it was to anyone else's, filled her with love and gratitude for Jenny, the woman who'd taken a lonely boy under her wing and into her heart as she must've known Jamie wanted. 

But the feeling soon turned to sour in her stomach. 

Fergus Fraser

b. 1735 (?)

d. 23 Sept 1753

"That's only six years after we left," Claire choked out, feeling how cold her hands and face had gotten. Jamie merely nodded beside her, face somber. 

Not definitive proof. But enough. 

"Mabon falls on September 21st this year," Mrs. Graham said softly, having read over their shoulders. 

Claire felt her stomach writhing. "That's hardly any time at all!" Pressure built behind her eyes. With such a narrow window, they wouldn't have time to obtain a horse, even if they wanted to risk exposure in Inverness. "Lallybroch is at least two days from Craigh na Dun by horse. But walking..."

"How much earlier could we try?" Jamie asked, turning to Mrs. Graham. "How long before then could we try tae travel wi'out danger?"

The older woman swallowed, eyes troubled. "There's always danger, lad, even on the festival days."

Exchanging a look with her husband, Claire echoed him. "How long before?"

Mrs. Graham shook her head as she ran her hands up and down her own arms. "I wouldna dare tae try any sooner than September 19th, dears," she said with the hint of a quake in her voice. 

Nodding, Claire closed the Bible and set it to their side. She grasped Jamie's hands in her own. "That's just over a month from now." 

She caught his swimming eyes with her own. Donning as brave a mask as she could muster, she leaned forward and touched her lips gently to his, her fingers stroking his cheekbones, his temple, the tender spot at the base of his neck. 

When she pulled away and opened her eyes, Claire saw her own fiery determination reflected in his face as he murmured against her lips, "Then we should get started."

 

#

 

September 19th dawned with a preternatural mist that settled about the city. The weather had turned cold in the preceding weeks, the sunrise coming later each morning.

Mrs. Graham picked them up early that Thursday morning. Jamie kept Claire tucked under his arm, his bones seeming to rattle with nerves. Claire, for her part, clutched at his shirt and held herself close. None of them spoke. When Mrs. Graham parked the car and turned around to look to them in the back seat, her eyes were glistening. "We're here."

Claire wore the same dress she'd traveled in before with a thick cloak they'd had made in the scant thirty-three days they'd had to plan and gather supplies. Jamie, in the period-appropriate outfit he and Mrs. Graham had managed to cobble together, pulled the strap of one satchel over his shoulder and eased the second, lighter one over hers. 

His fingers trailed again through his shortened hair.. They'd shorn his curls just the day before, and he'd let his facial hair (luckily a darker shade than his locks) grow over the last month, too, hoping to obscure any resemblance to the Red Jamie adorning the broadsheets. Particularly since they didn't have the benefit of time to alter his appearance. Claire had tried to convince him that dying his hair a darker shade would further disguise him. The odor of the dye had made his head spin, though, so he'd shied away, insisting they could use mud as camouflage if the need arose.

A single tear escaped Mrs. Graham's eye as she looked at them. Jamie thought he detected some good-natured jealousy just beneath the surface, remembering her wistful words upon their first meeting.

Since I was a lass, I've imagined the adventures to be had if the stones sang for me, the places I'd travel to if I could. 

A part of him prayed that moment that adventure would one day find Maura Graham.

"Thank ye, Maura, for all ye've done for us." Jamie bowed with a straight back. As he stood, the woman in question wrapped him in a tight hug. Flushed but smiling, Jamie returned it. 

Tears streamed down Claire's face, as well, as the women embraced. 

"I'll wait here," Mrs. Graham promised, "'till I ken ye've gotten through."

With a nod, Jamie grabbed Claire's hand and they made their way up the hill. This time, as they approached the perimeter, he noticed what he hadn't the first time. The whistling that raised goosebumps on his skin, howling that reverberated in his ears and his mind, tingling up his spine to the base of his brain. This time, he knew it wasn't the wind or his own premature grief affecting him so. 

"You hear it?" Claire asked, eyes suddenly wide with worry. He only nodded in affirmation, wary gaze trained on the center stone.

Claire released a breath and smiled, gripping both his hands. A gust of wind cut through then, and Jamie gathered Claire's cloak tighter about her and folded his arms around her shoulders, her round belly pressed against him, creeping them toward the center stone. Every inch they closed, the force pulling them in strengthened. 

Finally, when they were close enough to reach out, they paused. Jamie locked his blue eyes to her beautiful amber ones and sent one last frantic prayer. 

Please, if we both canna make it through, deliver her and the bairn safely. If ye must take someone, please take me. 

Both too anxious to speak, they shouted their love and their prayers in looks and touches. 

When Claire had traveled the first time, she'd fallen back 202 years. Returning, they'd only come 200. The times didn't seem to move parallel, and from their discussions with Mrs. Graham, the best they could figure was that someone or something drew you wherever you needed to go. 

"So think o' yer lad, then," Mrs. Graham had told them. "And the stones will carry ye where ye should be."

Blood began to pulse in his head and echo in his ears. The time had come. 

Jamie moved to stand behind Claire, left arm firmly locked around her waist and his right hand gripping hers. Just as they had five months previously, Jamie held his breath and guided their hands toward stone. With a kiss to her curls, his hold tightening around her, they met the granite, and the world disappeared from around them. 

Please, Lord, guide them to safety. 

Chapter Text

Claire returned to consciousness as though awakening underwater. Awareness seeping in, blurred at the edges, then panic as she struggled to find the surface. Her eyes popped open as she inhaled, gasping as though she'd actually been holding her breath. Belly as large as it was, she couldn't bolt upright as her body had tried to do, instead wobbling a bit before falling to her side. 

Crawling to her hands and knees, vision distorted, direction disoriented, Claire focused on the grass beneath her until her stomach settled. As soon as she caught her breath, she looked up and around, one frenzied question at the forefront of her mind.

"Jamie?" Queasy and trembling, Claire finally managed to get her feet under her. Her hands groped protectively at her belly where wean was demonstrating his own liveliness with somersaults aplenty. She stood within the perimeter of Craigh na Dun still, but the noise had disappeared. Now, all was peaceful. 

Except she couldn't see her husband. 

"Jamie?" 

"Here," a voice groaned from a bit further down the hill. Claire rushed to her prostrate husband, heaving himself to a seated position with his eyes squeezed shut.

Collapsing beside him, Claire touched his clammy face. "Are you all right?"

Jamie exhaled sharply with a shoulder raise, not yet opening his eyes. "I'll bide." The words were undercut by his grimace, though, and she immediately moved to check his pulse. 

His hand shooed hers away as he sniped, "Christ, Sassenach, leave me be." Claire resisted the instinct to take offense. Instead, she sat back and counted her breaths until Jamie finally peeked through his lids before opening them fully. With a quirk of his lips, he shot her a remorseful look even as his chest still heaved. "I just...went tae stand and lost my balance from the top o' the hill. Just give me a moment, aye?" 

Minutes passed as they both recovered. Eventually, the sound of synchronous panting eased. He cleared his throat. "Does it..." Jamie paused, cutting his eyes to Claire, fist clenching and unclenching on the grass. "Does it get worse every time, then?"

Chills erupted over her skin, arms and chest and scalp tingling. "Seems that way."

Jamie nodded once. Color returned to his wan face as he pressed one palm into her belly. "And the bairn?"

Before Claire could answer, the babe announced his presence with a series of jabs. Smiling with a single forceful exhale, he seemed to melt from relief. In the space of a blink, he threw his arms around her shoulders and pulled her to rest in the crook of his neck.

"Taing Dhia." Kisses rained over her curls, her temple, her nose, eyes, lips. She clutched at him just as eagerly, warmth radiating from her chest. For days, now -- weeks, really -- she'd pushed away every fear, ignored every niggling worry that all their plans would be met with abject failure. They hadn't the time to entertain all the what if's. What if Jamie couldn't travel again? What if they were separated? What if something happened to him or the baby? What if they came too late? 

So to be here now, husband alive and child as well, felt blissful. But they weren't through yet. 

Either they'd been unconscious for a while or the stones had delivered them later in the day, she noted, as the sun had already begun on its downward path. Likely mid afternoon by now. 

A quarter hour later, Jamie had retrieved their satchels (Claire, exhausted and unwieldy as she was, waited at the bottom of the hill) and they'd retreated to the abandoned croft.

Thus the time came for the first part of the plan Claire hated: Jamie would go into Inverness to procure a horse. Alone.

 

"There's no way around it, Sassenach," Jamie insisted once again. "Wi' only four days to reach Lallybroch, we canna afford to tarry. Plus, I'll no' have my wife round wi' child trapisin' through the woods day an' night. And--" he cut her off, having already heard and rebutted the same protests at least half a dozen times, "ye cannot go yerself. Yer too slow, mo nighean donn, and I willna have ye endangerin' yerself or the bairn."

With no reasonable retort, Claire sat back and huffed a resigned sign of frustration. Eyes softening, face tender, Jamie grasped her hands in his and kissed her knuckles. His loving touches did nothing to assuage the doubt broiling within her, though. 

"All will be well, Sassenach," he promised. Grinning, he pulled up the brown cap knitted by her hand, rough and misshapen. "I have my disguise wi' me, aye?"

 

Claire had to admit: Between the month of beard growth, the cropped hair, and the cap to cover his famed red locks, Jamie looked unrecognizable. In his original worn sark, plain trousers, modest waistcoat and jacket -- and with a little dirt rubbed onto his clothes and skin for good measure -- at first glance, he was but another humble crofter. There was no camouflaging his size, and his boots betrayed his soldier's past. Claire crossed her fingers that if he hunched and spoke with diffidence he'd simply fade into the background. 

Still, her heart raced at the impending separation so soon after the whirlwind of the stones. Perhaps sensing her malcontent, Jamie crossed the room and held her close, rubbing his hands soothingly up and down her back. She tried to let his comfort strengthen her, absorbing the surety of his spirit into herself so that she may survive the coming hours without going mad. 

When he parted, he looked solemnly into her eyes. "Yer promise?" he asked. 

"If you're not back by morning, I go up the hill and try to go back."

"And ye'll no' leave the croft," he intoned, pitch lowering as he instructed her with the practiced patronization of a man who did not fully expect to be obeyed. "No' unless someone finds ye. And if they do?"

Jaw clenched. Stomach churning. "I run up the hill and try to go back," she repeated through gritted teeth, lips hardly moving. He obviously hated the notion as much as she. Both shook their heads simultaneously, dispelling images of futures neither wanted to face. But when he spoke, his voice held an ease Claire wished to bottle up and drink like a tonic.

"Inverness is only a few hours away on foot, and I'll be faster on the way back." Jamie sighed, hands still gripping Claire by the shoulders as she cradled her womb. "I hope to be back no' long after sunset. I'll whistle as I approach."

Claire nodded, steeling herself for the worst part. The leaving. 

Red Jamie and his wife are never found, she comforted herself, inhaling through her nose, mirroring his calm aura. Be smart, and you'll make it. 

Not wanting this to be goodbye, Claire pecked him on the lips then pushed him away even as he leaned for more. She smirked in spite of herself and gave him a light shove. "On your way, soldier." 

 

#

 

The hours passed without event. True to her word, Claire stayed within the walls of the croft, leaving only twice to relieve herself as she waited. In her hand, she grasped and examined the knife Jamie had presented to her the day before. Mother of pearl glinted from the handle, which fit comfortably into her grip, slim but solid. The five-inch blade, surprisingly lightweight, was sharp enough that Claire took extra care as she reholstered it lest the metal slip and slice her skin.

 

"Yer to keep it on ye at all times, Sassenach," Jamie commanded, bestowing her with the knife and cross-body holster that, once the baby arrived and she regained her waist, could be transformed back into a belt. "And if ye have need tae use it," he added, eyes sharp as the steel held between them, "dinna hesitate."

 

Jamie's whistling roused her from sleep just before full dark. Cheeks aching from her wide grin, Claire rushed out to meet him. He, too, smiled as he dismounted and ran to embrace her before diving to take her mouth with his own. Two hearts pounded as they reveled in reunion though they'd been parted but hours. Claire doubted either of them had realized until just that moment the depth of their terror. 

Standing together, her hands brushing his skin and his tangled in her hair, was a victory. One step amongst a hundred or more that must land exactly right to keep their family safe. But it was a start. 

"Were you able to find out the year?" 

Jamie's fingers tightened against her skull as he shook his head. Until they knew for sure, then, they'd proceed with all due haste.

The darkness grew thicker by the breath as he pulled away and moved to load up their satchels. "I hate tae ride ye through the night, mo chridhe, but we've lost time to make up for."

Claire only nodded, waiting until he could help her on the horse in front of him. By the time Jamie spurred the horse to a moderate pace, only the glow of a waning moon illuminated their path. They stopped a few times that night to water the horse, taking a more substantial break around dawn. By mid-morning, they remounted and pushed onward.

And thus two days passed. By late afternoon on the third day -- September 21st -- they dismounted to rest and eat once more before their last long push to Lallybroch. 

"We can just keep riding a few more hours," Claire grumbled as Jamie pulled her from the horse quite against her will. 

"Sassenach." Exasperation sharpened his tone as he growled her name through clenched teeth. "Yer belly is rumblin' loud enough to spook the horse. I wilna allow ye or my bairn to ride hungry. No' when we have time." 

The loud gurgle of her stomach effectively throttled any argument. A tear escaped and rolled down her face, and her chin quivered. "I just..." Claire swallowed again, hands pressed against Jamie's chest. "I'm ready to be home."

A rough thumb came up to dry her cheeks, and his warm breath cascaded over her face as he exhaled heavily. Tenderness overtook annoyance. "I ken, mo graidh, as am I." His lips descended upon hers, somewhat tentative. "But I told ye, I wilna risk one child for the other if I can help it, Sassenach. We'll reach Lallybroch in just a few hours wi' two days tae spare. So my wife will rest and eat and drink. Aye?"

Moisture continued to escape her eyes, but she nodded at his words. With a smile, Jamie guided her to a fallen log. She leaned back against another tree trunk and burrowed further into her cloak as her husband formed a small campfire to keep her warm in the chilly September air. 

A moment later, Jamie crouched before her. "There's a stream nearby, Sassenach," he said. "I'll be close enough to hear if ye need me."

"Jamie--"

"Ye need meat, Sassenach," he interrupted her, hand on her knee. "Bannocks and plants do for a spell, but ye havena been properly full since we arrived."

Blood rushed to her cheeks. He was right: she needed more protein. Subsisting only on the provisions they'd packed and the vegetation she'd scavenged meant Claire's lethargy had grown by the hour until she sometimes worried her knees may buckle completely. She'd hoped he wouldn't notice. A vain hope, she realized, as he leveled her with the crooked smirk and cocked brow he knew disarmed her so completely.

"Oh, aye, I noticed, mo nighean donn. Nourishment has been scarce, and what ye do have the bairn takes fer himself, greedy wee wretch." Without breaking eye contact, he brought her hand up to press his lips into her palm. "Dinna fash. Should only take half an hour at most." Leaning up to kiss her forehead, Jamie rose and, with only his dirk at his waist, stalked off into the forest toward the stream. 

Fatigued, hungry, and anxious though she was, Claire's heart rejoiced to see Jamie in his element again. In his time. Not since the moment he first told her they'd traveled to 1946 had Jamie moved with the grace of a man who understood his place in the world. A confidence borne in the light of his eyes, the strength of his stride. Never had Claire considered him weak in the future, by any means. But seeing him now, these past few days, she realized that, somehow, he hadn't been quite the same. 

Staying in the future would've been the safer, smarter option for them by far, Claire knew. But seeing the oppression of insecurity lifted from his shoulders, she knew she'd never regret returning. 

Whatever came next, this was where they all belonged. 

She wasn't sure how long Jamie had been gone or how long she'd dozed when she snapped awake at a rustling just out of her line of sight. Her heart beat frantically as she hauled herself to her feet and brandished her knife with a white-knuckled grip. Breath came heavy as her eyes cast around for the source of the disturbance. The woods, however, grew still again. 

Concluding that she was likely panicking over a rabbit or squirrel, Claire went to stash her weapon just as she heard the noise again. 

Decidedly footsteps. 

"Claire?" She turned to her right, where a figure stepped out from behind a wide trunk. 

From their first meeting, Claire had always considered him gruff. But the man approaching her with caution now looked downright wild. His graying beard reached nearly to his collar. Lines cut deeper around his eyes, sterner somehow even as they took her in with awe. Peppered, unkempt hair was tied back and rested between this shoulder blades. And his frame was far too thin.

"Murtagh?" she breathed, taking a step toward him. He stepped out of the shadows, then. And it was. The man who had stood by hers and Jamie's side without fail. Who'd protected her, avenged her, loved and guided her.

Claire closed the distance and ensnared him in a crushing hug. After only a heartbeat of shocked silence, Murtagh returned the gesture. 

"What..." he sputtered, pushing her back to look her up and down. "What are ye doin' here, lass? And--" Gaping eyes dipped to her belly, and Claire swore they grew even rounder. "Is it...the same as..."

Claire nodded, beaming through a new barrage of tears. 

"Christ," Murtagh hissed in wonder. "Ye came back then?"

"It's a long story," Claire answered, hand massaging her child, whose elbow was rippling its way across her abdomen. 

"And Jamie?"

"Just at the stream nearby."

"So he..."

"Yes." Claire grasped Murtagh's hands, bringing him the short distance back to their meager camp. Brows furrowed, Murtagh guided her back to her seat, and Claire huffed a relieved sigh to be back off her feet. Neither spoke, both somewhat spent with just their short exchange thus far. 

Claire glanced over her shoulder, willing Jamie to return soon. To see his face when he realized who'd stumbled upon them...

"Why did ye return, then?" their surprise visitor asked, breaking into her musing. 

Dread, thick and suffocating, fell over her. In the incredulity of the last five minutes, the reason for their journey had all but slipped from her mind for the first time in weeks. 

She averted her gaze, biting her lips together before she parted them to speak. "We...found out something happened that we're hoping to stop."

"Didna learn yer lesson the first time, then?" Claire caught the twitch of his beard as he fought the urge to smile. 

"Nothing like that, no," she replied with a roll of her eyes. "No, we're...here for Fergus."

Murtagh's face fell then, and a weight dropped in her stomach. 

"What--"

"Sassenach?" Jamie called from behind, voice wary. Claire turned in her seat, and Murtagh stood to face him. 

It played out just as it had in her mind. Jamie's eyes narrowed in question then widened in recognition, blue orbs shining. He took a slow, involuntary step in their direction and pulled the knit cap from his head. "A ghoistidh," Jamie whispered, never once looking away. Murtagh chuckled, a sound that rumbled deep through his chest, as he walked toward Jamie, who dropped the two fish he carried and nearly tackled Murtagh to the ground with the force of his embrace. Claire heard snatches of Gaelic, whispered between godfather and godson, before they broke apart. Both smiling, both with wet cheeks. By the time they rejoined her, spirits were high. 

But Claire had seen Murtagh's eyes darken at mention of Fergus. 

"Murtagh," Claire spoke up. "Fergus?"

Jamie's face grew serious then as the brief joviality drained from Murtagh's. 

"Happened five days ago," he said. Murtagh picked up a stick and rolled it between his fingers, seemingly for something to do with his hands. Jamie interlaced his fingers with her own, squeezing and releasing them gently, likely for the same reason. "The bastard Redcoats had brought Ian back home again--"

"What was Ian doin' wi' the Redcoats?" Jamie interrupted. 

Murtagh shrugged. "They drop by e'ery now and again, tear the house apart, searchin' for the former Laird and Lady Broch Tuarach. Sometimes they take Ian in fer extra interrogation."

Ice cold realization sent a violent shiver through Claire's frame. Disbelief rendered Jamie's face blank. "But we werena here."

"Aye," Murtagh snapped, "and I'm sure next time Jenny tells them so, they'll believe her."

Jamie opened his mouth, but Claire squeezed his hand and shook her head. "Murtagh, what happened to Fergus?"

A Scottish grunt hummed in the air as Murtagh turned his attention back to the stick in hand. "I've been stayin' in the cave up away from the house, ken? I'm no' as valuable a prisoner as either of ye would be, for certain, but findin' any Jacobite in the house wouldna help matters. They need the help wi' the huntin' and workin' the land, and I do as much as I'm able.

"The damned bastards brought Ian back, but a few must've hung around, hopin' someone would lead them to ye, then." Murtagh swallowed. He cut his eyes to Claire before his gaze locked with Jamie's. "Fergus caught wind of them, led them on a goose chase through the woods away from the cave before confrontin' them himself, the clotheid. And the Redcoats...they..."

"Took his hand," Jamie finished, voice tight with grief, as though he had no air in his lungs. Claire understood the feeling. 

Murtagh's eyes narrowed. Before he could ask, though, Jamie bounded from his seat, one hand on his hip and the other furiously stroking his beard. The crevice between his eyebrows deepened as his rage grew.

"How, dammit?" he cried out. She felt her own lip trembling. "We're two days early, for Christ's--"

"Death," Claire breathed, her head snapping toward her husband. "The family tree recorded when he died, not when they attacked him." She stood, then, agitation making her skin crawl. She faced Murtagh, who remained seated on the log. "Fergus, is he still alive?"

"Last I kent, aye," Murtagh said. "Was pure luck I was near enough to see the endin' and get him to the main house. But he's been burned up wi' fever these last three days." He held up three fingers in illustration. "Shivering an' speaking nonsense. Callin' out for ye, in fact," Murtagh added, nodding toward Jamie. 

"Me?"

"Aye," he responded. With a groan, Murtagh placed his hands on his knees and propelled himself up. But his eyes, questioning, never left Jamie.

"Then we need to go," Claire finally spoke up, making her way toward the horses. Checking her satchel hanging from the saddle, she turned back toward them. "If what Murtagh says is true, then we can still make it, but we need to go now."

"And do what, Sassenach?" Jamie asked, following her and placing a light hand on the small of her back. 

Claire pulled a leather pouch from the satchel. "You've been preparing to save Fergus's hand," she said gently. "And while I hoped that would be possible, I've been preparing to save his life."

 

"Mrs. Fraser." Dr. Stalworth entered the exam room with a congenial greeting. "I didn't expect ye for another few weeks. Are ye feelin' well, then?"

Claire nodded, chin raised and amber eyes piercing. "Yes, we're well."

Dr. Stalworth nodded. "I'm glad tae hear it," he answered, and Claire sensed genuine relief in his voice. "What can I help ye wi' then, lass?" 

Deep breath in. Quiet breath out. She met his gaze, unwavering.

"I actually have a favor. A favor I'm hoping I can ask within the protection of doctor/patient confidentiality."

His bushy eyebrows furrowed, his previously open and warm expression turning suspicious. "Should yer husband be here, Mrs. Fraser?" He paused. "Is this to do wi' the bairn?"

"No," Claire quickly headed him off, hand massaging her belly. "No. It's just...I need something, and I didn't know who else to ask."

Dr. Stalworth's gaze never wandered. He nodded once in invitation. 

"I need..." Claire swallowed. "I need penicillin and a syringe to deliver it."

"If ye have an infection yer worried after, lass, best share it now and let me take a look."

Claire shook her head, eyes cast to her child hidden beneath her heart. "It's not for me." She looked up and met the doctor's eyes, imploring him to see her, hear her. "We're returning to the village where Jamie grew up, and we'll need it there. We've...had word that a child in his family has been gravely injured. He needs our help." Moisture pooled behind her eyes. "This is an extremely small village, Doctor, rural and remote. There's a...great distrust of doctors, hospitals. I was able to help a bit with my nursing background, but even that took a lot of work for them to allow me to do so.

"That child is as much mine as this one." She framed her belly with both hands, looking lovingly down upon it before meeting the doctor's eyes. "Anything you can send me with...I would be so grateful."

He studied her without responding, the air electric with tension, before departing the room. Claire remained seated, unsure whether to wait or leave.

Before she decided, Dr. Stalworth reentered, paper bag in hand. 

"Two vials and a syringe," he muttered as he handed it to her. "I also included a basic nursing kit. Some needles and sutures, a few scalpels. 'Tis no' much," he added, nearly apologetic. "But hopefully it'll help."

Speechless, Claire took it. "Thank you."

The man nodded once, hands clasped behind his back. "Wherever it is yer goin', lass, be safe."

 

#

 

Lunch was abandoned as Jamie and Claire mounted up, Murtagh to follow on foot. They rode hard for Lallybroch and passed through the arch not long after sunset. Taking none of the time he'd imagined they would to appreciate the sight of their home whole and unbroken, alive as it was in his memory, Jamie leapt from the horse's back and pulled Claire down. 

"What all do ye need, Sassenach?" he asked, opening the satchels and rummaging through. 

"The leather case with the zipper," she answered. Nodding, Jamie felt for it and extricated the case, handing it over to his wife. Joining hands, the Frasers nearly ran up the front steps to the door. Claire hesitated, but Jamie turned the knob and bounded in. 

"No time for pleasantries, Sassenach," he murmured as they entered. Barely across the threshold, they heard Mrs. Crook's footfalls as she ran from the kitchen, skirts in hand. 

"Excuse me, who do ye think..." Her words faded from her lips. The fabric dropped as fingers and face alike went slack.

"Fergus?" Jamie asked, voice cracking.

"U-upstairs," she stammered. "Second floor, servants quarters."

Wasting no energy resenting Fergus's accommodations, Jamie supported his wife -- whom he knew, after a full day of riding and no chance for real sustenance, was weak with exhaustion -- up the stairs. 

Lallybroch hosted six servants rooms. Only one door stood ajar, the light of a candle flickering through. With a look to Claire and a shared nod, they pushed in without knocking. 

Fergus lay in the bed, gaunt eyes closed, skin glistening and body trembling with the ravages of fever. Jenny sat by his side, hair straying from her pins and bags beneath her eyes as she blotted his face with a damp rag. A bowl sat in the windowsill, keeping the water chilled. 

She turned, mouth opening to speak -- or, perhaps, chide for the sudden entrance -- but her voice faltered. She blinked in quick succession as if testing if her sight could be believed.

"Mother of bride," she breathed, standing with stiff limbs and the cloth clenched in one shaking hand. The other rose to clutch the cross that hung from her neck. 

How many times had Jamie imagined the reunion with his sister? In his daydreams, she was feeding the chickens or taking the laundry off the line or rounding up the bairns for bed after supper. Wherever she was, pure exhilaration would alight her features. Everyone would be sobbing, prayers of gratitude sent up to God Almighty for each other's providence. Whisky would be shared and stories told of the time spent apart. 

Instead, his sister now looked at them with incredulous horror in her eyes. And Jamie found himself likewise mute. Claire, luckily, took the reins. 

"Jenny," she said kindly, stepping forward, "I know this is a shock, but I need to tend to Fergus. Please," she added, taking another step toward Jenny, who retreated. 

"You..." She croaked, unhearing. "Yer dead, the both of ye."

Jamie shook his head, stepping past Claire. "No, Jenny. We're alive." Emotion threatened to overwhelm him. "And we want to tell ye what happened, but first, we need tae take care o' Fergus."

That snapped Jenny from her trance. Slender hands flew to her hips and Jenny's face contorted from alarm to anger faster than Jamie had ever seen.

"'Take care o' Fergus,' is it?" she demanded, head bobbing. "And who do ye think has been tendin' him these past days, these past six years, James Fraser?" Her eyes traveled between the two of them before she chortled and folded her arms across her chest. "Some things ne'er change, do they, then? Hear nothin' of ye for years at a time, no clue that yer even still breathin' much less roamin' free on this earth, 'til ye well and decide to waltz in and grace us wi' yer presence, all the while expecting that life has stood still an' waited for ye to arrive."

"We dinna have time for this, Janet," Jamie replied, his own Fraser ire building even as he fought to quell it. "Ye can be angry wi' us all ye like, but move aside for Claire to tend to the lad."

Jenny jutted out her chin, chewing her lips as her fists pressed into her sternum. "And what can Claire do that we havena already done?" Anger gave way to grieved helplessness as she turned to gaze at the lad. Jamie softened then, seeing the pain written so clearly in her weary eyes. 

Claire held up her leather case. "I can give him this."

Jenny opened her mouth again, but Jamie placed his hand on her arm. She flinched but did not pull away. "Please," he begged. "Trust us."

Fergus whimpered then, body still convulsing with the strength of his illness. Jenny looked back to him then. Without a word, she moved to the side. Claire sat in the stool Jenny had occupied and unzipped her case, preparing her medicine. 

When she pulled out the needle, Jenny tensed beside him. "Trust us," he whispered to her, eyes cut in her direction. Jenny said nothing, but neither did she stop him from helping to roll the lad to his side nor Claire from sticking his haunch with the syringe. 

Eyelids dark as a bruise fluttered open as Jamie lay him back down. Green eyes stared from sunken sockets. Jamie's breath caught in his chest to meet them, just as it had in the dream. Brown curls stuck to his sweaty head, and the fever gave his skin an alarming reddish tinge. But as the lad finally noticed him, Fergus stilled, hardly breathing. 

"Milord?" he rasped, trying to sit up. 

"Aye," Jamie answered. Heat singed his throat as he fought back tears, fronting a brave face for the son of his heart who lay dying. He crossed to kneel by the head of the bed, trembling hands brushing the hair from Fergus's forehead. "Aye, lad, I'm here wi' ye."

A ghost of a smile twitched at the corners of his lips. "I knew you would come, Milord. I told them..." His words petered out. "I did...I...told...." And with that, he drifted back to sleep. 

Jamie turned to Claire, still seated on the stool to his left. "Will he live, Sassenach?"

Her lips drew together in a thin line as she zipped her medical kit back together. Shadows hung beneath her own eyes, which looked back him with wariness. "I hope so," she whispered. 

This was it. What they'd come back for. Jamie's hands caressed Fergus's face -- young, but not quite so boyish as he'd remembered -- as husband and wife stared at each other, both hearts racing. Whisky eyes and ice locked in a vortex of manic, silent prayer that they'd done enough.

Chapter Text

Jamie was still locked in wordless prayer with Claire when Jenny, who had left the room without his noticing, barged back in. Red splotches enflamed her face as she crossed her arms over her chest. Behind her, Ian's bleary eyes gravitated straight toward them as he halted in the doorway. 

Candlelight from a single flame threw shifting shadows across both their faces, distorting their disbelieving expressions like grotesque masks. For them both to be standing here, mere yards away...he'd imagined and dreamt it so long now, even before Fergus had summoned them back. Excitement burned in Jamie's chest as he stood from his position near Fergus's head. 

"Jamie," Ian breathed, limping fully into the room. "Claire..."

Lips curling up in a smile, Jamie stepped toward his brother-in-law. Jenny's protective stance and Ian's wince as he moved too quickly stopped him in his tracks. Their rejection stung like a brand, and his grin pulled tight into a grimace.

Claire rose from her stool and threaded her arm around his waist. He turned to her, buried his nose in her curls. The scent of them, the same blissful aroma he'd tried to memorize on the morning of Culloden, grounded him. Steadied him. Lent him strength to adjust his expectations to fit the reality before him. 

"I ken ye have questions--"

"Questions?" Jenny barked, taking no heed of her sleeping children or the sick lad mere feet away from her. "Jamie, it's been seven years since I last laid eyes on ye. When first Fergus then Murtagh showed up wi'out ye, wi' no news of ye, we assumed ye'd both perished." 

"We grieved for ye." Ian's tone, though calmer, shook with suppressed betrayal. "The both of ye. Fergus, too. The lad could hardly leave the house for months."

"Aye. No' tae mention contendin' wi' Redcoats on our door, tearin' apart the house and draggin' Ian away when the whim took them, all in the searchin' for ye. We tried tae convince them ye had died, couldna understand why they insisted we must be hidin' ye. Now I guess we ken the reason."

Jamie struggled to keep his temper in check. Despite his fantasies of a blissful reunion, his family had every right to be angry with him. "Can I get a word in between the two of ye?" 

The Murrays waited, expectant. Jamie inhaled, nostrils flaring as he looked to his wife, a silent question and answer passing between them. 

No more lies. 

"Perhaps," Jamie suggested, watching as Claire swayed slightly with fatigue, "we should go down tae the parlor. Or the study."

His sister shook her head, face suddenly tender. "We've been takin' shifts keepin' watch ower Fergus."

Claire cleared her throat and tightened her arm around Jamie. "If we arrived in time, then the medicine should help and he should start to get better soon. I'll need to keep administering it every three to four hours until his strength returns, but the best thing for him now is to sleep. And," she cast a glance toward Jamie, "this is a conversation best had sitting down."

Ian and Jenny, with matching dubious expressions, locked eyes in a wordless exchange of their own. Finally, Ian looked to him again. With a weak smile, he gestured for them to follow as he led the group downstairs.

Ten minutes later, the four adults sat around a blazing hearth, each with a glass of whisky in hand. Ian and Jenny clasped hands between their chairs as Jamie did with Claire on the sofa. 

Now that the time had come, Jamie found the words eluded him. A cold sweat prickled at his neck as his mind raced, wondering just where to start.

"Are ye goin' tae get on wi' it, then?" Jenny snapped before tossing back a sip of her dram.

Jamie huffed an exhale through his nose, teeth clenched, but let the snipe pass. Rather than search for the words, he focused on Claire's soft hand in his. His thumb pressed into her palm, massaging in circles. Having abandoned her own drink to the end table, she ran her other hand along the inside of his forearm between them. Everything was easier when they touched, and she knew it. 

Somehow, every single day, he found reason to love her even more than the one before. 

After a bracing sip, Jamie began. "The mornin' of Culloden, we kent the cause was lost. The men," Jamie shook his head, eyes cast to the floor, "they were too tired, too hungry. But Charles wouldna hear of backin' down. He wanted us tae fight. For many other reasons I dinna care to list just now, I kent that I was a dead man that day. Accepted it." His grip on the glass intensified momentarily before he released.

"Wi'out me here, Claire was in too much danger on her own. She was wanted as well as I. With the disaster clear before us, I kent 'twas too dangerous for them tae stay..." Unraveling his fingers from hers, he pressed a hand to her swollen belly. "She was pregnant. "

The sharp gasp drew Jamie's attention to his sister's fallen face. A brokenness looked back at him, and she inched forward in her seat. "Where is the bairn, then, brother?" Jenny asked, voice suddenly small. "Did...did it..."

"No, Jenny," Claire interjected as Jenny was near tears. "No, we didn't lose it."

"Then what--"

"It's the same bairn," Jamie blurted out, hand moving on a soothing circle over his wife's abdomen.

Neither Murray reacted at first. As the words sunk in, Jenny fell back into her seat as Ian leaned forward. "It's been six years, Jamie," Ian said, confusion tinging his voice. "It canna possibly be the same child."

"Well, that's just the thing," Claire stated as she placed her own hand over Jamie's. "Here, for you, it's been six years. For us, since Culloden, it's only been about five months."

More silence. More dumbfounded expressions. Almost in sync, each adult took a swig of their drink. 

"Start from the beginning," Ian commanded. 

In all the weeks they'd prepared to return home, little thought had been spared for exactly what they would tell their family about their time away. The decision to tell the full truth, in fact, had only been made standing at Fergus's bedside moments ago. So the story tripped out of them with awkward pauses, stuttered explanations, and more than one winding tangent before being redirected back to the main path.

Late into the night, when the tale had finally been told satisfactorily, they lapsed into silence. Jamie waited, heart racing. His hand lingered on Claire's neck, buried beneath her hair, rubbing at the tender spot he knew soothed her. Weariness lined her face, but she sat up beside him, alert and waiting. 

Jenny stood then, taking long, slow strides toward the burning fire. She stared into it, hand covering her mouth. 

"I ken it's a lot tae take in, Jen, but 'tis the truth."

More dirty, untidy black hair fell from her pins as she shook her head. 

"Do ye think us daft, man?" she asked, spinning on the spot. If Jamie thought she'd been furious before, she now positively vibrated with rage. The heat of it seemed to radiate from her skin so he feared to touch her, lest he'd burn. "Go away fer six years and feed us a tale about fairies and...and magic and witchcraft?" Jenny's eyes cut to Claire at her last word.

For three full seconds, Jamie saw red. Had Jenny been a foe on battleground, he'd have torn through her in the space of a blink. He doubted any association of Claire with witchcraft would ever bear a different result. With effort, though, he swallowed down the violent retort begging to burst from his lips. Though he couldn't help the mild snarl as he said, "We dinna ken how it works, Janet, but 'tis no' witchcraft."

"Aye, o' course it's not, ye numpty," Jenny answered, voice rising again. "'Tis just more lies ye think we'd be foolish enough to believe."

Since childhood, ferocity had been as much a facet of his and Jenny's relationship as love. They'd bickered and jibed, both with an inclination toward confrontation. Names and insults had been hurled from one Fraser to the other with little worry about causing true, lasting damage. 

Liar had never been among them, though. 

Jamie bounded from the sofa and stormed to the entryway, throwing open the front doors with a bang. Their horse still stood, untended, tied to the hitching post just inside the arch. Grabbing both satchels, he rushed back inside, spurred by indignation. Questions pelted him as soon as he returned, but he ignored them as he rummaged through their belongings. Pulling a small round frame from the bag he'd carried through the stones, Jamie shoved it into Jenny's hands and pulled her toward the light of the roaring fire. Ian migrated to her side. 

"July 13th, 1946," he narrated. "The day I took Claire to wife again. We'd planned to stay, and it had to be legal in that time."

Four eyes, wide and glassy, stared transfixed. Flames from the hearth reflected within them, spots of orange dancing on their black pupils as they gawked at the image in their hands. Claire in her silver dress, Jamie in his kilt and coat, foreheads touching as tears shone on both their cheeks, grins wide. 

"You..." Claire breathed from before the sofa, head swiveling in his direction. "You brought that with you?"

"Aye," he answered with no hesitation. "Ye think I'd leave behind the gift of carryin' ye around in my pocket for all my days, Sassenach?" His smile was weary but genuine as he raised his arm for her to step into. Jamie gathered her into his side and planted a kiss at her temple.

"This..." Ian, like Jenny, had yet to look away, but he seemed at a loss for any other words. 

"It's a photograph," Claire explained gently. "It captures a person's likeness. Like painting, but with light."

Neither Murray spoke, something between wonderment and fright coloring their faces. 

Ian suddenly looked to the end table, where Claire had laid the leather medical kit she'd used to treat Fergus. His wooden leg thumped on the floor as he made his way toward it. Gingerly, he picked it up. Wary eyes narrowed as he studied the metal teeth of the zipper, as though they may actually open and take a bite out of him. 

Jamie didn't leave Jenny's side, but Claire stepped away to speak to Ian. Without a word, she reached over and pulled the tab. The dull ripping sound cut through the air. "This is medicine that won't even be discovered for another century," she explained, pulling the penicillin vial out to place in his hands. "But it will stave off Fergus's fever. Help him heal."

He turned back to his sister, who hadn't yet torn her gaze from the photograph in her hands. Slowly, gently, Jamie reached to take it. Before he could, though, Jenny grabbed his hand. She pulled it to her face, running her thumb over the silver band he now wore with an odd gleam in her eye. 

The sound of him clearing his throat brought Claire's attention back to him. He held it, though he addressed Jenny. "The men in that time wear rings, as well. From the moment she placed it there, it just felt...right. I didna want to part from it when we returned." 

Despite the tension in the room, the way his wife's face softened at his words sent thrills of heat through him. With a twitch of his eyebrow and a crooked smirk for Claire, he turned back to his sister. 

Jenny's lips trembled, whether from continued anger, fear, or whatever other emotion, Jamie was unsure. 

"Ye said ye found Fergus's name in the family tree, in the Bible?" she managed to murmur, face still turned from him. 

"Aye," Jamie answered then waited, unsure what came next. The room stilled for a time. Only the crackle of the logs and the hiss of the heat broke the silence.

Until the smack of Jenny's palm against Jamie's cheek deafened him. 

"Ye shite-eatin' bastard," she screeched as Ian jumped into action, pulling a feral Jenny away from Jamie. He held his face in shock. But even as Ian contained her, Jenny didn't quiet. 

"Ye came back tae save the lad, but ye couldna be bothered tae save Caitlin?"

"What're ye talkin' about?"

Jenny Murray, barely five feet tall, seemed to grow by ten as she glowered at them both. "Och, I see. Ye see the lad's name in the family tree and ye take no notice of any of us, do ye? Dinna so much as bother to check what e'er came of yer sister and brother-in-law and the nieces and nephews who cried tae watch ye ride away 'fore the Risin'?"

"Jenny, we--"

Claire didn't get a chance to finish her sentence as Jenny wrenched herself from Ian's grasp. Jamie leapt between the two women, hand held out to deflect further attack. But she didn't go for him or Claire. Instead, Jenny stormed past him toward the door of the study. Lips slightly agape and eyebrows drawn together, Jamie directed his gaze at Ian, eyes begging for explanation. 

Ian simply tucked his chin into his chest, eyes to the floor. 

Rapid footsteps announced Jenny's return as she thrust the Bible into his hands. Brow still furrowed, Jamie cracked the spine and looked over the family tree until he saw it. The entry they'd missed in their own. Four years old now. 

Caitlin Maisri Murray, born dead, December 3, 1749. 

Claire saw it just after he did. He heard the strangled croak of a sob in her own throat, one delicate hand lifting to her mouth as the other braced around their own unborn child. 

"Christ." He hissed the syllable between his teeth, white hot regret churning through him. "Jen, I'm..."

"Aye," she bit back at him. "Save yer sorries. Ye have the power to alter life and death, I believe ye. And ye do so. For yer own."

"Ye are my own, Janet." Delayed ire rose within him as the imprint of Jenny's fingers solidified across his face. 

She advanced on Jamie again, a sharp forefinger pointed at him in accusation. "Oh, no, we aren'a! 'Twas the Redcoats tearin' apart the house lookin' for you who brought her too early. And ye could've come back and warned us. Saved her! Ye could've saved them both! But no. Ye didna even so much as notice her name written on the page."

A pain so viscerally, horrifically known to him rippled across her face as her finger fell. It gave him enough warning to catch her as she collapsed to the ground. 

So many times had Jamie anticipated the tears Jenny would cry in his arms when they stepped once more into Lallybroch. Holding her now, anguish soaking his shirt instead of joy, Jamie wished he could absorb her pain just as surely. Just as he'd wished he could have taken Claire's when he held her, comforting this same agony that refused to be soothed. 

With a desperate grip, Jamie held his sister to him, stroking her back and rocking her. Claire had turned away, but Jamie saw her shoulders shaking. Beside him, Ian knelt, his own hand clasping Jenny's shoulder as fresh grief cascaded over his features, as well. 

"I didna see her name," Jamie whispered into his sister's hair, "because I didna look at more than I had tae. I didna want..." He shivered, and his exhale trembled. "I didna want tae see the dates next tae any of yer names. I wouldna have looked at all if that dream hadna sent me back here. In my mind, ye all lived forever, happy and safe just out of reach. 'Twas the only way I could keep my heart from breakin' from missing ye." A tear tickled its way down his cheek, landing in Jenny's dark, greasy hair. "I'm sorry that ye weren't."

Before his next breath, Jamie found himself in the familiar haven of Claire's arms, his own still encircling Jenny as her sobs abated. "We don't know why the stones brought us here specifically, Jenny," she whispered, laying her head on Jamie's shoulder. "We hoped we'd arrive sooner. But...they never seem to bring us where we expect to go." Jamie brought his free arm up around Claire's shoulders, hugging both women close. "If we could've helped you, saved her, we would have. I promise you."

Jenny nodded, accepting the sincerity of their words as her wrath deserted her. She collapsed back, shoulders slumped. Exhausted. On a different day, looking from the outside, Jamie would have laughed to see four adults sitting splayed on the floor like children. Now, he just wanted to get through the next minute without another outburst. He yearned for peace among them. 

"What do we do now, then?" Claire asked, looking to him. She shook her head back and forth slightly, jostling her wind-riled curls. "If they've really been so diligent in their search for us here, it may not be safe. But we can't move Fergus, and I won't leave him."

A voice behind them snapped all four heads toward the entryway.

"Should be safe enough for a spell," Murtagh said, shuffling into the room. "They dinna usually stop by so soon after a visit. And before long, the weather conditions will make travelin' here more trouble than it's worth."

Ian nodded. His fingers trailed softly over his wife's arm, and Jenny decompressed visibly with each pass. If she were a cat, she'd be purring, Jamie thought.

"Murtagh's right," Ian echoed. "We usually see them once a quarter, if that. We have time before they return." With some trouble, Ian got his legs beneath him then leaned to pull Jenny to her feet. Jamie and Claire did the same until they all stood, staring in silence as though entranced with each other. Perhaps they were. 

Jenny's clapping hands snapped them out of it. "Either way, they're unlikely tae be back by morning. Best get some rest. I'll have Mrs. Crook help us make up a guest room."

As she moved to walk past them, Jamie reached out and stopped her with a hand on her arm. Before she could so much as raise a questioning eyebrow, he nearly tackled her with the force of his hug. 

"I missed ye, a phiuthar," he choked out. "And I'm sorry." 

As her own arms reciprocated, Jamie released a breath. Their fight was far from over. But here, this moment, all was well. Here, Lallybroch was filled with love and family and fire and life. And so was he. 

 

#

 

Sleep had come for Claire with swift determination as soon as she and Jamie had lain down. At past midnight and with a full day of riding and the emotional battle they'd just fought, it was hardly any wonder. But an internal clock woke her a few hours later. 

Fergus needed his next dose. 

She eased out of bed and grabbed the penicillin case. With a peek at Jamie to ensure she'd not woken him, Claire snuck from the room and made her way up the stairs as quietly as possible. 

As she entered Fergus's room, the candle burning low, she couldn't help the smile that erupted over her face. Seeing him again, those stubborn curls so like her own spilling over his young face...it was a gift. 

In many ways, he was still very much the little boy Jamie had sent away from Culloden. But his cheekbones were sharper, his limbs longer. And, once he opened his eyes, Claire wagered they would be more haunted. She knew her own sadness, the ache his absence had left, and she'd known what became of him. To have lost them both without a trace, orphaned again just as they had all claimed each other must have been devastating. 

Claire administered the penicillin then sat with her back against the wall beside his bed. She ran in fingers through his hair, and his eyelids twitched. Unwilling to wake him, she pulled away, resting her hands over her stomach instead. She'd go back to Jamie soon, but she wanted to listen to Fergus's steady breathing for a time first. 

Only when she woke at Jamie's settling next to her did she realize she'd fallen asleep. He, too, leaned against the wall. Claire laid her head on his shoulder, reaching for his hand and twining their fingers together. "How are you?" she whispered. 

A humorless chortle rumbled through his chest. "No' quite the homecomin' I dreamt of." She felt his shoulders heave as he sighed. "I feel responsible for their sufferin', Sassenach. Foolish tae have believed that the hardships ye spoke of would've spared them in our absence."

"Jamie..."

"I said I wouldna sit around in 1946, livin' easy and in leisure wi' Fergus in danger. But the truth was they were always in danger. Every minute since Culloden, they were in danger." His fingers clenched around hers. "And I planned tae stay anyway. Whether the lad lost his hand or no', Caitlin still would've died, their bellies would still have howled wi' unsated hunger. And I was..."

Claire reached to Jamie's face, pulling him to look at her. Guilt filled his eyes with tears. She saw them building above his lower lashes like water in the bottom of a glass. 

"Listen to me, James Fraser," she commanded, fighting for control of her own voice through the mounting emotion. "Nothing we could've done would've changed any of it. Nothing," she repeated, cutting off his argument. Two of her fingers sealed his lips as she continued. 

"Your sister loves you fiercely. And if she'd known ahead of time, if it had been a choice between keeping you here in what came after or sending you someplace safe, even if she couldn't follow, she would have dragged you to Craigh na Dun herself and pushed you through with sheer force of will." His lips twitched. 

Tenderness consumed her as a droplet glided down his face. She removed her fingers only to brush the backs of her knuckles gently against his jaw, and he leaned hungrily into her touch. "Give her time to get over the shock of it," she whispered, pressing her lips to his shoulder. 

A jab into her ribs made her flinch. 

"Sassenach?"

"It's nothing," she said with a smirk, pulling his hand to the spot where, a second later, another kick followed. "Your child is just agreeing with me."

The blue of his eyes seemed to grow deeper as exquisite joy lit his features. Jamie didn't move his hand as he leaned to kiss her softly. Tears continued to fall, residual remorse likely still plaguing him. Her heart felt the ravages of his in the barest touch of his lips against hers.

But as the pressure of his hand increased, bidding their child to move for him again, she knew the lightness would overcome the dark. 

Chapter Text

Jamie woke the next morning with a tight neck and a numb arm. The candle had long burned out, and early dawn painted the room a muted grey. Blinking his eyes open, two sets of brunette curls melted his heart. Claire's cascaded over her face as she slept against his shoulder, stray hairs tickling his cheek. He fought the urge to wiggle the life back into his deadened fingers. Steady sounds of her breathing soothed him, soft as the breaking tide and just as hypnotizing. 

Just on her other side, Fergus's mussed locks spread over the pillow. Tension released in Jamie's chest to see that his face and hairline were no longer damp with sweat.

He kept his eyes on the lad, on the rise and fall of his chest. Six years had changed him. High, delicate cheekbones replaced the youthful roundness. His longer hair had mellowed into silken waves. With a jolt, Jamie realized that Fergus would be barely ten years younger than himself thanks to the stones. Closer to brothers than the father and son roles they'd assumed before. 

The unreality of the past day washed over him anew. The fingers of his free hand tapped against his thigh. Unease rocked through him as he wondered just how Fergus would react to such a revelation when he grew more lucid. Would he be angry as Jenny had been? Wary like Ian? 

Would he remember the dream, as well? Would he be angry that Jamie had stood by and watched the atrocity done to him?

"I can hear you thinking from here," came a whisper from his right. His head snapped to his still-numb shoulder, whisky eyes meeting his own. A sleepy smile curved her lips.

Huffing an unamused chortle, he pressed a kiss to her temple. "I'm sorry for wakin' ye wi' my noisy musings, Sassenach." 

Claire only shook her head and clambered to her feet as Jamie flexed his arm and hand, pins and needles stabbing him all the way up and down as the blood rushed back. "It's all right. I need to give him another dose anyway."

The morning passed without much conversation. Jenny and Ian stopped in briefly, but the strain of last night's confrontation thickened the air between them. Jamie felt it as surely as the slap that had reddened his cheek. When they departed, Claire and Jamie sat again, resuming their silent vigil.

Mrs. Crook had just brought their noon meals when the lad finally stirred. "Fergus," Jamie breathed, standing, food forgotten. Green eyes gazed back at him. In the full light of day, his coloring had improved, face no longer clammy with sweat or flushed with dangerous fever. Skin still warm to the touch, but manageable.  

But what comforted Jamie most was the grin that spread across his face, slow and relaxed like a cat's unfurling tail. Eyes still hooded from slumber danced between his face and Claire's. "I knew you would come," Fergus repeated, voice stronger than it had been the previous night. 

Tears shone in Claire's eyes. She leaned over and placed her lips against Fergus's forehead as she choked out, "Of course we did." Jamie grasped the lad's good hand tightly between his own, an ecstatic smile plastered over his face.

After a moment of emotional reunion, Jamie helped Fergus to sit up fully against the headboard. 

"I'll go have Mrs. Crook bring you some broth," Claire said, standing with a hand to her lower back. 

"Mo nighean donn, ye shouldna--"

"I am perfectly capable of walking up and down stairs, Jamie," she answered, tone halfway between warning and assurance. The crinkle between her brows softened, though, and Jamie read her as clearly as he ever did: This was a time for Jamie and Fergus to speak alone, as men. One corner of his mouth pulled up in a grateful, crooked smile as Jamie resolved to find a private spot and moment in which to demonstrate how deeply he appreciated her, the whispers of how his love grew day after day lost amidst her wee sounds that so intoxicated him. With a knowing glint to her eye, Claire kissed the tip of his nose then brushed past him and out the door. 

Jamie counted ten heartbeats between the door clicking closed and him taking a seat at Fergus's bedside. "'Tis good tae see ye improvin', lad," Jamie said in a thick voice. 

A somberness had infected Fergus's eyes, fully alert now. And even as he stumbled through his words, Jamie resisted the temptation to interrupt. "Milord," he began. "When the Redcoats...when they took my hand..." Fergus swallowed, and rage sliced through Jamie's heart to see the residual horror and disbelief shadowing his son's face. But when he turned and met Jamie's gaze, only a resolute strength looked back at him. 

Christ, he's a brave lad. 

"I saw you there, Milord," Fergus stated. "You did not look...quite right, but it was you. And you saw me."

Jawline sharp as he ground his teeth together, Jamie nodded. "Aye," he confirmed. His grip clenched around the boy's leg for a moment before relinquishing. "Aye, I saw what happened to ye."

Fergus shook his head. "How?" No malice. No blame. Not why didn't you stop them? Only curiosity. 

With a shaky breath, Jamie launched into much the same explanation he'd given his family the night before. Shared how he'd meant to take Claire to a place of safety before the battle and ended up pulled there himself. Their months spent in the future, the life they'd planned to build there. His genuine belief that Fergus and all of Lallybroch would be safer with him gone. And the horrific, lifelike dream that had convinced him they weren't.

When he'd finished, Fergus only chuckled. Surprised, hopeful, Jamie narrowed his eyes even as his lips twitched. "Ye seem to be takin' the news better than most others, then," he commented. 

With a shrug and a lopsided frown of resigned acceptance that betrayed his Parisian roots, Fergus scoffed, a rough sound in the back of his throat. "Murtagh hinted something of the sort."

"Murtagh--"

"He would never betray your confidence, Milord," Fergus assured him, sitting further up in the bed with a stifled grunt of exertion. "He allowed the Murrays to think what they would, but he spoke more openly with me. When you did not return to the battle, and then when Murtagh returned and you and Milady were not here, he said you must have followed Milady to the place of safety. He never said where, but he always had a certain...look to his eye.

"Then there were always the rumors," he added with another shrug. Closing his eyes, he leaned his head back against the wall.

"Rumors?"

"Many believe Milady to be a fairy, or at least no ordinary woman. She just...had different a way about her," Fergus replied in a tone infected with glee. "There were whispers that when you two disappeared, that she'd somehow taken you back with her to where she came from. And they were right, were they not?"

Jamie swiped his hand over his face, chuckling, eyebrows raised with incredulity. "I suppose so."

As the jesting subsided, something akin to wonder glowed from Fergus's eyes. The thin fingers of his right hand fiddled with a loose thread on the blanket, but his eyes never left Jamie's face. "If you were able to see what happened to me, far away as you were...then you are no ordinary man either, non?"

The question seemed nearly hopeful, and Jamie had to smile. Affection for Fergus bloomed in him that, grown as he surely had, something of the young boy he'd last known still remained. The boy who believed himself a warrior, who looked at Jamie with stars in his eyes and believed him to be something just a bit more than mere man. 

"I dinna ken, lad," Jamie answered truthfully, stammering his way through the only plausible rationale. He'd spent countless hours asking that same question -- why him? why Claire? -- without answer. "The...most I can guess is that the Lord crafted Milady and me from the same soul, but He had tae separate us so we would be...be formed into who we needed tae be for each other before he brought us together, tae protect each other. And our family."

Neither spoke as a breeze blew past the window, sending a chill down both their spines. As Jamie stood to close it, murmuring that he really ought to find Fergus something to eat, Fergus propped himself up straighter. 

"I am glad you came, Milord," he said, voice bright and clear. "The Murrays were good to me, but..." Jamie placed an encouraging hand on his shoulder. "But I have no place in this world that isn't at your side, Milord."

Relief tore the breath from his lungs as the corners of his eyes prickled with tears. Bending at the waist to kiss Fergus's curls, Jamie sighed. "Notre famille n'est pas complète sans toi, mon fils."

 

#

 

Two days of penicillin dosing, and Fergus was well enough to stand from the bed for the first time in days. Joy and pride swelled in Jamie to watch him shuffle into the parlor. Claire, then Jenny and Ian rushed to embrace him. When they pulled away, Jamie strode over, clapping the lad on his good shoulder before leaning in for a hug of his own. Fergus's one arm returned the gesture, and Jamie could feel the lad's smile buried against his chest.

After all the fretting, all the hemming and hawing and time spent weighing their options, Jamie took this moment as a sign from on high that they'd made the correct decision. Every stray thought over the following few weeks as his health and vigor grew drifted toward prayers of thanksgiving. 

As October passed, Claire worked with Fergus to strengthen his arm and desensitize the stump before hopefully finding a substitute for him. A hook, perhaps, or a false hand. Jamie thought he may prefer the latter; Fergus's persisting shyness surrounding his condition hadn't escaped his notice. Whenever there was a table or blanket or jacket or doorway nearby, Fergus always took pains to keep his deformed limb out of sight, and his cheeks reddened whenever the group mentioned it. Jamie's heart ached at the turmoil evident in Fergus's manner, but he knew broaching the subject would only heighten his discomfort. 

Definitely not a hook, then. Something more subtle that wouldn't immediately draw attention to him. He'd have to ask Ian to look into the matter. 

Not that that would be a wholly comfortable inquiry. A rough truce between Murrays and Frasers had kept a fragile peace between the families as the weeks wore on. It ate away at Jamie, the stiffness with which both sister and best friend stood around him, the formality of their speech, the furtive glances cut toward him when they believed his back was turned. Though Ian's presence felt somewhat more natural, a wall still stood between them. When they were alone, it felt like one he could eventually mount and cross. But with Jenny nearby, that wall became a fortress. Wrapped in Claire's arms come nighttime, Jamie would lament the strain between them all. Neither had a solution. 

Over the weeks, too, an escape plan for late winter slowly took shape. Before they could leave, though, they needed a way to relieve Lallybroch of the Redcoats' persistent harassment. Neither Jamie nor Claire were willing to leave the Murrays to the limited mercies of the soldiers. 

Two days before October expired, they retreated to their bedroom after supper. By firelight and with Jamie pacing behind her, Claire read over the letter. A final draft that, though written in Jamie's hand, they had crafted together over countless nights of determined writing and revision and reading aloud and adding and deleting and honing. Jamie bit on the inside of his cheek as Claire's eyes ran to and fro across the paper.

 

Dearest Jenny, 

Christ, how does One even begin such a letter after so Many years apart? So many years likely thinking Myself and my Wife long dead and buried? Perhaps it would be better to let you think that still. But after Seven years away, sister, I can no longer keep My silence from you.

You ken now that the Rising was a failure, of course. Doomed to be so from the start, but What else could I do other than my own duty? The second Charles affixed my name to his Declaration of war, however fraudulently, I was a dead man. The only hope I had to Protect my family was to fight. And I fought hard. 

Before Culloden, my Wife and I were both wanted traitors. My likeness stared back from broadsheets in nearly every town, though I thank God Almighty to this day that her face was Unknown to our enemy and, thus, her identity marginally more secure than Mine. It meant I could send her to safety before facing my own fate.

As the battle drew near, I received news Both wonderful and terrifying. Jenny, she was with child. Lord, how my heart leapt to hear her say it! So joyous that I forgot where we were, that we were Hunted, near-starved, drained and without a Home to return to. That bloodshed and Death would soon be upon our entire encampment. When I remembered where We were and what was to come, I fell to my knees beneath the weight Of it all. Fear and agony ripped through me, Jenny, so surely as any blade or musket ball.

And in that moment, a decision was forced upon me. Between duty to my Prince, or to my family. 'Twas hardly a choice at all. For though I swore an oath to Charles to fight his war, I vowed before God Himself to shield this Woman -- the very face of my soul -- from harm even unto my Own death. 

Her escape would have been dangerous on her own, but with child? We'd lost one already, Jenny, and the grief very nearly killed Us both. I could not send Her and our bairn away unprotected. Every day since, I have prayed that God may forgive me, for regardless of whether I chose rightly, I'd choose the same a hundred times, then a thousand times more. 

I will not disclose the details of where and How we hid and eventually fled Scotland nor our precise whereabouts now. Suffice it to say we now reside in safety on the European continent. Our wee lass -- born the November after Culloden, named for our Mother -- runs free. And a fierce, wild Thing she is, Jenny! I could fill pages about her alone. 'Tis a selfish thing, the joy and gratitude I have for watching her grow when I should be mouldering in the ground. But still, I cannot bring myself to regret that Choice made years ago. For her safety and happiness, For her mother's, I'd endure so much more than the fires of hell. 

Word from home is sparse, surely, but I know times in Scotland are difficult. We have not much, starting from Nothing as we have here. The ring is my wife's, you'll recognize, from her first marriage. She says that if it fetches a good enough price to keep you and your children Fed, that she is eager for you to have it. I hope it is not needed, that you and your family have fared Well at Lallybroch. That the harshness we've heard tell of Has skipped over you entirely. We pray for it nightly. 

When last I left you, I was a traitor to My country as well as to you. My heart aches with the words of our parting, spoken in anger And betrayal. One day, I pray, we will see each other once again. That I can make peace with you for all that has passed between us. Until then, Jenny, hold in your heart this truth: That you are and will always be my family, and that I love you Fiercely. 

 

Yours always, your brother, 

James Alexander Malcolm Mackenzie Fraser

 

Claire swiped away a tear from her cheek as she finished reading, handing the paper back to her husband. She nodded, smiling. "That's it," she whispered. 

Kneeling beside her, Jamie took her hand and ran a finger along the lines of her palm as though following a map. The flames in the hearth danced in her eyes and glinted off her curls as its heat brought color to her cheeks. 

"Those lines about...about our child," she started slowly. "About our daughter..."

A sheepish smile stole over his face as his focus shifted to their hands. "Aye," he answered. His rough fingers still traced along, turning her hand to follow the path of her blue veins atop it. "Nothin' I wrote is a lie. When ye get to the heart of what it says, at least." His head lifted, and golden eyes caught his, then, stalling his breath and quickening hers before he continued. "In my younger days, I was...lonely, and angry, and content tae spend my life as a ruffian. Even the price on my head when we first met didna bother me owermuch. But ye...ye changed every wish I had for my future, Sassenach. And when ye told me of Faith and I watched ye carry her, I ached to be a Da, tae watch you become a mother, Claire.

"Such a dream has been...given and taken so many times. And now, as I watch ye grow round once more..." The muscles of his throat worked as he swallowed down the still-powerful grief. His gaze never wavered from hers. Trapped, he was, like an insect in amber. And thrilled to be so. "I find myself...terrified. But so desperate tae meet him when he comes."

"'Him'? Yet you wrote of a daughter?" 

Roving fingers migrated up her forearm, reaching inside the loose sleeve of her shift. "Perhaps it's Faith I was imaginin' when I wrote it, for I ken to the very marrow of my bones 'tis a lad kicking at ye just this minute." A sharp jab visible at the apex of her belly proved his point. Both giggling, Jamie placed a kiss right where her shift had fluttered at wean's antics. 

Silence fell between them then, a few more hearty maneuvers on the baby's part keeping their attention. Finally, she took his hand in hers and kissed his knuckles as he so often did hers. "Should we tell the rest, then?"

Claire threw a knitted shawl over her shift before they descended the stairs. Jenny and Ian still sat before the fire, and Jamie fetched Murtagh and Fergus before detailing the vague plans thus far formed and presenting their letter. 

"'Tis clear that not only have we no' spoken since before the Risin', but that we parted on poor terms," Jamie explained. "That ye did no' approve of my part in it."

Claire nodded. "And in addition to Jamie's full signature, we're hoping adding the ring will lend some credibility that you didn't simply write the letter yourselves. My initials are engraved on the inside. And with the money and gold we brought back for you and hid away, even if the soldiers confiscate the ring, you should be provided for." 

Jenny's eyes glistened as she read through it again. Never did she look to them. Ian, though, who'd read it over her shoulder, shared the first genuine smile since their arrival. Warmth like fine whiskey, thus far missing from Lallybroch, spread through Jamie at the sight. 

"'Tis a bonny idea," Ian said, words imbued with his typical gentleness.

Nodding, Jamie paced, silhouetted against the fire. "We'll post it from Inverness when we leave. Hopefully, it'll look authen--"

A stuttering sob from Jenny cut him off. Before she could even clap her hand over her mouth, all animosity forgotten, Jamie crashed to the floor at her feet. "A phiuthar, what's amiss?" he asked. 

Droplets of moisture beaded on her lashes and dripped down her face, dark eyes woeful and lips quivering. In that moment, a heartbreaking nostalgia pummeled him. He saw Jenny then as the bairn she'd once been. A girl too young for such responsibility suddenly thrust into the role of mother, whose crushing need to shield him from harm often meant delaying care of herself. And he, so used to her obstinacy that watching the burden finally spill over and rain down her cheeks frightened him more than almost anything else. Two children again, clinging to each other, too young to understand the harshness of the world around them. A world that would tear their family apart again and again, breaking it down smaller with every agonizing blow. 

Jenny bowed her head, shaking it as the cries she'd held her breath to contain ruptured, wracking her petite frame as Ian rushed to sit beside her. "I'm sorry, brother," she whimpered at last.

Confusion battled concern as Jamie looked up to Claire for guidance. She lowered herself beside him with difficulty, her own hand covering his, as he asked, "For what, Jenny?" 

"For bein' a right fool," she barked. Head raised, chin jutted out, she flourished the letter. "Readin' this, thinkin' of everything ye've told us since ye returned..." She heaved an unsteady breath. "This could have been the truth. If ye hadna passed through a...a fairy hill, if ye'd escaped and written to us seven years later, would I have begrudged you fer it?" Impatient fingers swiped her tears away as she raised her gaze to the ceiling, shaking her head in self-recrimination. "Christ, Jamie, I thought ye dead for years. And when ye returned to me, I..." Her faced crumpled again. Jenny hid behind her hands, letter on her lap, and Jamie squeezed her knee but said naught.

"Ye lived, managed to spare yer family from the...misery that Scotland has been, from the danger ye woulda faced yerself had ye been caught or gone to battle. Whether ye were here or...or in another time, how could I shame ye for that, Jamie? 

"And here we are, talkin' about ye leavin' again soon, perhaps forever, and I've spent more'n a month stompin' around bein' cross wi' ye both." At that, she grabbed both their hands, clutching them with surprising strength. "I am...so sorry, to ye both. And so ashamed." 

"Weesht, lass." Ian sat by her side, gathering a still weepy Jenny into his chest. She clung to Jamie's and Claire's hands, even as it pulled her arms at an odd angle. Running his fingers through her loosened hair, Ian rocked her as Jamie kissed her knuckles. 

"Aye, listen tae yer husband," Jamie said with the hint of a smirk in his voice. A single choked laugh burst from Jenny as her lips turned slightly upwards. 

"We're sorry, too, Jenny," Claire whispered from her spot, thumb grazing across her knuckles. "I'm sorry that we couldn't do more for you all before now. And for the pain you've endured because...because of us." As Claire's soundless tears began then, her body shuddered beside his. Jamie placed his free arm over her shoulders, kissing her temple. 

Moisture burned behind his own eyes. For so long now, he'd yearned for the blissful reunion he'd envisioned before returning, nearly resigned himself to the barrier between them that he'd imagined grew each day. But with only a few words, the fortress Jenny had built to hold them at bay imploded. Leaving them all raw, vulnerable, but together. Connected. 

Rising from Ian's shoulder, Jenny took one hand back to dry her face with her sleeve. A sigh and a smile as she looked down at them both. "I love ye both, ye ken?" she said. Her words, unhindered and sincere, promised acceptance and forgiveness. Peace wafted over his soul like the comforting aroma of baking bread.

A nudge at Jamie's shoulder, and he looked to see a glass of whisky there waiting. With a smirk, he looked up to his godfather, raising the glass in silent thanks. Two minutes later, everyone sat around the fire with drams. They talked with ease, laughed together for the first time. 

Finally, he thought as he sipped again and twined his finger's with Claire's. I'm home. 

 

#

 

Hours later, with Fergus, Jenny, and Claire all dozing in their seats, they stood to head up for bed. Jenny and Ian embraced them each, holding on for several seconds before stepping away. Claire looked to her husband, and satisfaction beamed from his face. He smiled at her and took her arm to guide her up the stairs. 

"Wait," she said. Walking toward the end table where the letter sat, ignoring Jamie's quizzical look, Claire twisted the gold ring from her hand. She held it between two fingers for a moment, fortifying herself with a breath before placing it on the paper. "We can seal it up tomorrow so it's ready to go."

No one commented on it as they ascended the stairs and bade their final goodnights. Only when Jamie lay behind her in bed, arms wrapped over the child nestled beneath her heart, did he speak. 

"Are ye sure about yer ring, Sassenach?" he whispered just before Claire drifted into sleep. "Ye dinna need to sacrifice it. We can think of somethin' else to prove who wrote it."

Claire huffed as she turned to face him, her palm cradling his face. The doubt constricting his brows filled her with tenderness. "I'm sure," she whispered. Eyes closed, she touched her forehead to his, trailing her nose along the bridge of his own. "The only ring I need, I'm still wearing."

The release of his held breath brushed the hair from her face as he gathered her in more closely. He breathed, "Tha gaol agam ort," as his lips laid languid kisses from beneath her ear, down her neck, and across her collarbone. 

"I love you, too," she said on a gasp as he worked his way further down, stoking the pyre within her and banishing all thought of getting to sleep anytime soon.

Chapter Text

Few memories of Claire's parents had survived in the twenty-four years since she'd lost them. And whatever clear memories lingered were likely more the product of the stories Uncle Lamb told her than actual, independent recollections. Tales of her flustered parents, first-timers, trying to wrangle a wily and spirited toddler at the fair or at church or at her father's office on the university campus. Lamb had reminisced fondly of trips to the beach or family dinners where he'd tagged along. Even the time when, barely two years old, she'd thrown a series of uncharacteristic tantrums while visiting Lamb's apartment after a full day of errands...only for her frazzled and shame-faced mother to realize Claire hadn't eaten a bite since breakfast twelve hours before. Lamb would cackle as he described Julia Beauchamp zipping around the kitchen, pulling down biscuits to fill Claire's belly and assuage her own guilt as she scrambled together a decent (and hearty) supper and begged Lamb not to tell her father.

She clung to them, pulled them out occasionally to enjoy, but they were no more a part of her than the story of Dorothy's journey to Oz. 

But one night stood out to her. A quiet one. A genuine memory, she knew, and not simply a simulacrum cobbled together secondhand. Snow blanketed the yard, and flickering tapers reflected in the dark windowpane. She couldn't have been more than three, certainly too young to remember. Even though she did. 

Christmas Day had been exquisite. Santa had come and left the doll she'd wanted and a new dress and pair of shoes, and she'd received a handful of new toys from her parents, too. They hadn't left the house all day, Claire allowed free reign of the treats and toys as friends and colleagues filtered in and out. As the day wound down, she'd insisted on hearing A Christmas Carol again, even though Christmas was nearly officially over. Claire had nodded off barely a page in. When she'd woken sometime later, though, she was still sandwiched between both her parents on the sofa. Looking up, her father's arm was wrapped around her mother's shoulders, both their heads bowed together, breathing heavy in sleep. She'd cuddled back against her father's warm sweater that smelled like him -- port and cinnamon from his after-dinner nibble -- and closed her eyes, drifting off to sleep again. Come dawn, she'd awoken in her bed just like every other morning. 

Young though she'd been, Claire understood that that moment, in its simplicity, was special. Never had she felt so loved and so whole as she had watching her parents snore softly above her on Christmas night. 

Never, until Jamie. Until Lallybroch.

One letter, one night of tearful reconciliation, and Lallybroch transformed into the home they'd remembered so fondly. By the second week of November, Claire could almost fool herself into believing they'd be happy there forever. Days spent with Jenny in the kitchen and then, as her pregnancy progressed and Jamie implored her to stay off her feet, the parlor reminded her of those months before they had left to join the war effort: blissful mundanity at its finest. Knitting stockings for the family, sewing tiny baby clothes, mending Maggie's dresses to fit a fast-growing Kitty, sharing meals around the table and passing the whisky beside the hearth once the children drifted off to bed...every day gifted Claire a new memory to treasure. 

Jamie relished these days, too, radiating an easy serenity she wished she could emulate herself. Each day that ticked closer to their departure, distant as it still was, increased her melancholia by minute degrees. As her mind whirred down toward sleep every night, when her defenses were lowest, another tally mark etched itself into her soul. Another day closer to leaving this all behind. The only place her nomadic spirit had ever yearned for. People who had wormed their way into her solitary heart and become her closest family. And the memories they should make here. Memories all their own. Memories she wished her child would have of his childhood here, vague and fuzzy and always in the back of his mind.

Claire resisted it. She refused to spend their limited time at home mired in sullenness. And more than that, particularly when a concerned Jamie inquired after her poorly hidden flashes of despondency, she refused to infect Jamie with her despair. For the most part now, she focused on enjoying the time they had. And when sorrow overwhelmed her, her husband soothed her with silent caresses in the dark of night, his embrace a promise that no matter where they laid their heads, she'd always be home with him. 

She woke late on Monday morning, searching the bed for her husband but coming up empty. With a groggy huff, Claire sat herself up and, with no small effort, dressed to the minimum of decorum before descending the stairs. Wild curls still frizzed around her face; she'd only had the energy to run damp fingers through them and no patience to try to pin them in place. 

Waddling down the stairs and through the house, she entered the kitchen where Jenny and Mrs. Crook were preparing bannocks, the dregs of breakfast still littering the table. Jenny turned to smile before registering her disheveled appearance with a cock of a dark eyebrow. "Tough morning, then?" she asked, clapping her hands together to rid them of flour. 

Claire grunted in the affirmative before plopping down onto the bench with a heavy sigh. 

"Aye," Jenny said, turning to help Mrs. Crook place the dough into the fire to bake. "When yer so far along, there's no such thing as 'comfortable' anymore. The bairn keepin' ye up at night, then?"

Shaking her head, Claire massaged her belly with affection despite her less-than-sunny countenance. "No. Not last night, at least. He's been calm recently. I'm just...exhausted." Shrugging, she leaned against the wall and closed her eyes. "Suppose that comes with the territory of carrying an enormous Fraser baby."

Jenny chuckled and walked over. "Here," she said, placing a wine glass and fresh bannock before her. "Ye should eat something. Ye didna finish hardly half yer supper last night."

Rolling her eyes, Claire took a bite of the bannock and chewed pointedly, a brow arched at her sister-in-law. "Happy?"

"Owerjoyed," Jenny jibed back before turning to finish the cooking and cleaning. 

She kept Jenny and Mrs. Crook company, albeit quietly, for the rest of the morning before following Jenny to the sitting room to work on more mending. Jenny narrowed her eyes as Claire pressed her knuckles into her lower back. "Yer back hurtin'?" she asked. 

Sinking into the couch with a shrug, Claire closed her eyes and sighed. "Hasn't stopped hurting for months now. Remember, humongous Fraser baby? Bad for the back."

Jenny exhaled a laugh, but her smile didn't reach her eyes. A breath later, she called up the stairs for Fergus, who bounded down immediately. His own recovery had progressed nicely, both his energy and mood more stable as Claire managed his pain. She watched suspiciously as Jenny and Fergus murmured together at the foot of the stairs, the boy's green eyes shifting to her for an instant before he tore out of the room and from the house. 

As the door boomed closed in the distance, Jenny came to stand before Claire. "All right, lass. On yer feet."

"What?" 

"Ye've been havin' pains, haven't ye?" When Claire declined to answer, Jenny carried on. "I've been watchin' ye grit yer teeth through them all mornin'. Ye've been tired and with no appetite. Back painin' ye more than usual, even if ye dinna say so. Only a matter o' time 'fore yer wee one is makin' his appearance then." Jenny clapped her hands, bidding Claire to stand. "So we'll do a bit o' walking about the house tae help him along. Fergus has gone tae tell Ian to fetch the midwife--"

"No, Jenny, I'm not--" She cut off her words and clenched her teeth as a sharp pain stabbed her through the middle.

"Mmm-hmm," Jenny hummed with satisfaction. "Screamed and cursed my way through four births, sister. Ye'll get naught by me. Now," she added as Claire panted, signaling the end of the contraction. "Dinna make me punish ye like a bairn for no' listenin'. Wouldna be becomin' of a new mother-tae-be. Stand, lass, and let's get walkin'."

Grumbling, she did as told, holding on to Jenny as they shuffled their way around the house, pausing every so often for Claire to weather another contraction. None so strong yet that she couldn't speak or breathe but growing in intensity nonetheless. 

After three laps of the main floor, the doors banged open again and Jamie ran in. "Sassenach?" he asked, eyes wild. "Fergus sent Ian fer the--"

"Och, mind yer boots, brother!" Jenny snapped, eyeing a trail of dirt clumps that led right up to Jamie's feet clear as X marks the spot. "Yer wife is well, only stubborn. Nothin' so far progressed for ye to be muckin' up my house. Go out and wash yerself."

Jamie met her gaze, and Claire smiled weakly. "I wouldn't make her ask twice," Claire joked, standing up taller, hoping to put his mind at a tiny bit of ease. "I'm fine for the time being."

Another lap and a half and two contractions later, Jamie burst back in and strode over to her. "What do ye need, Sassenach?"

Days of repressed emotion pummeled her in a deluge that turned her bones to water. Anticipation, excitement. Pain. The ever-present low-level dread of departing Lallybroch. The heartbreak of her last pregnancy, of holding her perfect, lifeless baby, of her name carved into stone. An impatience not only to end her physical discomfort but also to cradle their pink and healthy child against her breast, to see her favorite Fraser features on his miniature face. 

And looming large over all the others, fear. Fear she'd never meet this baby, either by its death or her own. Terror at the prospect of being parted from Jamie during the most important moments of their life. The enormity of the duty that would rest upon their shoulders in mere hours overwhelmed her. 

Her pulse skyrocketed as she pulled from Jenny's arms and lunged for Jamie. "Just you. Right here," she answered, winding her arms around his neck. By instinct, he gathered her as close to himself as possible with the baby nestled between them, both clinging to the other as they heaved matching breaths, quelling the nerves rising up in both of them. 

Claire winced and inhaled sharply with the angry, fiery agony that tore through her center, so much worse than the others. As it eased, she felt liquid running down her legs. 

"My waters have broken," she breathed, fisting his collar tighter at the realization. 

Jenny worked her way back to Claire's side. "Aye, the bairn kent to wait till his da was near. Now, let's get ye ready tae meet the wee bugger."

 

#

 

The hours after Claire's labor began moved both inexorably slowly and in a blurred rush. Jenny had barked at Jamie to help his wife up the stairs as she and Mrs. Crook prepared their guest room for the birth. Maggie, begging to help, had brought the linens and the water before being dismissed. 

Shadows stretched across the room, and Jamie hovered near Claire, helping her to walk and rest as needed. Time eked by, each grimace that contorted her face stretching on for years with the breaks in between coming and going in barely the space of a blink, it seemed. Every time her fingers dug into his arm in pain, his own body responded in kind, muscles tightening to the point of snapping. But he willed himself to remain steadfast. If she could carry and nurture their bairn with her own life's blood before pushing him into the world, then he could stand beside her and support her through it. 

When the midwife arrived that afternoon, both she and his sister shooed him from the room. Jamie clutched Claire close into his side before the window, where the brisk breeze cooled her flushed skin. "I wilna leave," he growled, curling himself around her sweating, panting form. 

"Jamie," she managed to whisper, placing her hand on his cheek. "Go down and wait with Ian and Murtagh."

"Sassenach--"

"Please, Jamie." Moisture shone in her eyes, reflecting his own fears back to him. "I can't do this if I'm worried about being strong for you."

"Then dinna do so." He pulled her closer, pressing her palm against his chest and covering it there, his other hand at the nape of her neck beneath her curls. "Ye are so strong, mo nighean donn, but dinna hold back for me." Salt lingered on his lips as he pressed an urgent kiss to her sweat-damp forehead. "I am here as yer strength, Sassenach, and I canna bear tae leave ye here alone. Please dinna make me go."

Fat tears traced down her cheek and dripped from her chin. "I'm scared, Jamie," she breathed, voice high. 

He nodded. "I have ye, Claire. And I'm so proud of ye and so thankful. Christ, I love ye so much. Ye are the best woman I ken, Sassenach, wee and fierce as ye are."

"Given the circumstances, I'll let that slight slide," Jenny butted in, hands on her hips and with both eyebrows raised. "But make a choice: In or out, brother?"

"In," he replied without hesitation. Claire melted against him in relief. 

Jenny rolled her eyes and leveled him with an admonishing finger. "Fine, but ye do as we say, no questions or I'll have the men drag ye out kickin' and screamin'. Clear?"

"Aye," Jamie said through clenched teeth. "Clear."

After that, the women rushed around in a flurry of motion. Claire's increasingly frequent pains melded together, one into the next, until the midwife ordered her to the pile of blankets and hay on the floor. 

"Time tae push," she finally commanded, her authoritative voice a small comfort in the midst of the surrounding chaos. 

Dark had fallen long ago, the crackling flames drowned out in Claire's anguished cries as she labored to bring their child into the world. Jamie supported from behind, holding her into a squatted position and whispering encouragement in between bouts of grunting and screaming. The midwife, Jenny assisting at her side, sat before her, guiding Claire and the bairn both. Screaming, wheezing. Screeching, trembling. With shaking hands and a knotted stomach, Jamie prayed she'd have a reprieve soon. 

Then, after a bone-rattling cry, Claire sagged gasping to the floor and a fresh wail pierced the air. 

Jamie could hardly breathe as he watched the midwife hand the squirming, blueish bundle to his sister so she could sever the cord. Jenny smiled through her own tears, cheeks red with exertion and joy in equal measure.

"Congratulations, sister," she said above the shrill cries emanating from the babe she passed to Claire. "Would ye care to meet yer wee lad?"

Pale and panting still as she leaned against him, Claire took the child in her arms as though in a daze, Jamie behind her in much the same state. 

"A lad?" he choked out, turning his wide eyes toward Jenny, who nodded in confirmation. 

Looking back to Claire, Jamie watched in astonishment as the bairn cried some more, each lungful of air turning his skin pink with life. Wrinkled and covered in the byproducts of birth, their son absolutely roared with displeasure. Jamie swelled with pride as he looped his arm around Claire's shoulders, shaking with her own relieved tears, and kissed her temple. 

Neither spoke. She gazed down at the miracle in her arms, and Jamie gazed at her. Jenny took the bairn back as the midwife coached Claire through delivering the afterbirth. Jamie's attention shifted between his wife before him and Jenny across the room, bathing the newborn with gentle care. 

"Now, Mrs. Fraser, we'll get ye cleaned up an' intae bed to feed the wee one, aye?" the midwife explained through a grin. The delight on her face at a successful birth, even after as many as she must've performed by now, lifted Jamie's heart even further. 

Before Claire stood to follow the woman, she turned and crashed her lips into his. Jamie knotted his fingers in her hair, pouring every one of his myriad emotions into his kiss. She parted with a delirious smile, and Jamie pulled her to her feet. The woman then led her behind a privacy screen to undress and wash. An insensible contrivance given the experience they'd just shared, but having already flouted the custom to leave the women to their work, Jamie decided not to push his luck. 

"Yer turn, brother," Jenny spoke up from his elbow, holding out the freshly cleaned, tightly wrapped bundle. Disbelief buzzed through his veins, eyes warm as he reached for his son. He blinked away the tears, not wanting to miss his first real look at him. 

Christ, but he was so wee. Didn't even stretch the length from the crook of his elbow to his wrist. Dark locks peeked from his swaddling. They matched Claire's, he realized with ecstasy. Eyes squinted shut and tiny tongue swirling over perfect rosy lips, the lad flailed and kicked with whimpers that at once tore at his heart and filled it with adoration. 

Jamie exhaled a laugh, cheeks aching from smiling. "I'm sorry, mo mac, ye'll have to be patient for yer mam. Ye did quite a number on her, ken, so she needs just a mo' to gather herself." He traced a trembling finger over the button nose and rounded cheek, watching in fascination as the babe blindly turned to follow it. 

Everything about this moment felt unreal. If it hadn't been for God's own mercy delivered through a set of fairy stones, Jamie wouldn't even be here meeting his son. Now, after months of waiting and jumping back and forth through time itself, to touch the lad who once had been naught but a fluttering heartbeat heard through a rubber tube was a gift beyond what Jamie ever believed possible. 

Shaking his head, he grazed his lips across the tuft of brown hair, breathing in that newborn scent. "How is it I've known ye for all of two minutes and yet already love ye more than I can bear?"

A soft touch to his bicep snapped his attention to Claire. For hours now, he'd held his composure in tight control. He lost it at the sight of her. Reaching to embrace her with his other arm, Jamie finally gave in to the full force of his tears as he held them both. 

They stood that way, mother and father embracing around the child they'd created, before the wails grew insistent again. Smirking, sniffling, Jamie kissed the crown of her curls and led her to the bed. Once she was situated, he passed the lad over and settled against the pillows next to her. He watched with fascination as Claire undid the ties of her fresh shift. With the midwife's help, Claire began nursing, their son drinking greedily from her. 

Then, for the first time, they were alone. 

"Well, you were right." She whispered the words as though not wanting to mask the sounds of their child nursing. "He was a boy after all."

One corner of his mouth twitched up. "Ye should ken better by now than tae doubt my word," he teased. A contented sigh blew from between his lips as he ran a finger along his son's soft arm, his absolutely minuscule fist, balled up tight and resting on Claire's breast. With the blanket slipped off his head, Jamie ran his hand over the abundance of soft brown locks. "Christ, I've never seen so much hair on a bairn before. No' a newborn anyway."

Claire rolled her eyes and chortled. "Explains the heartburn these last few weeks, at least."

"That so?"

She shrugged, eyes still on the babe, thoroughly enraptured. "That's what I always heard, anyway."

Jamie grunted in acknowledgement before they descended into silence again. Both Frasers stared transfixed at the tiny life that had sprung from their love. Once he'd finished with one breast and swapped to the other, Claire smoothed her hand over his wee head. "Oh, how I love you, my sweet Brian."

He pinched his eyes shut to contain yet another onslaught. His son had a name. His father's name, as promised. Sniffing, Jamie captured a little foot between his fingers. "Brian Quentin..."

"...Alexander..."

"...Beauchamp Fraser," Jamie finished on a sigh. Lifting his gaze to meet Claire's, he wished this moment would never end. The warmth of her gold tempering his ice blue, connected in a space beyond flesh and blood, beyond time and breath and knowing. A perfect life held between them. His lips twitched as he wondered whose eyes their son would have. 

And as Brian finished his first meal, lips smacking and cheeks relaxed as his mother lifted him to burp before he dozed completely, Jamie sent thanks to God for all he'd been graced with. His wife. His sons. His sister and brother and nieces and nephews. And, above all, the days ahead to spend with each of them. 

 

#

 

With the sunrise came the horde of well-wishers. Jamie managed to fend them off long enough for Claire to dress to go downstairs. His own scheme so he could cradle Brian in his arms, she teased. 

"Och, yer the one who didna want to laze about in the bed to receive visitors," Jamie crooned, peppering kisses across his son's tiny cheeks and nose as he wrenched open his smoky gray eyes from slumber. "Said if Jenny could mount a horse three days after havin' Maggie, then ye could certainly make yer way to the parlor fer tea."

Claire huffed and rolled her eyes, barely containing her smirk as she pinned her hair back. As he chuckled, though, Jamie kept a keen eye on his wife, assessing. She moved tenderly, of course, but her color looked healthy. More than that, he sensed no shadows behind her eyes of ailments left unspoken. 

As she approached, she cocked an eyebrow in question at his calculating gaze. He shook his head. "Ye look well, Sassenach." Kissing her forehead and brushing his fingers through his babe's silky hair, he transferred the warm weight from his arms to hers. 

Contentment stared back at him from those whisky eyes he loved so dearly. "I am. I promise." 

After a brief but thorough kiss, Jamie guided her through the door and down the stairs, poised in case some disaster should strike. But they descended with nary a trip or stumble. And with one hand on his hip and the other encircling Claire's shoulders, he escorted them to the parlor, chest puffed with paternal pride as their family pounced upon them. 

"I'd like to introduce e'eryone to our lad," Jamie's voice rang out in the room, "Brian Quentin Alexander Beauchamp Fraser, born the twelfth day of November, 1753. Sturdy as a mule wi' an appetite and pair o' lungs tae prove it." They laughed, infectious giddiness sparing not a single Murray or Fraser. 

The morning passed quickly as each adult and most of the children insisted upon turns holding wee Brian. By late morning, mother and bairn were both spent. She soothed the fussy baby and made to retreat upstairs, Jamie on her heels. But he halted at the bottom and turned back to the group, which had begun to disperse and carry on about their days. 

"Fergus," he called. When he turned, Jamie crooked his head. "Ye can come up wi' us. If ye like." Grinning as though he'd been offered a stallion of pure gold, Fergus took the stairs two at a time with Jamie before pausing outside the door. 

"Sassenach," he called in. "Fergus is wi' me. Are ye decent?"

"Come in," she called, and they both entered. 

Jamie closed the door behind them and looked questioningly to Claire, who shrugged. "He ate for all of five seconds before passing out. Apparently it was just too much excitement."

He crossed the room and planted another kiss on her temple. Fergus lurked near the door, face eager but stature unsure. With a soft smile, Jamie pulled him over. "Ye didna ask to hold him downstairs. Would ye like tae?"

Fergus's green eyes went round. "I would, Milord, but..." His gaze shifted to his missing hand. "I was not sure you would want..."

Before he could finish speaking, Claire stepped over to him, placing Brian against his shoulder and guiding Fergus's hands to hold him safely. "There we go," she said to encourage him. "Your good hand up behind his head, your other arm bracing. You can sit on the bed, if it would make you feel better." Nodding, he immediately sat on the edge. Jamie bent to help him take off his shoes so he could lean against the headboard without dirtying the blankets. 

When he looked into the lad's eyes, Jamie's heart clenched to see tears shining back at him. "He is magnificent, Milord, Milady," he breathed. 

Claire rested beside him as Jamie pulled a chair to the bedside near Fergus. They exchanged a glance over him, and she nodded for him to proceed as planned. Jamie rested a hand on Fergus's knee. 

"I ken ye've grown much since we last saw ye, that yer no' a lad anymore. But ye ken when...we eventually depart Lallybroch, that we hope ye'll come wi' us. No' as our...our charge or servant." A fond squeeze. "But as our son." He beamed as Jamie continued and Claire put her own hand on Fergus's arm in a tender touch. "And ye dinna need tae call us 'Milord' and 'Milady' if ye dinna want. If 'Mam' and 'Da' doesna feel right, ye can always use our names. Whatever ye like."

"We just want you to understand that you're our family," Claire added. Fergus shifted so he could look at her as she spoke. "We never wanted to leave you, and certainly not for so long. But as much as Brian is ours, you are too. Our family and our name is yours for the taking, if you'll have it."

Droplets fell from his long lashes, his thin lips drawing up in a euphoric smile. "Oui, Mila--" He paused, debating. "Oui, Maman." Turning to Jamie, he nodded. "Da."

Within an hour, after a more substantial feeding for Brian, all four Frasers laid down on the bed. Jamie rested Brian against his bare chest, skin to skin, as Claire slept in her shift on one side of him and Fergus on the other. Sounds of his family's relaxed breathing settled his soul. Stroking his hand over his youngest son's soft, delicate back, Jamie smiled. 

"Buidheachas do Dhia, airson mo mhic, airson mo bhean. Gum bi iad an-còmhnaidh sàbhailte nad ghlacas. Is dòcha gum bi mi an-còmhnaidh làidir gu leòr airson an dìon."

 

#

 

When Claire woke sometime in the afternoon, light from the hearth painted across her men's sleeping faces, peace washed over her. Her fingertips caressed Brian's fine hair, over Jamie's broad chest, just barely reached Fergus's outstretched arm. 

A whisper of a grunt from Brian pulled her focus back as he began to root around, eyes still shut. Claire picked him up as, not finding what he desired, his mewls threatened to increase in volume. 

"Oh, you're just a pitiful little thing, aren't you?" she breathed against his ear as she settled him at her breast. Satisfied that his wish had been granted, Brian quieted as he drank. 

She looked over to Jamie and Fergus, who hadn't stirred. Leaving Lallybroch would never be easy, but it would live within them. Fergus would remember their days here together, and Brian would form his own memories somewhere new. The morose cloud that had hung over her for weeks finally dissipated as she smiled down upon her Frasers.

 Claire was content, and secure, and whole.

End of Arc II

Chapter Text

"He's a fine, healthy grip, Sassenach." Jamie had Brian laid along his knees as he teased the lad with a navy ribbon, raising and lowering the strip of satin from the babe's reach. When tiny fingers wrapped around it, Jamie tugged gently, impressed at the lad's increasing strength as he resisted. Brian gawped at the object of his current fascination, lips rounded into a precious little O and his wee fingernails gripping for all he was worth. 

Seven weeks had passed so quickly, their little bean sprouting noticeably each day, it seemed. But then Claire would hold him to her breast, and his heart would constrict to see how tiny he still was in her embrace. How his minuscule body still fit along his own forearm, how his own large palm still dwarfed the tiny head cradled there. Brian's dark brown locks now hinted at the silky soft curls both parents had bestowed upon him. Slanted gray newborn eyes had faded into piercing blue, and his ears stuck out just a bit, like his sister's.

Caught up in watching his bairn, Jamie didn't notice Claire approach until her hand rested at the nape of his neck, tangling in curls. "Wonder where he gets that from, hmm?" she said, planting a kiss on his cheek. Jamie turned toward her with a grin that demanded similar attentions. Their kiss was slow, gentle. His heart still galloped at the contact. 

For all the gold in Christendom, Jamie couldn't remember the last time he'd felt so content. 

"Dinna ken, lass," he murmured a moment later, barely room for a breath between their lips. "I've been on the receivin' end of yer own healthy grip, mo nighean donn." 

A melodic laugh burst from her as she swatted his arm. "You're hilarious. But now, I really need this back. We're late." Claire pinched the ribbon, pulling against her son's insistent grasp. 

"Och, we have an excuse fer tardiness, Sassenach," he crooned, helping to release Brian's delicate infant fingers. "A braw, handsome wee excuse."

She flashed him a smile before turning to the mirror, and Jamie gazed back down at his lad, who returned it with equal fervor. His wee fingers still flexed and clenched around a phantom ribbon, as though practicing the movements he'd only just mastered. 

When Claire had been pregnant with Faith, love for his wife and child had overtaken him with alarming immediacy like a summer deluge. Every inch of him -- body, heart, mind, soul -- had been absolutely drenched in it. In losing her, his love remained but never found an outlet. Arms that ached to cradle her never would, eyes that burned to see her forever aflame. Love tinged with pain. Even memories of feeling her move beneath Claire's belly or whispering his prayers and promises to her in the dark -- memories he'd cherish until his dying day -- were tainted with it. 

After, in those early days, he'd felt haunted by it. Some days, he still did.

Faith would never leave him, nor would the agonizing love he bore her ever diminish. But with a breathing babe he could hold and see and hear and kiss, his adoration finally melded with ecstatic joy. It overwhelmed him.

How could he have ever believed he'd survive separated from Brian, much less him and Claire?

Sighing, Jamie lifted Brian against his shoulder and turned to watch his wife. She threaded the ribbon around the cloud of curls straining against the pins that held them in place. Her hum of satisfaction when she finished with a flourish tingled beneath his skin, blood heating his cheeks. And elsewhere. 

Christ, but she was lovely. One more week, and he'd while away the nighttime hours reminding her just how lovely he found her. 

"All right, finally ready," she said, reaching out to take Brian from his hands. A coo gurgled from his throat as he returned to his mother's arms. It melted Jamie nearly as much as the image of Claire snuggling the babe into her neck. 

Jamie rolled his eyes with a mock huff. "Yer words, Sassenach, no' mine." He shot his arms out to trap her in his embrace, smacking a kiss to her cheek even as she squirmed to escape. Though, judging by the twist of her lips hinting at a suppressed grin, she wasn't trying very hard. 

Sighing with contentment, Jamie stepped back. She wore one of her Paris dresses, a deep navy one with puffy white sleeves. Jamie matched in a deep blue velvet coat and waistcoat embroidered in silver. Chest puffed out in pride, he placed his hand at the small of her back and guided them from the room to join the rest of the household.

Normally, Hogmanay at Lallybroch was a jovial affair. Tenants flooded the home, laughter and music and food and drink making for red but radiant faces all around. But since Culloden, reasons to celebrate had been few and resources to do so even more scarce. Jenny and Ian had attempted to keep the custom alive the first few years to boost tenant morale, but the last four Hogmanays had passed with no gathering, no dancing, no First Foot. 

Just another casualty of the Rising. 

This year, again, no tenants would attend; even if the Murrays had possessed the means by which to feed and amuse them, the Frasers' return had thus far remained a secret, and they were all determined to keep it that way. But with a full house at Broch Tuarach for the first time in more than seven years, the Murrays and Frasers were perfectly happy with their own contained revelry. 

So it happened that every member of the house sat to supper dressed in their Hogmanay finery from years past. As Jamie, Claire, and Brian joined the family in the dining room, hungry but cheerful Murrays welcomed them with relief. Everyone scrambled to sit, Frasers at one end and Murrays the other with Murtagh in between. The bairns fidgeted in their seats with glee. Wee Jamie, in particular, sat up tall with a smug grin at the privilege of dining with the adults. 

They devoured the meal, meager relative to a typical Hogmanay but downright decadent by current standards: Mrs. Crook's raspberry tarte, Jenny's carrots soaked in a rosemary and thyme sauce, Claire's bannocks and blackberry jam (the crafting of both closely overseen by the other women), Murtagh's buck he'd found only two days past, and a bottle of the original Brian Fraser's finest whisky found hidden in the bookcase. Jamie ate quickly, then took Brian so Claire could dine unimpeded. He stood the lad on his knee facing outward, tiny back and wobbly head supported against his torso so his curious gaze could take in the hectic table scene.

Boisterous, joyous noise made Jamie's ears ring but warmed his spirit. He laughed with his family, banter and jokes flying around the table (as did a bannock aimed at Rabbie, earning his namesake a swat from his mother). Never had Jamie felt so at ease, as though blessed by God himself. 

His eyes gravitated, as they often did, to his wife. She rested her chin against her palm on the table, a mild smirk gracing her lips. 

"What're ye thinkin', mo graidh?" he murmured so only she could hear. 

Claire turned and leaned against her chair back, brushing her knuckle over Brian's cheek, then his own. "Maybe this is why the stones brought us back here," came her whisper a moment later. "Perhaps this was the only time we could've returned and had this with our family again, even if just for a while."

With his free hand, Jamie captured hers and raised it to his lips. "So long as yer by my side, Sassenach, I dinna much care fer the why or how."

Breaths synchronized between them as he lost himself in her, the sounds around them muffling and his vision tunneling around her. Golden sunshine gleamed from her eyes, gracing him with their light and life. He bloomed beneath her gaze, reveled in their warmth. The pounding of his heart roared in his ears like wind through the trees. Claire's eyes glassed over and her cheeks pinked, lips just parted in a clear show of desire that echoed his own. 

Perhaps, when they retired, they could assess whether six more days were truly necessary to wait...

A shout jolted their attention to Murtagh, who was reaching across the table to thump Fergus on the ear for some mischief they'd missed. Pressing a kiss to the crown of Brian's head and with a wink to his wife that promised more, Jamie wrapped himself gladly in the comforting cloak of familial chaos. 

 

#

 

As supper wound down, Claire beamed at the group surrounding her. She leaned into her husband's shoulder on the one side and rested one hand on Fergus's arm to her left. Brian slept propped against Jamie's chest, her husband's broad hand spanning their son's tiny body protectively. Murtagh caught her eye from across the way and raised his glass to her with a twitch of his beard. 

To be surrounded by her Fraser men filled her with an inner warmth tangible as a whisky glow.

The Murrays stood from the table first, Maggie, Rabbie, and Wee Jamie too rambunctious to sit still much longer. Murtagh left soon after, murmuring about escaping the noise out in the stables. 

"Fergus, would you come up to the room with us for a moment?" Claire asked, rubbing her hand lovingly up and down his back. "We have something for you."

His eyes lit up, and the corner of his mouth curled as he nodded. A deep hmph of satisfaction sounded from her husband behind her as they all stood and made their way upstairs to their room. Claire eased the door closed and crossed to the trunk in the corner, pulling out a parcel wrapped in plain cloth. "We'd wanted it for Christmas. It's quite a celebration where I'm from, and it's traditional to give gifts. But it wasn't ready. So Happy Hogmanay, Fergus."

Perching on the end of the bed, Fergus accepted the bundle with reverence. The wonder never left his eyes as he unfurled it to reveal a beautiful, smooth wooden hand. 

"Maman..." he murmured, picking it up to study it. Dark grain shone in the light of the hearth, and he traced his fingers over the carved details of palm lines and fingernails.

"Yer Uncle Ian kens a man who's a fair hand wi' woodworkin'." Jamie stood before them at the foot of the bed, infant slumped over his shoulder. One son held in his arms, the other in his loving gaze. Claire's stomach twisted into knots at the sight. "When Ian told him the tale, the man took it as a personal challenge tae craft true finery for ye, lad."

"We hope you like it," Claire added, only the slightest tremor of uncertainty in her voice. "It's not the same, we know, but it should draw less attention than some of the other implements out there."

Fergus didn't say a word, head still bowed over the hand. When he pulled his head up slowly, his green eyes glistened with tears. It stalled the breath in her lungs as panic washed over her. "Oh, Fergus--"

"It is perfect, Maman," he assured her in a whisper. A single transparent tear rolled from the outer corner of his eye. "A true thing of beauty."

His words didn't match his shadowy countenance. The trembling of his chin tempered the brightness of his eyes, and his smile didn't reach them, either. 

"But you're still upset?" When he didn't respond, she reached up to run her hand through his curls, gently grazing her nails over his scalp. Fergus leaned into the pressure so slightly he likely didn't realize he had. "What troubles you, then?"

Jamie, having laid Brian in his cot, lowered himself to sit on Fergus's other side. The boy shook his head. "It is foolish."

"Ye can share all things wi' us, ye ken," Jamie said, his hand on Fergus's knee. "E'en foolish things."

Still, he didn't speak for a moment. His long, thin fingers wandered over the polished wood as they sat in patient silence. "I think..." He sighed with frustration as he sought the right words. "I think you will always see me as whole, but I worry what my purpose will be. If I cannot work or provide, then will I...will I always be alone?" Another tear cut a path over his cheekbones to drop off the fine edge of his jaw, but his words and breath never wavered. 

Pain ripped through her heart at his words, at the fear and desolation behind his eyes. She never halted her soothing motion through his hair as she grabbed his good hand in hers. "We will help you find something, Fergus. And you will be able to have a family someday."

"I see you and Mil--" He paused. "I see you and Da, and Auntie and Uncle. And I never thought about it much for myself before. It seemed so far in the future, non?

"While you were gone, I had the occasional...rendezvous with some of the girls from the village." Claire shot Jamie a look as he stiffened beside Fergus. Luckily, he didn't seem to notice. "But ever since I...I lost it, I have not had the courage to face any of them. Or anyone outside of Lallybroch." He cast his eyes back down. "I am a coward."

"No, Fergus," she breathed, her hand going to his cheek. She turned his face to look into her eyes. "You are not a coward. You...are hurting. And sometimes, when you're hurting, you seek whatever comfort you can. And for you, that is finding the place where you're safe. Here, with your family." 

Claire brought her other hand to frame his face, locking her golden eyes with his green. In so many ways, he'd truly made her a mother. Even before Faith, it had been Fergus she'd scolded, fretted over, tucked into bed and kissed goodnight. And after, she'd comforted him following the nightmares, rocking him against her chest and caressing his sweaty brow as she whispered promises of safety into his ear. Now, she willed his soul to recognize and accept the love and solace of her mother's touch on his skin. And in her gaze, steady and fierce, she conveyed her pride in him, his strength, his spirit. 

"I cannot tell you everyone will understand you," she whispered, voice cracking over the words. "And...and I cannot tell you that it will be easy. But, Fergus, I can make you this vow. You, my boy, will never be alone."

"Aye," Jamie agreed from his other side, fingers tightening around Fergus's knee. "Do ye no' remember the deal I made wi' ye, when I hired ye in Paris?"

That brought a smile to her son's face, a genuine grin that seemed to fill the entire room. "That if I was arrested or perished in your service, that you'd have masses said for me for a year. And if I should lose an ear or a hand..."

"That I should support ye for the rest of yer days," Jamie finished. "I meant it then, before ye were my son. Do ye think I mean it any less now?"

Claire leaned her head on the boy's shoulder and snaked her arm around his waist. Jamie mirrored her on the other side, their twin embraces offering support and comfort. Some minutes later, Claire spoke, fighting back tears. 

"I wasn't supposed to love your da, you know," she whispered. Her left arm crossed her body to grasp Fergus's forearm as her right, still wrapped around his waist, squeezed slightly. "I was supposed to escape and find my way home. But every day I was here, every day I was around him, I wanted to leave less and less. Until the day came when I could've gone, and I realized I needed him more than anything else." 

She lifted her head and looked into Fergus's eyes. "We are connected. So much so that I pulled him with me through time itself. And we have been since the very moment we met." Her heart fluttered at the memory as she swiped the boy's hair from his forehead. She felt Jamie's gaze on her like a touch but kept her focus on Fergus. "You're connected to someone Fergus. And she'll love you, and she'll know you are whole."

"And more than that, lad," Jamie added, eyes glistening, "she'll convince you that ye are."

Leaning in to kiss his cheek, Claire sighed and stood. She gestured from Jamie to follow. "We'll give you a moment. We'll see you downstairs."

She'd scooped up Brian and made her way to the door with Jamie before Fergus stood. "Maman?" he asked. "Will you...will you help me put it on?"

Giddiness flooded her as she transferred her sleeping infant to Jamie and returned to Fergus. After a few moments of adjusting, fitting, and buckling, the wooden hand was situated beneath his sleeve. Claire grasped it in hers and lifted her other hand to his cheek, pulling him in to plant her lips against his forehead. "Happy new year, Fergus."

 

# 

 

The first of the year marked a day of rest for farmers often over-served at the previous night's celebration. Even so, Jamie always rose with the sun, and today was no exception, reluctant though it was. They'd rung in the new year (and the first three hours of it, as well), the bairns and Fergus and Murtagh eventually dozing about the parlor as the Frasers and Murrays whispered and giggled their way through two bottles of whisky and half a bottle of wine. By the time they'd stumbled back to their room, both Jamie and Claire had barely made it onto the bed before thoroughly passing out. 

With the absolutely essential morning chores completed and the midday meal now settling in his belly, he lounged in the parlor with Claire beside him, each with a book in hand. Ian sat with them, and Jenny contentedly worked on her knitting in their company, both a bit pale but otherwise cheerful. Murtagh had taken Fergus out for a hunt, and Brian lay on a blanket on the floor with Kitty and Maggie doting over him. Rabbie and Wee Jamie had long been ordered out of the house to expend the energy that had been grating on the adults' nerves (and pounding heads) all morning. 

Jamie had returned with a cup of tea when Brian began to fuss only an hour after his last feeding. Ian winced, and Claire stood with a resigned sigh. "Hungry boy today, aren't you?" she murmured as she bent to pick him up, much to the lasses' disappointment. 

"Och, up to yer room, then," Jenny said, shooing them away. "Give us a bit o' quiet, then."

"Ye all right, Sassenach?" Jamie asked, raising his mug for a long sip. 

She shook her head before him, Brian's cries growing in volume as she stared in defeat at the stairs. After another moment and another wail, she huffed and turned. "I'm too exhausted to make it up to the third floor. I'll go feed him in the study."

"Do ye need help wi' anything?" Jenny asked, though by the manner in which she sank into the back of the settee, Jamie could tell she hoped the answer would be no. 

Claire must have seen it too. "No, I'm all right. We'll be back soon." She retreated into the study, turning right toward the hearth and disappearing from sight.

Jenny picked up her knitting again. Jamie and Ian sipped on their tea in silence as they enjoyed the time away from the fields or the ledgers or the animals. So still and peaceful the room had become that the bang of the front doors made them all flinch. Jamie cursed beneath his breath in Gaelic, head throbbing anew as running footsteps approached. Two flushed lads rounded the corner, and Jenny stood from her chair, hands on hips. "James Mur--"

"Soldiers!" 

No time for shock. No time for an aching head. No time for the blood to drain from his face in abject terror. In a blink, Jamie and Ian sprang from their seats as Jenny clutched at her son's shoulders. "How far, then?" she asked. 

Before he could answer, the front doors boomed open again, heavy boot falls marching through the foyer. Without a word, Jamie sprinted through the open double doors of the study. He didn't close them, both for fear that closed doors would beg investigation and because the men rounded the corner before he had the chance. He'd only just managed to grab the small knife used to sharpen the quills from the desk and duck out of sight. 

Claire stood, eyes wide with her laces hastily tied and Brian thankfully sleeping in her arms. Jamie shook his head and grasped her by the upper arms, guiding her to the space between the wall and the open door as he positioned himself before her, just inside the door's edge. She turned into the corner, her body shielding Brian as Jamie shielded them both. He faced outward, flimsy weapon at the ready. 

No time to curse himself for not carrying his dirk. For growing complacent and forgetting the danger they were in. Voices carried from the parlor. 

"Can we help ye, gentlemen?" Ian's calm seemed to have the opposite effect on Jamie. He forced himself to breathe through his nose, worried his terrified panting would draw the men here. 

The first man to speak did so in a near-snarl. "Word in the village is there's been a birth here recently. Our brigadier sent us to search the estate, seeing as how the only lady of the house was not with child when we were last here only a few months hence."

Slow footsteps edged closer to the entrance. Jamie's grip on his blade tightened, and his wame clenched. Squeezing his eyes closed, he willed himself to not be sick.

Jenny's scoff stopped the approach, and he could practically see her eye roll. Her even tone was laced with barely contained disdain. "So His Majesty's army is now investigatin' e'ery birth in Scotland, then?" 

"Only those occurring in the former homes of traitors to the Crown," a second voice -- deeper, calmer -- responded. He waited a beat before adding, "And only when they coincide with rumors of their return. You could make our jobs easier by presenting the child and explaining how it came to be here."

Every beat of his heart pulsed in his ears, throbbed in the vice grip of his fingers. Claire stood behind him, statue still and body taut with tension. As one, then two and three heartbeats passed in silence, Jamie's readied himself for a fight. They could deny the presence of an infant, but if Brian happened to squall, they'd all be found. But if Jenny concocted a story, came to retrieve him from the study...if the men decided to follow...

Ian's chuckle sent a shockwave through him. "Och, ye must be speakin' o' Eilidh's wee one, born hardly two months past."

"Hers is the only birth we've had since spring," Jenny said. "And the wee lass is nigh on three months old now, ye numpty." Only someone who knew her as well as Jamie did would've noticed the higher-than-normal pitch. 

"Our intel was quite clear that the birth happened here in the main house, not just on your land," the calmer soldier said. 

"Aye, she was," Ian continued, not a waver in his words. Jamie spared a single frantic heartbeat to admire his brother-in-law's steadiness before he continued. "Her husband was workin' long hours in the fields, and they've struggled wi' enough food just tae feed the two of them. We moved her into the house here so she wouldna be alone when the bairn decided tae come. Kept her fed and well and helped her through the birth when her pains came."

"You moved a pregnant beggar woman into your house to give birth?" the rude Redcoat asked in disbelief. 

"We take care of our tenants," Jenny bit back. "Times are difficult for most of us, but we would ne'er dream o' lettin' a wean suffer if we could help it."

Silence weighed heavily upon them. The second soldier spoke again. "Where is your tenant now?" 

"Back in her own home," Ian answered. "My wife stops by e'ery now and again, seein' to it that they have enough to eat and such. Our lads help wi' their land when we can spare 'em."

A skeptic hum sounded from the second soldier. "Well, even so, we'll need to search the grounds as well as interview your tenant before we depart."

"And what do ye think ye'll find here now that ye havena found ower the last six years?" Jenny's tone grew icier with each exchange. 

"You best hope we don't find Red Jamie or his witch wife here," the first soldier spat. "If we do, every soul in his house will hang."

His sister practically growled in outrage. Ian tried to rein her in. "Jenny--"

Jamie held his breath as he heard his sister enter the study and circle the desk to dig through the drawers. Around the corner of the door, she was just barely visible. As she shut the drawers again and exited the room, her gaze slid over them, careful not to rest on them for even a second, eyes trained on the men congregated in the parlor, mere steps from the study entrance. 

"Letter came just 'fore winter made the roads impassable," she snapped. Jamie stifled an exhale of relief. Jenny, ye brilliant wee thing. 

"I thought the man dead, and good riddance to him." By the hiss of her words, Jamie knew she spoke through gritted teeth. "But he's settled somewhere in Europe. And e'en if my brother were fool enough tae darken my stoop, I'd no' have the traitor livin' under my roof. He's shamed our name, desecrated the memory o' my parents, and I'd no put my own bairns at risk for his hide."

"We'd intended tae present ye the letter whenever we could make the trip tae the fort," Ian added. "We just havena yet had the weather fer it."

No one spoke for several minutes as, presumably, the letter was read. 

"And you believe this is genuine?" the second man asked, voice contemplative.

"Aye," Jenny responded. "I recognize his hand well enough. And the ring is his wife's, as well. She always wore both her wedding rings, and her initials are carved on the inside."

Just then, the house's main doors opened and shut again, more footsteps entering the parlor. Jamie felt Claire shrink behind him. Prayers of thanks went up to the Almighty that Brian had managed to stay sleeping throughout the encounter. He begged God that his slumber would last until the men left the house.

"Nothing in any of the outbuildings," a new voice said. "Should we begin in the house, Major?"

Folding paper crinkled softly in the quiet air as, Jamie suspected, four adults held their breath. The second man -- the major -- spoke with decisiveness. "You and Higgins stay and finish your search of the house. Mr. Murray will accompany myself and Corporal Grimes to speak with the mother."

"Forgive me, sir," Ian said, voice unsure for the first time. "And beggin' yer pardon..."

The major cut him off. "I assure you, sir, my men will conduct themselves as gentlemen."

Jenny's disbelieving huff cut right through him. He knew the same memories flashed through both their minds. Another band of soldiers passing through, acting anything but gentlemen and altering the course of their lives forevermore. 

Jamie ground his teeth together as his sister spoke again. "Forgive us fer no' puttin' much stock in the gentlemanly manners o' the Crown's men. We've yet tae meet a soldier who could truthfully call himself such, Major."

"Well, that's unfortunate to hear," the major said, genuine regret tinging his tone. "Even so, my men will conduct themselves appropriately as representatives of the Crown, and if I should return to hear otherwise, they will be dealt with accordingly. Is that understood?"

"Yes, Major," said two new voices in tandem. 

"Wonderful. Now, Mr. Murray, should we ready our horses?"

With little other choice, Ian assented and led the original two men from the house. Each thump of Ian's wooden leg reverberated through Jamie's body. As soon as the main door closed behind them, the two remaining soldiers spoke softly, clearly strategizing how best to search the manse.

And, just behind him, Brian grunted as he began to waken. 

Jamie's blood ran ice cold, and he heard Claire's intake of breath. Please, lad, stay asleep, he begged. The same prayer every desperate new parent uttered but now imbued with incongruous dread. Jamie braced himself to strike, ready to lunge at the first sign of red round the corner.

Then Mrs. Crook's voice called through the parlor.

"Excuse me, Mistress, but the pie is finished. Should I wrap it fer later, then?"

"Pie, you say?" came one eager response. 

"Aye," Jenny answered. "Boysenberry, made special fer Hogmanay."

"Well," the other man drawled, slow footsteps retreating. "I suppose the kitchen is as good a place to begin as any."

Voices grew more distant as they crossed the house, and Jamie released his breath in a slow, silent stream. Fast, light footsteps approached until Jenny rounded the corner. "Come, out the front and to the dovecoat. Ian and the men should be gone by now."

"And Eilidh?"

"Mrs. Crook sent Rabbie runnin' to warn her when she heard Ian's story. Now, come!" She cast a worried glance back toward the front of the house. As she turned back to look at them again, Jamie crushed her to his chest.

"Christ, sister, the two of ye think fast on yer feet."

She laughed weakly into his chest. "Dinna sound so surprised or I may just take offense."

They parted, and Jenny led the way through the house and snuck them through the front door into the cold. "I'll send Wee Jamie out wi' somethin' tae keep ye warm as soon as I can. Go."

"Christ, Jenny, our room, the crib--"

"Maggie's takin' care o' it. Now, go!"

They obeyed without any further resistance, reaching the dovecoat and huddling together. Claire began to shiver in moments, clutching Brian to her chest. Jamie kept his arms wrapped around them, Brian nestled between them, lending what warmth he had as the daylight dimmed. Wee Jamie finally snuck in nearly two hours later with cloaks, blankets, and orders from Jenny to stay put. Finally, just before total dark, Rabbie retrieved them to the house. 

Jamie led Claire and Brian past the rest of the household, all ashen-faced, toward the fire to rid themselves of the bone-deep chill. 

"Eilidh was a wonder," Ian was saying behind them, though his voice sounded far off to Jamie. "Gave the same story and answered the major's question steady as can be, as though her words were truth."

Jenny's pacing footsteps mirrored the fast pounding of his heart. "Good thing. And stroke o' luck that the lads he left behind were no more than bairns and easily distracted. 'Twas a bold move, Mrs. Crook," she added. The older woman demurred.

Jenny sent the bairns to sleep early and sat in stony silence. They continued to converse in hushed tones. The midwife -- or, more precisely, her drunken husband -- were named the most likely source of the rumors about the Frasers' return. As another hour wore on, the Murrays rehashed the afternoon over and over, assessing for missteps or weaknesses in their story. Fergus and Murtagh, who'd had the good sense to stay away when he'd seen the unfamiliar horses, joined them after a time.

All the while, Jamie's mind raced. Claire sat on the floor beside him, Brian still restless in her arms. Eyes both ice blue and fire golden stared into the hearth. 

"We'll leave," Jamie finally croaked. He didn't look to his wife nor any of his other family. Not even his sister as she spoke up.

"Jamie--"

"'Twas always the plan, Jen," he whispered. "We thought we had more time, but we dinna." Determination burned through him as he shifted to look into her eyes. "How long until they decide tae come back again? If we go, maybe we can send another letter or two for ye, maybe some food. Enough tae convince them we're long gone and will be for good."

Tears gathered in his sister's eyes, but she didn't rebut him. He fought his own broken heart at having to, once again, leave her behind. But it was for the best. They couldn't continue to put their family at risk. Finding a boat to France would be difficult as the coldest months were still upon them, but they'd have to make do.

Nodding, Jamie rapped his knuckles thrice against his knee before standing and pulling Claire up beside him. They exchanged a wordless glance. "We'll leave by midday tomorrow," he said. He nodded to Fergus, who returned it. Arm around his wife's shoulders, they retreated together for their final night ensconced in the warmth of home and family. 

Chapter Text

Somewhere between the parlor and their bedroom, Brian woke with a vengeance. Normally a mild-mannered babe easily placated with a feeding or distraction, he now cried loud enough to make Claire flinch. He refused her breast, and his nappie was clean. Still, his screeches rang out, fat tears wetting his cheeks and his lip stuck out in a pout as he cried. 

It would've torn at her heart had it not already been shredded. One final night at Lallybroch. Then they would leave with no assurances they could ever return, ever see their family again. 

They were supposed to have had time. More time to plan. For Brian to grow a bit stronger, a bit heartier, and for Fergus to recuperate and rehabilitate. For all of them to rest and reconnect. More time to say goodbye. 

Now, they faced the prospect of venturing into the cold within the next twelve hours. 

Exhausted, she paced before the hearth for nearly an hour, bouncing and soothing the sobbing infant in her arms. The longer she walked, the more she wondered if Brian could sense the anxiety that had trapped both his parents in an unyielding vice, if he howled in sympathy for their unease or in upset as it bled onto him. Jamie, meanwhile, sat stoic in the armchair. Neither said a word. 

Strong, angry wails eventually weakened into miserable whimpers until, at long last, her son quieted and sagged against her. Claire exhaled as his little head lolled to the side and his mouth fell open, his slow breaths brushing against the skin of her neck. She tiptoed to his bassinet and laid him down, backing away with caution.

Short-lived relief gave way to renewed worry and mourning. Claire collapsed into the armchair, her stomach twisted into a Gordian knot. Jamie stared blindly into the roaring flames from his seat, face impassive. 

"Jamie?" she whispered. 

"I willna have ye and wee Brian sleepin' in the snow and slush," he murmured in response without moving. One hand lay fisted on the arm of the chair, fingers curling and uncurling and close enough to the flames that it had grown red from the heat. He leaned against the other, fingers supporting him at his temple. "We'll have tae risk the taverns along the way."

Standing, Claire weighed her steps carefully as she crossed to her husband. He barely reacted as she placed her hand on his cheek. With the barest pressure, she turned his face to look into hers. "You need to sleep."

He only shook his head. "We dinna have the plan ready yet, Sassenach," he said, voice sharp. "I've been remiss these last weeks, thinkin' we'd have till spring to choose our route and take our time. But now..."

"I know." Ice cold dread clenched her heart. She lowered herself to rest on Jamie's lap, pulling his arm around her waist as she laid her head against his shoulder, sheltering in his warmth. Beneath her cheek, the tautness of his chest relented slightly as a sigh tickled above her head. His arm tightened around her.

"I'm sorry, mo nighean donn," he whispered. 

"Whatever for?"

Jamie shook his head, his chin just brushing against her scalp. "We've kent there was danger here since we returned, yet I've been...careless wi' ye. Wi' our sons." The sound of his swallow preceded the clenching of his grip around her to a near painful degree. "No' only have I neglected our plans tae flee, but I havena even carried my dirk since Brian was born. No' even when I was out in the fields. Christ, if those men had come into the study today, and all I had tae defend ye was that damned wee blade..."

"But they didn't, Jamie." Claire sat up, framing her husband's face in her hands. Glistening tear tracks along his cheeks surprised her; she'd neither felt nor heard him. "And we're still safe."

"No, Sassenach," he countered. "We are'na safe. And willna be for some time."

"We're safe with you, Jamie." Slender fingers ran through his red locks. Her nose glided along his own. Slowly, she disentangled a hand from his curls, brushing her knuckles down the slope of his temple, jaw, neck until she reached the opening of his sark. Pulling away so their gazes could meet, her fingers slipped beneath his collar, the warmth of his skin a familiar delight. 

His breath grew shallow at her touch. "Claire..."

"There will be time for planning on the road between here and the port at Ayr." She brushed her fingers along the line of his shoulder then up the back of his neck, dragging her nails along his skin. His body shuddered beneath her. Her hammering pulse shortened her breaths. "Worrying over it all night won't help."

She'd expected resistance, for him to push her aside. 'Tis no' been eight weeks, Sassenach, she'd anticipated. So when he lurched forward and layered his lips over hers, her stomach flipped. Claire stood from his lap, never breaking their heated contact as he did the same and guided her backwards. As her legs backed against the bed, they parted to pull his shirt over his head and untie her shift to pool around her feet. She climbed atop the covers and scooted toward the pillows, Jamie crawling after her. His greedy hands drifted over her legs as he followed, squeezing at her calves and sending jolts through her. 

But it was his lips following the same trail that threatened to undo her. Lavishing kisses and nips upwards from her ankles, Jamie devoured her, traveling ever northward with a brief detour where she yearned for him most. By the time he hovered over her, planting wet kisses over her torso, her sensitive breasts, her inflamed neck and face, she was panting.

His hooded eyes were pinpoints of cool ice amidst the red of his hair and flushed face. "Are ye sure yer ready, mo chridhe?" 

"Yes." 

Slow and tender, Jamie made love to her. Physical sensation overwhelmed her as thoroughly as the emotion etched in every line of his face and laced in each sound he made. All other thought fled from her mind. Only the need to take and give solace existed. The light from the fire grew dimmer with each moment, but the synchronous pounding of blood through their veins warmed them. Her fingers clutched his hair as his bruised her hips and thighs. Swallowing each other's sighs, their faces and bodies pressed and moved together with a simmering desperation. 

Roiling heat, tense and nearly painful in its intensity, warned her of impending release. She sank her teeth into his shoulder, and his resultant growl tipped her over. Muffled keens escaped her as she fell apart, her limbs squeezing Jamie as close against her as possible. And when he met his own end, as well, his head collapsed into her neck and his gasps echoed in her ears. 

After, Claire draped herself across his chest and ran her fingertips over his skin. Release had been necessary for them both, but she wasn't fooled into believing his sorrow had evaporated. The force of his arm anchoring her against him betrayed his lingering anxiety. 

Reaching for his opposite hand and pulling it to her lips, she planted a kiss on his palm. "I love you," she whispered against it. 

"Tha gaol agam ort, mo Sorcha." The telltale pressure of his lips against her curls made her smile as she snuggled in closer. 

"And I trust you, Jamie."

 

#

 

Minutes stretched into eons as Jamie lay and watched his wife drift into sleep. He could nearly pinpoint the very moment she relinquished hold of consciousness. Gone was the crease between her brows, face lax and smooth. The corners of her mouth relaxed, and her lips fell open. A small sigh escaped them, and the rhythm of her breaths grew longer between. 

Guilt still ate at him that his foolhardiness could've brought her to harm. Those minutes in the study, poised for attack with hardly more than his own fists, he'd felt nearly as out of his depth as he had in 1946. And here, he couldn't claim ignorance to the dangers at hand. It was a mistake he vowed would never again come to pass. 

Until they were beyond the reach of the Crown for good, Jamie would not release his guard. Until his family was safe, he would not rest. 

Claire shifted in her sleep before stilling again. Though they'd only just feasted upon her, his fingers longed to trace the contours of her slumbering face. He imagined that if he touched her now, in this precarious space between waking and dreaming, that he could somehow travel with her through them just as he had traveled with her through the stones. 

What marvels, he wondered, lay behind those whisky eyes, that glass face? 

Alas, he needed her to sleep while he attended to his final tasks for the night. Determination spread through his limbs as he swung them out of bed and stood carefully. He avoided the floorboards he knew would creak as he snuck across the room. A chill had descended, and Jamie carefully placed another log on the fire after donning his sark and breeks. He lit himself a candle and eased his way through the door. 

His steps picked up their pace as he descended two flights to the first level. Wind rattled against the windowpanes and whistled lightly down the chimney. 

Entering the study and crossing to the bookshelf in the corner, Jamie felt as though he'd lived this moment before. Eyes scanned the shelf until he saw the familiar spine of the family bible, just as it had been in his dream. He half expected a shock when he finally touched the volume, but none came. Pulling it from its place, he strode to the desk and flipped it open to the page inked with his family line. It took only a few moments to add in what he needed. 

Fergus Fraser

b. 1735 (?)

d. 23 Sept 1753

Jamie blew lightly over the writing to help it dry. Besides being the catalyst to drawing him and Claire from the future, he hoped that if the soldiers responsible returned to Lallybroch, the lad's absence would be easily explained and not examined too closely. Suddenly, in his mind's eye floated the round, sweating face of the bastard who'd swung the sword. Ire roared in him like flames doused in whisky but shrank just as quickly. 

No use in looking backward now when the forward path demanded his attention.

When the notation had dried, Jamie closed the book and left it on the desk. He'd ensure Jenny added it to the trunk to hide in the cave before too long. Picking up his candle, he exited the study and climbed to the second floor.

One last stop for the night. 

Finding the door he sought, Jamie knocked softly. Seconds passed before it opened to admit him, Murtagh looking not at all surprised at his late-night visitor. 

"Ye best not be here tae tell me I canna come wi' ye," Murtagh growled as Jamie closed the door behind him and followed his godfather into the room. He was still fully dressed and his room in a shambles, his dirk, sword, and spare knives laid on the table, cloths and whetstones among them. One pistol lay on the bed, ready to be wrapped and hidden in his rucksack. Turning and cocking an eyebrow toward Jamie, he added, "If ye are, I'm no' above beatin' some sense into ye."

"I thought about it," Jamie admitted, sitting on the end of the bed. Murtagh sat beside the table, picking up his paring knife and continuing his sharpening. "In truth, I worry about Jenny and Ian, takin' ye and Fergus both wi' us and leavin' Ian as the sole man fer the main house."

Murtagh grumbled, elbows resting on his knees as he leaned forward. "Rabbie's a fair enough hand wi' a bow. And the potatoes have been strong e'er since ye left. Worse comes tae worst, they still have a decent amount o' livestock to slaughter."

Jamie nodded, not bothering to argue that Rabbie couldn't track a stag for a week to bring it down or travel further than a day from the estate if the game nearby grew scarce, nor that livestock slaughtered for food couldn't work the land or be sold for coin.

To his credit, Murtagh read the edge in Jamie's eyes and tone and fell silent, waiting for him to continue.

"No, I'm no' here to tell ye no' to come," Jamie confirmed. "But I am givin' ye an order, and I expect it tae be followed."

"Hmph. Orders, is it?" Murtagh sat up and leaned against the back of the chair, his bushy brows furrowed. "Well, just what is it yer orderin', my laird?"

Jamie waited, not speaking. After a moment, he stood from the bed and sat nearer to his godfather in the other chair by the table. With as much gravitas and authority as he could imbue in his tone, he spoke again. "That on the road, if it comes down to givin' me over to the British to see Claire and the lads safe, ye'll do what must be done."

"Pah!" Scoffing, waving a dismissive hand at his godson, Murtagh stood and meandered toward the hearth. "Seems I need tae beat some sense into ye after all. It willna come tae any such thing, ye idjit."

"Maybe no'," Jamie allowed. "But we didna think 'twould come to hidin' in the dovecoat, my wife and bairn shiverin' in my arms while the Redcoats tore my home apart lookin' fer me." His tone sharpened with each word as the memory washed over him. Even now, hours later, he could still feel the way Claire had trembled in his arms, Brian enveloped between them as their breath clouded in the air before them.

Jamie shook his head and pressed on. "I vowed tae Claire when we decided to return that I wouldna be parted from her, and I dinna intend to be if I can help it." He swallowed hard. "But we both ken that plans have a way of goin' tae shite. 'Tis safer to plan fer failure and pray fer success.

"So I need yer word right now, no matter what happens, ye'll choose Claire, Fergus, and Brian over me. That if it's a choice between my safety or theirs, ye'll see tae theirs. That ye'll hand me over to the bastards yerself if that's what it took."

"Jamie--"

"That's the price, Murtagh." Jamie stood and stepped toward his godfather, both men glowering. "Ye promise me this. Swear to it on my mother's grave, or ye dinna come."

"And ye'll stop me how?"

A wicked smirk pulled up at his lips despite himself. "Believe me, a ghoistidh, I'd see to it." Jamie took a step closer. "Promise me. Now."

Crackling of flames in the hearth couldn't mask the sound of Murtagh's huffing breath, rage clear in the scowl marring his face. He shook his head back and forth. "If it came tae that, I'd give over myself before I let them take ye."

Desperation and frustration tingled under his skin, and Jamie walked to the window as he fought for composure. He leaned against the sill, head hanging forward between his shoulders. After a few steadying breaths, he faced Murtagh but remained in the shadows. 

"Murtagh...I'm terrified," he admitted, constricting heat rising in his throat. "If it were only me, I'd no' be. But...tae bring Claire and Fergus out there, let alone wee Brian...Christ, man, he's no' even two months old. He's helpless." A single scalding tear tore down his face. "There's no small part of me that wishes tae remain here and take our chances. Keep avoidin' the patrols 'till they tire of searchin'. But I canna continue to put Jenny and Ian and their family at risk until that day comes. If it comes. 

"I need yer word, man. I ken ye love Claire and the lads, that ye'd protect them with yer own life. But yer life may no' be enough to buy their safety. Red Jamie's would be." 

His chest rose and fell with his deep breaths. "If I must drag my family across hostile lands, then I will. I will bury my own fear because 'twould only fan theirs. But the only way I'll have the strength to do so is if I know that should the worst come to pass, ye will do what must be done for their sakes and no' my own.

"Swear it now. On my mother's soul, swear to me."

Jamie waited. A chill from the window at his back hit the sheen of sweat that had broken over his skin, goosebumps cascading down his chest and arms. His godfather regarded him with narrow eyes, lips turned downward. Orange light and jumping shadows danced across him. 

Finally, he lowered his arms to his side and stood up straight. A single nod, resolute and solemn, indicated his agreement. "I swore to yer mother to always look out for ye, which I've ne'er broken," he said. "Ye ken the value of my word.

"Now I swear to ye, James Fraser. With my own life, I will see ye and yers to safety. And if faced wi' the choice, I'll..." A deep inhale through his nose spoke to the emotion he struggled to keep in check. "I'll choose them o'er ye." He huffed a breath before finishing. "On yer mother's soul, I swear it."

As soon as the words were spoken, the tension dissipated from Jamie's shoulders. When he later padded to his own room and climbed back abed with his wife, he fell asleep with the comfort of knowing that, no matter what happened, his family would be protected. Whatever the cost.

 

#

 

Breakfast was a morose affair. Even the children sensed the mood of the room and sat quietly before disappearing elsewhere in the house. After, much of the morning was spent in packing and readying the horses for the journey ahead. Jamie and Ian pored over a map in the study, marking villages and towns between Lallybroch and Ayr where they could stop to rest...and where to be on the lookout for army patrols. 

Late morning, Murtagh rode in through the arch, having left before dawn to scout the area nearby and ahead for Redcoat activity. When he walked into the house and announced that all appeared well, Jamie nodded and looked to Claire. Her head felt light, dizzy. She probably should have eaten more at breakfast, but her stomach couldn't bear it.

The fact that they were leaving Lallybroch with plenty of coin as well as seeds for planting and various other sundries (ink, paper, salt, cloth) brought from the future was little comfort as the Murrays and Frasers migrated wordlessly into the dooryard. Fergus carried Brian just the way Claire had shown him that first night, whispering in French into his ear. She couldn't properly handle the reins with an infant in her arms, and Fergus hadn't yet practiced since his injury. As a result and in an effort not to rob Lallybroch of so many horses, Jamie, Claire, and Brian would share one horse, Fergus and Murtagh another. 

"We'll see if we can board them in a stable in Ayr or nearby, write to ye so ye can claim them," Jamie assured Jenny. 

She grunted in an uncanny impression of her brother. "Dinna be worryin' ower that. It'll just call attention to ye. We'll manage here."

Jamie bid Jenny goodbye first, whispering words into each other's ears in Gaelic. With a tight smile, Claire leaned in and wrapped her arms around Ian's shoulders. He did the same, placing a gentle kiss on her cheek as he pulled away a moment later. "You take care of your Fraser," she said, repeating the command she'd given before leaving for the rebellion. 

"Aye. And ye do the same," he answered. With a tremulous smile, he clapped Claire on the arm and moved to Jamie. The men then embraced, and the woman stood before each other. Shiny streaks lined Jenny's face as she reached over and hugged her. Claire tightened her grip, her raw heart wishing that they didn't have to leave. 

"We will see each other again," Claire said when they parted. "We're closer now than we've been for the last six years. I have to believe, someday, we'll be back."

Jenny laughed as another droplet ran down her face. "That's what he said, makin' promises he kens he'll likely no' keep." Claire's stomach clenched as Jenny's chin quivered. "I've spent most of the last fifteen years sittin' here, not knowin' where he is and if he's safe, hopin' he'll come back but knowin' he probably won't. Feels cruel, ken, fer how much we've lost that we canna just...be together, he and I." 

She stood, hands on hips, dark eyes looking past Claire. Her own throat felt tight with emotion, hands shaking. Even so, she reached up to Jenny's shoulder with a soothing caress. "Yet he always came home, didn't he?"

A smile exploded across Jenny's face, fresh tears overflowing her lids as she fixed her gaze on Claire. "Aye, that he has."

"Then trust him now. And trust me."

They embraced again, each woman imbuing the other with all the strength, love, and hope they could muster. When they broke apart, Jamie was at Claire's side, face inscrutable. His hand rested at the dirk on his belt, sword wrapped and stowed with the rest of the family's hidden treasures bound for the cave. At her waist hung her own knife in its scabbard, at the ready. 

"'Tis time."

Jamie climbed up first and assisted Claire, who then pulled Brian from Fergus's grasp and secured him in the shawl tied around her torso. Murtagh and Fergus mounted their beast behind them. With final forced smiles all around, Jamie led Donas forward. 

Passing under the arch, Claire felt the first of her tears slide down her face. She burrowed into Jamie behind her and held Brian closer to her front, enveloping herself in their twin warmth as she prayed that her promises to Jenny wouldn't this time prove to be lies.

 

#

 

January 2, 1947

 

Background chatter had long ago faded into a persistent, migraine-inducing hum Frank wished he could silence. The fluorescents didn't help matters, either, nor did the chords crying out from the radio behind the bar. He winced as the singers hit a high note that made him see white.

"Christ, can you not turn that fucking thing off?" he slurred to the barkeep before he lifted his glass up to drain.

But the bartender didn't turn to lower the volume. Instead, he pulled away Frank's empty glass. "All right, you're cut off. Get your wits about you and go home. I'll even call a cab, if you like.'

Frank screwed his eyes together in a look of utter disgust and shook his head with a sputtering sneer. "Wanker," he muttered beneath his breath. The bartender only shook his head and moved down the line to the next customer, equally intoxicated but at least cheerfully so.

Groaning in equal measure from the pounding in his head and regret at his behavior, Frank pressed the heels of his hand into his eyes and focused his breath. 

He'd really been doing so well. Work had been a solid distraction, long hours spent on his research and his writing usually driving the events of last spring far from his mind. At least for a time. 

By midway through the autumn term, he'd begun going out to the pub for chips and beer with some of his fellow Oxford professors on Friday nights. And in November, when Hilda Porter from the reception desk had asked him for an outing of a more intimate nature, he'd agreed. Enjoyed it, even. Enough, at least, to reciprocate her invitation. Kissing her at the end of the second night had been easy, as was bedding her after the third. 

It was casual and shallow. Lighthearted nights at the cinema or the theatre followed by dinner and meaningless conversation. "Substance" never entered into the equation. Some fun for now. Low risk, high reward. It wasn't what he'd once had, but it was a step in the right direction. He'd been moving on. 

Or so he thought. 

New Year's Eve night had been spent at a faculty party. One on the rowdier side, hosted off campus with free flowing booze and the pungent aroma of reefer in the air. As the crowd shouted, "Happy new year!" in a collective slur, Hilda had leaned into his arms and christened him with a drunken kiss. Surprising himself, he'd even dipped her back and smiled into it. 

She'd woken in his bed around 11:00 the next morning and hurriedly left, blathering on about meeting her sister for lunch and then her mother for tea. Frank had shrugged and bid her farewell, just as content to spend the day in the quiet of his flat. Hours had crept by as he drifted from one preoccupation to another. 

Then the knock had come that evening just before 5:00. 

 

Sighing in only mild frustration that his peaceful day had been interrupted, he stood and walked to the door. The plastered-on smile froze as he took in his guest. 

"Mrs. Graham?" he said, voice and eyebrows raising. 

"Good evenin', Mr. Randall. Ye look well." Her own smile didn't quite reach her eyes, and her hands were clasped tightly before her. A silent moment passed between them before she asked, "Could I trouble ye tae come in out o' the cold?"

"Yes, of course." Embarrassment heated his cheeks as he stepped aside, nearly tripping over his own feet in the process. "I'm sorry. I'm just...surprised." Leaving her in the sitting room, Frank escaped to the kitchen. Composing himself as the water for tea boiled until the kettle shrieked, Frank prepared the mugs and teapot on a tray. By the time he rejoined her, he felt nearly fully restored.

They both fixed their cups and, again, fell into an uneasy silence as they each nursed the warm beverage. Finally, Frank spoke up. 

"I suppose Reggie will have sent you to check on me," he said on a sigh. "I...haven't kept up my correspondence with him as I should've. I'm sorry if I've caused him undue stress, but I'm truly well here."

"I'm glad tae hear it, Mr. Randall." And as she sat up straighter, he sensed genuine gladness in her voice. "But 'tis no' why I've come."

"Oh?"

After a bracing breath, she spoke again. "Ye ken the truth about where..." She swallowed but plowed on. "About where Claire was when she disappeared."

He would've expected a sharp pain at mention of his ex-wife and the event that had torn them apart. Instead, he felt like cotton had been placed over his nose and mouth, blocking any air from reaching his lungs. He could only nod.

Reaching into her purse, she pulled out a thick white envelope. Frank watched, the smothering sensation growing stronger as his fingers began to tingle and his lips grew numb. "They...they had tae return, Mr. Randall."

"Return?"

Mrs. Graham nodded, eyes suddenly wide in concern. "Through the stones."

Now there was pain. Hot and fierce and through every part of him. Bounding from the sofa, Frank strode to the window and looked out onto the darkening street. As the shock deadened his senses, he heard as if from far away Mrs. Graham explaining that they'd passed through three months previous to thwart some misfortune or other.

It shouldn't have mattered. He'd given her up long ago, resigned himself to the brief happy time they'd had before the war and in those scant weeks after. Once the initial resentment had dulled into an aching sorrow, he hadn't even begrudged her for it. Only lamented the death of the life he'd thought stretched before him. 

Claire returning to the eighteenth century shouldn't have mattered. Yet every molecule of his body howled with rage at the thought of her in that time. That time filled with the dangers she'd laid bare before him the incongruous comfort of the reverend's office. That time where the both of them were only as valuable as the prices on their heads, the King itching to put their necks in ropes.

Turning, he forced his tone into some semblance of control. "What exactly brings you here, Mrs. Graham?"

She stuck out her hand toward him, offering the envelope. "She wanted ye to have this. Told me tae wait till the first of the year and, if I thought ye'd want it, to bring it to ye."

Nine months. Nine months spent picking up the pieces of himself and fumbling his way through rebuilding a life. Down the drain the moment he touched the paper. He couldn't hear. He couldn't feel. In that moment, the illusion of healing and moving on crashed down on all sides, burying him in the rubble of fruitless dreams. 

 

Later, he wouldn't remember how or when Mrs. Graham left. At some point, he'd collapsed onto the sofa and stared at the pristine envelope in hand. There he'd been when the last of the sunlight eked from the room, leaving him in total darkness. And there he'd been when it had returned, seeping through the window and across the floor by degrees. For hours more, he didn't move. Only when his body demanded relief did he finally stir. First to the loo. Then to the pub, where he'd been ever since. 

Cut off at 2:00 in the afternoon. Who'd ever heard of such a thing? 

God, his head hurt. 

He stumbled off the stool and threw some banknotes on the counter, hoping it was the right amount before making his clumsy way out the door. Frank blinked in the relative brightness of sunlight strangled by cloud cover before sinking down to the ground just outside the door. He pulled the unopened envelope from his inner jacket pocket. 

Get it over with, he told himself as he lifted the flap and pulled out the first sheet of paper. Tears sprang into his eyes at the familiar harried handwriting, the slant and loops raising an agonizing nostalgia in him. He read anyway.

 

September 17th, 1946

  

Frank,

 

By the time you'll read this, I'll have already returned through the stones. It was not in the plan, but some information came to light, and we had to go. Whatever happens there, we won't be back. 

So much has been unfairly stolen from you. I regret that, if nothing else. Nothing can truly replace what you've lost, and this isn't meant to do that. But I hope it may bring you some comfort, perhaps peace. 

Between the cost of living for six months and preparing era-appropriate supplies and currency, I worked my way well through my inheritance, but there is still a bit left. Over 100,000 pounds. It's yours. Fund your research, go on sabbatical, I don't care. I asked Maura to bring this to you after first of the year, as that's when the papers take effect. Money will never make true amends for what passed between us, but it's one of the only things I can give you. 

The other may (I hope) have even more value to you. 

There's a cave on Jamie's family property. Well hidden and insulated. During the clearances (we're guessing), his family stored banned items there. Their tartans, weapons, Gaelic books, letters, the family bible -- anything and everything too precious to leave in the house has been hidden and preserved there. Jamie found it when we were planning our trip back, so we know it's survived to 1946. Better catalogued in a museum or university archive than moldering in a cave for God knows how much longer. 

Whatever your personal feelings toward me or toward Jamie, I know you understand the value of these items to history and will see them cared for, if it's your wish. Jamie trusts you with them, as well.

As for Red Jamie and the Stuart Witch...

 

Frank looked up, the moisture in his eyes running down his face. He swiped it away and stood, shoving the letter back into his pocket. With a prominent scowl, he rushed back to his flat as quickly as his inebriated state would allow. Bursting in, he threw the envelope and all the papers therein onto his desk and made a wobbly path toward the bedroom. 

"I don't need to hear about your perfect new husband and your perfect new life," he mumbled to himself as he collapsed onto the bed. He'd rather be angry imagining a pristine life for her in the eighteenth century Highlands than the alternative. 

That she'd died. Was already dead. That somewhere this very moment, her bones sat beneath the earth and had for centuries already. How did that work, he wondered. If she died in the past, had she existed her entire life before Craigh na Dun in two places, simultaneously living flesh, and ash and bone?

He nearly heaved at the thought. And his head still throbbed with drink and lack of sleep.

I wonder if she survived the birth, was the last disconnected thought he had before succumbing to the dark.

Chapter Text

Claire was no stranger to living rough. She had spent most of her youth traversing rough terrain with nothing more than a single bag she could carry herself. Following behind Uncle Lamb, she'd relished the feeling of always sated wanderlust and embraced the title of "nomad." She'd passed nights in tents, ramshackle motels, and out in open air. However primitive her accommodations and however difficult her journey, it had always been an adventure for her, every moment a treasure.

But she'd never done so in the dead of winter with an infant bound to her chest, sharing two horses among four full-sized adults (or nearly enough, anyway), and while on the run from the law. 

Overall, the experience didn't hold quite the same luster as the sanguine memories of her girlhood. 

Crotchety as they all were by the fourth night, some of their worries had largely abated. They were far enough from home that they no longer feared Jamie could be recognized around every corner. As his facial hair thickened and with his red curls camouflaged with mud and hidden beneath his lumpy hat, they felt even more secure. And now, on the outskirts of Glencoe and nearly halfway to the port of Ayr, they all felt the warmth of hope deep in their bellies.

All, that is, except wee Brian. Wind slashed through their layers, and Claire's knuckles were stiff with cold as she folded him securely into her shawl, ensuring none of his delicate skin was exposed. He'd been crying for more than an hour, too cold and miserable to settle or eat. When he'd begun to fuss around sunset, she and Jamie had swapped places on the horse, Claire perched precariously behind and Jamie scooted as far forward as he could to give them space. She couldn't hold on very well from behind, but they hoped Jamie's broad torso would shield Brian from the worst of the chill until they found lodgings for the night. 

Thus they pushed on, Brian's mewling subdued but never stopped.

Darkness had long fallen when they finally caught sight of the next tavern, and Claire didn't bother stifling her sigh of relief. Little golden squares grew larger in the pitch black night as they approached, candles flickering through the windows. 

They pulled up the horses around back, Fergus and Jamie preparing to shelter them in the barn for the night while Murtagh and Claire arranged their accommodations. Such had been their custom since leaving Lallybroch, giving Jamie as little face time with proprietors and fellow guests as possible. 

As Claire bundled up Brian further against her chest, laying her cheek against his downy head and humming softly to comfort him, Jamie grasped her arm. He pulled her in for a short kiss, his other hand migrating to the base of her skull beneath her curls. Her heart galloped at the contact. She still wasn't used to the way his beard tickled her skin. 

Novel, but not unpleasant by any stretch. 

A moment later, he pulled back and, with a tender caress to Brian's back, nodded as he turned to lead the horses away. 

She followed Murtagh into the tavern. Even with only a midsized hearth, her skin tingled as she began to thaw in the relative heat of the room as though she were a cube of ice dropped into warm tea. With a strong exhale, she pulled some of Brian's wrappings away so he might enjoy the relief of warmth as well. 

Casting her eyes across the room, the ball of tension in her chest loosened further. The place was quiet with only two other patrons drinking in the corner. "We should eat something before we retire," Claire murmured to Murtagh beneath her breath. "We haven't had anything substantial since morning."

He never broke stride as he nodded before approaching the tavern keeper. Claire pulled out a chair to sit at a table near the door, bouncing a still grumpy (if, thankfully, not screeching) Brian in her arms as Murtagh arranged their room and food. Once she'd eaten something herself, she'd try feeding Brian again. With luck, he'd be tired enough from the day's hardships to sleep through the night. 

Murtagh joined her, the legs of the chair scraping against the stone floor before he sank into it with a groan. They sat in silence, partially to continue hiding Claire's accent as they had thus far, but largely out of a bone-weariness that ached through all of them like a persistent fever. Some minutes later, a barmaid dropped down four plates of meat and bread and stalked away just as Jamie and Fergus passed through the door.

They locked eyes as Jamie took his seat beside her, his lips twitching up into an exhausted smile for her as he grasped her hand under the table, squeezing briefly before releasing her so she could eat. No one talked as they devoured their food. Claire practically purred with satisfaction as she chewed and savored her final bite when another slice of beef (she thought) fell before her. 

"Eat it," Jamie said as she made to push it back toward him. "It takes energy and strength to feed the wean." They'd resisted any overt displays of affection amidst mixed company lest they draw attention. Still, he reached over to cup the back of Brian's head, thumb grazing his dark hair. Claire watched a swallow bob in his throat as the babe's cries became more insistent again. She, too, tightened her grip on him as she felt him rooting desperately for his own dinner. Slowly, reluctantly, Jamie dropped his hand. "Ye'll eat it, mo nighean donn, and I'll hear no' a word to the contrary." 

A weak smile lifted her lips as she nodded in assent. She'd only just lifted her fork to finish the final bite when the tavern door opened behind her. 

"All right, gentlemen. Find a corner or a chair, if you're lucky, and settle in for the night."

Oh, yes. An English accent in these parts certainly demanded attention. 

Everyone at their table stiffened but didn't dare move yet as the platoon of Redcoats dispersed about the room. Some called over to the barmaid demanding ale while others were content to find a flat enough spot to rest their heads. 

With incredible force of will, Claire forced herself to bring her fork up to her mouth and continue the motion of eating. She glanced at Jamie with her heart lodged firmly in her throat. He was resting his cheek in his hand, both hiding his face and diminishing his stature. Murtagh and Fergus kept their faces turned into their plates. Claire dared not turn in her seat to see them for herself. She, instead, watched Jamie. 

Rarely had she witnessed her husband in such a state of shock that his impassive mask slipped completely. Particularly when faced with a danger such as this, Jamie was nothing if not in control. So when his eyes flicked up to take in the group before him and he froze, his jaw dropping, icy dread plunked deep into her belly. She couldn't look away from him, his blue eyes transfixed over her shoulder and color draining from his face. Daring not to speak aloud, Claire held Brian tighter to her chest, shushing him in his ear and praying he'd quiet just long enough for them to slip to their room. 

Jamie's eyes flashed to hers, then Murtagh, then Fergus. He rose from the table then, and Claire made to stand as well. Murtagh's hand clenched around her knee and held her in place. She snapped to look at him, questioning. Fergus, to her continued bewilderment, also stood silently and preceded Jamie out of the room. Another shot of ice permeated her body at the boy's grey-green pallor and round eyes.

The two of them slid discreetly through the door, Jamie guiding Fergus ahead of him with a hand atop his shoulder. Two simultaneous exhales hissed from Claire and Murtagh as the door shut without incident. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she sent up a prayer of thanks both that she'd chosen a table near the back door and that that hadn't been the way the tavern's newest guests had entered. 

As soon as Jamie and Fergus were gone, Claire leveled Murtagh with a look, a silent demand for explanation. The ferocity of him as he returned her gaze did nothing to quell the cold terror pumping through her veins. His brown eyes shone, brows furrowed and lips turned down into a scowl as his chest heaved. A muscle in his cheek twitched as he simply laid his hands on the table. With his right hand flat, he made a slicing motion at his left wrist and cocked his head back an inch toward the rowdy men behind them. 

Horror tore through her, a maelstrom opening in her chest as her breaths came short. Claire didn't turn, didn't search their faces, didn't ask Murtagh to point to the one who'd done it. Who'd maimed her son. Instead, they sat, posture stiff as the platoon spread out and settled in around them. Finally, moments later, the barmaid approached with news that their room had been prepared.

With all the control she could muster, she stood slowly from her place and, Murtagh at her heels, made for the staircase. She'd taken but one step when Brian's cries reached an all-time high, his red little face screwed up in fury. 

"Will you quiet that goddamned ruckus?" came a shout from behind her. She didn't bother to respond, continuing toward the staircase, ready to disappear upstairs and hopefully find a way for Jamie and Fergus to join them safely. Brian cried again, his little body shaking with the force of his wails.

A stocky column of scarlet stepped into her path. Claire halted just shy of colliding with him. Every instinct in her screamed to raise her chin another inch and hide her fear behind the anger blazing from her eyes. Given the choice between fight and flight, she almost always chose the former. But there was Brian and Jamie and Fergus to consider. Drawing excess attention from the very men they wanted to avoid would harm them all. 

As she allowed her head to drop toward her chest, submissive as the women of this time generally were, it stung like a physical wound. Even so, she locked her arms, steady as iron, around Brian's tiny form, a cage protecting him against the beasts prowling nearby. 

The soldier bent so as to look into her lowered eyes. "I'm speaking to you, woman," he snarled. She hardly heard him over the pounding in her ears, and she kept her eyes glued to the floor. Scents of decay issued from his mouth as he inched ever closer, growing impatient with her muteness. 

"We're retirin' just now," Murtagh stepped in, edging his body between hers and the Redcoat's. "Ye'll no' hear the lad from up the stairs."

"Better not," the soldier responded. "We set out at first light, and I'll be damned if I lose sleep because you ingrates cannot control your young." He turned his head to the side and spat, the glob landing just next to the hem of her skirts. 

Murtagh stood so close she could feel his muscles straining to retaliate. A similar desire burned through her, a wish to spew all manner of foul language and express her fury with fists and feet. Instead, though, Murtagh only nodded and escorted her to the stairs with a hand between her shoulder blades. 

Another cry from Brian, another curse from behind them. "I mean it," he growled as Murtagh practically pushed her up the final steps. "Silence the bloody thing, or I will do it for you!" 

A fire had already been lit in the hearth. The second Murtagh shut the door to the room behind them, Claire tugged at her laces. She rolled her eyes as he huffed and, red-faced, turned his back toward her. As soon as her breast was clear of her stays, Brian latched, suckling with desperation. Out of deference for Murtagh's sensitivities, she threw her grey shawl to cover herself.

"Do you think they can make it up to the window?" She kept her voice low and words vague, conscious of how sound can travel in places such as this. She strode over to the glass and looked down. "Perhaps there's a ladder in the barn they can use?"

Already, though, Murtagh was lighting two candles and placing them just before the pane of glass. Even as he signaled their location, though, he grumbled, "If he canna manage a way up wi'out arousin' the attentions of the other guests, they'll bide in the barn till morn."

Claire swallowed, the inner corners of her eyebrows drawing together and upward as she fought tears. "It's far too cold to sleep out there! Perhaps once they're asleep downstairs, you can go--"

"Ye ken he'd no' wish ye to be left alone wi' a tavern full of..." He paused with a grunt, gaze still trained carefully to the floor. "He wouldna wish ye to be unprotected."

A tapping at the still-closed window interrupted her retort. Murtagh opened the latch and move the candles so as to help first Fergus, then Jamie over the sill. Claire hadn't even time to release her breath before Jamie rushed her, crossing the gap between them in two huge strides and engulfing her in his arms. Brian squeaked before continuing with his meal, apparently too distracted by hunger to much care about being squashed between his parents. 

"Thank God," Claire muttered into his shoulder, spare arm clinging around his neck. "Murtagh thought you may stay in the stable."

"Likely should have," Jamie said as he pulled away. He scrubbed his hand over his face, and Claire approached Fergus, wrapping him in a similar embrace and leaving a kiss atop his curls. Her heart gave a jolt as his thin arms compressed around her middle with surprising strength. "But I couldna leave ye here with them just downstairs, with...him downstairs."

Volatile fury rumbled beneath his voice, tamed only by the necessity of discretion. Loathing burned in his eyes, so fearsome she'd have been terrified had she not known its true target. His lip twitched as he ground his teeth together, and his fists had been clenched at his sides since he'd released her. 

"What's the best course, then?" Murtagh asked, arms crossed with one hand raised to stroke his beard. "Should we keep goin' through the night, then, rather than sleep wi' them underfoot?"

Claire shook her head. "No," she said, gaze jumping among the three men in the room. Her fingers grazed over Brian's hair, the softness soothing her. "No, if we try to leave now, if they notice us, we'll arouse suspicion."

"Aye," Jamie agreed. "No' tae mention we dinna ken which way they're travelin'. At least in the morning, we may be able to inquire and see if we risk comin' across them again." Murtagh nodded, as did Fergus, and they were all agreed.

Barely a quarter hour later, Claire lay on one side of the bed and Fergus on the other, with Brian cradled between them. Usually, Jamie and Fergus took it in turns who would pass the night on watch with Murtagh and who would sleep beside Claire and Brian (largely to appease Fergus's desire to be viewed as a man rather than a boy; otherwise, she knew, Jamie would never have staked a claim to the mattress while a child languished on hard wood). 

Tonight, however, Fergus didn't argue as Jamie unrolled his own blankets on the floor beside Murtagh. He'd been silent since entering the room, but at least the deathly pallor had eased from his face. A dozen times had Claire wanted to ask him if he were all right as they prepared for bed, and each time she'd bitten her tongue. No use in calling forth demons in the dark. She'd wait for the safety of sunlight. 

The last of the frigid, bone-deep chill fell away as she nestled beneath the blankets. Her lids immediately drooped as the crackling fire and Brian's steady, sleepy breaths coalesced into a stupor-inducing white noise. Before she drifted to sleep, she ran her fingers through Fergus's hair, then rested her hand over his own. And, on her last conscious breath, she swore his entire body sagged in relief. 

 

#

 

The men sat congregated around a fire thirty feet ahead, snatches of their conversation barely reaching him, the sounds faint as the smoke that rose to heaven in the center of them.

And on the right end of the group, he sat. Drab brown hair just as stringy as it had been in the dream. His thin lips turned downward in the same sour grimace. Shoulders slumped just so. The tinny pitch of his voice, the deadness behind his eyes. 

Crouched amidst the trees, Jamie wondered vaguely if his pounding heart would betray his position. Loud and strong as it banged against his rib cage, none of the soldiers camped before him seemed to notice. Still as darkness itself, Jamie watched his mark. And he waited. 

 

He didn't sleep the night they encountered the Redcoats. Wouldn't have regardless, but after Murtagh shared the threats launched at Claire's and Brian's backs in his absence, Jamie couldn't have rested had he tried. Dirk clutched in hand, he leaned against the wall near the door, ready to leap forward at the first footstep on the other side. Only as fingers of light stretched across the room at dawn and the sounds of the soldiers departing the premises filtered through the walls did he finally nod off, blade rolling from his slackened grip. 

But not before vowing that, in spite of the perils before them, the bastard would pay. He would lay vengeance at Fergus's feet at very nearly any cost.

Jamie roused a mere two hours later. Assured that the platoon was heading east, they packed their horses and continued on their southward route toward Ayr. All that day, he contrived to slow their progress by any means possible. Extra watering of the horses. Extra rest for Claire and Brian. Extra caution in pulling off the road and into the trees if he heard so much as the wind whistling in a passable imitation of a human voice. By the time they passed an inn late that afternoon where he insisted they stop for a decent meal and good night's rest, they'd only made half the progress they should've. 

But he didn't care. If the Redcoats were traveling east, Perth was their most likely destination. And there was but one road in that direction. 

He whiled away the few remaining daylight hours with his family, plans churning through his mind. As he held a grinning and cooing Brian in his arms to give Claire's a reprieve, Jamie kept a keen eye on his other son. 

Fergus hadn't spoken much since the previous night when they'd huddled together outside the tavern, waiting for Claire and Murtagh to signal them in. His arm laid across Fergus's shoulders, he'd pulled the lad in close. 

"Never ye mind, mon fils," he'd whispered in French. "Ye need no' fear harm whilst I am here. I promise you."

The haunted glaze had receded from his green eyes and his face had relaxed, then, for just a moment. "I know it, Da."

In that moment in the cold and the dark, Jamie had seen not the man Fergus had grown into in their time away, but the child they'd left. Somehow even more vulnerable than he'd ever known him. 

It enraged him. All of it. The attack upon Fergus, the threat upon his wife and babe, the injustice of the soldiers' tour of tyranny across the Highlands and their harassment of his family home. 

With intention, he stoked that rage into a blazing pyre he'd burn the bastard upon. If he couldn't punish them all, he'd punish this one.

 

No small part of Jamie wished he could've brought Fergus with him tonight, allowed him the final death blow. In the end, he'd left Fergus asleep with Claire and Brian, Murtagh's canny gaze following him out of the room just as the last gasp of daylight had faded from the sky. 

It had taken two days to catch up and find the group. Once they'd made camp, Jamie had hidden the horse and crept back in toward them. He should've been dead on his feet, going on three nights of little sleep if any, two while riding hard. But his senses were sharp and his mind clear. For reasons unknown, as he tracked his prey and awaited his opening, vitality drowned out even the thought of exhaustion. 

Thus invigorated, he waited.

Voices died down as more men settled in for sleep sometime after midnight. Then, finally, he stood and stretched before stumbling away from the glow of the campfire. 

Jamie moved silently but with haste, following after as the Redcoat shuffled from the ring of orange light into the darkness of the forest. He cut a wide path, an easy trail to follow had he ever escaped Jamie's view. By the time the soldier paused to unbutton his breeks, Jamie stepping softly behind him, the fire was but a pinprick in the distance. The man hummed as he relieved himself, one arm braced against the tree. 

As he finished and began setting himself to rights, Jamie pounced. 

"Wha--" the man gasped before Jamie clasped a hand over the man's mouth, his other hand plunging his dirk into the soldier's soft belly. His captive went rigid.

"Only the most vile of the Lord's creations would seek tae harm a child, or a wee babe cradled in his mother's arms," Jamie growled into the man's ear, fingers digging into pockmarked cheeks as he twisted the dirk and sank it deeper. Strangled cries vibrated against his palm, and he felt the stickiness of blood oozing from the lips beneath his fingers. "Be grateful for a swift death. 'Tis more than ye deserve."

Jamie pulled his knife free and released the man. He fell with a thud, coughing as he rolled onto his back. As the man's eyes fixed upon him and widened, he sputtered and struggled to form words. Jamie lowered himself into a crouch, folding his bloody hands together. 

"Y-y-you will...r-rot...in hell...f-f-f-for...this-s-s-s," he managed to croak out. A stream of blood rolled over his cheek like wax dripping down a candle. 

A calm descended over Jamie, his vow nearly fulfilled. He nodded once. "If no' for this sin, then one of my many others, aye," he agreed. "And if Satan be just, before he takes me to do with as he pleases, he'll allow me a turn at ye first tae finish what I canna here."

He knew the very second the man's soul departed his body. The eyelids, wide in terror, slackened, as did his jaw. His hand, shaking and hovering over the hole in his stomach, collapsed. A final rattling wheeze sent a tiny spray of blood from his lips as his body settled deeper into the dirt. 

After only a moment's consideration, Jamie reached and pulled the soldier's gorget from around his neck. Perhaps Fergus would want it. As proof. 

Standing, stepping carefully over the body, Jamie edged his way around camp. He'd wash in the stream where he'd tied the horse and then begin the trek back to his family. With luck, the investigation wouldn't follow them, having already traveled a ways south; such had been his rationale for departing the tavern at all, rather than trailing after them that very day.

Two days later, Claire stirred as he squeezed into bed with her, the two boys asleep between them. Her whisky eyes opened, meeting his. For a heartbeat's length, he worried she may stand and wake the entire building with her admonishments of him; he knew she'd have been angry when he slipped off without so much as a kiss or a word goodbye. 

But then her face softened, and her hand reached for his. Her dark eyebrows raised in question. Jamie brought her fingers to his lips, closing his eyes as he savored the cool smoothness of them. His eyes opened again, and he nodded once at her. Appeased, she smiled softly and huddled against her three Fraser men. 

Jamie reached to gather them closer, as well. Love for her, for all of them, squeezed his heart and nearly drove him to tears. A feeling so intense it was painful. How his entire world could fit in the space beneath his own arm astounded him. 

Bit by bit, his muscles loosened and relaxed into the mattress, but his mind took longer to rest. He fiddled with the silver ring on his finger, his thumb spinning it as his mind continued to race. 

Though he knew murder to be a mortal sin, he wondered if it wasn't somehow forgiven, if not blessed outright. How else had he found the men so quickly, setting about his task with hardly any impediment at all? And what other explanation was there for the peace that now draped over him like a woolen blanket in deep winter, warming and soothing and with the promise of home surrounding him? 

Even if not, even if his soul had been damned to hell long before, he regretted nothing. If God could not grant him entry to His kingdom for his sins, perhaps He'd bestowed serenity upon him. A consolation prize, certainly, but one he'd accept. A clap on the shoulder and a comforting, It may not have been right, mo mac, but I understand you, and I love you anyway.

He filled his lungs with air and exhaled slowly, willing his mind to quiet. Questions of heaven, hell, or in between could wait. If he had his own way, he wouldn't meet the Almighty for a long while yet.

Trusting in redemption and providence, for the first time in four days, he relinquished himself fully to God's own keeping as he fell, at once, asleep.

Chapter Text

January 14, 1754

 

One. More. Week. Claire's constant mantra did little to alleviate the road-weariness that had long ago settled in her bones. After Jamie's disappearing act and return, the group had dallied in their journey. Three days now had been spent taking alternate routes and wrong turns; if anyone at the inn where they'd encountered the soldiers had gotten wind of their final destination, they didn't want to make catching up with them easy. 

Finally, though, Jamie and Murtagh had deemed it safe to resume their travels in earnest. They were making their way back toward the main route to Ayr now, hopefully set to arrive in six more days. 

She leaned back against Jamie's chest, face upturned. The sun had made an uncharacteristic appearance today, lending its warmth to the otherwise chilled air. 

"What're ye thinking, mo graidh?" he asked her, resting his chin atop her head. 

Spreading her arms to each side like aeroplane wings, she hummed with satisfaction. "Mostly just how bloody good it feels to stretch my arms." 

After ten days of near-constant cradling of their child, Jamie had finally insisted that Fergus take turns every so often holding him. Only when Brian was sleeping, though. The lad was securely swaddled and tied to Fergus's torso, and Jamie had insisted Murtagh ride behind so he could act as a safety buffer. The reprieve hardly amounted to an hour or so every day, but Claire couldn't care less. She relished the relief in her aching arms. 

A Scottish hmph rumbled in her husband's chest, swelling and falling ever so slightly behind her head. "'Twill no' be much longer, Sassenach, and ye'll have somewhere safe to lay the lad. He willna always need tae be in yer arms."

"I know." Sighing, swallowing, she rotated her outstretched arms so the insides of her elbows faced the sky and stretched further. A satisfying pop of her joints relieved the tension, and they fell back to her sides. "I shouldn't complain about holding my child, I know. One day he'll be too big for it and I'll miss how tiny he was and being able to just hold onto him all day."

"Yer only human. Yer muscles get sore and fatigued. 'Tis nothin' shameful in it, Sassenach."

She nodded but didn't verbally respond, and they fell into silence.

They hadn't yet discussed Jamie's unplanned sojourn to hunt down the redcoat who'd hurt Fergus. Since he'd crawled back into bed upon his return, Claire vacillated often between frustration and understanding. Part of her wished she could've been there to deal justice to the monster. She'd have gladly assisted her husband in whatever retribution he felt necessary, and no small part of her applauded him for delivering it, even without her.

Still, she wasn't thrilled that she hadn't so much as been told his plans, much less consulted on the matter. Four days she'd sat in a stale tavern room with no clue when (or, in her moments of deeper panic, if) she'd see her husband again. Thrice, she'd crawled into bed, hugging Brian and Fergus close to stave off the fears that had attacked in the vulnerable sleeping hours. 

Yes, she'd wavered between forgiveness and irritation for days now. Today, her heart had settled on the latter. 

"Maman," Fergus said after a time, "le petit is waking."

Jamie sighed behind her and nodded, he and Murtagh wordlessly navigating the horses off the road into the tree cover. They rode for five more minutes before finding a creek and pulling the horses to a halt. "We'll stop and eat. Rest ourselves before we make the final push. Should be a settlement no' far from here where we can sleep tonight."

"Still have some bannocks from the inn a few nights back," Murtagh said. "Ye may even find some small game, as well."

All members of the party dismounted the horses, and Claire crossed to Fergus to pull Brian from his arms. As soon as she did, though, she wrinkled her nose. "Fergus, dear, why didn't you say he needed changing? How long have you had to ride with the odor?"

He shrugged his thin shoulders. "You were tired, and I knew we would stop soon."

With a small smile, she raised her spare hand to comb her fingers through his curls. He now stood taller than her shoulders, a fact which squeezed at her heart. "That's very sweet, darling, but there's no need. And it's better for him if he stays clean as much as we can, given the circumstances." 

"Oui, Maman." He nodded once more before turning to help Murtagh with firewood. Claire fetched the basket with fresh nappies before announcing that she was taking Brian downstream to change and bathe. 

"Ye have yer knife, lass?" Jamie holstered his own dirk around his waist as he asked. He raised his gaze from the buckle his fingers were still lacing.

She nodded and turned so he could see it at her hip. "We won't be far."

Walking down the creek bed far enough that camp was just within sight, Claire sighed and sat on a rock. As she changed Brian's clout, she used the canteen to clean the soiled one over the dirt so as not to contaminate the waterway. Before they decamped, she'd boil the cloths in the pot dedicated for the task. 

Brian was generally a cheerful baby, and today was no exception, despite his mother's discontent. He lay naked on a linen cloth before her, arms and legs kicking and punching the air as she dribbled creek water over his little body to wash. 

"You like that, little love?" she cooed over him. Even with the sun providing the barest modicum of warmth, the water was bracingly cold. Nevertheless, as she dripped a bit more over his bare torso, his little limbs wound and cut through the air. Rosy lips formed an initial shocked O at the cold, his eyes widening to match, before gifting her with the most beautiful gummy smile she'd ever seen. 

It wasn't his first smile, but it was still new enough that it made her heart flutter with pure joy. 

"A true Scot then, unfazed by such mundanities as icy water," Claire mused as she gently scrubbed the baby down, careful with the rough towel on his sensitive skin. "I bet you'll grow into a right furnace just like him, too." Her knuckles brushed over his little brow as a surprise lump lodged in her throat. Smiling through it, sniffling lightly, she whispered, "I can't wait to see how many ways you'll be just like him."

"Truly? Even when yer cross at me?"

Claire whipped around to see Jamie standing behind, eyes soft but lips set in a tight line. "How long have you been standing there?" she asked.

"No' long. I like watchin' ye wi' him, though. No matter what else is goin' on in the world, ye glow when yer motherin' ower him. It's a gift tae watch, mo chridhe." Stepping slowly closer, Jamie uncrossed his arms from over his chest. "But ye didna answer." 

Heat flooded her cheeks, both at his tender words and the frustration he'd reminded her had been festering. She turned back to Brian, finishing his bathing and drying him. "And why do you think I'm cross with you, then?"

The derisive chortle that he let loose only fanned the flames of her agitation. "Ye forget I can read yer mind clear across yer face," he said, daring to take another step closer. "Three days I've been back. One minute, you're sweet as honey. The next, I'm hidin' the blades fer fear ye'll slice my throat in my sleep."

"Bloody dramatic," she murmured beneath her breath.

"Am I wrong?" Birdsong filled the silence that sat between them as she didn't answer, and his head bobbed in a single nod as his suspicions were confirmed. "Will ye tell me why?"

As if the reason weren't blatant. Claire scoffed. "Because you're...infuriating, James Fraser." The words emerged raspy, choked around the emotion building in her chest against her will. "And...and stubborn, and impulsive, and valiant to a bloody fault."

"Ye keep flatterin' me so, and I'll melt right here into the forest floor."

"I'm serious, Jamie." Claire rolled her lips in between her teeth. She regulated her breathing as she fastened Brian's nappie, the boy oblivious to the tension between his parents. Rinsing her hands with alcohol, then again in the creek, she gathered up her things. 

"All right, then. Let's speak seriously." It took clear effort to keep his voice even and volume in check, his cheeks reddened with it. "What would ye have had me do, Claire? Let the man simply walk away after what he did?"

"I'd have had you give me some clue as to what you were doing," she retorted, standing with Brian in her arms and the basket held in the crook of her elbow. "I wouldn't have had you keep me in the goddamn dark."

"Ye surely kent I wouldn't have let the man go?"

"Suspecting your plan and knowing it aren't the same." 

She made to breeze by him back toward camp, but he grabbed her arm as she went to pass, holding her in place. His grip was firm but not tight. A request, not a demand. 

Breathing deep, her eyelids drifted shut. The temptation to push down her negative feelings was strong. She could bury them, apologize for her outburst, and focus instead on the half of her heart that had already forgiven him. 

But in so doing, she knew they would never truly dissipate. Fossilizing deep in her heart, they'd solidify into stone where only tenderness should exist. The longer she hid them, the harder they'd be to extract. Her stomach churned at the thought of any corner of her heart hardening against him. 

She couldn't bury it now, then.

When she met his gaze, her breath stuttered. Eyebrows turned up at the center, ice blue eyes shining with feeling, the vein beneath his eye jumping. "Would it have been better, then," he asked, "had I bid ye farewell before? Left ye as though I werena returnin'? Would ye not have...have worried and fretted had I taken my leave as a soldier would his woman before battle?"

The tear that slid down her cheek surprised her, and she sniffled again. His hand at her bicep skimmed up over her shoulder to her neck, settling in the curve there. 

Brian's soft weight in her arms, tired as they were, provided comfort. She stroked along his back. "As long as we've been together, there's always been something trying to drive us apart. Always, Jamie. Whether it's Colum or the Watch or the stones or the bloody Inverness police. All those times, you said goodbye. And no, the waiting for you after wasn't ever any better.

"But I had those final moments with you. If I..." Another droplet marred her cheek, and his fingers caressed the column of her neck. It, too, calmed her soul. "If I'd lost you any of those times, I'd at least have had as many moments as possible. When every moment, every second counts, that matters. 

"I was robbed of that this time. All I kept thinking while you were gone was if you never returned, I could've had two, three, ten more minutes with you."

"Mo nighean donn..."

"It wouldn't have been enough, but it would have been more. And you stole them."

The sob burst from her lips as he pulled her against his chest, arms wrapping around her. Her own arms encircled Brian between them, keeping him from being squished even as Jamie tightened his embrace. "Tha mi cho diulich, mo Sorcha," he whispered against her hair. Up and down her back, his palms traced a soothing path as she burrowed her face against his neck. "I didna want to say goodbye, Sassenach."

"Why not?" 

Above her head, she felt his own give a long back-and-forth shake. "I didna want to speak my fears into being. The entire afternoon 'fore I left was my goodbye. I rocked my babe tae sleep, and prepared supper wi' my lad." His fingers tightened against her. "I held my wife, and kissed her, and watched her drift tae sleep."

Claire considered his words, trying to see the afternoon through her husband's eyes. The worst of her cries had passed as she leaned against him. Lips pressed against the crown of her head before he spoke again. "E'er since I woke screamin' in Inverness, the sight of Fergus bleedin' out burned into my eyelids, I've carried this...agonizing guilt."

"Jamie..."

"I stood there," he whispered, face contorted. "'Twas a dream. I ken I couldn't have changed it. But I froze. I watched. I didna e'en try. That will haunt me till I meet my end. 

"My priority will always be yer safety, yers and Brian's and Fergus's. But when the bastard stumbled right into our path, there was no choice." He pulled back, then, to look into her eyes. "I ken it's madness and nigh on hubris. But I was afraid if I bid ye a proper goodbye, it would be the last one. Killing that retch was my atonement fer failin' to act before, and I couldna fail again."

Her thumb caught the tear before it fell from the corner of his eye. With a shaky smile, he rested his hand over hers on his cheek. "Can ye forgive me, lass?"

A kiss, tender and warm, served as her answer. His lips responded in kind, stealing her breath. Broad hands at the small of her back drew her in, and she opened her mouth beneath his. From the point of his tongue tracing over hers, heat spread through her neck, chest, sternum, dispersing to every inch of her. 

Each time she pulled back for a breath, she whispered a word.

Honorable. 

Brave. 

Fierce. 

Devoted. 

Brian's squalls finally parted them for good, and he leaned his forehead against hers. "What're doin', Sassenach?" he asked between pants. 

She planted a last, lingering kiss on his lips before looking up to him, smiling. "Listing all the things I hope he becomes. All the ways I pray he'll take after his father."

Jamie's face broke into a radiant grin, eyes still bright and glassy. The corners of his smile arched downward as he fought the emotion clearly swirling beneath the surface. "So long as he has yer heart, Sassenach, I'll be well pleased." 

He pulled the child in question from her arms, holding him against his chest. After a brief kiss to his little nose, Jamie turned toward camp, speaking to Brian in low Gaelic. Claire followed just a step behind, eyes never leaving the pair of them. As they followed the smell of the fire toward their lunch, she couldn't help but agree with him. 

To watch him with their son was, indeed, a gift.

 

#

 

January 16, 1754

 

The sun had long since set, taking with it any hope of warmth until morning. Frigid air turned his fingers numb, and the mildest breeze stabbed like knives. It had rained that day. Every few minutes now, residual moisture drizzled from the leaves above, hissing as they struck the burning logs before him. 

Major John Grey hated this time of year. It was tolerable when passed in offices and bed chambers with hearty fires and warm tea. But trekking through the Scottish Highlands, boots constantly soaked through in ice and water, the ever-present misty rain ensuring he was never completely dry?

He detested it. 

Settling onto the fallen (and damp, of course) log, he rubbed his chilled hands together over the fire. The army encampment had largely quieted now, clusters of men around other fires either sleeping or drinking or talking into the night. 

John had this fire to himself, for which he was grateful. It had been a trying day. He and his small company had only just returned to Fort William three days hence when word had arrived that a corporal had been murdered. Stabbed to death in the night while going for a drunken piss. The platoon in question had continued on to their business in Perth, having dispatched a messenger to the fort to raise the alarm.

Two fire rings away, the men howled with laughter at some story or other, one of them gesticulating wildly and flipping his hair back in poor imitation of a maiden. John exhaled again, closing his eyes as he savored the cold ale in his canteen. 

At least the winter chill was good for something.

He supposed he should feel mournful. One of his own, a brother in arms, had been viciously, cowardly slain. Yet, the feeling wouldn't come. The late Corporal McGregor had been grating at best. They'd never spent very much time in shared company, but John knew he wouldn't miss the lout so very much at all. 

No, it was the principle of the thing. One simply couldn't allow agents of the Crown to go murdered or maimed without consequence. 

So now here he was, on another long journey in the cold and wet of winter. Away from his private quarters at the fort, away from a cot of his own and a fireplace and dry goddamned clothes. 

And more than that, it would delay any further action regarding his findings from a fortnight prior. That, more than anything, dampened his mood as much as the dripping foliage above him.

Broch Tuarach had been the first stop of several on his last assignment. His superior officer hadn't been in residence at the fort when he had returned, and John had been back hardly half a day when he and his men had departed once more in search of a murderer. Which meant the letter Mrs. Murray had surrendered to him still sat in his satchel, pressed between the pages of his diary.

The Crown had been combing the Highlands for six years now searching for Red Jamie with no luck. Though they'd returned to his home again and again, even arrested the current owner-by-proxy on more than one occasion, they'd found nothing. No chatty stable boys willing to talk for a shilling or two. No whispered folk stories popping up to point the way toward Scotland's once-revered legend. Not a single stray red curl to be found on the blankets or pillows of the house or in the barn or study or fields. 

More than that, the few other times John had confronted the family personally, he'd seen more than fear or anger in their eyes. Pain. Grief. A longing that couldn't be counterfeited. 

After years of disappointment, the search was likely coming to its unsatisfying conclusion. 

But then, there'd been the man in Broch Mordha. Sloshing his whisky down the red uniform before him, the drunkard had proclaimed his wife had delivered Red Jamie's demon child (born, as it was, by Fraser's "witch wife"). As the first solid evidence they'd had in years, they'd leapt at it. 

Duty dictated that John should have left the letter and a detailed report with the next ranking officer to pass on to Colonel Adams upon his arrival. It would be news anxiously awaited, he knew. Yet he couldn't. Wouldn't relinquish that single thread of a connection to the man he so loathed. 

Besides, certain things were more difficult to coach an underling to relay. Suspicions about the pristine paper that had supposedly traveled all the way from Europe. Or the perfectly parroted story given by the alleged new mother, holding a child who looked quite...healthy for three months old. Not to mention the ferocity of Mrs. Murray's eyes, suddenly devoid of their usual mournful sheen. These were details he wished to explain himself. 

He'd be dressed down for delaying the message, surely. It hardly mattered. If the colonel's inclination after hearing it involved chasing down this barest ghost of a lead, John was determined that the task would be his. 

In truth, though he often fantasized about fulfilling the latter half of his oath to the Red devil, the life debt between them precluded him from realizing any such dreams. Could he even arrest the man without breaking his word of honor? For years, he'd debated the point within his own mind and still had no answer. 

Even so, he simply couldn't allow the opportunity to face the man to pass. He trusted that, in the moment, he'd know what to do.

Night wore on, and more of the men found spots to rest until morning. John enjoyed the growing solitude. He stood and added another log to the fire. He held his hands near the embers at the bottom, desperate for reprieve from the cold. New flames grew tall after a moment, and John shifted forward on the log, hovering as close as he could without sticking his feet and hands straight into the heat. 

A freezing droplet pelted him on the neck. He winced and flexed his shoulders as it ran down the length of his spine beneath his shirt, drawing goosebumps along the way.

Then a voice echoed in his mind as he stared into the orange light. 

 

"Bloody hell, John, your fingers are like ice." 

A chuckle and a hum as John trailed said appendages along the spine before him, goosebumps rising as the body flinched away. "I have an idea for warming up."

"I swear to God, you touch my cock right now, and I will end you."

"No, you won't," John teased. 

With a grunt, Hector turned to face him. Head pillowed against his bent arm, he smirked. "Fine. Maybe I wouldn't."

"And why not?" he asked, moving in closer. 

Hector's eyes never broke from his as his own fingertips ghosted up John's arm, a shiver erupting therefrom. "Because I love you, John Grey, pest that you are."

 

Eyes dry and burning from the heat of the fire, John blinked and glanced cautiously around. Whenever such images flooded his mind, he was half-convinced they played across his own face as clearly as though performed by actors on stage. 

Not even his imagination felt safe for such remembrances. 

Hector came to him less often now. After Culloden, after Hal had taken him to the body, that was the only way John could remember him for a time. Nightmares of the bloodied, beaten corpse drove him nearly to insanity. The warmth shared between them had faded to an empty sort of chill. Death had infected him. 

After the first year or so, the nightmares wore off. And every so often, a memory or dream would come unbidden. In a way, they were worse than before. To see and feel so clearly what he would never have again was a special torture, yet one he deserved. 

Culloden had been a victory in his brethren's eyes. The day the Scots had been defeated and put in their place for their treason. And so it was, he supposed, for him as well. Overshadowing any notion of triumph, though, was grief. 

Perhaps his failure at Corrieyairack had nothing to do with that last, horrific day. Maybe Culloden was inevitable. And with it, the loss that felt permanently etched into his soul. 

But he'd never know. If he'd defeated Red Jamie that night -- or, hell, if he'd resisted the temptation to impress Hector by doing so -- would he still be here? 

With the not knowing came the unwavering guilt and its eternal companion, anger. And what better cure for anger than vengeance?

 

#

 

January 25, 1948

 

Rolling up his sleeves and running his fingers through his hair, Frank released a long sigh. The pressure in his chest loosened as he did, so he released a second. 

It had been a grueling few months. On top of his teaching schedule and the beginning stages of preparing his next book, he had spent long hours poring through the massive collection recently donated to the Oxford history department archives. Boxes upon boxes of 18th and 19th century diaries, missives, and miscellaneous paraphernalia encompassing decades sat spread across his office, waiting to be catalogued. 

Frank was reading through the writings of John William Grey, second son of Gerard Grey, Earl of Melton. Largely daily accounts of his military career and Caribbean governorship in the mid 18th century, as well as his various musings, as was common in such personal writings. So when he turned the page and found himself looking into a familiar face, his breath caught in his throat. 

Grey had penciled a sketch in the upper right quadrant of the yellowed page. Frank studied it. He sought any detail that would disprove the immediate recognition. But the sharp jawline couldn't be mistaken. Nor the piercing eyes, solemn and ferocious. The curls that rained over his forehead and ears were the same, as was the stern set of his mouth. 

There was no doubt. It was Fraser. 

"Fucking hell," he muttered, leaning in closer. The page was undated, but the previous entries had all been from early 1754. Its opposite page was blank, and when Frank turned it, the diary entries resumed as normal. No mention of Fraser whatsoever. 

He tried to piece together what it meant. Why would an English soldier be sketching Red Jamie's likeness? And with no mention of tracking him, arresting him, executing him? 

Nothing. 

Chills danced over his skin as he looked over the image again. The savage furrow of his brow, eyes cutting even in rough graphite. Lips pressed together but the corner pulled up ever so slightly, as though their owner had been containing the urge to snarl. 

Indeed, it looked akin to the picture of the man Frank had once held in his own mind. Ominous. Dangerous. This was no broadsheet. This was...something personal. And dark.

And what of Claire? 

Thought of her set his heart pounding so frantically he thought he may vomit. It had been nearly two years since he'd let her go. Over a year since Mrs. Graham had told him she'd returned to the past with Fraser. Life had been good for a while now. He was doing well at Oxford, and Harvard had even approached him again about a teaching position beginning in autumn. 

For the most part, his heart no longer ached for what he'd lost. Not daily, anyway. But he still hadn't finished reading the letter she'd left him or gone on the hunt for the chest of Fraser artifacts. Nor had he searched for either of them. Not that there had ever been any evidence that James Fraser and his wife existed after Culloden, much less survived. 

Until now, apparently. 

What did it mean, finding this now? Historians had been searching for any hint as to Red Jamie's fate for decades with nothing to show for it. Now, after they'd returned, this falls directly into his lap. His, of anyone's on earth. Could anyone who'd never met the man face to face even have puzzled it out?

That night, as he willed his mind to quiet enough for sleep, he noted for the first time the lack of longing in his chest for her. Worry, yes. Curious to distraction, absolutely. But no longer did he yearn for what should've been his. He ran his thumb over his bare ring finger. The ridge from where the golden band had sat for so long had finally vanished. So, too, had the agony that defined the years since that fateful trip to Inverness. 

In a way, that in itself was a loss. The final disappearance of his hope for her. 

Raindrops pattered against the window. He measured his breathing, inhaling and counting to five before exhaling and doing the same. 

Of course, he knew exactly where he would likely find answers. If there were any news of what had become of them, it would be in that cave. 

His hope for his future with Claire was gone. But his love for her, dimmed as it was, still shone. If the truth waiting for him in that dark cave in Scotland spelled out any misfortune for her, he wasn't yet ready to know it. 

Perhaps that made him a coward. But acceptance and peace had been hard won. Slipping finally into slumber, he chose ignorance over yet more pain. 

Chapter Text

February 7, 1754

 

Hurry up and wait. 

Claire had said that once during the time they spent awaiting Mabon to return through the stones. In the weeks since arriving in Ayr, the phrase had popped into Jamie's mind again and again. Apt enough, but it seemed a bit too...cheeky to fully encapsulate the anticipation, dread, and helplessness that had plagued them then.

Then, and now.

After nearly two weeks on the road, they'd finally ridden into the port city the second week of January, but there were no ships to board. Of course, there wouldn't be. It wasn't the time of year for sailing, and even short excursions to Europe were fewer and farther between than they would be come spring and summer. 

They'd been debating next steps when nearly a dozen Redcoats had marched in their third day in Ayr and effectively made their decision for them. The company had patrolled with fervor, driving the Frasers to flee to the first village they found with an inn, a stable, and a decent market. 

Three weeks were thus passed in Dundonald, eight or so miles north. Ten days previous, Murtagh and Fergus had returned to Ayr on one of the horses in order to ensure passage at the absolute first opportunity. Every few days, Fergus returned to Jamie and Claire with updates (or lack thereof) before looping back to Ayr the next morning. 

Each time the lad waved goodbye, Claire would lean into Jamie's shoulder and sigh, worry marring her countenance. He had to remind her that Fergus had faced far worse without them than a few hours alone on the road. Besides, the lad positively beamed with pride at the responsibility and trust placed in him. Never would Jamie steal that from him.

Between visits from Fergus, the three remaining Frasers were alone. No one had seen or heard any peep of or about any Redcoats (the hamlet being home to hardly more than fifty or so people, it likely wasn't worth their trouble); hence, they could breathe more freely here. For the first time since traveling back through the stones, they lived with some mild confidence in their safety. Strolled about town and through the nearby woods, ate in the tavern. 

It was very near to freedom, Jamie thought.

Still, sometimes, his skin would tingle with impatience. This taste of liberty only made him ravenous for the real thing. Their current dependence on circumstances sliding into place of their own accord curdled his wame. He wanted to do something. 

When the restlessness grew overwhelming, he reminded himself to be grateful for these days with those he cared for most. He would look to Claire and wee Brian and Fergus, if he were there, and thank the Lord for this time unimpeded with all of them. This was temporary. Days together joking and laughing and napping would be replaced by days in the fields or out earning his living some other way. Best to savor this while he had it.

The hour now was late, but neither Claire nor Jamie longed for sleep. Instead, he lay on his side and gazed at his wife. She was bare before him, the glow of the full moon dripping over her like paint on canvas. The redness aroused by their joining was just receding from her chest. Dark curls spiraled in shadows over her pillow. Brian slept in a makeshift bed beside their own. 

His fingertips scaled the hills and valleys of her curves, grazing across the dip of her waist and over the rise of her hips. "And if Louis catches wind o' our return?" he murmured in the dark, voice easy and relaxed.

France, they'd decided. For the time being, anyway. They all spoke the language, which made it more appealing than Italy or Spain. Plus, even though Jared resided in Paris (which they knew instinctively they'd avoid to their final breath), having family nearby was a comfort to them both. 

Their banishment, though, complicated matters. At least, to his mind. 

Soft lips pressed a kiss to the space over his heart before she laid her hand against his sternum and rested her chin thereupon. Amber eyes regarded him from beneath her lashes, a playful brow cocked as she said, "In general, I was hoping to avoid it."

A huff of a laugh rumbled through his chest, bouncing Claire's head just enough for her curls to jump. He brushed one behind her ear. "A masterful plan ye've concocted there, Sassenach. 'Tis a wonder ye've no' managed to conquer the Crown itself with such a cunning mind fer strategy hidden beneath these fine curls."

She giggled -- ah, Dhia, his favorite sound -- and swatted him on the abdomen. "I only mean it's been the better part of a decade since our...exit." She tried to hide the shiver that passed over, but he felt it. He couldn't help but follow suit. With a dark hmph, he pulled her to lay beside him, the better to encase her completely in his arms. They lay face to face, their jesting mood passed. 

Paris still haunted her, he knew, as much as it did him. Those months they'd passed, the most distant they'd been almost since they'd met. Then Randall. Then Faith. And Louis. 

Jamie placed a gentle kiss on her forehead and caressed the long column of her neck as he encouraged her to continue.

"Anyway," she said, voice barely shaking, "part of me thinks, with as many years as have gone by, he won't be particularly bothered if we keep to ourselves  and don't make a fuss. If we use aliases, stay away from the major cities, we may be able to avoid detection altogether, if you felt like being 'McTavish' again."

He knew she'd meant for him to chuckle or roll his eyes at the reference to his once-pseudonym, but only a weak grimace pulled at his lips before he grew serious once more. "Would ye...do ye want France to be forever, then?" His palm slid down her neck, over her shoulder, and along her arm to settle on her waist. He pulled her in closer, touching their foreheads together. "Would we settle there for good? Raise our bairns there, go grey together?"

"I don't think so," she answered. Her legs interlaced with his as she pulled her body flush with his. "But it's away from Scotland and King George. Which is a vast improvement on our current situation."

The room quieted as they retreated into their individual minds, imagining the various futures before them. 

"What about the colonies?" he spoke up after a time. "'Twould be a fresh start, to be certain. Under control of the British, aye, but I dinna think they'd be much bothered about Jacobites so far away."

Claire nodded. "There's a lot of opportunity there. And hardship. But there will be another war there in about twenty years. A big one."

"Twenty years is quite a while, Sassenach."

"Yes," she breathed. "I suppose it is." 

Reaching her hand up, she ran her fingers through his hair. Long fingernails dragged along his scalp, and he groaned in appreciation. It was nearly enough to distract him from the conversation at hand. But as he opened his eyes (when had they fallen closed in pleasure, he wondered?), he could see the words hidden behind her own. "What else, mo graidh?"

Her caresses never halted as she spoke, tone achingly gentle. "Going to the colonies is all but a farewell to Scotland," she breathed. "It's a months-long journey across the ocean. If we manage it once, I'm not sure we could again." She sighed and twirled one of his locks in her finger, pulling slightly at the roots as she backed away ever so slightly to meet his eyes. "It would be letting go of any hope of going home to Lallybroch, to Jenny and Ian. Are you all right with that?"

Something akin to icy rainwater skittered over his skin. Chills prickled there, and his stomach clenched. Claire was right. His seasickness alone made even one trip across an entire ocean a nightmare and very likely a fool's errand, much less a second one. But if they should have more children? If Fergus found a lass there and had some of his own? How could they bring an entire brood back across?

He'd be as far from home as he'd been in Claire's time. 

Frustrated tears burned behind his eyes at the thought of never returning to Scotland, of breaking his promise to Jenny. Never seeing her bairns again, becoming simply a ghost in their memories as they grew older. 

Perhaps it was inevitable regardless. But was it a hope he could relinquish? 

"In truth, I dinna ken," he murmured in answer. "I pray that one day, the worst here will pass and no one will look twice at James or Claire Fraser."

"But..."

Dragging his bottom lip between his teeth, he gathered Claire back in his arms, settling her head beneath his chin. Only then did he allow a tear to fall. His voice, though, did not quake. "We canna be sure that day will e'er arrive. I never thought they'd still be searchin' for me with such a vengeance seven years after the Rising. Yet...." 

Claire's arms tightened around him as he paused. With a deliberate nod, he continued. "The thought of never returnin' burns me up inside, but I dinna want our children to grow up in a place that doesna feel like a home. They deserve to ken they're somewhere steady and...and safe.

"If we must uproot ourselves, Sassenach, then we must also replant elsewhere." 

Without a word, Claire rose up and touched her lips to his. He surrendered to her. Christ, how she disarmed him, tore down every defense with nothing but herself. She drew a choking sob from him as he clutched at her face and held her close. 

Caresses landed on his neck, his face, his chest. They bolstered him. Anchored him. As thoroughly as the anguish had overtaken him, it departed. Jamie pulled away panting, and his hands remained tangled at the base of her skull. With a final kiss -- calmer now -- they settled back against the pillows.

Before they gave themselves up for sleep, though, Claire chuckled. He looked to her. "What?"

"Just imagining Brian growing up to sound like Fergus," she said, nestling into his neck. "Perhaps our next son will be a Pierre or a Marcel."

Jamie snorted into her curls, the last of his melancholy slipping away. "I've renamed one son, Sassenach. Dinna think I won't do the same to another if the need arises." Her breath tickled the skin of his neck as she laughed, a serenade to his soul. They pulled each other closer. 

His wife never ceased to astound him. As his lids fluttered closed, he thanked her silently for the gift she'd granted him in such a teasing tone. 

The gift of hope. 

 

#

 

Another week later, and Fergus rode into Dundonald with a grin so wide they could've seen it from Glasgow. There was a ship. The Gladiola had just put into port that very morning. After a discreet meeting between Murtagh and the captain as well as some preliminary funds exchanging hands, the Frasers (well, the McTavishes, as the ledger would record) would set sail the next day on the afternoon tide.  

Danger was still about, he reminded himself even as his heart leapt every time he remembered how very close they were to escaping it for good.

Murtagh would purchase the provisions needed in Ayr. Water would be provided on board, but they would need enough food to last over a week. They'd ride into Ayr in early morning, board the boat when the Redcoat presence was lowest, and finally be beyond their reach by sunset.

One day stood between them and their freedom. The knowledge elated him. 

The remaining daylight hours passed slowly as they gathered their things and made ready for an early morning departure. They finally lay down for the night already dressed for morning, the less they'd have to pack and prepare come dawn.

Jamie kissed first Fergus in the cushioned chair by the hearth, then Brian in the bed, and finally Claire -- the last of them long and deep -- before they rested. As he curled himself around Claire and wee Brian in the bed, their warm breaths washed over him like sunlight in winter. It gave him life and eased him into sleep. 

 

#

 

Her hair was tickling his nose. The thud of her heartbeat echoed in his ears as she lay her body overtop his own. And she was kissing him, devouring him so deeply and so thoroughly his chest hurt for breath. His throat, dry and cracked, begged for air. When she pulled away and he took a great inhale, he was met with only more burning. 

Jamie woke with a gasp and shot straight up. Eyes snapped open and immediately watered against the acrid black fog as he coughed against his hand. The phantom heartbeats of his dream morphed into shouts and crashing from downstairs.

"Claire, Fergus, wake up," he cried as he threw the blankets off them and leapt from bed. Another lungful of air brought on another fit as he ran toward the door, snatching his jacket off the hook and stuffing it over the crack at the bottom where smoke billowed in. "Claire!" 

She sat up sharply, disoriented. "What--"

"Fire," he cut her off. "Wake Fergus."

The sleepiness vanished from her eyes as she jumped from bed. Covering Brian with the blanket, she wrenched the other end from beneath the mattress. As Jamie crossed to throw open the window, Claire slashed the muslin into smaller pieces. She dunked them in the (thankfully, filled for morning) basin, soaking them through as she roused Fergus. He sprang up and, without direction, hurriedly consolidated their two satchels down to one of bare necessities before slinging it over his shoulder. She passed a sopping bit of cloth to each man before lifting Brian to her chest and covering her nose and mouth with the damp cloth, ensuring it fell over his face as well. 

Eyes stinging with the smoke, Jamie pulled Claire then Fergus to the opening at the window and pushed their heads out. He leaned over them both, and they all gulped in clean air. In the street below, people stood on the pathways surrounding the building while men rushed about with buckets and water. Orange flames licked up from the windows below them. 

Groans and cracks and pops filled his ears, the building itself crying out in torment. Voices filtered up from the street below, shouts and cries for help and water. 

Jamie swallowed, not allowing his fear to overwhelm him. There wasn't time for that. He pointed out the window to the right. "There's an overhang there. If we can get tae the next room, we can climb out."

He looked to Claire. Terror stared back at him, but she simply nodded, Fergus mimicking her at his side. They wet all their cloths again and used the rest of the water to soak a larger section of blanket, wrapping it around Brian's entire body. It prompted his wailing, but that didn't bother him so much; at least he knew the lad was still breathing. 

He wished he could've kissed them all, but each second was precious. Breathing in shallow pants, he reached for the knob but immediately tore his hand away with a hiss.

"Jamie..." 

"Fire's in the corridor." The words fell from his lips like pebbles from his hand. Sharp, staccato, lifeless. He didn't waste time on more words, pulling them over to the window. Searching. Not panicking. 

"Here!" A man stood at the base of a ladder below their window. It didn't quite reach, but close enough. The stranger pointed and cried out, "There's a ledge there. You should be able to stand there and climb down."

"Give him tae me, Sassenach," Jamie said, pulling Brian from her arms. "Climb over. And dinna argue," he added as she opened her mouth to do just that. Holding her skirts in hand, she swung one leg, then the other over the sill until she stood precariously on the ledge. Bits of ash had already settled in her unruly hair. Soot on her cheeks just barely hid the paleness of her face. The rapid rise and fall of her chest spoke to her own fear, but determination radiated from her. 

Somewhere, in the back of his mind, pride for her bravery consumed him.

With a nod, he passed Brian into her arms, tying him into her shawl as securely as he could. He took the seconds to kiss her then, planting a second on Brian's dark curls before trapping one of her hands between both of his. "Fergus next, then I'll be behind ye," he promised. 

One arm wound around their babe, the other hand clasped in his, she bent her knees and stretched one foot down to feel for the ladder. Jamie leaned as far out the window as he could, both hands gripping hers until she looked up and nodded. 

With a desperate prayer to the Lord above, he loosened his fingers. Despite the burning behind his eyes, he didn't blink until he saw both feet planted firmly on the street. He released a breath, coughing as he did so.

"All right, lad. Over the sill." Fergus's foot had barely lifted from the ground when they both heard it. A shout coming from the other side of the door. Close, likely just across the hall. Horror washed over him as he listened and his skin prickled. 

"Da?"

"Get them away from the smoke," Jamie said in a rush. As he spoke, his hands helped Fergus over the sill. "Make her go. And I'll find ye. Do ye understand?"

His heart broke at Fergus's trembling lower lip. "Da--"

"Do as I tell ye. Do you understand?"

The lad's eyes were round as coins, but he nodded. Jamie did the same, pulling him and kissing his forehead before he, too, descended. When he was sure Fergus had his footing on the ladder, Jamie put his damp cloth over his face and turned from the window. He picked up his coat from the floor, dark clouds immediately creeping in, and wrapped it in his other hand. 

As he opened the door and stepped into the glowing, suffocating black, he heard a shrill cry though the window. A single, wretched syllable. 

"No!"

 

#

 

Throat still singed and parched, Claire stumbled through the streets. Brian cried against her chest, Fergus guiding her with his arm looped through hers, never letting her feet halt or turn back.

He'd make it, she told herself. He'd survived so much worse. A leap from the battlements of Fort William. The crazed mob in the Cranesmuir courthouse. Battles on French and Scottish soil. Countless stabs and burns and broken bones. Two trips through the stones. 

But with each step away from where she'd last seen him, dread settled in her heart. 

 

Head turned up to the window, Claire furrowed her brow as Jamie retreated from view. Maybe he'd thought of something else they needed to save, was grabbing another cloth or his coat before climbing out the window. As soon as Fergus's feet hit the ground, she folded him into a crushing hug with her free arm. His wrapped around her torso and Brian's both, squeezing tight. 

When she pulled away, the tears in his eyes stopped her heart. "What happened?"

His words faded into a buzzing nothing in her ear as he described the terrified scream they'd heard before he climbed down. Frantic horror ripped through her entire being as she looked back to the window. 

She at least had the presence of mind not to shout his name. 

The man who'd originally called to them from the ground stepped toward her at the shout. "Are you all right, madam?" he asked, voice sharp and tight with concern and face slick with sweat. 

Even without the eponymous red uniform, his vocation was obvious. Pale waistcoat and trousers (soot stains notwithstanding), expensive boots meant for a soldier's marching feet. But more than anything, his accent gave him away. Just like hers. Shock and fear prevented her from registering what the very presence of a British soldier before her meant. What it could mean. 

It wouldn't matter, not if he didn't make it down.

Fergus spoke up then, saving her from doing so, to explain that his father had run back into the building when he heard someone inside shouting for help. Ringing in her ears drowned out most of his words as she stared back up at the window, willing him to appear and climb down. Each second he didn't felt like fresh crack in her being. 

Crack. 

Crack. 

Crack. 

Infinite fissures spreading through her until she shattered. 

Come back, Jamie. Please, God, come back. 

The stranger's words sounded far away as he turned and scaled the ladder and disappeared through the window. Fergus pulled at her elbow. She wouldn't budge at first. Only his stuttered insistence to get Brian away from the smoke finally gave her the strength to move one foot, then the other. The buzzing in her head never ceased. 

She looked over her shoulder. The first tears fell from her eyes as the room beyond their window turned from grey to orange. 

 

They retreated to the nearby tree line, to a small pond nestled there. Jamie had first discovered it weeks earlier while looking for a place to catch some small game and save their coin. Most days had been too frigid to pass much time outside. Two days had been warm enough (relatively speaking) to venture out, and he'd brought them here. 

Spread a blanket on the grass and fed her fruit and cheese. 

Dipped Brian's toes in the water just to hear him squeal. 

Kissed her until she couldn't breathe. 

With a growing numbness, she carried Brian to the water's edge, cleaning the smoke and soot from his skin before listening intently at his little chest. Hiccuping from his cries, but his breath was strong and he wasn't wheezing. He should be fine. She prayed he would be.

Claire collapsed to the ground, and Fergus beside her. 

Hurry up and wait, she thought suddenly, sardonically. 

Intense chaos followed by crushing stillness. 

The cracks continued to spread. 

 

#

 

Jamie woke sputtering and gasping for breath. And freezing. That wasn't right. Fires weren't freezing. 

He blinked his eyes, piecing together as much as he could from his memory. Finding the one-legged man trapped on the floor near his bed and shouting for help. Pulling the man's arm over his shoulder, hobbling out the doorway and down the hall; no way could the man climb down the ladder. They'd have to crawl onto the overhang and figure a way down from there. 

And the sweltering, blistering heat from the flames that roared mere feet from where he stood. Heat so intense the very air seemed to cook him. It crushed the air from his lungs. What few breaths he managed were choked on the smoke.

As the memories arranged themselves in order, he noticed the silhouette blurred above him. The same one, he realized, who'd rushed through the smoke and found them. Who'd pulled the one-legged man over the sill and onto the awning.

From there, the memories became fuzzy. He recalled coughing, chest wheezing. The room had spun, a tingling sensation growing behind his eyes. His chest had burned, and the scope of his vision had shrunk. 

And now, here he was. 

"Sorry about the water. You lost consciousness," the form above said in a strange voice. The sounds throbbed in his head. It sounded distant, muted and inhuman. It reverberated painfully through his ears and into his skull. So did the other voices Jamie heard in the background. Turning his head on the ground, he looked toward the building. The air was still acrid with smoke, but the halo of fire was no more. Blinking, he watched the shapes of people walking about.

Then his heart gave a great heave and he launched himself upward. 

"Saznack?"

His lips felt raw, the bottom one splitting at his outburst. As he tried to stand, he wobbled and stumbled. Two hands grasped him by the shoulders and forced him back to the ground before he could topple. "You're in no condition to leave here. Sit."

As his hearing focused and the voice lost its distortion, Jamie's heart lurched again. 

It was English. 

"Thank'ee," Jamie said again around his still-wooden tongue, averting his eyes. "Truly. But I m'st find...mah fam'lee. See'm...safe."

"The woman with the boy and the infant? Who climbed down the ladder ahead of you?" 

Jamie's eyes met the man's then. A deep brown set into a fine-boned face. They rounded for a heartbeat's length before resetting, the manicured brows settling lower over the eyes. Firm. Determined. 

Foreboding descended like the ash now raining over him. Why was this face familiar? 

"Aye."

The stranger nodded. "They made away safely. I promise." 

For some reason -- stranger and Redcoat though he was -- Jamie trusted that promise. Groaning, he made to stand again. "Then I should find'm, find somewhere tae pass th'night--"

"Nonsense. You're still not well." 

He wasn't wrong. Each second that ticked by, Jamie's head spun faster. Had the man not ducked beneath his arm just at the right moment, he would've collapsed to the ground again. 

Dark spots danced before his vision, but he was vaguely aware of being led away from the scene. The noise of the crowd faded and disappeared. 

Another blink later, and he was in a room. He had no idea where. Coherency came easier now, and he sighed as he leaned forward from where he'd slumped against the corner. Every breath scratched at his aching throat and chest. Sharp stabs pulsed through his head and behind his eyes. When he raised his hands to cradle it, they clinked. 

No, his hands didn't clink. The irons on them did. 

"James Fraser," a steady, clipped voice ahead of him said. His head snapped up so quickly he nearly passed out again. When his vision evened out again, he found himself looking into the same face as before.

Lord, where had he seen it? 

Then he saw the pistol aimed at him.

"By order of His Majesty King George II, you are charged with treason and rebellion. And you are hereby ordered to surrender."

Chapter Text

The room was dark. With hardly any moonlight through the window and but the one half-burned candle, he couldn't even see across. Didn't matter. He'd seen enough by the glow of the fire. 

Taken in the rich red of the hair, darkened by soot as it was. Recognized the features of the face even obstructed by the beard. 

But the eyes. Unfocused and dazed as they were, that crystal blue was unmistakable. The same ones -- cutting, vicious, and solemnly so -- that had instilled equal parts fear and loathing within him so long ago. Meeting Fraser's gaze had been the moment John had known, truly, that he'd found him.

John was only meant to be passing through Dundonald. Major Hicks had arrived in Ayr two days hence with a missive from Colonel Adams. Hicks would replace him in the port assignment, and John was ordered back to Fort William with all due haste. 

Adams wanted an update on the Fraser situation. 

Now, staring down at the man himself slumped in the corner, John just had to decide what precisely that update would entail. 

James Fraser discovered, or James Fraser still at large? 

A truth or a lie? 

Justice delivered by the Crown, or by his own hand? 

The buildings (both the one aflame and those surrounding) had been fully evacuated, the spectators slowing their movements as hope to salvage the structure were dashed. The flames had largely been quelled, even as smoke had continued to spread through the streets and skies. All that was left to do was wait. 

With Red James Fraser before him and his comrades still distracted as the emergency wound down, he'd acted on pure instinct. One thing he knew for sure: he needed to get the man away from prying eyes. 

He'd very nearly collapsed beneath the red beast's weight when he'd lost consciousness again. It had taken all his strength to lug him to his hovel of a rented room behind the smithie three squares over (thanking the Lord all the while that sparse accommodations in the town had necessitated their group splitting up) and unload him in the corner. After applying handcuffs, he'd sat back and waited for the man to wake. 

Fires were not generally events for which to be grateful. But now, some emotion on the edge of gratitude bubbled up in his chest and sped his pulse. Because not only had it brought Red Jamie straight to him like a roasted hog on a platter, it had discharged the life debt between them. Assuming Fraser actually woke, John had fulfilled the first half of his vow. 

So John just need answer the question: What did he want?

While Fraser slept, John opened his diary. He mulled over the situation as he sketched the man's likeness on a blank page. Not as he was now; it was too dark to see the face in any great detail. No, the likeness that spilled onto the page was the imprint that had lived in his mind since the rebellion.

The villain who'd inhabited his nightmares and fueled his rage. 

Who'd towered over him. Inched the red-hot blade closer to his face. 

Ultimately extorted him for information, all while making him believe he was playing the hero.

That realization hadn't come immediately. Seeing the woman in the street had stirred some memory, but the urgency at hand had pushed it from his mind. But as his quill traced over the eyes on the page -- remembering the trembling he'd tried to hide from that shrewd gaze, and the distraction that had freed him from it -- the recognition had nearly knocked him backward. 

It was her. The woman from the barn. The one he'd tried to save. Staring up at the window where her husband had disappeared. 

The husband who, by all appearances now, was Red Jamie himself. 

He'd shoved the book away then, humiliation exploding anew. Temptation to simply end the man that very moment burned at him like the flames he'd so narrowly escaped. He resisted. No code of honor in existence would excuse the summary execution of an unconscious man. 

Then Fraser was awake. And John was pointing his pistol at him. 

In the space between breaths, he saw a shift in Fraser's eyes. Not quite defeat, but an awareness nonetheless. The animal who realizes too late that the cage door has closed and immediately sets about scheming how to unlatch the lock. 

He spoke, then, ripping John from his reveries. "Ye spoke true before?" 

"Pardon me?"

"My family," Jamie elaborated, a growl behind his words. His eyes held the same indescribable force that had prickled his skin seven years before. "Woman and two bairns. They're away safe?"

John considered the man and, with a firm nod, lowered his weapon but remained standing. "Yes. I saw them leaving the area. They were unharmed."

"Ye swear it to me," Fraser whispered between gritted teeth. "That yer men dinna have them. That they willna go after them."

"You impugn my word? You doubt me?"

With the barest motion of his pinching eyebrows, the man before him disappeared. A predator took his place. Every bit as he remembered him. 

The hairs on his neck stood at attention.

"I just ken the many atrocities committed against those I love in the search fer Red James Fraser. To men who believe that wearin' that coat means ye can maim and kill wi'out consequence, what's a lie or a false vow in light of that?"

John measured his breaths, ensuring they never sped or shortened. He lowered himself into a wooden chair, eyes trained on Fraser's form. 

One mustn't turn his back upon a riled beast. 

"Believe me or don't believe me. I don't know where your family are, but we haven't got them. And have no plans to. So long as you cooperate." 

They glared back and forth for a moment before, finally, Fraser gave a curt nod. 

In the resultant quiet, John observed him as best he could in the faint light. His voice still had a fair rasp from the smoke, and he cleared his throat to hide a cough. Even so, he sat back against the corner of the wall with shoulders straight and chin high. A dried curl stuck to his temple. 

No, not a caged animal. Nothing so helpless. A beast meeting a foe in the wild, sizing him up before making his move. John could see, wounded and cornered though he may be, he was determined. Fierce. Sharp.

He'd just need to be sharper. 

"That's an interesting perspective on the English," John said with affected casualness, leaning back in the chair and resting his folded hands on one knee, "considering who your wife is."

Fraser never moved, yet somehow John felt the need to lean an inch further from him. Those bloody eyes. It had to be. Darkening in the span of a blink, they'd flashed a warning that he understood on a primal level. John nearly shuddered at the knowledge that Fraser still could...and would...tear him apart with the right motivation. 

Now wasn't the time to bait him. He raised his two hands in surrender. "Ease up. I only meant I recognized her from when last we met."

"We're...acquainted, then?"

"Mildly." Boiling heat exploded in his stomach. Momentary rage that the man who'd lived in the darkest recesses of his mind had no memory of him. "Major John Grey. During the rebellion, I snuck into your camp. You broke my arm, threatened to torture me, then assaulted the Englishwoman in your charge." John chortled darkly, eyes lifting to the ceiling in sardonic irony, "Tell me, did you marry her before or after that encounter?"

Red Jamie didn't answer at once. His head cocked to the side just slightly, studying him. John swallowed, lips pressing together, and the eyes went wide. "Christ," he breathed. 

John smirked. "Finally remembered me, have you?"

Shock still dominating his features, Fraser replied, "Ye just seem...older than I would've guessed."

"A man changes quite a bit between sixteen and twenty-four."

"Aye." His jawline twitched. "Just doesna seem...quite so long ago tae me."

Focus, Grey, he chided himself. Keep the conversation on track. You are in charge.

"You didn't answer the question. About your wife."

It was in the silent moments he could most clearly see the mental machinations at work, the animal preparing for the fight to come. All the while, the man never broke eye contact. 

John resisted the urge to, as well. In this space, he was dominant. This time, he held Red Jamie's fate in his own hands. Both men knew it, and John reveled in satisfaction at that fact.

Finally, Fraser's face settled into a tight smirk. "Before. 'Tis a funny story, actually."

"Well, betrothals and weddings usually are."

"Och, but we werena betrothed more than twelve hours, I reckon," he retorted. The heels of his boots scraped against the ground as he drew his knees up before him, resting his forearms there so his bound hands hung directly between them. There was an edginess to his tone, but also a confidence that John took careful notice of. 

"Ye see, my wife is a rare woman. Sturdy, brave. But she tends tae find herself in all manner o' hostile circumstances. Such was the case when I agreed tae marry her."

"And just what was the 'hostile circumstance,' then?"

The corner of his lips drew up and his chin tucked down just slightly. "The English. Redcoats, tae be precise. Turns out, they'll turn on their own wi' hardly a thought if they believe them too...friendly with us uncouth Scots."

John chewed the inside of his cheek, face stony. The implication behind the words was clear: You may have thought you rescued her, but I did as well, and mine was real. 

He shook the comparison from his head, shifting in his seat and rearing back for a counterattack. "Uncouth," he scoffed. "Now that's a word for it."

"Ye have one ye'd prefer tae use, then?"

"For you? A hundred."

A raspy, throaty chuckle. A smattering of goosebumps that exploded down John's spine. 

"And what makes me so verra special as tae warrant such prolific description?"

Rage was building. Control was slipping. Standing, crossing the room, he spat, "I've seen you in battle and out of it. I've seen you blood-soaked and rabid. And I've seen you cold and exacting. And they are the same." Even towering over him, the man never flinched. It was infuriating. "You, James Fraser, are soulless."

"If I were soulless, I woulda simply killed ye when I got what I needed from ye."

"And I suppose I should count that as a favor?"

"Do ye no'?"

Breaths heaved from his chest. Straightening again, John turned and took slow steps back across the room. His hands trembled at his sides. He fisted them, forcing his lungs to inhale and exhale in normal rhythm. 

Without turning, he said, "That night...is the night of my biggest shame and my...deepest regret. I was a foolish boy. I betrayed my country, my men. And for nothing, as it turns out."

"'Twas no' nothing, man." 

His blood ran too hot to notice the softness of Fraser's tone, the lower pitch. The absence of the bite his words heretofore had possessed. Instead, he whirled on him. "Did you not just confirm that the woman I so gallantly saved from being ravished by you was, in fact, your wife?"

The man shrugged -- shrugged, damn him! -- and shook his head. "What does it matter? Ye didna ken that."

"Obviously."

"Aye, and ye risked yerself tae save her, spare her from harm." He spoke earnestly. As he swallowed and shook his head again, he seemed...tired, suddenly. Beleaguered, even. "If there were more men who acted so, perhaps there'd be fewer wars and rebellions to contend with."

"Oh, really? And why, precisely, is that?"

"It's about honor, and feelin' somethin' in yer heart fer someone else and bein' willing tae take some risk onto yerself to ease their burden." John's skin tingled with uncomfortable goosebumps. He crossed his arms, clenching his jaw as Fraser carried on. "A king's a king, and who's sittin' on the throne has very little tae do wi' the daily life of those dyin' fer him. But the Jacobites fought fer one they believed would understand them, would fight fer them and didna see them as inferior."

The words rolled about in his head as he perched in his chair once more, arms still locked over his chest. John tried to read the face of Red Jamie, cast as it was in shadows. It was open. Honest. It put him immediately on edge. 

And his use of the word they didn't escape his notice, either.

"Well, those are very pretty words, Mr. Fraser. But, honor or none, the truth is men have plenty of things over which to fight. I doubt there's any force on earth that could change that."

Fraser's brow twitched. "So that's why we're here, then? The vow ye gave me when I sent ye off?" John didn't respond, which seemed confirmation enough. He nodded again, saying, "That's it, isn't it? Ye've brought me here alone rather than arrestin' me with yer fellow men at arms because yer tryin' tae decide if ye'll go through wi' it."

His fingernails dug deeply enough into his palm to break the skin. "And why wouldn't I?" he snapped. 

"Because killin' a man in battle is different than cuttin' one down in cold blood. And, likely, that impeccable sense of honor ye have is givin' ye second thoughts about killin' a man who canna yet stand wi'out toppling over."

And just like that, the glint shone again from his eye. John's skin crawled with the visceral knowledge that he was being evaluated, marked for prey. Even so, that was comforting. Facing off against a beast was a right sight easier than the alternative. 

Confronting a man. One with a heart and a soul. One who could feel and think.

With a weak chuckle, John said, "I have no doubt you would do just fine in a fight if it came to it, even on your worst day."

Fraser leaned his head back against the wall, hooded eyes never breaking from his own. He cleared his throat with a shrug and a casual frown. "Well, dependin' how ye choose, I suppose we'll find out soon enough."

 

#

 

Claire's heart thudded in her chest as they made their way back into town. The sun was well and truly out now, though obfuscated by heavy cloud cover and the remnants of last night's fire. 

Her breath came in sharp, shallow draws. Her stomach was queasy.

With nowhere better to go, they'd passed the night alone in the woods, huddled together around a small fire to keep warm. Fergus had eventually nodded off against her shoulder, and Brian had slept well, apparently cozy enough wrapped against her breast. Claire never did, though. She'd waited up through the dark hours, eyes and ears attuned to any changes in the area surrounding them. Waiting for him to appear and set her mind at ease. 

But he'd never materialized. Sun rays had peeked over the horizon then eventually filled the sky. Day broke inch by inch, each one adding pressure to her already fractured heart. 

The air was still gauzy with residual smoke as they entered the village. Every surface, too, bore a thin layer of grey ash, like a house gone too long without dusting. As they turned the corner and the building in question came into view, Claire almost fell to her knees. Charred and half-collapsed, it still smoked even though the flames had long ago died away. The roof hadn't fully burned or caved in, but the lower level was completely hollowed out. White smoke still danced upward to join with the clouds.

Scorch marks stretched up the wall outside the window she'd climbed through. They reminded her of brushstrokes, a sense of delicate artistry in the wake of destruction. 

She very nearly vomited. 

With a deep breath through her nose, she nodded once. "Right. There's a small apothecary the next street over. I'll replenish and set up there. Scout the area and send anyone needing medical attention to me."

Fergus nodded, bottom lip between his teeth. "You're hoping someone will know if Da made it out?"

"Or, at the very least, if there were any deaths, yes."

The grim determination in his beautiful green eyes killed her, that he should know this pain so young. He'd only just gotten Jamie back, and now...

Before she could take another breath, let alone speak, he turned and departed. She took strength from his own. If he could muscle through his turmoil, his anxiety, his grief, then so could she. Inhaling deeply, she pulled Brian closer and made her way toward the apothecary.

Inventory was sparse, but she muddled by as best she could. With the most basic of ingredients, she set up outside the door, secured Brian into a makeshift pallet, and waited. Soon, she had a line of patrons stretching into the road. Several burns, headaches, coughs and scratchy throats, a sprained ankle from jumping out a window, and, somehow, a tooth to extract. (There was always one.)

By mid morning, she'd worked through her queue of patients and without a single bit of news to show for it. No one had stuck around long enough to hear whether there'd been anyone left inside, all fleeing the smoke as she had. She'd been sitting alone for a half hour or so when a one-legged man approached her, hobbling with a crude crutch and plopping onto the bench she'd designated for patients. 

Claire exerted every ounce of willpower within her to greet him warmly. 

Another patient, another chance for answers. 

"How are you today, sir?" 

He waved a hand in dismissal. "Och, nothin' fer me, dearie. I'm only here tae tell ye thank ye. Or, well, tae tell yer husband."

Ears pricking to attention, heart skipping, she sat up straighter. "You know my husband? You've seen him?"

He opened his mouth to speak but coughed instead. Through it, he nodded his head as he hacked up the debris in his lungs. Electricity sizzled through her veins. Trembling hands prepared the thornapple pipe, wafting the fumes toward him. Within a breath or two, the man regained his breath. It couldn't have been more than a minute or so, but it felt like centuries as she waited. 

Finally, he spoke. "Seen the twa of ye 'round the village these last weeks. Kent him as a good man e'en then. Could tell it by how he looked at ye, how he held the bairn," he added, nodding to the bundle of Brian beside her. 

The use of past tense did not escape her notice. She knit her eyebrows together, her voice shaking as she said, "We...haven't seen him since last night. Do you have any idea where he is? If he made it out?"

"Och, aye, he go' out." Her breath rushed from her as he continued, "'Twas me he came back fer, ye ken? Couldna get to me false leg wi' the smoke. Were it no' fer him, I'd be naught but one of them burnt beams up yonder. I was in a fit state by the time I was finally on the ground, but I saw yer man was out."

Her lungs seemed incapable of holding in any air. She collapsed forward at the waist, one hand covered her racing heart and the other over her gaping mouth as she tried to catch her breath. "Oh, thank Christ."

"Aye, one of the other blokes who was runnin' about last night carried him down. The smoke must've gotten tae him, is me best guess."

Relief turned sour in her stomach. Her fingers contracted, digging into the skin of her chest. She sat up slowly. "Bloke? Which bloke?"

"I dinna ken, lass. I'm sorry. But I saw him sputtering and e'en speakin' a bit 'fore I fled the smoke meself. Chances are he's somewheres about the village, lookin' fer ye. I heard ye was here, lass, askin' about yer man, and just wanted tae share what I could."

"Yes," she whispered, coldness settling in her bones. "Thank you."

He departed without further conversation. Claire remained in her seat. Icy dread froze her to her place, unable to move. Hardly able to breathe. 

The Redcoat. The one who'd scrambled up the ladder. It had to be. And if Jamie hadn't perished in the fire, and he hadn't found them yet, then...

"Maman?"

Fergus's voice snapped her attention to the figures behind her. She blinked once, twice. Then she leapt up and rushed into Murtagh's open arms.

 

#

 

"So is anything in this real, then?"

They hadn't spoken a word since the sun rose. Jamie had watched the light fill the room like a pitcher filling a glass, his thoughts always on his family. How had they fared the night? Were they warm, safe? Had they yet begun the journey to Ayr? 

He hoped they had. 

Neither man had slept, and Jamie hadn't moved from the corner. The soldier -- Grey -- paced periodically, scribbled in his diary, and an hour ago had passed him a tin cup of water after a particularly violent coughing fit. 

But since then, silence had stretched between them. Jamie didn't mind. Every minute he kept the man here, kept him from alerting his fellow soldiers to Claire's and the lads' presence nearby was another minute they had to make away.

Jamie tore his gaze from the window and looked up at Grey with a sardonic huff. "So we're just meant tae have a proper chat while I wait for ye to decide if you're gonna shoot me or not?"

"I'm serious," Grey insisted, leaning forward in his chair, elbows on his knees. A sheet of paper, creased where it had been folded, hung from his hand. Jamie recognized his own penmanship. 

"Ah, so 'twas ye who raided Lallybroch on Hogmanay, then."

Grey ignored his statement, looking back at the writing as though trying to decode ancient runes. "You clearly haven't settled on the European continent." The man hummed, annoyed, and shook the paper. "It's all a lie, then? The forgery, the pregnancy..."

She flashed before his eyes then. His Faith. The version of her born from Claire's description and his own starved imaginings. Her phantom laugh rang through his mind and sent a jolt of longing through him, sharper than it had been in some time. 

These last months, he'd allowed himself to believe he'd have it. The wife, the bairns. The watching them grow. To be reminded that Brian and Fergus and Claire could already be as much of the past as Faith was sliced him with the force of a broadsword. 

Since wakening shackled in this room, his mind hadn't stopped spinning. Planning his moves. His words had been weighed and chosen with care, aimed at either gaining intelligence or affecting the man's own confidence. Even the long silence between them had worked to his advantage. Every moment that the soldier sat and stewed, considered, debated, was further proof of the man's unsurety. And where there was doubt, Jamie could exploit that.

But Grey, too, seemed to know the right words to affect him. To rattle him, to test his fortitude. Jamie couldn't let him.  

He sighed. "Truths wrapped in the skin of lies."

"That...is nonsense. And deliberately evasive."

Despite himself, the corners of his mouth twitched upward. "Well, I am very literally at yer mercy, man." He held his bound hands out before him, palms upward. "If there's somethin' ye wanna ken, ask away."

"Very well. Why did you run from Culloden?"

A strike for which he had no parry. Grinding his teeth and feeling his mask fall away, Jamie said, "Does it matter?"

"It most certainly does matter!" The chair nearly knocked over as Grey bounded to his feet. A hand rubbed at his jaw and over his face as he paced, other hand on his hip. Stray strands of dark blond hair wafted around his sweat-damp face. "You're many things, James Fraser, but I do not peg you for a coward, nor a deserter. So if you did not fight, then there was a reason, and it matters very much. If there wasn't a child, then--"

"Were ye there afterward, I wonder?" Jamie interrupted, bitterness cutting through his tone. "Did ye watch as yer men walked the field, running the survivors through wi' their bayonets or...or shootin' them where they lay?" 

"That's war, isn't it? The victors dispense their justice to the conquered."

"What justice is there in killin' wounded men? Ye've been sitting there for the better part of a night and morning weighin' it, and I'm none so injured as tae be helpless." 

The longer Grey didn't reply, the fiercer Jamie's ire burned. His chest heaved with it. "And tell me, where's the honor in the havoc and terror yer men have wreaked o'er the Highlands e'er since?"

"That's hardly--"

"Homes burned and vandalized, holy lands desecrated, innocent men and women killed! My sister's bairn born dead the day of one of yer raids, and my lad--"

Jamie stopped, eyes wide. John noticed. "What about him?"

They were the wrong words. He'd forgotten the game. A canyon formed between his furrowed brow as he cast his gaze back to the window. "'Tis none of yer concern."

Grey sat again, face curious. "Yet you broached the subject."

Focus was crucial. If he stood a chance at defeating his opponent, he must regain the advantage. Assess the board for further weaknesses. 

He retreated to the last known safe ground. "The English were determined that no Jacobite should make it off Culloden Moor. And just because there wasna a child doesna mean there was naught tae protect."

The man tilted his head the barest degree, brown eyes squinting in examination. Finally, Jamie saw the decision there. The choice to allow him to withdraw from the previous engagement. 

"Your wife?" he asked. 

Jamie swallowed and looked back to him. "If it were only me, I'd have faced my fate wi' my brethren, and gladly. But for her..." Tears threatened to render him mute. "My words in that letter are true. I'll damn myself fer dishonor or cowardice if it keeps her safe."

"Then why fabricate the child in the letter? If she was enough, why invent the lie?"

"Perhaps I just wanted the damned English tae think me settled far from their reach." Looking down at the iron links binding his hands, he rotated one in his fingers, circling the loop through the next one as he gathered himself. 

He could've left it there; that was enough. But he found himself speaking again. "And if I'm imaginin' my family as it should've been, it wouldn't have been right tae exclude her from it."

"'Her'?" 

Jamie didn't answer, fighting the torrent of grief that still felt too fresh. John held the paper up, reading it to himself before his head snapped back to him. "You really lost a child, then?"

The renegade tear dripping down his cheek served as answer. Not only for Faith. For all of them.

He hadn't given up yet; if nothing else, he could overpower Grey, disadvantaged as he was. But how many men would come searching? Even if he escaped, could he go back to Claire and the lads if he risked bringing the law along behind him? Or sending them to descend again on Lallybroch? 

Nearly a year ago, he'd tried to send Claire through the stones. He'd been prepared to part from her as he'd been prepared to meet his end on the battlefield. As the candle on the desk burned lower, so his worry grew that he was back there once more. About to lose her, lose them forever. 

And for what, ultimately? A popinjay prince without enough sense to fill a thimble? Who saw only the throne and not the people he must trounce upon to climb it? For a man who'd stolen even the choice to fight from him?

"That part's true, then, as well?"

Jamie started, meeting John's gaze. "Pardon?"

"You were muttering in French."

Squeezing his eyes shut, he released a long exhale. The cuffs around his hands clinked as he raised them, pressing the heels of his hands into his sockets. 

Christ, he was tired. 

Jamie shifted, turning so his back was against the perpendicular wall and stretching his legs before him, joints popping. He rested his head against the wall, then, and shut his eyes. "I was back in my home again for the first time in years. I had lands, tenants tae care for. I had no desire tae march off tae war." He shook his head again, rolling it back and forth along the wall. "And certainly no' one we were so ill equipped tae win." 

He heard the exhaustion in his own voice as he chortled darkly. It spun his head so, even seated, he felt near to keeling over. 

"'Tis easy tae say now, of course, but we kent it before, too. Ye think, if ye could just go back to that specific day," Jamie's voice dropped to a ragged whisper, throat and emotions raw, "make just that tiny change, perhaps 'twould be enough. Just enough that it would fix things. Christ, how we tried. 

"But it doesna matter. Travelin' down that road leads only to a trap ye can ne'er pull yerself from. What's done canna be undone. No' before. No' after."

There was no answer immediately. He opened his eyes then to avoid succumbing to the temptation of sleep. Grey stood to his side, arms stiff at his side and lips compressed into a thin line. Redness in his cheeks spoke to some suppressed emotion that made Jamie sit up straighter. He studied the blaze of Grey's eyes and square set of his shoulders, unsure if he'd chosen wisely in his words. 

"No," Grey agreed through a clenched jaw. "It certainly cannot."

Chapter Text

"Absolutely not!"

Claire was irate. Murtagh, as well. Both were scowling. Both sets of cheeks had reddened, the volume of their voices lowering even as their tempers rose. They were a fair match, she thought. 

Fergus lay in the bed in the back room of the apothecary where they were regrouping, tending to Brian but watching them carefully. Listening. 

Taking a step closer to her, Murtagh furrowed his brow even sharper, an impressive feat given how low they already sat over blazing eyes. "After what I had tae pay the captain for his discretion, we're just north o' penniless. Even had to promise him the horses! And could be weeks or months 'fore another ship arrives. If we dinna make it on that boat, we willna have enough to feed ourselves to wait fer another. No' to mention that if they've found Jamie now, they'll ken tae look fer his wife, too."

"I heard you the first time, and I stand by my previous assessment with a minor amendment." Nose to nose, teeth gritted, she hissed, "Absolutely fucking not." 

"The ship sails on the evenin' tide. 'Tis already past midday, Claire." He leaned another inch closer, but she didn't back away, chin raised and eyes fierce. "We've searched the village. No one's seen hide nor hair o' the lad since last night. If it's as ye say and the soldier's taken him, then there's naught tae be done."

A pain stabbed at her chest. Outrage. Something close to loathing, even. She exhaled in disgust, frowning. "Of all people, I never expected you to be the one I'd have to fight to look for him."

Chest heaving, beard and mustache trembling, Murtagh opened his mouth to respond before shutting it again. He turned his back to her, stalking toward the other side of the room. 

Sensing weakness, she pressed her luck. "We've seen only two other soldiers in the entire village since last night. There can't be so very many. We've freed him against worse odds."

"Aye, we have," he grumbled without turning. "But no' with a bairn and an infant dependent on ye, ye havena."

Affronted, Fergus sat up at that. "I am no child! If we're going after Da, I can help."

"We're no' goin' after him."

"Why not?" Claire and Fergus asked in unison. 

With a frustrated growl, he finally spun to face them again. "Because, ye idjits, e'en if we manage to track the lad down -- which we've had no luck doin' the last several hours, mind ye -- and we manage to dispatch the Redcoats, what do ye suppose happens if the bastards dinna arrive as expected where'er it is they're goin'? And if we miss this boat in the process, we could be stuck here fer weeks more wi'out food," he counted down his points on his fingers, "wi'out coin, wi'out our horses, and with the entire bleedin' English army scourin' the country fer us."

Each argument was an arrow puncturing her soul, sharp points of agony building upon each other as they threatened to undo her entirely. Still, she shook her head. "We'll figure it out. We always do."

"He wouldna want this."

"Do not speak of him like he's gone!" 

"I'm no'!" Murtagh howled back. "He told me so."

That brought her up short. She blinked away her confusion, striving for composure. "What? Told you when?"

Her thundering heart sped as she watched the man before her melt. Fury to despair, rage to grief. Only once had she seen him so despondent, so...defeated. Then, too, they'd been arguing over Jamie's fate, hearts breaking in tandem at what they feared was imminent loss.

"Before we left Lallybroch, he made me promise."

A tightening sensation permeated her chest. She strained to breathe. "Made you promise what?"

"I vowed to him that if forced tae choose 'tween him and ye, that I'd choose ye and the lads. Swore it on his mother's soul." She thought she saw a tear trace down his cheek, but the wilds of his beard made it difficult to be sure. "Tae even...speak o' leavin' him here is a dagger to my heart, lass. Were it only me, or e'en the two of us, I wouldna entertain the notion, no' for a second. But..."

She followed the direction of his gaze to the bed. Fergus perched on the end, fingers of his good hand clenched around the edge of the mattress, the wooden prosthetic pressing down into the top. And Brian laid in the middle, kicking and cooing. 

"That bloody...Scot!" Watching them both, the tears building behind her eyes finally broke loose. "How many times must we live through this same goddamned nightmare?"

Murtagh didn't speak, only crossed his arms, shoulders hunched close to his ears. Swiping stubborn tears from her cheeks, she stepped to the bed and sat beside Fergus. 

"I'd rather die than leave him, Claire. Ye ken that tae be true. But I made him a vow to keep those most precious to him safe, and if that's all I can do, then I shall."

"Then we'll go," she offered, looking up in hope. Her tone teetered on the edge of begging. "I'll take them, and we'll go, and you stay and find Jamie." 

He was shaking his head before she'd even finished. "No. If there's a chance the Redcoats are about or searchin' for ye, I canna let ye go alone. I'll be by yer side until yer beyond their reach for good. And even if ye didn't need me in France -- which ye do -- even if I just put you in the boat, by the time I ride tae Ayr and back, the chances of finding him..."

The stabbing in her center turned to ripping, shredding agony. Turning, sniffling, she lifted Brian into her arms, held him close, and burrowed into his tiny neck. Closing her eyes, she inhaled his scent that, on some instinctual level, she traced back to his father. 

A simulacrum of comfort, but as close as she was bound to get. 

She spoke in a voice small and choked and not at all like her own. "Before we came back, Jamie was in trouble, and I just...had to wait for it to be over. It worked out in the end, but I've never felt so..." She squeezed her already closed eyes and breathed in that aroma again to center herself. "...so helpless in my life. I managed to...to get him out of Wentworth and the Bastille, pulled him through time itself. Yet there, I was powerless, and he suffered for it. 

"I failed him then, and I vowed I would never sit around and just wait again. I have to do something."

"Yer no' just waitin'," he said, voice softer than she'd ever heard it as he stepped toward her. "Yer doin' what must be done, e'en if it's no' what ye'd like to be doin'."

"And that is?"

Murtagh sank to his knees before her. So close that the moisture shining on his cheeks and in his eyes was unmistakable. "Seein' to the safety of yer bairns, of Jamie's bairns." He huffed, and his eyebrows turned up at the middle, plaintive. "The hardest decisions are the ones that lead where ye must go, e'en if it's no' where ye want to be. It's a decision ye made once before, ye ken."

"Yes, and it very nearly killed me to."

"And tell me, then. If he hadna gone with ye, if ye'd found yerself there alone, would it have been worth it? Fer wee Brian tae be safe, would ye have regretted it?"

The room before her vanished into a grey nothing as more tears pooled in her eyes. She chewed at her bottom lip, relishing the sharp pain emanating from her bite.

Because he was right. Had she ended up in the future, pregnant and alone, she'd have been devastated. Broken in spirit and mind. Empty, or close enough to it. But all of it, she would've faced for Brian. To make sure he had a safe place to grow. 

Of course she'd have regretted it. And not. It was the necessity of leaving Jamie that she'd have lamented, the inevitability of it. But she'd have done it. She'd have rent her heart and slowly bled out for the rest of her days if it meant her child -- her children -- were well and safe. 

Sniffling as she struggled to keep her sobs in check, Claire rocked slowly back and forth. She nodded. Her heart shriveled and screamed like lungs starved of oxygen. A small noise came from Murtagh, something from the very back of his throat. That sound, at least, assured her that she wouldn't be alone in the agony. 

Within the hour, they rode their three horses -- their two originals and the one Murtagh had borrowed that morning when he'd seen the distant smokestack still thick in the sky and they hadn't arrived as expected -- out of Dundonald. By late afternoon, they arrived in Ayr. Boarded the ship. Waited to set sail. The group stood at the rail, looking back to the port, hoping against every hope. Praying more fiercely than they ever had. 

When the crew began to mill about with final preparations for their departure, Claire took Brian and descended below decks. She couldn't watch them leave. Couldn't bear to see Scotland recede behind them and Jamie still somewhere there. Instead, she crawled into her bunk, clutching her baby to her chest. Breaths sputtered from her as she tried to hold back her sobs. They broke free when she finally felt the telltale sway of open waters.

Sometime later, the door creaked open and clicked closed. The mattress shifted behind her, and Fergus's arm tightened around her waist. She felt his tears dampening the back of her dress. 

Murtagh's bed was empty that night.

 

#

 

John needed to choose, and choose soon. He'd managed to hold off the men when they'd come knocking, meeting them at the door and claiming he'd needed recuperation from the smoke inhalation. We'll depart come morning, he'd assured them. 

But as the day wore on and his stomach curled itself into more elaborate knots, he knew his time was running out. 

And not just for him, it seemed. Somewhere between the sun's upward journey and descent through the window, Fraser had changed. In the hours of silence they'd passed again, John tried to put his finger on just what it was that had. He was far from surrendering, certainly. But the light behind his eye that spoke to his scheming had dimmed.

No more could John see the beast assessing him for weaknesses, choosing his best moment to pounce. It was like he'd simply sat back, decided against engaging at all. Which made his statement near sunset all the more jarring. 

"Redcoat took his hand."

He looked up from the sketch in his diary, quill dropping. "What?"

Fraser met his gaze then. Purple shadows hung beneath his eyes. He was still soot-stained, hair a mess and clothes filthy from a night and day on the ground. Still, his voice was steady, if pained. "My elder son. We left him wi' my family after Culloden, thinkin' he'd be safer wi'out us tae draw danger to him. But it didna matter. A lad of hardly fifteen, just..." The candle's flame reflected off his waterlogged eyes. "...frustrated and...and angry at watchin' his home be invaded again and again wi' no cause. So he yelled at them. Spoke against them. And they pinned him down, and one of the...the bastards drew his sword and took of his hand. Left him in the woods tae die. 

"That's why we returned. That's why I wrote the letter." The muscle of his jaw twitched as he huffed a sharp exhale, visibly reining in the emotions brewing beneath the surface. "Because no one deserves this. They did nothin' wrong. Didna fight in the Rising. Didna shelter me after. Didna even ken we'd survived, in truth. And still, they bled fer my sake. I had tae do somethin', try to give them some relief if I could."

His face felt cold from the blood draining, fingers as well. A tangy, sour feeling coated his stomach, thick enough he could taste it at the back of his throat. When he swallowed, he fought against a sandy dry mouth and throat. 

A young boy facing off against foes he didn't fully understand. Foes both stronger and crueler than he. John knew all about that. 

Nodding, he closed his book and stood. He paced the room, one hand at his chin. He curled the fingers at his side into a tight ball and released them, contracting and relaxing repeatedly. "That is...despicable, and I'm sorry. Do you know who the soldier was?" he asked while traversing across the room and back. "I could launch an inquiry. Perhaps--"

Fraser's dark chuckle halted him. When John's attention snapped to him, his smirk was devilish and his eyes were sharp as steel. "Dinna fash yerself ower it."

Confusion shifted seconds later to comprehension. He charged the man with an accusatory pointing finger. "Damn my eyes. Corporal MacGregor. You murdered Corporal MacGregor!"

"If I answered yes, would that make yer current debate easier?"

"If you answer yes, it renders my own debate moot."

Fraser shrugged. "How so? I was wanted before. Adding another charge to my name doesna change yer position here so verra much." 

John fisted both hands by his side and held his breath, counting to ten. Lord, he was so tired. He couldn't stand much more of this. "Why are you telling me?"

"Because," Fraser answered, eyes softening once more, "if my wife did as she should've, as I pray wi' all I am that she did, my family are gone but safe where ye canna follow them. This game we're playing doesna matter so much anymore.

"And because I have tae think that a lad who would put a woman's honor above his own safety, may have grown into a man who doesna walk ower someone just to show that he can."

John searched for any sign of hostility or deceit in Fraser's face. There was none. Vulnerability looked back at him. Genuine relief and pain mingled behind the shine of his eyes. It was staggering.

It soothed him somehow. 

"Did it bring you peace? To kill the man who hurt your son?"

"Aye. It did. It felt a bit like redemption, even."

This time, John didn't doubt he spoke a whole truth, even though doing so validated John's taking his very life.

So that was the question that needed answering from himself, then. Not should or shouldn't he, or was it honorable or not. 

Would taking James Fraser's life bring him peace? 

Swallowing, John lowered himself to the floor and leaned his back against the wall. He sat perpendicular to the man, a few feet past the end of his boots. A sigh blew from his chest as he rested his head against the wall. "I...lost someone at Culloden. Someone dear."

In his peripheral vision, James bowed his head. "I'm sorry fer it. Truly."

Thinking of Hector was agonizing. He hadn't spoken of him, not even in such vague terms, since before his death. Doing so tore at his soul, ripping it to pieces like so many claws. He had to push on, though. He needed to know.

Surely a man who'd speak truth even to his own detriment would do so for another.

"Ever since," John said, "I've blamed myself. Wondering if my actions at Correyairack ultimately led to it. If I'd kept my mouth shut, hadn't fallen into your trap...if I'd done my duty to my country, would..."

James nodded, lips pursed as he swallowed. "Much was lost on that moor. And fer a while, I blamed myself as well."

His stomach twisted, heart speeding. John turned, focused on his face, dissecting it as he asked,"But you don't anymore?"

The corner of James's mouth twitched up for just a blink before he was solemn again. "Ye do what ye can with the knowledge ye have. I wish I had made different choices, but I'm no' ashamed of them, either. They were made tryin' to protect those I love. They werena the right choices, but without knowin' what was to come, I dinna think I could've acted much differently. 

"So now, with my family seen safe" -- he paused, eyes fluttering closed for a breath, as though in prayer -- "I accept what consequences come. But no, I'm no' ashamed of them, and I dinna feel guilty any longer for what I couldna control."

Only the gentle pressure of a tear splashing on his hand told John he'd begun to cry. He sniffed, casting his eyes toward the ceiling as he fought to quell the rising moisture from escaping. 

Would he have acted differently? Even were it not Fraser and his own woman, secretly safe in his hands, but someone else. Some anonymous pair with real danger, real harm before him. 

If he'd have known that saving a woman's honor could cost Hector his life, would he have left her to such a fate? Watched her ravished and shamed, perhaps killed before his eyes? 

He tried to convince himself that one woman was nothing compared to the many men potentially lost by his saving her. The argument, even in his own head, was half-hearted. Abstract "maybes" were nothing, he knew, compared to concrete facts. Tragedy happened around him every day, outside his influence and control, but he was in command of his own actions and choices. 

Men may be lost, but this imaginary woman would be harmed. 

One he could affect; one he could not. 

Despite the straight-backed posture demanded by his rank, the metaphorical slump of his shoulders suddenly eased. For the first time in years, they felt light. A pressure upon them, present always, disappeared. 

He wouldn't have changed it. 

It wasn't his fault. 

Wiping away more tears, he stood and walked back to the desk, flipping his diary open until the sketched image of Red Jamie glared back at him. He studied it, the image he'd been laying down through most of the last day. It wasn't James Fraser. Not the real one. The drawing on the page was of a man turned beast in his own mind and heart. Behind him sat a man whole. 

Once he realized it, the decision, at last, was made. 

 

#

 

Pink skies faded into deep purple and blue outside the window. The sun was almost completely gone now. Grey had been quiet a long time, staring into his diary, and Jamie knew their prolonged match was coming to an end. He prepared himself, ran through the options again. 

He'd go into official custody willingly; such was the natural result of his wrongdoings. But he refused to be killed in a shack like a dog. 

If he came at him with fists, he'd wrap the chain around his neck until he heard a crack. 

With a blade, a swift kick to break the knee. 

The pistol, stand and charge and hope for the best. 

Grey released a long, steady breath and turned. Jamie braced, watching to see what tack he would take. He took two slow steps toward him, his boots knocking on the ground. 

Jamie readied himself either to kick or strangle. 

The man stopped, a flick of his wrist catching Jamie off guard as something clunked to the ground before him. Wary, one eyebrow raised, he looked down to see keys. 

So a fight to the death, then. Of course he wouldn't simply kill a bound, unarmed man. It wouldn't be proper. He wasn't in top combat form, but he'd have to do. 

Jamie shot Grey a questioning glance and, at his nod, reached for the keys and unlocked the irons from his wrists. Joints popped and muscles ached as he stood, stretching for the first time in nearly twenty-four hours. And, Christ, he needed a piss. But at least the room didn't spin and he didn't sway or tumble this time. 

Remember, dinna go for the face, he reminded himself, sizing Grey up. Stick with the soft parts of him to save yer own hands. 

And, Lord, he prayed, I beg ye to keep them all safe in my absence. A ghoistidh, see them well. 

"It will be full dark before long," Grey said, hands clasped behind his back. "The men and I will take supper in the tavern, I'm sure, before settling in early for our departure at dawn. We're already a day behind as it is."

Jamie cocked his head at him, puzzled. "So...ye'll be takin' me with ye then?"

It wasn't quite a smile that graced his face, but a close enough facsimile. Jamie noted a softness to his features for the first time. The foreboding that had colored the angular slope of his cheeks and brow and nose since their confrontation began the night before had vanished. Now, there was something...lighter there. 

"I suppose if you're still here when I return, and my men with me, that we must."

Jamie's eyebrow arched impossibly higher. "And if I'm no' here?"

"Then it will be business as usual for us."

In all the hours sitting here, all the planning and praying, this had never been on the list of possible outcomes. His eyebrows rose high on his forehead, disbelief behind his words as he stepped closer. "Ye've sat in this room with me for nigh on a full day with the intent tae either take yer vengeance upon me or tae toss me to the Crown," Jamie said. "And now yer just...changin' yer mind?"

"I thought I would. Kill you, that is," Grey concurred. "Though the pit in my stomach from the outset was probably a fair indicator that I wouldn't."

"I dinna understand."

Grey turned and strode to the cot, where his scarlet jacket lay discarded from the day before. "I have imagined fulfilling my vow to you every day since we last met. I returned to my men after Correyairack shamed and humiliated. Dressed down by my superiors. Shunned by my brother. And the one friend who stood by me, I lost not long after.

"And it was all because of you. So I told myself. So I believed. I made you into a monster so that I wouldn't have to bear the weight of the guilt on my own."

"And ye dinna think me a monster anymore?"

John didn't answer immediately. He stepped to the desk and closed the diary, placing it carefully into his satchel before straightening and meeting his gaze with calm eyes. "I should've known before. I don't believe a monster would run into a burning building, very nearly forfeiting his own life, to save a stranger in peril. 

"But what I've realized is we are not so very different. We've regret, and heartache, and shame. We've faced horror and loss. I could kill you, but no one person can answer for the sins of all men. And I think killing you would only be denying the truth."

"Which is?"

"That vengeance does not equate to justice, not always."

Grey shifted his shoulders in his jacket, straightening it as he walked to the door. Jamie, still unconvinced, stepped toward him. "That explains why yer no' killin' me yerself. But why just...let me go?"

The man rested his hand on the knob, silent. With a half turn, not quite looking over his shoulder, he said, "Call it foolishness. Call it mercy, or recompense for the hardships your family faced in your absence." He turned fully then, meeting Jamie's eye. "I pulled you from that building not because of a life debt between us. I would've done so for any man, woman, or child I knew to be still inside." A swallow, a flick of eyebrows hinting at repressed emotion, before he continued. "So if nothing else, let this be the fulfillment of that life debt between us. Specific unto you, as yours was to me."

They stood, eyes locked, for another minute. Jamie's were opened wide, still grappling with the events of the last two minutes. 

Finally, Grey turned the knob and stepped through. Before the door separated them, though, he said, "If you are discovered, I cannot help you. I...I hope your family are well. I hope you find them." The door shut, and he was gone before Jamie could say a word. 

 

#

 

By the time Jamie approached the edges of Ayr, the grey light of predawn made shadows and silhouettes dance about him. Ghosts taunting him. His wame called out for food, not having eaten in nearly two days. And, after all those two days had put him through plus the eight-mile march to the city, his bones and muscles shrieked at every movement. 

But he couldn't stop. Not yet.

He'd known the ship would be gone, yet he made his way toward the port anyway. Seeing the empty slip sent a shock of grief through him. He fell to his knees on the wooden slats on the pier, breathing hard. 

For the first time, too, he allowed the doubts to surface. Thoughts that Claire and the boys hadn't made it to Ayr, hadn't boarded the ship...he'd refused to consider them during his detainment. All those hours in that room, he'd forced himself to believe they'd gone. To think that she -- pigheaded as she was, his stubborn Sorcha -- wouldn't have gone, or that some misfortune had overtaken them before they could brought him to the edge of hysteria. 

No, he'd told himself then and repeated now. Murtagh would make her go. He swore it. 

People began to bustle about him as the sun made itself truly known, and Jamie pulled himself up, determined. He picked his way toward the stables. Exhaustion slurred his words as he spoke to the handler there; the man would likely just think him drunk. 

Anxiety skittered in his center as he approached, clearing his throat. "I'm...ah, I'm hopin' ye can help me. A man had a horse kept here, dark hair wi' bits of grey, brown vest and coat. He would've had a French lad wi' him, comin' and goin' e'ery few days."

"Oh, aye, the friendly one," the handler huffed with rolling eyes as he looked up from his shoeing job. "Threatened tae skelp me if I didna loan another -- free o' charge, mind ye -- at the drop of a hat no' even a day ago."

He nearly laughed as sleep-deprived giddiness bloomed within him. "Aye, aye, that's him. D'ye ken, did they leave town recently?"

The man spat near his feet, shrugging. "He took the horses yesterday, walked toward the dock. 'S all I ken."

"And...and was he alone?"

"Nae, had the lad wi' him, and a woman. Bonnie wee thing, but she didna speak much."

Nodding, he asked one last question. "And there wasna any stramash at the docks, then, when the boat left? No...no fights or...or problems wi' the soldiers?"

Another denial, and Jamie released a shaky breath of relief. 

They'd boarded the ship, then, and gone. 

He hardly spoke another word as he stumbled from the stables and walked down the cobblestone road, both laughing and crying. Overjoyed and heartbroken. His feet picked up speed until he was running, escaping the city to the forest nearby until he finally collapsed under the canopy of trees. The soil beneath him was damp, but he didn't care. 

They were free. Safe from the reach of the English. 

Far from his own, as well. 

Wind whistled through the leaves above him and stirred the dead ones on the ground, and he clenched every muscle in his body, willing himself to calm. Forced himself to turn his thoughts from the miles still growing between them that very moment. 

An ocean is nothin', man, he told himself. Miles mean naught. 

He repeated it over and over to himself, the words falling from numb, tired lips in every language he knew. Ingrained it into his aching heart. The distance between Scotland and France, after all, was infinitely lesser than that between his time and hers. A single sea voyage (unpleasant though it would be) was nothing compared to the journey through the stones. 

Claire was here, and that meant he'd find her, however long it took. 

The knowledge gave him some little comfort. Enough that he allowed his eyes to close and his breath to slow until, at last, he slept.

 

#

 

February 20, 1754

 

John returned to his quarters, sighing with relief to settle into his own bed. Or, at least, the closest he'd come to it until he returned home. Weariness unlike any he'd ever known flooded him as he let his eyes drift shut, heaving a great sigh and sinking into the mattress. 

But it wasn't time to sleep yet, even though he probably could until next year if he allowed himself to. Raising himself to sit on the edge of the bed, he clenched his jaw and stared at his bag across the room. 

 

Colonel Adams had summoned him as soon as he and his tiny group had arrived that afternoon to Fort William. Standing before him, back straight and arms at his side, John relayed the Fraser news. 

Well, his version of it. 

"And you searched the house and property thoroughly?" Adams asked, thirsty for any scrap of a clue they could use to further their cause.

John nodded. "Of course. And I interviewed the new mother personally. I found no reason to disbelieve them."

"Hmm," Adams hummed with disappointment, face troubled. "I suppose that's what we get for taking heed of such a degenerate." John nodded in agreement before Adams asked him, "Well, Grey, you've been at the heart of this search for years now. What is your feeling on the matter?"

Swallowing, willing himself not to blink, John answered, "There are many duties that need our attention. With no sign of Fraser or his wife since the rebellion, it's likely they perished somewhere in the interim or, somehow, made their escape. Pursuing him now only strains our limited resources."

Adams frowned, mulling his words over. Finally, after a heavy silence, he nodded. "Rotten shame. Would've relished the chance to give that bloody traitor his due."

 

Crossing to his satchel at the desk, he opened his diary and pulled the decoy letter from it. The one and only trace of the fate -- the false fate -- of James Fraser. He didn't read it again, simply brought it over to the hearth. Bent to his knees. Tossed it into the flames, breath held. The paper blackened and curled, edges glowing orange where the fire ate away at it.

The entire journey back to the fort, he'd weighed whether to present the letter or not. In the end, even if the letter spoke to Fraser's escape and settlement outside the reach of the Crown, it was still a clue. Still an inkling that, somewhere, the man existed. Had a weakness in the family left behind. Or -- his stomach had clenched to think of it -- evidence of said family's collusion.

No, better to give no cause to believe Red Jamie was anything more than the shadow they'd been chasing since the rebellion.

Heat sprang to his eyes, and not just from the fire. With a shuddering breath, he stifled the sound of his emotion. He hoped Hector would've been proud that he'd chosen mercy over wrath. That he'd, at long last, determined to face forward instead of back. His would always be a loss felt in the deepest pits of his soul, but it no longer swallowed him.

As the last remnants of the page disintegrated into ash, John imagined himself a phoenix springing from them. A future no longer stunted by guilt, shame, and loathing unfurled before him like such magnificent wings. 

Finally, he felt free. 

Chapter Text

June 12, 1754

 

The sun had nearly reached its pinnacle as Jamie passed the first structures. Modest farms with small huts and grazing cattle and sheep and goats, hinting at the approaching seashore town. Wisps of transparent clouds floated overhead like unrolled gauze in a clear blue sky. They reminded him of the trails he'd seen behind the airplanes on the other side of the stones. 

One hundred eighteen days had passed. Almost four months to the day since he'd seen his family. Thousands of hours since he'd felt his heart, trampled and limping along by sheer stubbornness and the barest hope, beat. But it pounded now against his chest. Anticipation made his hands shake. 

 

Awaiting a boat in Ayr had been the easy part; within weeks of his arrival, the Redcoats had thinned (though did not disappear entirely), and with his scraggly, unkempt appearance, no one paid him much mind. But it also meant very few harbored much kindness for him, either. Without his skill as a fisher and his fair hand with snares, he may well have starved before buying passage to France even became a question. 

The next ship had arrived one dreary morning in late March. Without much more than a shilling to his name, he had watched it sail again the next day with streaming tears of frustration. As it had grown smaller in his sight before disappearing altogether, he'd imagined it pulled a piece of his own soul along with it, stretching it to the snapping point. He'd returned to his little camp in the woods. For three days, he could hardly bring himself to move. 

But, as he'd soon learned, that had only been the first. By April -- well and truly spring now -- the port saw two, if not three ships coming and going on any given day. Hope buoyed in him again, as did determination. He set himself to the task of trapping and skinning, peddling the meat and furs throughout the port; his wild-looking countenance, while not stirring the sympathies or charity of its residents, lent a certain credibility to his skill as a hunter, he wagered. He saved every coin he earned and lived off the wilderness. And, the third week of April, Jamie finally purchased his way on board. 

So distracted as he was by the excitement and relief, he didn't notice it at first. Even as he stood at the ship's rail, watching the shore fall behind him, steady of feet and wame. Even as the ship lolled on choppy seas.

He wasn't seasick anymore. The realization washed over him as sure as the first raindrops that dampened his skin. It was no wonder, really. What was the sway of a boat compared to the reality-distorting passage of Craigh na Dun? Perhaps his traveling to and fro through them had inoculated him somehow. 

Whatever the reason, as they chased the horizon out into the dark waters, heavy rain clouds unleashing its burden upon them, Jamie stood upon the deck, face upturned. And for the first time in weeks, he smiled.

This voyage is blessed, he thought to himself, laughing with elation. I will find them.

Newfound sea legs aside, his heart still ached for Claire and his lads. In his lowest moments, terror would seize him. Doubts would whisper to him. That they'd never made the original boat. That it had been lost before reaching the safety of shore. That he'd never catch up with them. That some other misfortune would keep them separated forever. 

Every time, he shook them from his mind. He'd simply never stop searching. Eventually, he'd find them. 

 

The shadows of a distant settlement came into view, trails of smoke from various chimneys and the jumbled edges of close-packed buildings. Jamie sped his horse toward them. Every so often, carts or pedestrians passed in the opposite direction, no one sparing him much attention or, at most, a nod or polite smile. 

Of course, they would look on him more kindly than the folks in Ayr, with him being bathed and clean shaven and wearing something more seemly than rags. For that, he was grateful. If today were the day he found them, if his suffering were near an end, he hoped to stand before them looking like the man who could -- would -- provide for them, do them proud. He was so desperate for them he would've gone to them in any state. Still, he was glad he wouldn't have to.

 

The boat had docked in Le Havre the last day of April. Bad luck that Jared wasn't there and, according to the men of his warehouse, likely wouldn't be for weeks more. With a churning stomach but little choice in the matter, Jamie made his way to Paris. Entering the city filled him with dread and fresh mourning. But his cousin would be most likely to have news of Claire, and he'd brave far worse than his own memories to find her.

Jamie took every precaution, avoiding any place where someone may remember or recognize him as he slunk his way to his cousin's home where he received more bad news: Jared was away from Paris as well, conducting business in Portugal and not expected home for another fortnight at least. None of the staff from Jamie's previous stay had remained in the intervening decade, the strangers now in his cousin's employ wary of a seeming beggar knocking on the door and demanding audience with the owner. Even wrestling the itinerary information from the new doorman had been a job of work.

Thus he passed his days on the nearby streets of Paris, watching closely for his cousin's return amidst rummaging for food and guarding his identity. It mattered not. Jared would come home eventually. Until then, Jamie waited, and he prayed.

 

The village was quaint. Picturesque, as Claire may have said. An active market was bustling in the main square, carts and booths and people milling about for wares and gossip. From the square, he could see a stone church on the cliff top in the distance, the cross at the steeple top hardly more than a pinprick in the distance.

After a few well-placed inquiries at some of the stalls, he continued on foot, too antsy to ride any longer as he guided his horse onward by the reins. Following the offered directions, he came to a row of cottages near the cliff side. Flower boxes adorned the windows, vibrant blooms and greens spilling out. A gray cat paused its walk down the road to look at him over its shoulder before, disinterested, disappearing around the corner. 

Jamie counted himself to the fourth home in the row and secured his mount to a post out front. Sweat dappled his forehead, and not just from the brisk pace he'd set for the last mile. His heart pattered in his chest, a light but rapid beat that made him dizzy. Stepping onto the wooden porch, he blew a slow exhale through pursed lips, bracing himself as he approached the door. He raised his fist to knock with a last frantic prayer when a sound on the wind stopped his arm in midair. 

Laughter. A baby's laughter. 

It was too soon to allow his hope to become gratitude; even so, he had little choice in the matter. Try as he might to quell the giddiness in him, to reason with his mounting euphoria that it may not be his baby that was near, it rose mighty as a wave. 

The giggles continued, shrill and gleeful and glorious, a lullaby soothing his soul. They drew him in like a siren's song he succumbed to happily. Jamie stepped from the porch and followed the sound to an alley running alongside the cottage. The adjacent home, two stories tall as opposed to the single of his destination, cast the narrow opening into deep shadow.

Another squeal echoed down the long pathway, funneled to him by tall walls, and Jamie followed it. Step by step, the sound grew stronger, more distinct, music even to his tone-deaf ears. 

The alley opened before him into a small, enclosed courtyard, but he avoided the revealing sunlight, not yet ready to make himself known. But as he took in the scene before him, tears sprang to his eyes.

Shirts and rags and clouts swayed on the line, shadows on the grass mirroring their movements as they dried. More clothes sat in a heap near the table and basin in the center of the yard. They'd been abandoned, though. The erstwhile washer, instead, sat on his knees in the grass, back to Jamie. Dark curls hung to his collar, shoulders hunched over as he cooed and teased in soft French. 

You think my songs are funny, mon petit? I should give you a bite for laughing at me so!

And so the speaker bent, fingers tickling at the squirming body and nuzzling at the tiny neck with faux chomping sounds. A fresh chorus of joyous laughter filled the air. The speaker sat back up, a hand and a forearm braced beneath the babe's arms to sit him up.

Jamie stood, unable to breathe and vision swimming. He must have made some noise, for the brown curls jumped as their owner swiveled his head around before freezing perfectly still. Jamie couldn't make out the lad's face through his blurred vision. Even so, he stepped into the light, inching his way toward them both with the last shred of control he had.

It was Fergus's disbelieving, "Da?" that sent him over the edge. With three steps, he closed the gap between them and collapsed to the ground, arms going around his thin shoulders and one hand cupping the lad's head into his own shoulder. Fergus didn't pull back, didn't ask any further questions. Only reciprocated in kind, locking arms around Jamie so tightly he lost his breath. Or perhaps it was simply the overwhelming relief and joy exploding in his chest that stole it. 

Finally, though, they did part, green eyes and blue staring back at each other through still-thick tears. Jamie smiled through the emotion, the corners of his lips turned downward as he inhaled through his nose to hold the sobs at bay. 

A gurgling coo near his left knee tore his focus from Fergus. Brian wobbled as he tried unsuccessfully to push up onto hands and knees, rocking back and forth between his rear and his wee hands splayed on the grass, each little bounce punctuated by a babbling noise. 

To see his bairn, grinning and drooling at him nearly drove him to hysteria once more. Not wasting another second, Jamie scooped him up and crushed him into his chest, swaying left to right. Christ, he was so much heavier now, more solid somehow in his arms, small as he still was. He smelled of soap and herbs and milk. But beneath those fragrances, he smelled the essence of his child, that natural aroma that linked them together, proof of their shared blood. Somehow, more than anything else, this assured him that they were here, actual and real before him. That he'd found them. 

"O' course the lad's run off," a voice mumbled from the doorway. Sitting and kneeling as they were, the table with the washing blocked them from view of the entry. "Well, if he sees fit tae act like a bairn, I'll tan hi--"

"Murtagh!" Fergus said, jumping up. Jamie couldn't move still, frozen into place with a new surge of anticipatory joy. 

"Christ, ye gommerel, what're--"

He stopped talking then, having stepped close enough to the table to see over. Jamie climbed slowly to his knees and then his feet, Brian still in his arms. Godfather and godson locked eyes, the former's face going slack. They simply stood for a moment on either side of the table, Fergus between them and Brian babbling and twisting in his father's arms. 

Jamie broke first, stepping toward the older man and circling his arm around his neck. A few seconds later, Murtagh returned it. 

"Thank ye, a ghoistidh," Jamie whispered into his collar. The words spilled from his lips over and over. He willed his tears to cease, his throat and head already aching with the force of them so far. And there was still one more reunion to come.

When they drew apart, a million questions danced behind Murtagh's eyes. But Jamie cared about the answer to only one. "Where is she?" he asked, pulse racing so fast he could hear it behind his ears. "Where is Claire?"

 

#

 

She was lost. She liked it best this way. 

Sitting on the grassy cliff overlooking the sea, Claire allowed the white noise of crashing waves to hypnotize her away from consciousness. The sound was deafening even from this distance, so much so she couldn't hear her own thoughts over it. A welcome gift from the channel to her. 

In her hands, she held the photograph. The one snapped at their second wedding day, the one he'd brought back without her even knowing. The one she'd found their third day on the boat, tucked away into the satchel of items Fergus had saved from the fire. 

Her husband before her eyes, and the hiss and boom of the water in her ears insulated her from the outside world. Claire could almost pretend it hadn't happened. That he hadn't been caught, left behind, then...imprisoned? executed? 

She abandoned those thoughts with a shake of her head and breathed deep, letting her mind drift and lose focus once more. 

A finger traced over the edge of the photograph. Mrs. Graham had been ever so slightly behind him when she'd taken it so that his face was partially obscured by the angle as he leaned his forehead against her own. Claire longed to see him in full, but it was the barest comfort to have the look of pure, blissful love shining from him memorialized, a memento she could lose herself in whenever the burden of her loss became too great.  

The boys made her days bearable. Fergus, who'd once grumbled at having to assist in women's work in the field hospitals along the war path of the Rising, took on such chores now without her even needing to ask. And her sweet, precious Brian, who'd begun to show signs of trying to crawl. Those were moments she could forget the coinciding agony and emptiness within her, those exuberant moments where she and Fergus and even Murtagh were crouched to the floor, calling to Brian from across the way, clapping and smiling and watching him puzzle out this mystery of movement. Not yet, but very soon.

But those moments couldn't be every moment. And sometimes, when she wanted to claw her skin straight from her bones with frustrated grief, Murtagh would take the cooking or the washing or the baby from her hands and lead her to the door. From there, her feet would take her up the path of the grassy hilltop, around the edge of the church, and on a ways further, where she'd plop down at the cliff's edge and stare into the water far below. The stone edifice shielded her from view of the path and the town. She could find true solitude there.

Sometimes she cried. Sometimes she screamed. Sometimes, like today, she sat quietly and breathed evenly, pushing all thought from her mind until awareness itself receded like the waves. 

There was a thud of rushing footsteps somewhere to her left, but she hardly noticed it. She, instead, remained swaddled in the numbness and the not knowing, pulled it around her like a well-worn quilt. Ensconced in its warmth and safety, she closed her eyes as the corners of her mouth twitched up. So she didn't see him stepping closer. 

The first time she heard the name that only he could imbue with such adoration, it was but a whisper on the wind. A tear slid down her cheek. It sounded so real. 

"Sassenach..."

Louder this time, but shaking. Unsteady, as though spoken through trembling lips. So unlike the smooth and calm voice she usually imagined. 

She gripped the frame in her fingers as she returned to herself, panting, staring straight out into the expanse of sky and water before her. 

"Look at me."

A demand spoken with such desperation in the voice that she was powerless to disobey. Breath caught in her chest, blood whooshing in her ears, she turned to the left. 

He looked so lifelike. The mist from the sea clung to his hair, his damp curls windswept and unruly. Reddened cheeks paled as their gazes met, and his chest inflated and deflated visibly even from afar. 

But he couldn't be real. 

When he moved, though, the grass beneath his feet shifted. She heard the crunch of dirt and gravel beneath his boots. She heard, too, his jagged breaths as he began to run, legs pumping on the incline. 

She wasn't aware of standing, nor of stowing the photo in a pocket. Wheezing and gasping as the pain overtook her anew, Claire implored her feet to stay rooted to the spot. They ignored her, stumbling blindly in his direction. 

This was bad. A bad idea. The kind of idea that breaks you in the end. Whenever she reached him, when her body passed right through her vision come to life, when she failed to collide with that form she missed so terribly and it dissipated like smoke from a candle, it would--

The force of him would've knocked her flat had his arms not immediately circled around her, holding her upright. Her breath rushed from her in a keen, and her arms enveloped him by instinct more than command.

She couldn't even hear the ocean anymore, not over the sound of him panting and sobbing, broken Gaelic vibrating against her ear. She would bruise, she knew, from the five points on each shoulder where his fingers dug in like he wanted to bury himself beneath her skin.

With a sudden inhale, Claire pulled back. Eyes bright and cheeks shining with tears, Jamie looked back at her, chest rising and falling with the force of his breaths. The hands gripping her shook. Hers did, as well. 

She took inventory of him. Palms glided up his arms, firm beneath the rough fabric of his coat. Fingers ghosted over the contour of his neck, the edge of his jaw, the hollows of his cheeks and the arch of his brow. His eyelids fluttered shut as she combed through his locks, feeling their coarseness. She twirled a piece around her finger and let it slide off. 

Then, to finish, she leaned in again, her nose resting at the juncture of his shoulders to his neck. A droplet leaked from his outer eye and dropped down his cheek onto hers, angled just so beneath his chin. 

She breathed him in, and at once she was whole. 

"Jamie?" she whispered against him. She felt his nod, and his arms encircled her again. 

"Aye," he choked out. A hand rose to cradle her skull. They rocked together for several minutes, neither speaking again. The thump of his heartbeat took over the job of the waves, lulling her to a state of near meditation. 

Finally, she stood back again. "How..."

His lips crooked into that smirk -- God, that perfect, gorgeous, cocky smirk she loved so dearly. He swiped the tears from her cheek even as his flowed freely. "'Tis a tale, mo nighean donn. I'd rather tell it the once wi' all of ye."

Nodding, she swallowed, unmoving. Jamie suffered no such paralyzation. With a near-animal growl, he launched forward and took her lips with his own. Lights exploded behind her eyes as she welcomed him, grabbing his coat and pulling her body against his. Lips and tongues reacquainted themselves with fierce hunger. A hand at her back and another at her neck precluded any escape, though such an idea seemed blasphemous just this moment. If anything, she wished they could be closer. 

Devouring became savoring after some moments, tenderness inserting itself between them. Her pulse never slowed. Only when he broke contact at last, both of them gasping for breath, could she temper the fire raging in her.

"I promised ye," he breathed against her lips, planting feather-light kisses against them that stoked her embers. "Be it within my power, I shan't be parted from you."

The familiar words, spoken in a century distant from this one, landed with force in her soul. "Every day from this day to be spent at your side," she choked. She raised her hands up to frame his face. His breath hitched as she did. Chills exploded over her body at the depth of his eyes gazing into hers. They seemed endless as the sky, and Claire wanted nothing more than to float into them, falling forever upwards. 

 

#

 

Seventeen days in Paris, starving and hiding and praying, for naught. Jared didn't know where Claire was. She hadn't come. She hadn't written. Jared had offered him shelter and succor as long as he needed (and admonished his staff for not doing so in his absence), though Jamie could hardly bring himself to care. 

Had they made it to France at all? And even if they were here, somewhere...France was no small country. He'd walk every inch of it without hesitation to find her, but what guarantee was there that she wasn't on the move as well? 

He considered reaching out to Louise de la Tour as well but decided that Claire wouldn't have risked communicating with someone so entrenched in the French Court. And he sent a messenger to L'hopital des Anges, only for him to return and report that Mother Hildegarde was ill and, in any case, had not received any visitors in some while.

For the first time since his standoff with Grey, he considered the real possibility that they were beyond his reach for good. His heart hardened to the notion, unwilling yet to accept it. He'd walk himself into a grave before admitting defeat. 

In Jared's house, he bathed and shaved, outfitted himself and stocked provisions. Then it was time to go. Time to begin. 

His last morning in Paris, a tautness in his chest stopped him from leaving the city straight away. He'd thought it was simply the yearning for them. That was still present, the animal gnawing at his core. But this...this was something separate. Unable to settle, he departed on foot and allowed the pressure to guide him. 

The closer he got, the clearer his destination became. A vice grip around his heart tightened as he walked through the gate and stepped through the grassy plots, carefully avoiding the square stones until he came to the right one. 

Hers looked the same as it had ten years previous. Kneeling, he read his daughter's name in it, traced the shape of it with shaking fingers. Shadows from the surrounding wall and trees stretched and shifted as he sat there, staring. He spoke to her in his mind. Begged forgiveness for not being able to save her. Assured her that his love for her was still fierce, a permanent part of him. Implored her to grant him strength as he sought the rest of their family.

Unknown hours had passed when the voice spoke up behind him. "She has been well tended, Monsieur Fraser."

Jamie stood and whirled, unable to hide his shock at hearing that voice. 

"Mother Hildegarde," he said, breathless. "I was told ye were unwell." And she certainly looked it. Her face was haggard. Lines that had, ten years ago, already spoken to her decades of experience now cut deeper into her skin. Sunken eyes and sloped shoulders spoke to constant exhaustion, and the shuffling of her steps even with the cane betrayed her frailty.

But still, she managed to chuckle as she stepped closer. "And I was told you were gone."

"Claire?" he gasped, closing the distance between them. "She was here?"

"Non, Monsieur," she answered. With heavy breaths, she eased closer. Her free hand reached into her pocket and drew out a parchment square. "I received this some months ago. She did not sign it, I presume in case it were to fall into unsympathetic hands."

Jamie took the paper with cold, trembling fingers. He recognized her hand immediately and sighed with relief, eyes scanning across each line as he hunted for clues as to her locale. She spoke of her new loss, seeking not only comfort from her one-time mentor, but also direction as to where her skills as healer may be most needed since, with regret, she simply could not bring herself to set foot in Paris. 

Reaching the end, signed merely as "With Deepest Respect," Jamie looked up, the question in his eyes. Mother Hildegard's lips twisted into a small but kind smile, eyes equally soft. "The letter came from the Port of Brest. I wrote back early April, including a letter of introduction to an acquaintance priest in Étretat in whose discretion she may trust."

Étretat. Hardly twenty miles from where he'd begun in Le Havre. Ironic laughter bubbled in his chest and burst from his lips as he paced a small circle in the grass, face upturned as his hands rubbed at weary eyes. Were he not concerned about bowling the woman over, he'd have hugged her; as it was, he bid her profuse thanks and hurried from the cemetery. 

He didn't care that the sun was nearly set as he sped from Paris. It had been two weeks' walk to Paris from Le Havre; if he rode hard, he could reach the seaside town in half that time. He felt joy, longing, and fear. With each clop of the horse's hooves, each bounce in the saddle, he begged God that this would be the final leg of his fraught journey.

 

"I promised ye," he repeated a moment later as he pressed their foreheads together. "And how I prayed to God every moment since ye left my arms that He'd allow me to keep it."

 

#

 

Silent darkness cloaked them that night. Claire fought sleep. She was terrified she'd wake to find him gone again. Even as she told herself that the warmth of his skin against hers and the release they'd chased with each other over and over as the sun disappeared from the sky was too vivid to have been imagined. 

With the candle nearly burnt out on the bedside table, she traced her fingers over his abdomen, chest, shoulders, arms, palm. She knit their fingers together, sighing. He was thin, muscles and bones standing out more sharply against his skin than she cared for; the hardships of the preceding months he'd shared with them all over supper had taken their toll. 

"Ye ken," he whispered, apparently none too ready for sleep himself, "I've had much time tae think ower everything. And I realized something."

"Oh?" she asked. She shifted so her head lay over his heart, its rhythm further proof of his existence that she clung to. With a hum, she invited him to elaborate.

His chest rose and descended beneath her. "John Grey may have spared my life, but 'twas ye who saved it."

Claire lifted her head, frowning. "Saved you? Jamie, I...I left you. I sailed away, knowing -- or, well, suspecting at least -- what had happened. And I--"

"Ye did what I was prayin' ye would," he said, tone intense. He soothed his hand up and down her arm. "All the while in that room, I was beggin' ye to take them and go. Ye did right, mo chridhe."

Her curls splayed over him as she lowered herself again to his chest. "Then how did I save you?"

The smile that grew over his lips soothed her, as did his hand now caressing her back. "At Correyairack. When he came into camp, when I caught him, I was prepared tae do what needed doin' to learn whatever we could. And I would've, as much as I hated it." A ridge deepened between his brows. "'Twas ye who jumped in and began the farce that made the lad give up their position.

"So no' only did ye save me from havin' tae do violence on the lad to begin wi', but 'twas yer actions that led to the life debt that allowed me tae walk away free in Dundonald. And 'twas ye who pulled me through the stones and spared me from death at Culloden, as well. 

"It's because of you, Sassenach, that I've been able to keep my family when, by all accounts, I should've lost ye many times over. And I am...so verra grateful to you for it." 

A tear track chilled her cheek, and she pulled herself up to burrow into his neck. "We saved each other, then," she whispered against him. "Because I was trying so hard before you came. But...I don't know if...I'm not sure..."

"Aye," he agreed. His arms, warm and strong, tightened around her frame. Peace settled over her. 

She'd begun to drift to sleep against her will when he spoke again. "I'm glad I didna have to harm him, both before and in Dundonald."

Claire wrested her eyes open and moved so she lay parallel to him. "I'm glad, too. I wouldn't want you to carry that, even if it had been necessary."

Roughened fingers brushed her curls over her ears then rested against her face, stroking at her temple in a motion so soothing she had to fight to pay attention to his words. "Aye, fer that. But also because he was a good man. I could tell it from the outset. 'Twas why I wasna scared."

"You weren't?"

"Well," he said with a shrug, "I was. I was scared of losin' ye and the lads, of the soldiers findin' you. And, aye, I wasna fond of the notion of imprisonment or hangin'. But I mean..." He swallowed, the bob of his throat just visible in the last gasp of the nearly spent candle. "Back in Inverness, I was afraid in the jail. It felt...it was too much like...like Wentworth, in a way. The place was bright and clean, but I was alone, and 'twas unfamiliar, and I didna trust the man who had me at his mercy." A choppy breath breezed over her face before he continued. 

"But wi' Grey, even though I was shackled and weakened, even when it was clear he acted outside his station as...as happened before, ne'er did that thought enter my mind. It was a question of honor wi' him, I knew. I kent he meant to kill me, but never did I believe he'd have...have taken anythin' he wasna owed, if there's any sense to that at all." 

Claire traced her fingers over his lips and along his prickly jawline. "It makes sense. And, for that, at least, I am glad."

They fell into silence again, and as the flame of the candle finally died and plunged them into full darkness, she felt his breath evening out into slumber. Sleepy thoughts rolled about in her head as she descended into oblivion herself. Thoughts of the very particular circumstances of events that had led them to this spot, to safety together at last. 

Jamie's dream. Fergus's hand. Brian's birth. The Hogmanay raid. The Redcoat in the tavern. The fire. The boat. Mother Hildegarde. And, at last, John Grey. 

The reason for the stones pulling them through to another mismatched year would likely never be determined with any real clarity. But perhaps that unique sequence -- only possible in this year, at this time -- had been the sole way they'd have ended up here. 

Blackness creeped along the edges of her consciousness. As it overtook her, she planted one more kiss on his chest and, for the first time in months, fell asleep happy.

Chapter Text

July 1948

 

Frank stood framed beneath the stone archway. Framed, and frozen. 

He stared up at the manse before him. Great in its time, but neglected now and suffering for it. It reminded him of a corpse. Empty windows gaped at him like lifeless eyes. Much of the front door had long rotted away, the holes left behind outstretched mouths screeching forever into the ether. Grotesque, yet captivating.

Overgrown brown weeds dominated the yard beyond the stone arch holding him captive. Gazing up, he eyed the crest carved into its lintel. Edges of the image were softened, dulled with weather and time. Only the vaguest shape of it survived now. With a deep breath, Frank raised his hand and, reverently, touched it to the stones to his left. 

Icy coldness engulfed him, the force strong enough to make him shiver, and he ripped his hand away. He had no clue if he'd imagined it or if something...unnatural had passed through him. The notion would have been laughable some years back. Of course, he knew better now.

Swallowing, inhaling, he looked back up to the house, unable to take another step forward. Deep in his bones, he knew that he was unwelcome here, even all this time later. Whatever science or magic the standing stones harnessed, it was here, too.  His blood, in some minute amount the same that had desecrated the peace of this home, awakened something angry past the line of the arch. To step beyond this boundary would be to walk upon an entire family's grave.

Frank heaved a long, steady breath. That wasn't why he was here anyway. He nodded once (in acknowledgement? apology? truce? he knew not) and turned back to the truck he'd borrowed from a friend of Reggie's. He drove around the outside of the building, following the road and the rough map he pulled from the dashboard. 

As he approached a steep incline of wooded greenery, he turned the engine off once more and exited, map in hand, and made his way into the rough. 

 

His flat was bare. Most of his belongings had already been shipped to his new Boston address. The furniture had all been sold or otherwise claimed. Lingering pieces were dwarfed by the open space around them. A lone end table, sitting at the end of nothing. His bed, now merely a mattress on the floor. Two dining room chairs left with the purchaser's promise they'd return for them by noon the next day. 

And a writing desk pushed against the front windows. The drawers had been emptied, useless papers discarded and important ones filed as needed. All that remained was the envelope from Claire, sitting on top. It had sat there for close to a week, bidding farewell to each box that disappeared through the front door. Waiting for Frank to be ready to open it again.

Finally, it was time. Or, rather, he was out of it; he'd return his keys to the landlord in three days before heading straight for his transatlantic flight. 

Afternoon sunlight slanted in as he stepped to the desk. Grim determination hardened his features as he picked the envelope up, holding it gingerly in his hands as though testing a live wire. There was no shock. The stoniness of his face eased a bit with relief.

With no sofa, he simply lowered himself to the ground in the middle of the vacant room. Legs crossed like a child, he pulled out the letter he'd half read one drunken afternoon a year and a half before. With a breath, he dove in again. 

 

 

September 17th, 1946

  

Frank,

 

By the time you'll read this, I'll have already returned through the stones. It was not in the plan, but some information came to light, and we had to go. Whatever happens there, we won't be back. 

So much has been unfairly stolen from you. I regret that, if nothing else. Nothing can truly replace what you've lost, and this isn't meant to do that. But I hope it may bring you some comfort, perhaps peace. 

Between the cost of living for six months and preparing era-appropriate supplies and currency, I worked my way well through my inheritance, but there is still a bit left. Over 100,000 pounds. It's yours. Fund your research, go on sabbatical, I don't care. I asked Maura to bring this to you after the first of the year, as that's when the papers take effect. Money will never make true amends for what passed between us, but it's one of the only things I can give you. 

The other may (I hope) have even more value to you. 

There's a cave on Jamie's family property. Well hidden and insulated. During the clearances (we're guessing), his family stored banned items there. Their tartans, weapons, Gaelic books, letters, the family bible -- anything and everything too precious to leave in the house has been hidden and preserved there. Jamie found it when we were planning our trip back, so we know it's survived to 1946. Better catalogued in a museum or university archive than moldering in a cave for God knows how much longer. 

Whatever your personal feelings toward me or toward Jamie, I know you understand the value of these items to history and will see them cared for, if it's your wish. Jamie trusts you with them, as well.

As for Red Jamie and the Stuart Witch, we'll go first to Lallybroch. By spring, though, we'll be making our way out of Scotland. France is our most likely destination, at least for a time. Perhaps the colonies, if need be. We'll likely travel under the pseudonym of McTavish for some time, until it is safe to be Fraser once more. 

I don't fool myself into thinking you'll be so interested in how our lives turn out. But perhaps unearthing the very first evidence of Red James Fraser's survival post-Culloden may benefit your career. I hope it does. I know even this may be a cruel gift, to guide you to such a discovery, the study of which will no doubt bring accolades as well as heartache. Will leading you here shackle you to the events and lives that robbed you of so much? The choice, of course, is yours.

Again, it's almost nothing in the grand scheme of things, but I hope it eases some fraction of the hurt I've inflicted. I'll pray that it does. (Of course, I'll leave explaining precisely how you found said artifacts to you. Though my advice would be to not wave around this letter or the attached map.) We'll leave instructions for Jamie's sister on how and what to preserve for posterity. 

Please know, Frank, that I treasure my years with you. I take heart knowing that, if I found the matching piece of my own soul, then yours also exists somewhere out there, waiting for you. I don't think I'll ever be fully at peace, not knowing you've found yours. But I'll pray for it always. 

Thank you. Good luck. 

 

#

 

By the time Frank stepped upon level ground once more, his shirt clung to his sweat-soaked skin. He panted for breath and wiped a salty droplet from where it dripped into his eyes. Then he looked around. An annotation on the map had mentioned it was well camouflaged, difficult to find. He'd just have to--

He knew it as soon as he finally saw it. Just a shadow between two trees, a chasm leading seemingly to nowhere. Still huffing with exertion, he made for it, squeezing and dropping into the narrow entrance. He pulled the torch from his belt loop and clicked it on, flooding the tiny cavern with light. 

It was there, just as she'd written it would be. A large rectangle wrapped in cloth. His stomach clenched with nerves, wondering what he'd find inside. But his hands were steady as he peeled it back and unlatched the chest. Creaking hinges echoed around the stone walls and raised goosebumps over his skin as though he'd unleashed some spirit from within. Even when the reverberating sound died, the blood pounded in his ears. 

The artificial light beam illuminated each discovered item as he sifted through. On top lay the Bible, having obviously been pulled from its resting place recently (relatively speaking). Frank opened the cover and examined the family tree. Other than their marriage and their stillborn child from before the Rising, nothing else about Claire and James Fraser was mentioned. No other children. No death dates. 

Another deep breath as he set the volume to the side. The next quarter hour he spent carefully moving through artifacts: books, journals, pistols, swords, portraits, paintings, tartans, toys, jewelry. 

Near the bottom, he pulled forth another parcel, a smaller wooden box once more in waxed cloth. Frank peeled it away and opened the box to find letters, dozens of them. Batches of them had been bundled together with twine, four in all.

Cold sweat dewed on his skin. Did he hold the answers in his hand? About that sketch, how they'd survived and moved without a trace, where a historian may focus his efforts to discover the fate of the infamous Frasers? And the biggest question loomed, as yet unanswered.

Would he even have the strength to look if so?

His knees protested as he closed the box and half-stood, shuffling back toward the entrance and out. The breeze played across his skin, cooling him instantly as he inhaled a lungful of fresh air. Out of the cave, the sensation of not being quite alone dissipated like morning dew.

He plunked down on the grass beside the opening, set the container before him, and slowly searched through the letters within. The first grouping were from a Jocasta Cameron in the Colonies. They held little of relevance to him, so he set them aside and grabbed for another cluster, untying the string binding them together so they spilled into his lap. He opened the one on top and, seeing the signature, paused to gain his breath before casting his eyes back down to the yellowed paper.

 

 

April 4, 1757

 

Dearest Jenny, 

 

My Heart is heavy that, come Morning, we'll be on a Ship shoving off from French shores. It will not be quite the Same, I think, as watching Scotland fade away. But I believe I'll still feel the Pain of grief in my heart to think I may never be so close to Home again. 

Étretat has been kind to us these last three Years, to be certain, and France is safer than Scotland. Though we still live as the McTavishes, not wishing to test the Mercy of the King with the violation of our previous Banishment. We've been happy here. But we are still not truly safe. So we march onwards, to a Place where We may settle as Frasers and call ourselves Free. 

They say it is The New World, sister. I only hope it offers new Peace, new Freedom, a new Opportunity for my Family to create a Place well and truly ours. 

Because there's one more Reason we've now decided to venture so far aground. Jen, my Claire will gift me another Child come Autumn. I am still giddy with disbelief, and my Hand trembles to even commit such a Blessing to Paper. Journeying now will likely be difficult, we ken. But it's time we stretch our Roots into the Soil and build the Home our Children will know the rest of their Days. With Brian now old enough to sail, it seemed like a Message from the Almighty Himself that the Time had arrived. 

Even if we must be far from where we'd choose, a phiuthar, know that You're in our Thoughts and Hearts, always. I pray for the Blessing to one day make good on my last Promise to you. I have not forgotten it, nor have I stopped my Prayers that I should be allowed to keep it. 

We love you, Jen. 

 

J.A.M.M. Fraser

 

 

Unwelcome and unexpected tears sprang to his eyes. The loss of Claire was an old scar, long since scabbed over and toughened. But even healed wounds sometimes ache. 

So she'd made it back and had survived the birth. A boy, it would seem. 

With an angry swipe of his cheeks, he carried on, pulling the next paper from the pile. The second was short and written in a different hand, merely a brief birth announcement of Julianna Arabella Rose Fraser, born October 2, 1757. Mother and babe both well, the writer assured. The signature, faded and illegible, began Mu-, he thought. 

The next few missives were again in Fraser's hand, some addressed to Jenny, others to Ian. All detailed to various specificity their first years in the Colonies, always ending with the mention of missing the family and praying to come home someday. 

His heart gave another unpleasant jolt to pick up the second to last letter from the stack and see the elegant sprawl of a more familiar penmanship.

 

 

January 3, 1762

 

Jenny, 

 

I know Hogmanay should be a time of celebration and renewal. For the children's sakes, as well as Jamie's, I try to make it so. But more often than not, I'm only reminded of those last days with you at Lallybroch. Yesterday was eight years since we last saw you and bid you farewell, and every year I cannot help but feel the grief of leaving you and your family behind. 

Forgive me, Jenny, my morose turn. I nearly crumpled the page to start again, but besides paper being far too precious to waste over my own embarrassment, I still long to share my heart with you, my sister, as I once did. But do try not to let it infect your own well-being. 

Enough ink spent on grief. We have a bit of a surprise for you all. Last we wrote in the Summer, you were to expect a new niece or nephew. Well -- and I hope you're seated as you read this -- you've got one of each. Middle of December, Andrew Alastair Simon Beauchamp Fraser and Elizabeth Elaine Maura Fraser gave us all quite a start by appearing several weeks before expected. But all three of us are now well and strong. 

Alastair, we chose in honor of Ian. Call it our never-ending hope that, one day, we shall be back at Lallybroch and wish to avoid the confusion that would undoubtedly result from three Ians in one family and, thus, settled on his second name instead.

Now, of course, our tiny cabin is feeling all the more cramped for seven of us. The necessity of the new house makes itself known every day. Jamie and Fergus had nearly finished before the approach of winter. Hopefully a few more weeks of work after the snow melts will do the trick. With Fergus taking over the cabin then and the new house more than double our current size, we should have plenty of space. (I avoid saying as much to your brother, who even days after the twins arrived mentioned that we now only (only, he says!) have seven more spoons to gift. I love my little brood more than my own life, but -- and I pray as I write that, a mother yourself, you understand -- dear God, I am tired. Four is quite enough, Mr. Fraser, thank you very much.)

Although I think I will miss this little home, packed in here as we all are. On cold nights like this one, I don't think any of us are bemoaning the extra body heat too much. As I write this, Fergus has abandoned his loft to cuddle with Brian and Jules on the cot near the hearth, and Andrew and Elizabeth are tucked in beside Jamie in our own bed. Even Murtagh has come in from his small cottage to enjoy the warmth, even if it means a pallet on the floor with the cat. (Oh, how I wish I could send you the image of Murtagh dozing with that gray furball curled into his side!) 

I hear them all breathing out of time, a discordant melody to my soul. My heart aches with the loving of all of them, Jenny. And of you and yours, as well. 

All my love to you, sister. Write soon. 

 

Claire E.B.R. Fraser

 

 

Frank traced a tentative finger over the signature, eyes glued to that R. A confirmation, it seemed, of her written words to him before leaving through the stones again, the care she had for their time together. For him, even, in some small way. Every page written in her hand contained that soothing letter in her name. He took some comfort in that.

With each page he read, Frank found the tension easing from his shoulders and a weight lifting off his soul. Ironic, how the more he learned of her life there, the lighter he felt. The sun arced across the sky as he worked his way through the remaining clusters of correspondence until there was only one folded sheet left. He leaned back against the boulder behind him, one knee bent with his arm resting on it and the paper held before his face. 

 

 

November 14, 1774

 

Good tidings, Jenny, 

 

Writing this to you fills me with both Glee and crushing Despair. (Let me allay your worries at such a Line: Claire and all the Children are well and hale.) I shall share, first, the poor News. Murtagh is unwell. He's been taken with a deep, rattling Cough for some months now, along with a Pallor that chills me to my Core, Jen. And it has been many Years since his Strength began to fail him.

Claire believes he's not much longer than a Year to live, two with proper Care. He did not seem immensely surprised by such News. I must admit I took it with much less Grace than he. Even now, just to think on it brings me such Pain and Fury as I have not known in some time. 

Terrible as this Revelation is, it does bring me to the Reason for my happiness. You see, Murtagh wishes to step upon Scottish Soil once more before he draws his final Breath (even writing such a Sentiment is a Dirk in my Heart) and to be buried with our Family at Lallybroch. 

Do you yet understand, Jen? Do you know yet why the Tears blurring the Page before me are, in part, borne of Joy? 

Twenty years ago, we rode away from Lallybroch with heavy Hearts, hoping we would someday return but never with more than sheer Faith that it would be so. And now, sister, we will return. You will meet my bairns, and I, yours, Jenny (though, of course, many of them are hardly such anymore).

Claire is nervous, both about Murtagh's fortitude to brave a long sea Journey, but also that Scotland should be safe for us and our Family now. But I fear not. After nigh on thirty Years, I do not worry for my own Safety, nor the Family's. More than that, I feel a certain Peace within me, though, sister, as though blessed with the knowledge of God Himself. He will provide, and protect, and shine his Mercy upon a journey so sacred. Murtagh will make it to breathe in the Scent of Home again. 

This letter may or may not reach You before we set sail ourselves. We plan to take the first available Ship come spring. Claire's brews and concoctions should bring him Comfort until we reach your Shores in the summer. 

Months, Jen. After decades, the wait is now only Months till I shall see you again. I can hardly bear it, but I will with impatient Excitement. I'll speak to you soon, sister. 

 

Your brother, 

 

James Fraser

 

#

 

July 1757

 

The sailors had sensed the first signs of land far before Claire herself could. They'd bustled about the deck for the last hour, their frenetic preparations imbued with some combined relief and elation to finally be arriving after three long months at sea.

Wilmington, North Carolina. 

But now, even with the thick fog that persisted into the midday, she could see it, too. A shadow of a stripe just on the horizon that thickened as they neared. Drawing ever closer, she could now make out the staggered shapes of shoreside buildings. 

Her heart sped watching the horizon come into sharper focus. A sharp kick to her ribs in response had her leaning against the rail. "Oof!" she gasped. One hand supported her body weight while the other massaged the spot of internal attack. 

"Wean bein' rough wi' ye again?" 

Her husband's voice approaching from behind prompted another stutter of her heart, which in turn resulted in another jab (two, actually) from within. "Quite," she answered through her teeth. 

"Hurts, Mama?" 

Claire smiled at her wee man settled on Jamie's hip, arms linked around his father's neck and little fingers knotted together as he held on. Deep brown curls shot through with hints of gold and auburn fell into blue eyes, wide with concern over her discomfort. 

"Not too bad, darling," she admitted, beaming at them both.

With a playful glint, Jamie whispered in Brian's ear. Before she could even narrow her eyes in suspicion, the boys drew up next to her, and Brian smacked a wet kiss on her cheek. The breeze chilled the dampness he left on her face, but she refused to wipe it away. Instead, she returned the favor, smooching over his little face and tickling beneath his chin without mercy as he giggled and tried to shy away, though Jamie's strong arms prevented much of an escape. The sound warmed her straight through like the purest sunlight she'd ever felt. Which only made the baby she carried tumble some more, but she wouldn't have it another way. 

"Feels better now?" her son asked as she finally beat a retreat. 

Two sets of identical blue eyes regarded her, Brian's round with worry and Jamie's crinkled with affection. Her own heart squeezed with agonizing tenderness at how much she loved them. "All better now."

"Give a kiss to the wean, too, lad," Jamie said with a sigh as he lowered Brian to the deck. "Make her feel better, as well."

The boy swung around Claire's protruding belly and, with two pudgy hands framing it, pressing another kiss right on the front of her skirts with a loud mwah. 

"Ye canna kick Mama, ween," he commanded sternly, not quite getting all the sounds right. "An'...an' ye hafta be a laddie, aye? Dinna wanna lass."

"Brian!"

"Peese?" he responded by habit, quirking an eyebrow as the usual answer to his mother's admonishing tone failed to wipe the scowl from her face. 

Jamie could hardly contain his laughter as Claire pressed her fingers against her temples and exhaled loudly, begging the Lord for patience. He hmphed and said, "Och, ye better get used tae the idea of a sister, laddie." He knelt, eye-level to their son. "'Cause that's a lass in there."

The curious tilt of Brian's head reminded her of a puppy hearing a new noise for the first time. It was nearly enough to drive the maternal exasperation from her mind as he asked, "How'd'ee ken?"

Smirking with a conspiratorial glance up at Claire, Jamie leaned in and whispered, "I met her in a dream."

"You did?"

"Aye."

Brian frowned, tiny pink lips and eyebrows screwed together as he thought. "Didja...um, didja dreamin' an' meet me?"

Years ago, Jamie had shared with her many dreams, nocturnal visions that had long haunted him. Of Lallybroch and Fergus. Emptiness and bloodshed. But nothing like this. So when he ran his fingers through Brian's waves, nodded again, and answered with a reverent aye, lad, a surprised chill ran through her. 

"Now, we're almost tae port," Jamie said, standing. "Go find Murtagh and yer brother, a bhalach."

With Brian sprinting toward the door below decks, Claire fell into Jamie's open embrace. His arm anchored itself around her waist, and her head rested in its usual spot at the curve of his shoulder. "Did you really? Dream of Brian back then?"

The motion of his nod brushed against her curls, dislodging one so it fell before her eyes. "I did," he said, tucking the stray lock back behind her ear. "I think I've dreamt of them all, come tae think of it."

"You never told me that."

Sounds of the still-rushing crew filled the silence as he stood beside her, countenance stony. Finally, he said, "Wi' Faith, 'twas too painful. And I never kent -- still dinna, in honesty -- if they were truly her or just my own longin'.

"Wi' Brian, they werena the same as the other dreams from that time. Less...tangible. I didna remember them all afterwards, and didna even realize they'd been of him till he'd grown a wee bit."

"But they were?"

"They were."

She raised her head from his shoulder, meeting his gaze. Familiar grief passed between them before she turned her sights back to the shore. They were close enough to see the piers stretching toward them in the dark water. Her lip twitched as she sighed and pressed a soothing palm into her bump. "So...a daughter, then?"

Some look on her face must have betrayed her nerves. He tightened his grip around her. "Ye ken no matter if it's a lad or lassie, I'm grateful, aye? And the lad will be too, regardless."

"Oh, yes," she answered without hesitation. "No, it's not that."

"Ah," he said as he followed her gaze. "That."

That, indeed. Only starting from scratch again. Only building another life and another home in yet another new place. At least this time, it should be the last one. And it would be well and truly theirs. 

An hour later, her husband guided her down the gangway, her arm laced through his own. Fergus led Brian down behind them, and Murtagh brought up the rear with as much of their luggage as he could manage. 

Claire paused as they reached the end, looking down at the edge of the earth only a step away. Fear and anticipation and hope swirled in her like so much rising wind. 

Jamie's hand found hers and squeezed. Her gaze snapped to his. An earth-shattering smile warmed her, and the confidence he exuded calmed her inner storm. 

"One more step," he breathed against her ear before pressing a gentle kiss to her temple. 

Her pulse slowed, and her fear disappeared. Whatever came next, with him, she'd face it. She never broke from his gaze as, in perfect tandem, they took that final step together. As they always had, as they always would.