Claire had no notion of how much time had passed since Jamie had left her at the stones.
The day was overcast, the sun nowhere in sight and she knew that she would have to come to a decision soon, or risk trying to find her way back to Inverness in the darkness.
The fact was, she hadn’t realised that there was a choice to be made until Jamie had led her up that hill and she had seen Craigh Na Dun, looming in the distance. Finding her way back to the stones, returning to Frank, had been her goal for so long and now, faced with the possibility of doing exactly that, she was hesitating.
She paced until she grew weary, the soles of her feet aching and the still-healing welts on her back stinging with the movement. With an audible groan, she sunk down to the ground opposite the largest stone — her path home — and immediately felt the damp earth soaking through her skirts.
The journey here had been so difficult, but she was so close now.
A dozen or so steps forward and she could go back to the life she lived before.
But she couldn’t bring herself to move any closer.
Had she not been interrupted by the redcoats the last time she found her way here, she would have fallen through the stones without hesitation.
And if Jamie hadn't brought her here, she would have followed him without question — back to his childhood home of Lallybroch or somewhere else entirely.
Now that she had been offered the freedom of choice, she found that she felt more trapped than ever.
Again and again she glanced between her hands, the bands of metal that represented each of her marriages, each of her husbands.
Silver or gold.
If only the choice were so simple.
She made a list in her mind, tried to count the pros and cons out upon her fingers, hands trembling — not from the cold. She counted, over and over, as the light began to fade from the sky.
It didn’t escape her notice that many of the reasons she had come up with for returning to the 20th century were superficial.
It certainly didn’t escape her notice that the only reason she could come up with for staying was not from the mind, but from her heart.
Hot showers were a luxury — sitting here, the icy cold breeze sending her hair into a frenzy, more than ever she longed for warmth, for heat — but she'd survived on much less during the war.
Jamie. He would heat water over a fire and clean her body with warm cloths and then squirm when she tried to do the same for him.
Electricity was certainly a convenience, as were all the things it could power. Lights and stoves and refrigerators and heaters, but her time at Castle Leoch had proved that these were not necessities one needed to live.
Jamie. They had married by candlelight. He hunted and cooked meals for her over a fire, and it was the heat of his body that warmed her at night.
The clothing of her own time was simpler, left her much more room in which to breathe. But she understood the practicalities of corsets and woollen skirts and appreciated the purpose of each garment.
Jamie. Her highland warrior in his family tartan — the same she wore around her shoulders now, sheltering her from the cold as he had, the very first night they had met.
The future had medical advancements for sure. Vaccines and medication and she wouldn't have to wedge a bundle of old rags between her legs every twenty-eight days and—
She had… she had forgotten to keep track.
Claire closed her eyes, tried to recount the days past in her mind, tried to remember.
It felt as though the air had been knocked from her lungs when she finally recalled the last time she had bled.
She stood on shaky legs, tried to breathe.
Tried to draw in the oxygen.
Took heaving breaths.
And promptly fell to her knees, losing her breakfast.
When it seemed her stomach had been emptied, she wiped her mouth with the back of one hand and she crawled away from the mess. She sat, knees curled to her chest, looking up at the sky.
Tears stung her eyes while bile stung her throat.
This couldn’t be happening, not now.
It wasn’t possible.
But she knew, deep down, that there was no other explanation. She hadn’t bled in almost two months. And even with such definitive proof, there had been other symptoms that had escaped her notice until now. Her body ached, her breasts tender — but she and Jamie were far from gentle with their conjugal activities and she had brushed it off as a result of their frequent lovemaking.
Certainly not a result she had anticipated.
She was pregnant.
Pregnant and about a dozen steps away from leaving the child’s father two hundred years in the past. If she weren’t sitting here, on the precipice of the most terrifying decision of her life, she might have laughed at the irony of the situation. Years — YEARS — married to Frank, trying to start a family and facing nothing but disappointment.
And now —
Four months with a man she hadn’t wanted to marry in the first place.
A man who was stubborn as a bull and loyal to a fault and gave her everything he had.
A man who had married her to keep her safe, vowed that she would have the protection of his body and kept his promise at every turn.
Not just a man, but the father of her child. She sobbed, pressing a hand to her belly, flat even beneath the layers she wore. Not her child — their child.
If anything, the revelation makes her choice all the more difficult. They would be living in constant danger here. With a price on Jamie's head and her own proclivities for attracting trouble, it wouldn't be the safest place, no — time, to bring a child into the world.
Jamie had said it himself, his breath ghosting her cheek as he held her tightly before letting her go.
“There's nothing for you on this side... nothing save violence and danger.”
He was wrong, so, so wrong.
She had wanted to tell him then and there that his words were foolish, that there wasn’t nothing.
He would be here.
He wasn’t nothing to her, he was everything.
She could hear a voice in her head, whispering.
Jamie would protect you, both of you.
But even he couldn’t fight against nature itself. Childbirth was dangerous, and children were more vulnerable, susceptible to diseases. In the 20th century, there would be hospitals and medication in case something went wrong.
Here, they would have nothing but their faith.
She tried to picture it — her and Frank, raising this child together. Would he even agree to take her back, knowing that she had broken their marriage vows and carried another man’s child? Could she bear it, seeing Jamie’s face reflected in their son or daughter, living with the knowledge that he would never know of their existence and they would never know their real father?
The thought of such possibilities made her feel sick. She couldn’t even bring herself to imagine Frank by her side, or holding her baby. But the moment she allowed herself to consider the alternative, what her life might be like should she choose to stay, the images played in her mind like the montages in a film:
Jamie — eyes shining with delight as he felt their unborn baby move within her for the first time, whispering Gaelic endearments to her belly as she carded her fingers through his curls.
Jamie — by her side as she cradled their tiny daughter to her chest, watching in awe as the baby nursed for the first time, still covered in the remnants of her birth.
Jamie — rocking their son back to sleep as he whispered tales of lochs and fairy hills.
Jamie — beaming with pride as their child began to crawl, speak for the first time, learned to take their first steps.
She could see a future for them, here in the past.
Their lives would be far from easy and she had no notion of how they would survive. They might never have a place to call home, but that didn’t matter.
He was her home, and she could be his.
She felt strength anew surge through her body as she pushed herself up off the ground. The sky had grown dark while she was lost in her own mind and she stood, gazed upon the stone that had brought her here, and whispered goodbye to her past. There was no regret when she turned away, only relief — it grew and grew with each step she took, until the buzzing in her ears was no more.
Claire wanted to run, but stumbling around in the darkness over uneven ground was dangerous at the best of times, even more so now that she had something so precious to protect. She was careful with each step, deliberate, pausing every so often to check she was moving in the right direction, following the smoke.
Her mind was a jumble of confusing thoughts and fears. What if Jamie had already left and the trail she was following led her into the clutches of danger? And if Jamie was still there, would he be happy to see her? Would he be happy about the baby?
She could feel her heart pounding wildly as she continued on, the heaviness of her limbs apparent as she continued her way through the darkness. She kept one hand over her middle the entire time, the other clumsily holding up her skirts so she wouldn’t trip. Only the thought of seeing Jamie again after she had thought him gone forever kept urged her onwards, step after step.
Claire could have sobbed the moment she broke free of the clutches of the night and stumbled into the clearing where they’d camped the night before. The fire was crackling, smoke billowing and beside it —
The father of her child.
Light and shadow danced across his face as he slept, silvery tracks of fallen tears upon his skin. His brows were furrowed, jaw tight and the corners of his lips downturned and her heart ached at the sight of him.
She took a series of deep, shuddering breaths and approached, wary of stepping on a stray branch and startling him. Her mouth was dry, her stomach rolling — whether from nerves or a symptom of her condition, she had no idea.
“On your feet, Soldier.”
He stirred at the sound of her voice, the disorientation quickly fading as he realised she was standing before him. His eyes widened, filling with fresh tears as he pushed himself to sit up, his gaze fixed on her face.
She could hear it — the shock and disbelief. The tears began to cascade down his cheeks and she couldn’t bear the little distance between them any longer. Crouching beside him, she reached for his hand, feeling the way he tensed and then relaxed when he felt her touch.
Throat thick with her own tears, she simply nodded and then felt the breath leave her lungs as he captured her lips with his own. She tasted salt and whisky and Jamie, her senses overwhelmed with the latter. He kissed her with passion, desperation.
A spark, the start of a fire, and her, kindling —
The heat between them could set the world alight.
They parted only when the need to breathe became apparent, though neither of them was willing to go far. He kept one arm firmly around her waist, the other reaching up to cup her cheek, the roughened pads of his fingers tracing over the curve of her brow, her cheek, her jaw. She ran her knuckles along the line of his jaw, his stubble scratching against her skin. Her other hand had found its home, palm against his chest, feeling the thrum of his heart.
Jamie looked as though he had much to say to her, much to ask, but he stayed silent, just watching her with that smile — the one that shattered her heart and put it back together, all in one go. Claire wanted to kiss him again, to roll onto her back and demand that he take her, right there, surround her with his warmth and let her surround him with her heat
But first… she needed to tell him.
Gathering her confidence, she managed a small smile and then took one shuddering breath and ripped off the bandage.
The change in his mood was instant.
She felt him tense beneath her, saw the light fade from his eyes, his face going blank, betraying none of his emotions. It took all of her self-control not to instantly bolt. She sat still even as heat flooded her cheeks and fought against the urge to turn away, his reaction leaving her hollow and empty.
There was silence, save for the crackling of the fire, the rustle of autumn leaves in the breeze.
When he finally did speak, she felt a pang in her chest.
“Did ye… did ye come back because of the bairn?”
His jaw was clenched tightly, as though he was fighting hard to maintain control and she knew that she couldn’t allow herself to crumble. She shook her head, blinking back the tears.
“No,” she told him firmly, before recalling the promise they had made to one another. Secrets, but not lies. “Well yes, but not for the reason you might think.”
He nodded, waiting for her to continue, and she leaned in closer, brushing the tip of her nose against his, drawing strength from their proximity. Her recount of the exact thoughts that had run through her mind while sitting at the stones was convoluted at best. She told him about the future, and fought against a smile at the look of confusion on his face.
“There were so many reasons to go, and you were the only thing keeping me here.” Claire paused as Jamie gasped softly at her declaration. “And then I realised you weren’t.” She reached for his hand and pulled it towards her — felt warmth flood through her body as he gently cupped her middle, an expression of awe on his face.
“I would have stayed, even if it were only me and you. I was ready to. When I made the realisation… the choice was even harder. I kept reminding myself that you were right, that the future would be safer, but,” she shook her head, smiling, “All I could think about was you and our child, how great a father you would be, how much I wanted that for us.”
There was more to say, she was sure of it, but her thoughts were lost as Jamie smiled and kissed her once more. She could feel the joy pouring out of him, mingling with her own, but couldn’t resist pulling away and breathlessly asking, “Are you happy?”
He laughed then, his smile so wide it must have hurt.
“Aye, Sassenach. Ye’ve made me the happiest man alive.”
She kissed him then, wound her fingers into his curls. He ran his tongue across her bottom lip and she sank her teeth into his and only when their mouths were bruised from the need to taste one another did they pull apart.
Both exhausted, mentally and physically, they curled up on the ground together and whispered sweet nothings to one another. Claire tucked her face against Jamie’s neck, the line of her body pressed against his. The two of them fit together in a way she could not even describe, and for the first time ever, she allowed herself to feel whole.
The fire had long since died when she woke the next morning, but she was warm.
They had shifted in their sleep; her back was now flush with Jamie’s front, his breath hot against her cheek, his thigh wedged between her own. That was not so strange. What was peculiar, was that his hand had somehow found its way beneath her ruined gown and rested flat against her middle, his thumb tracing circles upon her skin.
She had half a mind to tease him for it, but instead settled back closer into his hold and placed her hand over his, through the fabric.
It was too easy — lying here like this — to let the world fall away. But they couldn’t stay here forever, and while she had little clue whether their journey would take them in the end, she knew where they could begin.
“Take us home to Lallybroch.”