His body felt every bit of his forty-five years of age as he gracelessly chased the squealing toddler around his shop. Ever since she had learned to walk just before her first birthday, her tiny yet chubby legs propelled her everywhere she desired to go. His clothes were covered in soot after a long day of printing, but that didn’t stop him from trying to make her laugh as loudly as possible, even though he knew her mother would have words for him for getting the tiny mischief-maker’s dress dirty.
“Mo chuisle, a leannan, I’m coming for ye!”
She shrieked in delight at his teasing and her running proved futile as he scooped her up in his arms. He kissed her relentlessly on her cheeks, realizing that although her dark curly hair would likely hide any trace of his failure to clean up before taking her into his arms, her dirt-covered face would nevertheless give him away.
He heard a sudden gasp from above, and his eyes immediately locked with those of a young woman standing on the balcony overlooking his printing press. With fiery red hair peaking out underneath the hood of a plum cloak, her eyes conveyed a haunting sense of familiarity that he struggled to rationalize.
Realizing it was no longer just him and the wee spitfire, he cleared his throat and adopted a somewhat professional demeanor. “Good evenin’, can I help ye, mistress?” He adjusted his grip on the bairn, who currently had her arms wrapped tightly around his neck as if holding on for dear life, and propped her on his hip. As he walked up the stairs towards the visitor, his mind began to fight against the frighteningly supernatural sense that overwhelmed his thought process: You know this lass.
“I—” she started, seemingly unable to decide how she wanted continue her sentence. “I....it’s you two that I’m looking for.”
Confused by the stranger's direct statement and the unusual accent formulating her words, he briefly glanced down at the whisky eyes innocently staring back at him before focusing back on the woman.
“I’m sorry, mistress, but ye've caught me by surprise. I’m no’ sure what ye mean.”
"Are you Jamie Fraser?"
Now at a closer distance, he studied the blue in her familiar eyes as her gaze met his, its steadiness undermined by the lass's wringing hands.
"Aye," he confirmed along with a nod, further unsettled by this visitor's acknowledgment of his name. "Are ye in need of somethin' from me?"
The confidence in her stare vanished as she took a step back. Her clearly evident nerves began to take a toll on his own heart rate, but he didn’t want to further scare the poor lass. She looks so much like my mother, he fleetingly thought, hoping that the eerily similar physical comparison adequately explained why goosebumps had slowly traveled down his arms from the moment he saw her.
“Have ye a message for me, lass?”
January 1764, two and a half years earlier
“Pardon?” I nervously blurted out, reaching my hand to gently touch the shoulder of the delivery boy that looked as if he might know about Jamie’s whereabouts. “I’m looking for a printer. Mr. Malcolm. Alexander Malcolm?”
“Aye!” he answered, his eyes reflecting his immediate shift from confusion to recognition. “He’s located at the end of Carfax Close, which’ll be the first on yer left.”
With that quick confirmation, my heart froze. I realized that I had long been preparing myself for the likelihood that I’d reach a dead end in my quest to find Jamie — that my hope of finding him would never truly materialize, but would instead remain within the four corners of the copy of the printed poem firmly grasped in my hands.
After thanking the boy and watching him walk away, I took a deep breath to steady myself. It seemed almost pointless to do so at this juncture, as my racing heartbeat and shaking hands indicated that I wouldn’t be leaving this stage of adrenaline anytime soon. I grabbed my glasses from my coat pocket and placed them on the tip of my nose, fondly remembering that Brianna had been the one to pick these out for me and my tiring eyes a few years ago.
Frank had died in a car accident ten years after Jamie sent me back through the stones. Ironically, I was on the clock at the local hospital on the same night he was brought into our emergency room. As I left a final check-in with a patient whose surgery had thankfully produced no complications, I heard a soft “Claire” come from Joe, my dear friend and colleague. The fact that he called me by my Christian name and not the playful Lady Jane nickname that he had based solely on my apparently posh accent was the first warning sign. The second stemmed from the tone in which he said my name — the same tone that we, as young doctors, learned to adopt when communicating tragic news to worried loved ones.
“It’s Frank,” Joe continued. “He was brought here after paramedics discovered him at the scene. It was a car accident. He— he was dead on arrival. I’m so, so sorry, Claire.”
I still remember nothing between the moment after Joe broke the news to me and the realization of finding myself sitting in a cold, narrow, echo-filled room with white-tiled walls and a standard linoleum-patterned floor. Sitting next to a body, laid out on a metal stretcher, that once held my first husband’s charm, intelligence, disdain, fatherly instincts, resentment, and grief-filled and eventually unrequited love for me.
As I carefully studied Frank’s face for what I knew would be the last time, I grew paralyzed by a wave of conflicting emotions. A sense of love for him that had undeniably evolved over the past thirteen years, beginning the moment I first traveled through the stones during our second honeymoon in Scotland. It was a love that was no longer romantic, but instead nostalgic and supported by a foundation of likely undeserved gratitude towards him. A deeply-rooted pang of guilt for never completely re-immersing myself in the reality of Claire & Frank — a guilt that stemmed from the belief that, in my inability to irreversibly shut the door on the most powerful thing I had ever experienced, I let both Jamie and Frank down. A heart-shattering realization that Brianna’s tenth birthday would be her last with the man she lovingly knew as her father.
However, the feeling that came the most naturally at that moment was the one I would deny the quickest. A feeling that would stay buried, never to be recognized again. Relief. Frank’s passing released the verbal muzzle he had placed on me when we started our new life together. I had lived a decade without uttering a single word or phrase that could reasonably be traced back to Jamie Fraser. I had tried to apply the same rigor of mental training I developed in medical school to the inevitably futile task of wiping my memory clean of any treasured memories of my life with Jamie. I had remained complicit in the heartbreaking lie regarding Brianna’s parentage. I had fulfilled every requirement of Frank’s cruel conditions, and now I was free.
Seven years after Frank’s passing, I was back in 1764, glancing down at the paper in my hands and skimming the already-memorized words printed by one Alexander Malcolm. A. Malcolm, Jamie’s pseudonym in Edinburgh — a discovery made by Roger Wakefield, a young historian that Brianna and I met during a week in Scotland that changed both of our lives. Shortly after her fifteenth birthday, I took Brianna to Inverness and told her everything about her father. Jamie Fraser. The man who destroyed his own heart for our protection. The proud Highlander who, until a month ago, I believed had died on the battlefields in Culloden.
Brianna and I had carefully rebuilt our collective history over the two years following that fateful trip, a process filled with questions she asked that I never hesitated to answer. We slowly accepted Jamie’s fate as part of our own familial narrative, but the curious Mr. Wakefield never did. He kept researching, kept venturing down promising paths — which is how I found myself, on Christmas Eve in 1965, with unimpeachable proof that Jamie was still alive. He had beaten death in battle and in prison. He was a free man, working as a printer for the main newspaper in town, The Edinburgh Advertiser.
This earth-shattering discovery resulted in a month-long campaign of constant encouragement from Brianna for me to go back and find Jamie. The thought had undeniably crossed my mind the second it registered that Jamie was alive in his own time, but I never seriously considered the possibility of returning to him until my daughter — our daughter — began making the ultimate push. Joe and Gail unconditionally vowed to take care of Brianna, both of them having been let in on the secret of my strange journey back in time (which included a blunt observation from Joe himself: I always knew Brianna had so much of you and so little of Frank).
Brianna never failed to remind me that she would miss me. That bittersweet tinge was constantly present in her voice, even when she would quip about how she was “all grown up” — how she wanted me around, but didn’t need me like she did when she was younger. But she always ended each remark with the same conclusion: Jamie gave you to me, now I’m giving you back to him. And you get to tell him everything about me. At the end of January 1966, I made the journey two-hundred-and-two years back in time, carrying nothing but a small and hidden arsenal of modern-day treasures and necessities that I could never leave behind.
She weighed heavily on my mind as I turned onto Carfax Close. Our beautiful daughter, the perfect creation of my and Jamie’s lives. Brianna was the one reassurance that my years with Jamie were true and undoubtedly mine. I brought pictures of her with me, tucked safely in one of my many pockets, and I prayed that Jamie would want to see them. I had no idea what his life looked like now, but I hoped that I was still enough for him.
At the heart of Carfax Close, I spotted a wrought iron sign dangling in front of a tall wooden staircase that led to the shop’s entrance. A. Malcolm, Printer, Edinburgh Advertiser. My heartbeat quickly traveled up into my eardrums as I stretched out my hand and gently touched the black letters of the name. Jamie’s name.
A. Malcolm. Alexander Malcolm.
Removing my hand, I forced myself up the stairwell before the frayed thread of courage keeping my will together had the chance to snap. Once I reached the shop entrance, I removed my glasses and nervously patted down my wild curls one more time before shoving open the heavy oak door.
Jamie yelled in frustration as he fought with his incredibly stubborn printing press. He had arrived just after dawn to begin his daily routine of printing several hundred copies of advertisements and essays for The Edinburgh Advertiser. However, he hadn't accounted enough time for the lever to his main press deciding to jam; so he sent Geordie, his assistant, off to find some tools. The lad had been gone for more than an hour when Jamie finally heard the entrance doorbells chime, and he sighed in much-welcomed relief.
“Took ye long enough, now get down here if ye would and help me.”
When he heard neither a verbal confirmation nor the man's usual speedy footsteps approaching, Jamie took a moment to stretch out the temporary hunchback he had developed in the battle with the lever jam. Satisfied with the melody of cracks that rippled down his aching back, he began to kneel down when he heard the words that would irrevocably change his life once again.
“It isn’t Geordie.”
No, he thought. That can’t be her. I’m imaginin’ her voice. I’m goin’ mad.
“It’s me.” A pause. “Claire.”
With his back turned away from the visitor, he shut his eyes tightly and took a few calming breaths. Keep it together. This is just another one of yer dreams. Ye’ll make it through. Just turn around. Nobody will be there, and ye can get back to reality.
Real or not, that pleading voice was forever a siren call to him, and he mentally prepared himself for heartbreak as he turned around. What he saw rendered him speechless.
A Dhia, she was so beautiful.
Her dark brown curls framed the same delicate glass face that he had fallen in love with almost twenty years ago. The golden eyes that he knew all too well contained the same combination of nervousness and hope that was reflected in her half-smile. They were both frozen at the root, neither of them wanting to budge out of fear that their eyes were truly deceiving them.
Never breaking eye contact with him, Claire — or, at this point, a dangerously real vision of her — slowly descended the stairs and approached him. As she drew closer, Jamie saw the faint lines framing her eyes and mouth, reflecting a life undoubtedly hard-fought. She stopped about five feet away from him, having reached a self-imposed physical barrier, and he quickly realized that he hadn’t said a single word since setting his eyes on her.
Swallowing one more time, as if to physically remove the ball of nerves constricting his voice, the corners of his mouth lifted slightly.
“Sassenach, is it truly you?”
Seemingly rendered speechless herself, Claire’s smile reached its full wattage as she moved closer and covered his left hand with both of hers. Her hands sought the silver-tinted “C” scar she had imprinted on him as a reminder that their life together was truly theirs. Her watery eyes followed the movements of her thumbs, gently tracing the scar, back and forth. Flinching as though an electric spark had passed between them, any notion in Jamie's mind that Claire was merely a vision induced by long days with little sleep immediately shattered.
“You’re real,” he whispered. “God in heaven, you’re real.”
“So are you,” Claire softly uttered in response as she met his eyes, tears escaping her own. “I—I thought you were dead.”
Jamie pulled her hard against him as they collapsed onto each other. They were both shaking, and neither could have said how long they sat there on the soot-covered floor, tears of longing spilling down both of their faces. Eighteen years apart had not erased the familiarity and rightness of having Claire in his arms, and Jamie found himself silently praying Gaelic pleas as he drew her closer to him — Lord, thank ye for bringing her back to me. Please dinna let this be for a moment, but instead for forever. I canna live without her.
“Don’t be afraid,” Claire whispered softly against his chest, likely sensing the irrational fear in his tight grip. Those words harkened Jamie back to their wedding night, the rush of memories culminating in his strange response of a mix between a choke and laugh.
Stroking her cheek, he rested his head on top of hers, finishing that soothing reassurance he had told her all those years ago.
“There’s the two of us now.”