“Captain to Doctor Beauchamp. We are T-minus twenty hours from the Romulan Neutral Zone.”
“Understood.” Claire ran a sweaty hand across her forehead as she exited the holodeck.
The next four days had passed much quicker than Claire had hoped. Between her early mornings tweaking and fine-tuning the surgical procedure with Lieutenant Fraser, and her afternoons spent physically punishing her sleep-deprived body, Claire felt like she was floating above herself. Her mind was just as worn as her body, with thoughts untethered a mile above the rest of her—a sensation she’d only experienced once during exam week in Academy. Yet the hardest, most crucial part of the mission was still to come: their trek through the Neutral Zone and consequently their arrival on Alpha Onias III.
One bright spot had existed in her week: the time she’d gotten to spend with Jamie. He’d become a welcome sight in the early morning hours, a quiet companion while she worked, and his good-natured suffering an encouragement as the away team pushed their bodies to their limits during the physical exercises and phaser drills. Claire never thought she’d come to dread time spent on the holodeck, but the recreation of the Alpha Onias III undercity tunnels was enough to make her wary. She breathed much easier stepping out of those dark, ominous tunnels into the well-lit, stark, clean contrast of the Vanguard decks.
Today had been no exception. It was the last day of training; tomorrow, the away mission began and the stakes were high.
Her training suit damp with sweat, Claire brushed her wild curls back. Though she’d pinned them into a tight bun, the rigorous exercise had freed them of their constraints. Huffing both in exhaustion and frustration, Claire leaned against a wall to catch her breath a bit, knowing she was beet-red—she wasn’t exactly in the best shape of her life.
The rest of the group followed suit, exiting the holodeck breathing hard. Endorphins and exercise were typically a good thing, but just now she could see the group was feeling the pressure of the next day.
“Get some food then get some rest, team,” Commander Baxter puffed out between breaths. “We meet at sick-bay early tomorrow so the doctors can outfit us with our disguises. By the afternoon, we will reach the Neutral Zone—you’ll need to be as well-rested as possible.”
The group voiced soft grunts of acknowledgment and began to disperse to their respective quarters. She’d probably follow suit but, for now, she needed to stand still.
“Sassenach, ye alright?"
She smiled at the slightly concerned face of Jamie Fraser. He looked positively peachy, drenched in sweat but in good-enough spirits. She thought back to the ease with which he’d completed all the trials and exercises. He was clearly in the best shape of the entire team. “Yes; just needed a moment to collect myself. I feel like I jumped into the deep end of a swimming pool.”
He laughed. “Ye look it, too.”
“Thanks,” Claire deadpanned.
“I’ve seen water buffalo less soaked than ye.” The twinkle in his eye made her smile.
Leaning up against the bulkhead next to her, he added, “Chief once jumped in the lake and came out in better condition.”
“Chief?” Claire raised an eyebrow.
“The family cat.”
“You grew up with a pet cat named Chief?” Claire found herself laughing at the idea of a domestic cat answering to such an austere, commanding name.
“Aye. And horses. Lallybroch was home to a long line of Duke’s and Chief’s, ken."
Her mind raced past the adorable idea of generations of horses all named Duke to the unfamiliar word he’d mentioned. “Lallybroch? Is that the name of your home?”
Jamie’s cerulean eyes glazed over a bit just then. “Aye, ‘tis.” Claire detected a tinge of sorrow in his voice, but he said no more. Instead, he offered his hand. “Come on, Sassenach. Let’s get some sustenance to stave off the sore muscles. I used to ride a bit, so I ken the perfect cure.”
She took his hand gratefully and hoisted herself up. Or, rather, Jamie lifted her swiftly. As he led the way to the turbolift, she felt her stomach flutter a bit at the ease with which he’d just picked her up off the floor. As she watched him walk ahead of her, she thought that if she were a horse, she’d let him ride her anywhere, too.
She shook her head and blushed a bit. Christ, Beauchamp, move along.
Forcing her jelly-like muscles to move, she caught up with Jamie, who was already holding the lift for her, and stepped in.
Ten Forward was packed, livened by the shouts and cheers of a group celebrating a birthday. Claire recognized some of the officers joining in a raucous round of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” but she and Jamie had decided to leave them to their festivities.
Soon they’d found a quiet table and began a feast of carbs and protein, loading up for the stress of the coming days. They’d chatted generally about their concerns and the away mission, but she was soon back to questioning Jamie about his home, and in return, he seemed captivated by her wilder childhood. They were incapable of silence tonight, and the conversation ranged from his school days as a young child to her life more recently on the Vanguard . Without realizing, almost two hours had passed in their shared company. Claire felt a heavy warmth in her bones, akin to the soothing feeling alcoholic wine brings.
Just now, he was engaged in telling an animated recounting of his first time riding a horse without supervision.
“Lallybroch was a working farm. Gardens, pastures, stables… My Da, being a fairly organized, disciplined man, had ordered us to stay away from the stables unsupervised. But one night, I’d snuck into the barn at midnight, hoping for a wee keek of the stallion my father had just bought. It was a gorgeous devil: coat black as coal with flashes of iron and steel in its bones. Donas was his name. The only horse not named Duke, to my memory.” Jamie laughed, bringing a gust of fresh sea breeze, or endorphins, or wind chimes into the room. “I remember how quiet that night was. The moon was full, but the world was dead silent. Being no more than a lad of eleven myself, I thought I was invincible.”
“Don’t we all at that age?” Claire laughed.
“Aye,” Jamie laughed again. Claire noted how his disposition danced; a light existed in his eyes as he spoke about his home and his childhood.
“Weel, without so much as a second thought, I unlatched the stall door, looped a rope around ol’ Donas’ neck, and swung myself onto his back! The next minute or two was a blur: he thundered so fast I thought my ears would rattle clear off my heid.”
The boy and his horse had made a mad dash towards the open field, when Donas had turned suddenly towards a nearby pond. The horse had come to an abrupt halt, catapulting Jamie into the freezing water.
“I couldn’t swim well, mind ye, and it was pitch black. So, I thought that was it. I kent I was doomed—must ha’ been in that water nearing two minutes before strong hands pulled me up and out. It was my da.”
“Your father just happened to be out by the pond that night?”
Claire caught the small smile that washed over Jamie as he took a bite of his spaghetti dish. “No,” he said. Leaning forward, his mouth curled around his words as his accent thickened. “He’d followed me from the house and made a mad dash after Donas and me. I suppose he figured I’d be up tae something.”
Jamie made a noise in the back of his throat that Claire didn’t quite think was a laugh—somewhere in the realm of a humorous scoff. “We’d all had a hard year, and he was keeping a close eye on us both--my sister, Jenny, and I.” Then he continued, “He rushed me back to the house where she was waiting. They changed me into fresh clothes and tucked me into the warmest room in the house.”
Claire tried to picture the image, but found it difficult. The man before her had surely never been as small and vulnerable as a sopping wet, freezing boy—and try as she might, her mind could conjure no images of a warm fireplace, heavy sheets, or homey spectacle like a brother, sister, and father. She’d been loved, no doubt, and safe too, but ‘home’ had never carried any particular weight with her. Similarly, being an only child, she had no concept of siblingship beyond the academic.
“Was that the end of it?”
“Och, no. The next morning, when I woke up refreshed and warm as could be, my father dragged me outside and made me reap the entire garden by hand. He told me I had tae be more careful as someday it would be only Jenny and me. I never did such a clot-heided thing again—at least no’ until now.”
Claire gave a soft laugh, knowing exactly the sentiment he meant. As Claire took a long swig of her water, she felt a sense of dread settle on her which she was having trouble shaking. This entire week had felt like a blind race, hurtling forward into unknown territory and hoping for the best. She knew better; the Federation and everyone assigned to this mission carried with them essential information and the knowledge of what would happen if they failed. They knew what was at stake, but she couldn’t help but feel a looming sense of helplessness.
She felt Jamie’s eyes on her as he asked his next question. “What about ye? Where did ye grow up?”
“All over, really. My uncle was a xenoarcheologist, so I got to see the quadrant first-hand.”
Claire hummed, as she took a few more bites of her meal. “He loved learning about species on different planets and he had a knack for people—he’d never met a stranger,” she said, smiling fondly at the memory. “In fact, one of his best friends was Romulan. Mekith. It was a bizarre friendship; they were rivals, of a sort, but they became very close. I grew up with two uncles, more or less.”
Claire proceeded to tell Jamie of her favorite memories. Surfing the sulfur waters of Andorian and encountering a fierce storm which had resulted in a humorous lack of personal space and hunkering down in a nearby cave. Getting trapped in a quarantine on Risa after an outbreak of Earth measles and having to spend a week in a resort suite, living on bland food and the entertainment of puzzles. Uncle Lamb discovering a millennium-old hieroglyphic language system on the planet of Ferenginar and Claire’s enormous pride in his accomplishment.
Jamie listened intently, eating up every detail as she spoke, patiently picking at his plate. He enthusiastically asked questions about the worlds he hadn’t visited, eyes swirling with the tales she told him.
“Lamb was happiest when he was on a dig or meeting new people from all over the Alpha Quadrant,” Claire recalled. “I learned so much from him—and Mekith. They’re actually why I joined Starfleet.” A sudden somberness weighed her down.
Claire’s mind brought forth images she’d thought she’d long suppressed. Their temporary apartment on Romulus, visiting as Federation subsidiaries while Mekith attended a family wedding. Walking arm in arm with Mekith through the Romulan Council gardens with the heat of the day dimmed by the green overhang above them. Her sadness at leaving for Earth where Mekith would meet them weeks later. Then her uncle’s red-rimmed eyes as they’d been told of Mekith’s demise, mistakenly shot down in the Neutral Zone by his own people, the result of a miscommunication between the Romulan government and the Federation. The empty messages and condolences from the Federation.
A hot bitterness rose in her throat, and she forced herself to swallow back tears. The Federation did not have her complete trust—and the Romulan government, even less. Even with all the intel the Admiral had provided, all the knowledge the Federation thought they had, things might still go horribly wrong.
“Doctor– Claire,” Jamie whispered, the warm tones of his voice drawing her out of her reverie. “Where’d ye go, lass?”
“Just old memories.” She swiped at the tears building.
“We all have those ghosts.”
“Yes.” With a look at the man across from her, she nodded, remembering his words from earlier in the week. He’d lost people, too.
“Do you–” she began, then cut herself off. His eyes were on her, though, rapt and attentive. She found herself voicing a question she probably shouldn’t, especially to the task-team leader himself, “Do you think we can actually do this?”
A moment passed before he sat back in his chair, eyes still watching her. But his brow furrowed a bit. “What do ye mean?”
Claire sighed. “I’m not sure. Perhaps I just mean– I feel as if we’re rushing recklessly into… I don’t know, something that’s larger than we think. Something– we may not succeed in stopping,” she finally got out and released a heavy sigh. Just voicing this fear let her breathe a bit easier. She hadn’t realized how much she’d needed to say those words to someone.
When Jamie didn’t respond immediately, she felt the urge to suddenly take it back. “Do you not have the same doubts?”
Jamie nodded solemnly, his eyes gazing off into the view outside the windows and his jaw set hard, making his skin stretch taut along his mandible. “Aye, I do. God knows the Federation has been wrong before.” She thought she detected a touch of the same bitterness that clouded her senses. “But this is something we must do—we simply canna fail.”
Claire took a deep breath, searching his face earnestly. Then, she took the leap she’d been wanting to take since they began training. “You’ve told me why you joined Starfleet. Why did you join this task force?”
As his eyes raised to meet hers, a strange energy crackled along her spine. He regarded her for what felt like an eternity. “My father died in the war,” he finally answered.
“I remembered that.”
“We were both stationed under Jonathan Randall.” Claire watched as Jamie rolled his shoulders back, his fingers tapping the utensils in his hand. “He’s responsible for my father’s death—among other things.”
Claire bit her tongue, not sure what to say. Jamie continued.
“So, when the Admiral approached me to join and told me about what she’d learned, I couldna say no. A man like Randall willna stop until he gets what he wants. We will catch him.”
Jamie stood, reaching a hand to help her out of her seat, her sore muscles screaming in protest.
“That’s enough talk tonight, Sassenach. Ye need to be fresh for tomorrow. After all, those disguises willnae make themselves.” He smirked.
“If only,” Claire laughed. They exited Ten Forward with the lively sounds of the birthday party still echoing. As they readied to part ways to their separate quarters, Claire suddenly stopped and touched his arm, noticing his broad shoulders tightening a bit at the contact. “Thank you for sharing, Jamie. It helped. A reminder of why we’re doing this in the first place.”
“Aye,” was all he said, his entire body tense, even if the look on his face was a soft, unreadable one. “Goodnight, Claire.”
He turned to leave, and she couldn’t help but feel a sadness as his presence rounded the corner out of sight. Taking a deep breath, Claire forced her legs to move, looking forward to the softness of her bed and a good night’s sleep. She still dreaded the coming days, but perhaps Jamie was right. They would succeed. Her spirits were already higher after their discussion.