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.
"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?"
"Yer husband among them?"
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."
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."
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.
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."
"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.
"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."
"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.
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.