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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."