Teaser : Maggie Mackenzie unwittingly reveals Fraser's deepest secret.
Disclaimer: Due South characters belong to Alliance. Twisted ideas belong to me.
Rated: NC-17 for explicit sex, adult language, and some violence.
Pairing: BF/RK with some brief RK/Other thrown in purely for the squick factor.
Warnings: Contains graphic depictions of male/male sex. Major angst alert. Asymmetric relationship alert (and advance apologies if that bothers anyone).
Specific Spoilers for: "Call of the Wild," "Hunting Season," "Burning Down the House," "Strange Bedfellows," "Victoria's Secret," "Mountie on the Bounty," "The Ladies' Man," and "Dead Men Don't Throw Rice."
Thank yous: To WP, Maxine, and Mirna for beta above and beyond the call of duty. You have my deepest gratitude, my friends.
Note: I have done my best to adhere to the final fates of the various characters, as set out in Call of the Wild. (If I've played a tiny bit with the facts, the timeline, and the geography of that episode, well, please consider that poetic license.) I have also attempted to achieve accuracy in my descriptions of Places I Have Never Been. Mistakes are failures of research and/or imagination, and I will gladly accept corrections from Those More Knowledgeable Than I.
And finally: You'll notice that the seasons of the heart lag behind the seasons of the globe. It happens that way, sometimes.
After snowfall, the landscape is transformed. The old landmarks vanish, unrecognizable to the untutored eye. The snow covers everything with a blinding and sometimes treacherous beauty, but the land beneath it remains solid and firm as it ever was, the hidden depths sheltered by the blanket of glittering crystal, the streams and lichens and tundra and trees all frozen for now, but waiting patiently for the thaw.
Part I: Snowfall
Maggie Mackenzie's cabin had two rooms. The bigger public room -- with the wood-burning stove, the table and chairs, the sofa, and enough backwoods-type equipment piled in the corners to keep half a dozen Yukon types alive for years -- and the smaller, private room where she had her bed. At least, Ray thought it was smaller. He hadn't yet set foot in it. But he wanted to. He knew that much. He really wanted to.
"So you and my brother are on quite an adventure," Maggie said. She bent to stir the pot of stew or whatever it was she was cooking them for dinner. Fraser was out splitting firewood, and it was the first time Ray had been alone with her since they'd arrived, two days before.
Maggie looked as good as she had in Chicago, with her long blonde braid and her bright, intelligent eyes. Maybe better. It was enough to make a guy worry about getting tongue-tied. "Yeah, I guess we are."
Maggie flashed him a friendly smile. "So how did he talk you into it?"
"Oh, he, uh, he didn't. I mean, it was my idea," Ray said, smiling back. Crazy though that was, it was true. "See, we got stuck in this crevasse, and we figured we were gonna die, so I started babbling, you know, like you do when you got nothing better to do. I said I wanted to go on an adventure. A real adventure. And then we got rescued and Fraser was nuts enough to take me seriously."
"Oh, I hadn't realized that. Ben made it sound a bit different."
Ray couldn't tell if she was impressed that it had been his idea, not Fraser's. "Yeah, well, he has to put up with me trying to keep up with him, so I guess he kinda forgets I asked for it."
Maggie smiled again and shook her head. "He didn't talk about it that way, either, Ray. As a matter of fact, he's quite impressed with you. He says you've adapted extremely well to the climate and the exercise."
Ray felt a warm glow spreading in his gut. Fraser had said that about him. Fraser wasn't just putting up with him. "I guess you were, uh, you were talking about me."
Maggie set her spoon down and gave him an amused glance. "The subject did come up." She went to the cupboard and took out plates to set the table with.
Time to make himself useful. Ray went and got out silverware from the drawer Maggie had shown him yesterday. "Did he say anything else about me?"
"Not in words," Maggie said.
That was a weird thing to say. Ray looked up from arranging silverware to see Maggie eyeing him across the table, like she was trying to see through him or something. It was odd, but then, Fraser looked at him that way sometimes, too. Maybe it ran in the family.
"He's lucky to have you," Maggie said. "You mean a great deal to him."
It was the closest thing to an opening he was likely to get. "Yeah, we're tight. I mean, he didn't complain when I kissed his sister, right?"
There was a loud clatter as Maggie set the stack of bowls she was carrying down on the table, hard.
That didn't look good. "Did I say something wrong?"
"No, no, of course not." Maggie distributed the bowls to each of the three place settings. "That is, I'm glad you and Ben are close. It's good to have you both here for a visit."
Well, she didn't hate him, anyway. Ray sidled around the table. "Look, I, uh, that is, I was thinking maybe we could, you know, talk a little, get a chance to really know each other, and . . ."
He never got a chance to finish. The cabin door opened and Fraser came in carrying an armload of wood. Sheesh. Fraser had the worst timing of anyone he knew. It was almost as bad as when Fraser had interrupted him kissing Luanne Russell. Or the time he'd knocked on Stella's door right when things were getting hot and heavy. Of course, he hadn't interrupted the kiss with Maggie, but that was because they'd pre-empted him by making him turn his back, first.
"What's the matter, you get tired of playing lumberjack?" Ray asked, not a little sourly.
"Oh, no, Ray." Fraser looked perfectly innocent, like he had no idea he'd interrupted anything. "I just finished the wood pile." He bent to set his armload in the box beside the stove. "Maggie, I stacked it along the north wall of the shed. I believe you should have plenty to last you to the thaw."
"Thanks, Ben." Maggie smiled at him. "I've been meaning to get to the bottom of that pile all winter, and here it is April already."
"It was my pleasure," Fraser said, and his smile looked like he really meant it. Like chopping firewood for Maggie Mackenzie was his idea of a grand old time.
No. Stop. Can that thought. Maggie was Fraser's sister. There was nothing to be jealous of. "You need anything else on the table?" Ray asked.
"It looks like we're all ready," Maggie said, and gestured for him to sit down. "Ben, if you'd take off your coat . . ."
"Oh, of course. Right," Fraser said, like he'd forgotten he was still wearing it. He left his coat and boots on the rack by the door and came over to sit next to Ray.
Ray couldn't help himself; the words were out before he stopped to think about them. "Uh, Fraser, I think that's Maggie's chair."
But Maggie just smiled and shook her head as she leaned across to ladle stew into their bowls. "Nope, I'm sitting on this side. That way I can get up without climbing over one of you."
Having her climb over him didn't sound so bad, but Ray didn't have the nerve to say that. There was something going on, something he didn't quite understand. All he knew was that if he wasn't careful, he wasn't going to get a chance to even talk to Maggie before they had to leave.
Maggie finished dishing out stew and sat down herself. "So tell me about your plans," she said as she sat down. "Where are you going next?"
Ray let Fraser handle that and tasted the stew, which wasn't half bad. The truth was, he didn't really have a clue where they were going, and he didn't much care. He didn't even care if they found Franklin. All he cared was that he was away from Chicago, away from Stella, and he didn't even miss it.
The quest was sheer craziness. He knew it. Fraser knew it. But Fraser didn't seem to care, either. Fraser was . . . mellow, out here in the wilderness. As if, for the first time since Ray had met him, he was truly happy.
"Well, it all depends on the weather," Fraser was saying. "We're hoping to head east along . . ."
East, west, this far north Ray didn't know the difference. It was like when Fraser had been explaining about maps and compasses up here, about how you had to adjust your compass reading by a certain amount to account for the difference between magnetic north and true north. He'd said, "Fraser, if this isn't true north, I don't know what is," and Fraser had grinned back at him and left off with the esoteric stuff.
It felt good, being up here. It was pleasant spending nights around a campfire, actually listening to Fraser's stories and sometimes telling a few of his own. Riding the dog sled over the endless snow, or running along beside it when he got cold, or they needed to lighten the load. He was fitter than he'd ever been, after only a few weeks of it. He felt great.
Or, at least, he had felt great, up until two days ago, when they'd arrived at Maggie's cabin just outside Inuvik. That was when things had got complicated.
"The ice roads won't hold out more than another month," Maggie was saying. "Not with this warm wind blowing."
"Warm?" Ray said. "You call this warm?"
"Practically balmy," Fraser said. "Surely you've noticed the difference these past few days. It was up to five below today."
Oh, right. These past few days. The problem was, Ray hadn't noticed much of anything these past few days, ever since Fraser had casually said, "Let's visit Maggie," and he'd remembered he had a sex drive.
He'd been attracted to her from the start, when he'd first seen her in Chicago. There had been something amazingly familiar about her, something he hadn't recognized until he'd found out she was Fraser's sister. Of course, he should have known it would be something like that when he saw her licking things. If ever there were two people meant to be brother and sister, it was Fraser and Maggie Mackenzie.
"Ray," Fraser was saying. "Ray."
"Yeah," he said, and tried to remember what the conversation was about. Oh, yeah, weather. "Uh, I guess I didn't notice the weather today 'cause I wasn't out there on the sled."
"True enough," Fraser said, and he smiled around the eyes. Not a laughing kind of smile. Just a warm one. The kind of smile that made Ray happy to be here, and to be Fraser's friend. The kind of smile that made him really, really want to not screw it up with Maggie, because if he did he could hurt Fraser, too.
"You're setting off tomorrow, then," Maggie said.
"If Ray agrees," Fraser said. "Much as we appreciate your hospitality, it would be prudent to be on our way while we still have good, solid ice."
Good ice? Was there such a thing? But Fraser undoubtedly knew what he was talking about. "Okay, yeah. We could go tomorrow." Even if that meant he wasn't going to have a chance with Maggie. "Um, maybe we could come back, you know, later, when we've finished the quest thing."
"You're always welcome here," Maggie said, and Fraser said, "Thank you, I'd like that, too."
It made Ray feel better. So maybe he'd blown this chance, but there would be more. And Maggie kind of liked him; he was pretty sure of that. He just didn't know if it went any deeper than that.
Ray sat back in his chair and set his spoon next to his empty bowl. All in all, he was happy to be here. He wasn't complaining.
Fraser got up and put another piece of wood into the stove. It felt good to be home. Good to be with Maggie, getting a chance to know her. Good to be with Ray.
He was still astonished that Ray had chosen this quest. He would have thought Ray had had enough of rough terrain and ice fields, but somehow, somewhere along the way, Ray had to all appearances started to enjoy himself. It was utterly unexpected -- this was the same Ray who had once told him he got a skin condition if he left the city -- but Fraser wasn't going to question it. He would take Ray's company as a gift, a gift to be deeply treasured but not examined too closely.
There was a single kerosene lamp burning, and in the soft light Maggie and Ray's faces shone with warmth and good feeling. Even Dief, curled up on the rug at Fraser's feet, seemed content just to be here. "So that was when my mother decided I was old enough to learn to trap for myself," Maggie was saying.
Ray laughed appreciatively, and Fraser smiled, too. Maggie was a natural storyteller, and her tales reminded him of his own childhood. He'd be happy listening to her all night, but there were other considerations. Ray had agreed to leave tomorrow, and with the spring break-up threatening to come early, they needed to make the most of every day's travel.
Fraser got slowly to his feet. "Well, I hate to say it, but I'm for bed. We should make an early start in the morning. Ray?"
Ray looked up at him. "I'll, uh, I'll be with you in a sec."
"Of course." Fraser busied himself with getting ready for bed, brushing his teeth at the basin and removing the outer clothes he was wearing over his long johns. He could hear Ray and Maggie still talking, but they had lowered their voices to a murmur, out of consideration for him, no doubt. Fraser settled down onto his bedroll on the floor. He'd given Ray the couch, not sure which was the more comfortable option, but Ray hadn't seemed to mind last night. And Ray would always have the choice of joining him on the floor if he so desired.
Right. Fraser rolled over onto his side, facing the room. Maggie and Ray were on their feet now, and Maggie bent to pick up the lamp, carrying it with her toward her bedroom. Ray said something to her, close to her ear. And then the two of them went into her bedroom and closed the door behind them.
Something squeezed tight in Fraser's heart. He wasn't jealous. He couldn't possibly be jealous. He ought to be happy for them if they were going to find happiness together. Ray was already family. If he developed an attachment to Maggie, logically speaking, it could only strengthen that bond.
But somehow, logic had nothing to do with this feeling. He hurt, with an ache in his heart that was part loneliness and part self- recrimination. He wanted . . . things he had always known he could never have.
He'd been fine, out there in the wilderness, traveling with Ray. They'd spent days together on the sled, nights around the campfire, and he'd kept his control so well he'd barely even thought of it. But then they'd come here to Maggie's cabin, and all the old feelings had welled up again.
He had to fight it. These feelings were his problem, not anyone else's, and certainly not Ray's. It was just the change in routine unsettling him. Once they were back on the sled he'd be fine.
But right now . . . right now he wanted Ray with a longing that made his chest ache. He wanted to hold Ray in his arms, to hold him close and look into those storm-blue eyes, and then ease forward the last few centimeters to kiss those mobile, expressive lips -- lips that were chapped right now, but maybe he could ease their soreness a little, mouth to mouth. He remembered what Ray tasted like all too clearly, from the one time he'd covered Ray's mouth with his. They'd been underwater, of course, which had undoubtedly affected his perception, and they'd been sharing air, not actually kissing, but Ray had tasted even better than he'd imagined. And now he wanted to taste him again, to see if it was different on dry land.
No. He shouldn't be thinking like this. It was dangerous, and unfair to Ray. If he didn't watch himself, he'd let something slip, a word, a facial expression, and Ray would see it.
Fraser swallowed hard and shifted positions, rolling over flat on his back. The more he allowed himself to think this way, the more it would feel like a lie, when he saw Ray next and didn't say anything. He had to get control. He had to take these wild, inappropriate feelings and compress them, squeezing them into a single, tiny point of desire that he could hide in a corner of his heart and maybe, possibly, someday manage to ignore.
He was home. He was with Ray. It should have been enough, but it wasn't.
"So this is about Ben, eh?" Maggie asked as she closed the door behind them. Her bedroom was practically a closet, but it was cozy in the lamplight.
For a moment Ray had no idea what she was talking about. "What?"
"The thing you wanted to talk to me about. It's about Ben?"
"Oh." He looked down, suddenly uncomfortable. He had been so sure she'd caught his meaning when he'd suggested they talk in private. "Uh, not really." He looked up into her concerned face. "I was hoping we could, you know, talk about you and me."
"I see," Maggie said. "Ray . . ."
"Yeah?" He didn't know how to read her expression.
She reached out to touch his arm, rubbing her hand up and down his biceps. "I really like you," she said simply. "I hope we can be friends."
"Yeah, me too," Ray said. "I just, well, I guess I was hoping that we could, you know, be more than that."
Maggie's face fell, and he knew in that instant that he'd blown it. Blown it for good. "I'm so sorry," she said softly. She rubbed his arm again. "I never meant to mislead you. It's just that when I knew you in Chicago, I had no idea that . . . " She trailed off, looking down.
"I guess I'm not your kind of guy."
Her eyes came up, searching his face. "No, Ray, I find you very attractive. Please understand. It's just that I could never do that to Ben."
Say what? "Uh, Maggie, don't you think that's a little weird? I mean, he's your brother."
"Excuse me?" Maggie looked genuinely confused. "Oh, no, no, Ray. I'm certain that Ben's feelings for me are nothing but brotherly."
"So, c'mon, what's the problem? You think he wouldn't approve? Like I'm not good enough or something?"
"No, I'm sure he would approve," she said, but she still wasn't making any sense. "I just don't want to hurt him."
If she hadn't been a girl, he would have been about ready to pop her in the head. Sheesh, she could be as confusing as Fraser. "So he approves and he's not, uh, you know, about you, so what's the big deal?"
Maggie looked away and bit her lip. "I wasn't talking about his feelings for me," she said softly.
"Then who . . . ?" Oh, no. She couldn't possibly mean . . . but she did. He could see it in her face that she did. "Look, we're not, I mean, Fraser and me, we're just buddies. We're not . . . um, whatever it is you think we are."
Maggie looked taken aback. "Then he hasn't said anything."
She looked up into his face. "About his feelings for you."
"Look, he does not have feelings for me, okay? I mean, not those kinds of feelings. Trust me, I would've noticed."
Her face had gone pale. "Forgive me. I shouldn't have said anything."
Her expression cut right through his denials. There was no way it was true. It couldn't be. But it was also pretty obvious she believed it. "Did he tell you something? C'mon, what did he say?"
But Maggie just shook her head wearily. "He didn't tell me anything in words, Ray. He didn't have to. I could see it in his face when he was talking about you."
Okay, she was going on her gut, here. So which one of them knew Fraser better? Yeah, sure, Maggie shared some blood. But she'd met Fraser once, in Chicago. Ray had spent two years working with him, two years when they'd gotten into a lot of tight positions together. Two years when . . . oh, God. Fraser had kissed him. He'd called it buddy breathing at the time, but lips had met lips.
Shit. He did not want to go there.
"Look, I think I know him a little better than you do, okay? If you want I can ask him straight out tomorrow. Then we'll see who's seeing things."
Maggie's tight expression went, if anything, tighter. "There's no need to ask on my behalf. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said anything. I -- I'm sure you're right, and I'm just misinterpreting."
"Okay, then," he said, but it wasn't okay. "Um, good. I guess I . . . I'll just hit the sack."
"See you in the morning," Maggie said. And then, without any prompting from him, she stood on tiptoe and kissed him on the cheek. "He's a good friend to you," she said. "Whatever else he may or may not feel."
"Yeah, I know," Ray said. "I . . . " He didn't know what to say. "Uh, g'night."
"Good night, Ray," Maggie said, but her face was still tight and worried.
He made his way out into the main room, doing his best to remember where everything was, so he wouldn't trip over Fraser. A part of him wanted to wake Fraser right now and ask him outright, but that was stupid, because it was impossible, anyway.
There was no way Fraser had the hots for him. They'd just spent weeks out there in the snow, and Fraser had never shown any signs of being, well, interested. Hell, they'd even shared a sleeping bag one night, the time it had been blowing so hard they couldn't see more than a few feet in front of them. He would have noticed if Fraser had been getting any weird ideas. Besides, he'd seen Fraser kiss the Ice Queen good-bye, the night before they caught Bolt and Muldoon. If Fraser had the hots for anyone, it was her.
Ray managed to find the couch without kicking Fraser. He stripped out of his outer clothing, dropping it all on the floor, and curled up in the blankets that were waiting there for him. Maggie was confused, he was sure of it. Fraser would explain it to her in the morning, and everything would be all right.
Ray looked oddly innocent in the soft lamp light, with the blankets tucked up under his nose and his hair half spiky and half tousled. He didn't look like someone who had climbed mountains, fallen into crevasses, fought gun-runners, and learned to drive a dog sled all in the last few weeks. He looked vulnerable and very, very dear. Fraser indulged himself, allowing himself a few more seconds to watch Ray sleep. It would be weeks before they would have the luxury of a warm morning again, and it was a welcome respite to be able to look into Ray's sleeping face without having to be alert for signs of frostbite.
Without warning, Ray's eyes opened, staring right up into his. "Good morning," Fraser said, trying to keep the blood out of his cheeks. Ray didn't know he'd been watching. Ray had had his eyes closed.
"Is it?" Ray asked, and sat up. He yawned and looked around grumpily, like he hadn't had a particularly restful sleep.
"Morning? Yes, it's almost six."
Ray stretched, long and graceful like a cat. "Not that. I meant, is it good?"
"Ah. Well, the weather has turned clear and cold, so we won't have to worry about the ice, and Dief and the dogs are well- rested. All of that seems good."
"Fraser, that was one of those, uh . . ."
Ray rubbed his eyes. "Yeah." Then he looked up, and his expression was no longer just early morning grumpiness. There was something else there, some real worry. "Look, Fraser, I gotta ask you a question -- not a rhetorical one, a real one -- and I know it's gonna sound dumb, but I gotta know, okay?"
"You can ask me anything."
"Yeah, okay." Ray shifted in his seat on the couch and ran a hand through his tousled hair, further mussing the soft spikes. He was fully awake now, awake and clearly unhappy about something. "I just wanted to know, uh, if you got, you know, feelings for me."
Fraser's heart froze. It meant what he thought it meant. It had to. Somehow Ray had seen it, despite how hard he'd tried to control himself. "Of course I have feelings for you," he said gently, though his pulse was racing and his blood was ice in his veins. "You're my friend, Ray." None of which was a lie.
"Not that kind of feelings," Ray said. "I mean, you know, feelings."
Fraser knew. He knew all too well. But he still couldn't find the words, because the moment he found them, his world was going to fall apart. "Ray, I'm not sure that I . . . that is, I think perhaps --"
"Just say it, Fraser. Yes or no? Are you in love with me?"
In love. Two little words that meant his universe, and meant the end of it. But he couldn't lie, not even for this. Fraser found the strength to move lips and tongue and say in a voice that was more of a croak, "Yes."
"Oh, geez." Ray stared at him, then leaped to his feet and paced the length of the room. "This is some kind of joke, isn't it? You and Maggie are pulling a fast one on me."
Fraser almost wished he were capable of saying yes. "No, Ray," he said softly.
Ray's eyes were wild. "So what're you saying? You wanna fuck me?"
The coarse word hit his ears like a blow. "Well, I don't exactly think of it in those terms, Ray, but --"
"Shit," Ray said, and turned away from him. "Damn it all to fucking hell."
Fraser bit his lip and said, though he knew it was utterly inadequate, "I'm sorry."
"Oh, that's great," Ray said. "That's rich. You're sorry." He was standing facing the opposite wall, hands raised like he wanted to hit something. "Well, sorry doesn't cut it, Fraser. This is not the kind of thing you can say you're sorry for."
There was nothing Fraser could do except stand there and take it while he was dying inside, breath by breath. "I know," he managed. "I . . . I'm afraid I don't know what else to say."
Ray's back twitched, and when he spoke his voice shook. "I thought we were friends."
It cut to the core that Ray could doubt that. "So did I," Fraser said. "I . . . value our friendship very highly."
Ray turned to him, his face a picture of hurt and loss. "Oh, yeah. I bet you do. You value it so highly you want to jump my bones."
Fraser winced. "Ray, I --"
"What were you going to do, wait until we were out on an ice floe a million miles from nowhere? Take me out there where I can't survive without you and then make your move? That's sick, Fraser. That's, that's --"
"No," Fraser said, too horrified to wait for Ray to finish. "I would never do that to you."
"Oh, yeah? Then when were you going to tell me?"
Fraser hung his head. "I wasn't."
"You weren't," Ray repeated, and stared at him.
"I imagined you would be happier not knowing."
Ray shifted on his feet. "So you were just gonna keep going, go off on this stupid quest with me, and not say a word? Damn it, Fraser, I shared a sleeping bag with you!"
"If we hadn't, you might have died," Fraser said. "I couldn't take that risk."
"Yeah, but I bet you enjoyed it."
Fraser bit his lip. He couldn't deny it. At some level he had enjoyed the chance to be so close to Ray, to sleep wrapped in his warmth and wake right next to him. But it hadn't been particularly difficult to control himself that night. He'd been concerned about the storm, and grateful for the shared warmth that told him Ray was safe. It had been enough, that night. He hadn't wanted anything else. "Ray, I --"
"No. Don't go there. I don't want to hear it." Ray crossed the room, passed right by Fraser, and sat down heavily on the couch. "I thought you were straight," he said. "I thought you had a thing for the Ice Queen."
Fraser straightened his shoulders. "Inspector Thatcher and I have a purely professional relationship."
"That why you were kissing in the middle of the Mountie camp? C'mon, I was there, Fraser. I saw you."
He swallowed hard, discomfort now piled on top of the pain. "There has been a certain amount of . . . mutual attraction between us," he said. "But I never, that is, since I . . . I mean, I was never actually in love with her. I have fallen in love only twice in my life."
"That bank-robber chick?"
"Her name was Victoria."
"Oh, yeah. Victoria. Right." Ray bent forward and rubbed his temples. "I don't get it. You usually dig chicks, but now you got the hots for me? That makes no sense, Fraser. You been out on the ice too long."
"I'm afraid this happened well before our journey north," Fraser admitted.
Ray squinted up at him. "Oh yeah? How long? You just wake up one morning and decide, 'Hey, I want a piece of that'?"
Oh, dear. He didn't want to confess this part of it, not with Ray acting and feeling the way he was. But Ray had asked. "I believe it was love at first sight."
"Oh, geez." Ray scrubbed his face with his hands. "You mean, you . . . ? Oh, God."
"I was confused that day," Fraser explained, not sure if Ray wanted to hear it. "I was looking for Ray Vecchio, and I found you instead." He swore he'd felt the air crackle as Ray had turned around -- the energy was that obvious, in a split-second's appraisal. And then Ray had hugged him. That had been the true genesis: something as simple as an unexpected hug when he was feeling lost, with his best friend missing and his apartment burned to the ground. He'd needed a hug . . . and Ray had given him one.
"So what you're telling me is it wasn't ever a real friendship. You were on the make from day one."
"The friendship was real, Ray. I . . . I was never 'on the make.'"
"Yeah, 'cause you knew I'd pop you one if you ever tried anything."
"Well, I knew it would hurt you."
"Oh yeah, you think you know everything, don't you?" Ray jerked to his feet, his hands balling into fists, his expression gone wild. "I should do it. I should just pop you in the head. For thinking about me like that. For . . . for ruining everything."
Fraser felt a lump rise in his throat. He couldn't deny any of it. He couldn't even defend himself, because he didn't want to hurt Ray any more than he already had. He lifted his chin and waited for the blow.
"Ray, don't," Maggie's voice said.
Ray whirled, and Fraser turned, too. Maggie was there, standing by the stove. She'd been outside, earlier, doing chores, but she'd obviously come in awhile ago, because she had taken off her coat and boots. So she'd heard some part of the conversation, which would explain why her face was so white.
"What's it to you?" Ray asked savagely.
"It's everything to me," Maggie said. "Ben, I'm so sorry."
Fraser shook his head, not trusting his voice.
"I thought Ray knew, and then I was so surprised when he didn't, I didn't stop to think," Maggie said. "Forgive me."
"I should have been the one to tell him," Fraser managed. "I should have done it a long time ago."
"Oh, yeah," Ray said softly, but his expression had changed from wild to miserable. "You should've."
"What do you want to do, Ray?" Fraser asked softly. He wasn't sure he wanted to know the answer. Whatever it was, he was certain that it didn't involve him.
"I don't know," Ray said. He scrubbed his face with his hands. "I really don't know."
"Inuvik has an airport," Fraser told him. "There are daily flights to Yellowknife and points south."
"You want me to go back to Chicago?"
"I think you should do whatever you need to do. If you'd like me to leave while you stay here with Maggie, I can do that, too."
Ray lifted his head slowly. "You mean, leave, like go out for a few hours, or leave, like take off for good?"
The first option was deeply tempting, but he knew better. Ray needed space, and a great deal of it. And if he were gone for good, Ray would be able to sort out his feelings for Maggie, as well. "I meant something more or less permanent."
Ray stared at him, his face unreadable, and for a moment Fraser almost dared to hope. But then Ray looked down again. "Yeah, okay."
The ice in Fraser's heart spread tendrils of frost through the rest of him until it filled him, body and soul. "All right, then," he said. He bent to pick up his bags where he'd left them, packed for travel. His coat was by the door.
"Where will you go?" Maggie asked.
Fraser pulled the coat on and set his hat on his head. "I don't know," he said. And then, because that wasn't fair to her: "I'll be in touch."
"Thank you," she said, and came to give him a quick hug. Her face was furrowed deep with guilt, and he wished he could say something to ease that, too, but he couldn't think of anything. Fraser straightened as Maggie pulled away.
Ray was still standing by the couch, looking hurt and lost. It was hard to look at him, but Fraser couldn't look anywhere else. This might very well be the last time he ever saw that haunted, beautiful face. "I'm sorry we didn't get to finish the quest," he said.
Ray met his eyes. "You know, it's funny. I don't really give a damn about the quest."
"I won't ask your forgiveness," Fraser said. "I'll just say good- bye. It was a pleasure being your friend."
"Yeah," Ray said. "I . . . me, too. Fraser, I . . ."
"I'll miss you."
It wasn't much, but it was something. Fraser swallowed the lump in his throat that felt big enough to choke him. "As will I, you, Ray."
"Uh, take care of yourself. Don't mess with any polar bears out there."
He had to go. He had to go now, or Ray would see him cry. "Good- bye, Ray," he said, and stumbled out the door.
Fraser had the hots for him. It still didn't seem possible, but it was true. Fraser had the hots for him, and Fraser was gone.
Ray turned to face the wall, biting the inside of his cheek and fighting back the tears that were prickling his eyes. He'd cried in front of Fraser once, after the thing with Beth Botrelle, and Fraser had done exactly the right thing, rubbing his neck and patting his shoulder. Fraser hadn't gone all mushy on him. He'd just been there.
And now, damn it all, Fraser had him questioning that, wondering about his motives that night. But if Fraser had had a thing for him then, why hadn't he done anything more? Ray had been so low that night, he probably wouldn't have protested anything. But Fraser hadn't taken advantage.
Ray bit his cheek harder. In some ways it would be easier if Fraser had taken advantage. Easier to believe all this, anyway. Because he still couldn't see it, even though Fraser had made himself pretty clear. He had a hard time imagining Fraser wanting to screw anyone, let alone him. Fraser always seemed so stiff, so controlled.
"Ray," a soft voice said.
He turned to find Maggie next to him, her face still pale and drawn. "I guess you hate me now," he said.
"No," Maggie said, and touched his shoulder. Almost, but not quite, like Fraser. "I just wish . . ."
"What, that I was like him or something?"
"No, just that I hadn't been the one to tell you."
"Do you want to talk?"
"I don't know." He didn't, not really. The only thing he wanted was to have things back the way they had been. To have Fraser here, and be buddies. To know Fraser cared about him -- as a person, not as some kind of sex thing. Only it had never really been that way; he'd just thought it was. "I guess I better go back to Chicago."
"Is that what you want to do?"
"I don't know."
"You can stay here if you'd like."
He looked up at her and tried to smile. "Uh, thanks, Maggie. I just . . ." It wasn't that he didn't like her. He still liked her a lot. But there wasn't going to be anything going on between them, not now. It wouldn't have felt right, with Fraser gone. Nothing felt right now.
He was completely lost. He didn't know who he would be if he went back to Chicago alone. It was Fraser who'd made him proud to be a cop, Fraser who'd helped him learn to deal with living without Stella. Fraser had made him feel strong and smart, and they'd gotten the partnership thing down, the one where they only had to look at each other and make the barest of hand signals, and they each knew exactly what the other needed.
He was going to miss that. He already missed it like hell. And he wasn't sure he wanted to go back to being the Ray Kowalski who was just Ray, not Fraser-and-Ray.
But it didn't look like he had much of a choice.
"I gotta go back," he said. "I'm sorry."
"We're all sorry, Ray," Maggie said.
"Yeah, I know," he said. There was nothing more to say.
Part II: Frozen
It was like swimming through fog, like nothing was real anymore. Ray walked into the 27th District police station from the parking- lot side entrance the way he had a thousand times before, but it felt completely wrong.
"Vecchio!" a voice said in greeting. Ray didn't know who it was, and didn't bother to look over. "What the hell are you doing here?"
Vecchio. Only he wasn't Vecchio any more. Vecchio was the name he'd had when he was partners with Fraser. "It's Kowalski," he said.
"Oh, yeah, right. Kowalski. Good to see you." The voice faded into the background as Ray pushed through the doors and out into the corridor.
"Ray!" That was Frannie, doing a major double take. For a moment her mouth just hung open. "What are you . . . ?" And then her mouth hut and her face fell. "Oh. So I guess you heard the news even up there in the frozen north, huh?"
News? From the look on her face, it wasn't good news. "Frannie, what news?"
Frannie waved a hand. "Oh, you know. That thing about my brother and your ex-wife running off to Florida."
"What?" She couldn't be talking about Stella. Not his Stella and . . . Vecchio? Hell, she hadn't given him the time of day when he'd been Vecchio, why on earth would she . . . ? No. Stop. He had to think clearly.
"Well, you know how it is," Frannie prattled on. "We were all so worried about you guys, and we had to sit around, waiting for news, and they kind of started talking, and it was, well, actually, sickening was what it was, but I guess they hit it off or something. Is Fraser with you?"
"Uh, no," Ray managed, though his heart was sinking into the pit of his stomach. He didn't need this. Not on top of everything else. "He, uh, he stayed up there in Inuvik. So they went to Florida?"
"Yeah, they were talking about opening up a bowling alley, if you can believe that. Is he going to be coming back, like maybe to visit or something?"
A bowling alley? That didn't sound like his Gold Coast girl at all. "Uh, no. I mean, not that I know of. Are you sure this isn't some kind of joke or something, Frannie? 'Cause, you know, Stella was never real big on bowling."
"Yeah, that's the funny part. Neither was my brother. I guess they decided they wanted to do something really different." Frannie looked up and down the corridor with exaggerated disdain. "Not that I can blame them for that." Her eyes came back to Ray and went serious. "Was Fraser okay when you left him? I mean, he's happy up there?"
Oh, God. That was not a question Ray wanted to answer. "He's fine," he said, too firmly. "Hey, he's Fraser. He likes it up there."
"So I guess he doesn't really miss Chicago, then."
"Not that I could see," Ray said. And then, suddenly, he knew he did not want to be here talking about Fraser with Frannie. "Look, could you tell Welsh I'll be in to see him, like, tomorrow?"
Frannie frowned. "You don't want to talk to him today? He's in his office."
"Uh, no thanks." He was going to lose it if he stood here talking for one more minute. "Just tell him, okay?"
He turned and pushed his way past an incoming crowd of men in chef's hats, being arrested for something undoubtedly vital to Chicago's law and order. Frannie was watching him go, he could tell that, even in the confusion of all the white uniforms. But he couldn't explain himself. Stella was with Vecchio. And he'd thought he was over her, had thought he was over the jealousy thing with Vecchio, too. Until this.
Damn it all, he needed Fraser. The thought was formed before he could question it, but it was true. If Fraser were here, he'd be telling some dumb Inuit story, something about a caribou on a mountainside or maybe Loouuuu Skagnetti, and suddenly it would all make sense and Stella running off to Florida wouldn't hurt quite so much.
But Fraser was up there in the Frozen North, missing him for all the wrong reasons. Fraser wanted to do weird things to his body. And Fraser, damn him, had wanted to all along, every time he'd ever told an Inuit story or talked about friendship or . . . or saved his life with that buddy breathing thing.
That was the worst part, now that he had too much time to think about it, the fact that Fraser had kissed him. Well, okay, Fraser hadn't actually slipped him tongue or anything, but he'd locked lips to lips. And then he'd lied, when Ray had asked him if anything had changed between them.
Ray made his way out into the parking lot and got into the GTO. The problem was, part of him still remembered what Fraser had tasted like: lake water, mostly, but there had been something else, too, something that was probably really Fraser. A sweetness in the air Fraser had breathed into him. Nah, that was his imagination, from being so close to giving up and gasping and breathing in water instead of air. Any air would have tasted sweet. It wasn't Fraser.
Something red caught his eye, and he realized where he was. Right in front of the Consulate. He'd driven over here on automatic pilot, like he'd thought he could find Fraser here. Only the red wasn't Fraser, it was Turnbull, standing guard.
Ray hit the accelerator and burned rubber heading home. Christ, he was in worse shape than he'd thought. What could he possibly have been thinking? Fraser wasn't here, and Fraser had betrayed him. As bad as Stella had.
Right, Stella. Stella was off in Florida, whooping it up with Vecchio. It still didn't seem possible, but then, her thing with Orsini had seemed pretty weird, too. But at least he'd had Fraser, then, to help him cope.
For a moment, he almost smiled. Fraser, Mr. Impeccable Manners, himself, had opened a car door right into Orsini -- on purpose, for him. But that only meant . . . no. There was no way he could figure Fraser had done that for selfish reasons. What could he have hoped to gain? It wasn't like Orsini was a rival -- if Fraser would've seen anyone as a rival, it should have been Stella. But Fraser had always been perfectly polite to Stella -- Fraser had, in fact, defended Ray's actions to her. Anybody looking at it would've said Fraser was asking her to give Ray another chance.
Damn. Even now that he knew Fraser's secret, the man still didn't make sense. Ray sighed and pulled into a parking space in front of his apartment building. He didn't really want to go upstairs and be alone with the noise in his head, but he didn't have much of a choice, either. He wasn't Ray Vecchio anymore. He wasn't Ray-and-Stella. He didn't know who he was, apart from someone who went home alone, and he didn't like that part. Didn't like it at all.
He climbed the stairs to his floor and fumbled for his key, finally getting it in the lock and turned and the door open. Home sweet home was a wreck, as usual. No, worse, because he hadn't done any dishes or picked anything up off the floor since he'd gotten home a week ago.
He tossed his coat on the couch, picked the empty (oops, no, not quite empty, but turning a fuzzy shade of green) pizza box off the floor and set it on the coffee table, cleared away a pair of socks and a t-shirt, and pulled back the rug. A CD was already in the player; all he had to do was turn it on and let the music wash over him.
The figure in his arms as he moved was Stella, always Stella. She was so light on her feet, like dancing with air -- okay, it was dancing with air, but air was what he had. He turned and swayed to the music, feeling the rhythm in every pore, giving himself up to it completely.
It wasn't enough. It was never enough, but it was all he had.
"It's all right, boy."
Dief whined and licked Fraser's face, which probably meant he was crying again. He was to the point where he barely noticed any more, except for the one night when it had been so cold the tears had frozen in his lashes. If it weren't for Dief and the other dogs, he probably wouldn't be alive right now, simply because he no longer cared whether he took care of himself or not. But the dogs needed food and shelter and a safe path over the ice, so for their sake, he'd tried.
He'd gone west from Inuvik, not east, because he couldn't bear the thought of continuing the quest without Ray. He'd ended up here, in the end, not through active planning, but because Dief knew the way. His father's cabin was gone, but the barn still stood. It was enough to provide some shelter for the dogs, and a barrier to at least some of the wind.
Fraser bent and added more wood to the makeshift stove he'd constructed from an old oil barrel. The dogs shifted around him and Dief settled back down on his haunches, watching him.
He'd gone over the site of the cabin earlier, while it was light. There were still ashes, scattered under the snow, from Victoria's fire. He'd meant to rebuild, but he'd never found the time. There had always been something else, some suspect to track -- murderer or litterbug, it had always been urgent at the time, far more urgent than rebuilding a cabin he had no plans to live in.
But he had time, now. He'd taken four months' leave, intending to spend it on the quest, and he had no other obligations to fulfill. The thaw was coming fast; already the snow underfoot was soft and heavy. It was a good time for construction. And maybe, just maybe, the hard physical labor would help him forget his battered heart.
As if anything could.
"It wasn't his fault," he told Dief. "It wasn't Maggie's fault either. I knew better, I just . . ."
"I know," Fraser said, and the ice closed in on his heart once again. "I know."
"Ray Kowalski, this is your new partner, Dan Jerrit."
Ray made himself stick his hand out. No point starting off wrong, even if he didn't want a new partner. Jerrit had a clean-cut, square jaw and a solid physique, but his resemblance to Fraser ended there. His hair was medium brown, short and straight, and he had tough guy written all over him.
"We've met," Jerrit said, and squeezed his hand in an iron grip. "Good to see you again."
"Um, yeah." Ray extracted his hand, wondering if there was anything broken, and tried to remember. Oh, right, the Van Zandt case. They'd brought in Jerrit to fool a couple of Van Zandt's flunkies into ratting him out. It was the only time Ray had ever had real contact with the guy -- the rest of the time, he'd just been one of those people you saw around the station but never actually got to know.
"I want you two on the Randolph case," Welsh ordered. "I want you working together like a well-greased engine."
"Oh, right, greased," Ray echoed, trying not to be smart, and not really succeeding. Welsh was a good guy, a fair boss, and most of the time not even a jerk. But right now Ray really wasn't in the mood for being ordered around.
Welsh gave him a look that said he was pushing it, but let it go at that. "You can spell Hoover and O'Brien on the stakeout."
"We're on it, sir," Jerrit said.
"That the late shift?" Ray asked.
"You got a problem with that, Detective?"
"Uh, no, sir." He didn't, not really. He wasn't sleeping much these days, anyway.
They walked out of Welsh's office together. Ray let Jerrit get a little ahead of him, hoping he could manage to avoid a conversation. It wasn't that he had anything against the guy, he just really wasn't in the mood right now. But Jerrit turned and saw him lagging.
"Want to get a coffee?"
He was trapped, nowhere to go. "Yeah, okay, sure."
Jerrit drank his coffee black and unsweetened, which, considering the state of the coffee, was a clear sign of bravery. Ray dumped three packets of sugar into his own and went to sit down opposite his new partner.
"So how does it feel to be yourself again?" Jerrit asked. "I guess you were undercover quite awhile."
"Two years," Ray admitted. It wasn't exactly his preferred topic of conversation, but he plowed on. "And it's, uh, it's okay. Some days I still forget and start to answer the phone Vecchio."
Jerrit took a swig of coffee without grimacing -- either he was a real stoic, or he'd been drinking the stuff so long he had no taste buds left. "They say a lot of times undercover cops get so used to the lifestyle they miss it when they come back out."
That was a pretty weird thing to say. Ray took a sip of his own coffee and had to control the urge to wretch. Instant made with tap water would've been better than this. "Hey, it wasn't all that different for me. I mean, I was playing a cop. No big deal."
"You were working with the Mountie. That's not the usual gig."
Damn. Why'd he have to bring up Fraser? "Uh, yeah. He's kind of an unusual guy."
Jerrit gave him a speculative look. "I heard you two were pretty tight."
"We got along okay," Ray said warily.
"Sounded like it was a bit more than that. Sounded like you were best buddies off duty, too."
What was this, some kind of nudge-nudge, wink-wink thing? "Hey, he hung out with Vecchio. I was just doing my job."
"What's the matter, he have bad breath or something?"
Oh, geez. If Jerrit only knew. Ray pushed himself to his feet and picked up his mostly full cup of coffee. "Look, Fraser and me, that's ancient history. Water under the bridge. Day-old salad. Could we talk about something else?"
"Sure, whatever." Jerrit got lazily to his feet and gave Ray a captain- of-the-football-team grin. "So what's this about your wife running off to Florida with Vecchio?"
That was it. That was the kicker. Ray set his cup down hard, splashing coffee all over the table, and closed in on Jerrit. He grabbed a handful of shirt. "You wanna make something of it?"
"Hey, hey, hey," Jerrit put his hands in the air. "No offense, buddy."
Right. No offense. This guy stuck his foot in his mouth so often, he ought to have a black belt in yoga.
And then he flashed, somehow, to what Fraser would say to that: Ray, I think you mean karate. I don't believe there's any form of yoga that awards black belts.
Ray closed his eyes. Fraser wouldn't approve of him hitting Jerrit no matter what the provocation, and somehow that still mattered. He forced his fingers to let go of the thin fabric of Jerrit's t-shirt. "Okay," he managed. "How 'bout we just talk about the case?"
"Fine by me," Jerrit said. He still had that smug expression, and for a second Ray almost regretted not hitting him. And then he took a second look. Damn. Jerrit was bigger than Fraser, and completely muscle-bound. Not the kind of guy he'd want to be taking on if he had any brains left.
Which, apparently, he didn't. "I better clean up this mess," Ray said, and went to get a paper towel to mop up the spilled coffee.
Sitting on a stakeout with Jerrit was as bad as having coffee with him. No, worse. They were in Jerrit's car, because he'd insisted, and they'd run out of things to discuss about the case more than an hour ago. So now they were sitting there in silence, chewing on gum and trying not to fall asleep.
The assignment was pretty simple, anyway: old-fashioned surveillance of the boring kind. Made all the worse because the guy they were after seemed to have the social life of a pet rock.
"So the rumors don't bother you," Jerrit said, apropos of absolutely nothing.
"Rumors about what?" Ray asked, even though he wasn't sure he wanted to know. Another of these foot-in-the-mouth things, and he was going to go ballistic.
"Oh, it's nothing. You, know, just people wondering why you came back from the Great White North early. And alone."
Damn. This was worse, ten times worse, than the cut about Stella. But Ray couldn't help himself; he had to know. "So, uh, what're they saying?"
"Oh, just what you'd expect. That you and the Mountie had some kind of falling out. I mean, not everybody thinks it was a lovers' quarrel."
Shit. Ten times worse? Try a couple million. "Hey, it wasn't like that. We weren't . . . I mean, that is so totally wrong, it's stupid."
"Really? So it's not true that you came on to him and he turned you down? Cause that's the way I heard it."
Was it possible to kick somebody in the head from a bucket seat? "Look, I said it wasn't true, okay? No way I would come on to him. I'm not that kind of guy."
Jerrit just grinned, and Ray had to clench his teeth to keep from slugging him. "Hey, we're talking about the Mountie, here. It doesn't matter what kind of guy you are."
That . . . made no sense. "What, uh, whattaya mean?"
"Oh, come on. Don't tell me you never noticed. A guy like that . . . hell, he could probably convert half the guys on the force just by batting his eyelashes."
The world canted a hundred and eighty degrees. Jerrit's earlier comments suddenly seemed a bit less judgmental. "I didn't realize you were . . ."
"Gay? Nah. That's what I'm saying. I've never wanted to screw a guy in my life, but if it was the Mountie asking, well, I'd have to reconsider."
"Sheesh." Ray stared straight ahead and chomped on his gum. "Well, it wasn't like that, anyway. We just . . ." He racked his brains for a suitable lie. "It was this dumb thing about his sister." There. That was almost a Fraser-lie, the kind where you told the truth, but the other guy got confused.
"Is she as good-looking as he is?"
"Almost," Ray said, and realized it was true. Maggie was pretty, real pretty. But Fraser was beautiful. "I, uh, I kinda put the moves on her when I shouldn't have."
"And he hit the ceiling? Protective brother."
"Yeah, I guess he is. It just wasn't good, after that, so I decided to come home."
"So you didn't get the guy or the girl."
"No, I did not."
"Too bad," Jerrit said, without making clear which he was referring to.
"Yeah, I guess."
"Shit happens," Jerrit said, and then fell silent for awhile.
Ray leaned back in his seat, careful not to look over at his partner. He couldn't believe what Jerrit had said. Not just the rumor. That thing about Fraser. If it was the Mountie asking, he'd have to reconsider. What was that? Normal guys didn't think like that, did they?
Ten minutes went by, and nothing stirred in Randolph's house. But after ten minutes, Ray couldn't take it any more.
"You really think he's that good-looking?"
Jerrit raised his eyebrows. "Who?"
Damn him, anyway. "Fraser."
Jerrit grinned, like he'd known who he was talking about and just wanted to make him say the name. "It's not just about looks, you know. You saw how many people turned out when they thought he was dead."
"Yeah, I remember." He'd thought they were all nuts for believing a dumb rumor. But he'd been half scared Fraser was really dead, himself. And damn relieved when he wasn't.
Jerrit turned to scan the street before looking back over at Ray. "But, yeah, he's that good-looking."
"So you would . . . I mean, if he asked you, you'd actually do it?"
"Hey, I'll try anything once."
Damn. That was something he had said once, to Fraser. The problem was, at the time he hadn't actually been thinking . . . well, it just hadn't occurred to him that Fraser might be interested.
"Of course, I don't really think I'd be his type," Jerrit said.
His type? Ouch. That was not someplace Ray wanted to go. "Fraser doesn't have a type."
"You're sure about that?"
"Well, if you say so. I mean, if anyone would know, it would be you."
It was almost an insinuation. Almost, but not quite. And given the recent direction of the conversation, Ray really didn't want to push it. The last thing he wanted to hear was that Jerrit had been speculating about Fraser's feelings, too.
"Trust me on this," he said. And then, suddenly, he couldn't take it anymore. He had to change the subject, because if he didn't, he was going to crack and really pop Jerrit one, and he still had enough sense to know that that was a really bad idea. Ray shifted in his seat, staring out the windshield like he was actually interested in the case. "So, you think there's any chance Randolph's gonna show tonight?"
"Not much," Jerrit said.
"That's what I figured."
Ray hunched down in his seat, settling in for the long haul. He didn't bring Fraser up again, and mercifully, neither did Jerrit, but he couldn't shut his brain off quite as easily. It was like having a CD set on replay, and with every iteration he hated the music more. He didn't want to think about Fraser. It hurt too much. But he couldn't seem to think about anything else.
There was a woman in front of him: he could see her long black hair, but he couldn't see her face. Ray wanted to say something, anything, to make her turn around, but his mouth was frozen. He tried to reach forward, to touch her shoulder, but his arm wouldn't move. And then he heard a voice -- Fraser's voice -- shouting, "Victoria!".
Ray sat bolt awake in bed, drenched in sweat. His alarm clock said nine twenty-three, and it was light out, which meant he'd had less than three hours of sleep. Damn.
Why the hell had he dreamed of Victoria? He didn't even know what she looked like, because there hadn't been a picture in Ray Vecchio's files. It was Jerrit's fault, for talking about Fraser having a type. Oh, yeah, great. Just what he wanted to think about: what did he have in common with a bank robber chick, that Fraser could fall in love with both of them?
His body had that peculiar heavy feeling that said not enough sleep, but his head was jangling, now. No way he was going to get any more shut- eye. Ray rolled out of bed and headed for the shower. He wasn't due at work until noon, but he didn't know what else he wanted to do.
Under the warm spray of the shower, the dream came back to him. That feeling of being paralyzed, unable to speak or move. He hated that. And hated worse the idea that maybe his subconscious was trying to tell him something.
Oh, yeah, like what? That he was going to go rob banks and then come back and break Fraser's heart? It was too late for the second thing, anyway, since he'd already gone and done it.
Damn. He turned his face to the spray, screwing his eyes shut and just letting the water run over him. It wasn't his fault he'd broken Fraser's heart. Fraser should have known better than to fall in love with him. It wasn't like he'd ever encouraged it, at least, he hadn't meant to.
But he had. He knew he had, now that he'd been thinking about it for a week. There was just something about Fraser -- not his looks, like Jerrit had said last night -- but something else that had made him trust Fraser from the moment they met. Something that made him want to make Fraser like him. So every time they'd had a meal together, every time Fraser had thanked him for something, every time they'd shared a look, or a pat on the shoulder, or a grin, Ray had felt all warm inside. And Fraser had known it, too; he was sure of that.
Even if he hadn't meant to, he'd been leading Fraser on.
Damn it. And now he was thinking about Victoria, because best he could figure, she'd led Fraser on, too. Or maybe she'd had other motivations, too; he couldn't be sure. Her profile had been pretty sketchy in Vecchio's notes, like Vecchio had been leaving stuff out, on purpose. But there had to be some way to find out about her.
Ray turned for a final rinse and then shut off the water. If he wasn't going back to sleep anyway, he might as well do something. Besides, he had to know. Whatever Victoria had meant to Fraser, he had to understand it.
But an hour later, going through files on Frannie's computer at the 27th, he wasn't exactly feeling enlightened. There were details, lots of details: it looked like she was wanted for murder one, and still at large. But there was nothing in the files to say that Fraser had loved her. He'd got that from reading between the lines in Vecchio's notes, and he didn't have Vecchio's notes anymore. The only person who would really know was . . . Vecchio, himself.
No, that was nuts. He couldn't just . . . but he needed to know. He looked up to find Frannie returning with a cappuccino. "Hey, Frannie," he said, before he had time to think better of it. "You got your brother's phone number somewhere?"
"Sure, Ray," she said. Then she seemed to catch on to what he was asking, because she tilted her head and really looked at him. "What do you want to talk to him about?"
Oops. Time for another Fraser-style lie. "It's about a case."
"Oh. You mean the nerve-gas thing?"
"No, it's another one. An old case, nothing you would've heard about."
"Well, actually, I happen to know a lot about Ray's old cases. He used to come home, you know, and talk about stuff he was doing, and --"
"Frannie, the number?"
"Okay, okay, I'm getting to it. Sheesh, some people." But Frannie mercifully leaned across her desk and scribbled something on a piece of paper. She was dressed surprisingly conservatively today, and she looked . . . almost fat. It was odd. He'd never thought of her as plump, before. In fact, he'd always thought she had a damn good figure. Funny, you went away for a month, and the whole world changed. "Here you go," Frannie said, and then tipped her head. "You wouldn't be planning to mention me when you talk to him, would you?"
"Uh, no, not really."
"Oh. Well, good. I mean, that's great. Because I'd really appreciate it if you wouldn't mention my, um, condition to him. Cause, you know, I'd really rather tell him myself."
"What do you mean, 'condition'?"
"That's funny, Ray. See how I'm laughing? Promise you won't tell him."
"Tell him . . . ?" What, that she had put on a couple of pounds? That didn't hardly seem . . . and then he took a good look at her. Oh, geez. She wasn't fat. She was pregnant, and pretty obviously so. "Oh. Uh, congratulations, Frannie."
She smiled. "Thank you."
"So you're . . . you're cool with this? You're happy?"
"Who, me?" She gave a laugh that didn't sound entirely sincere. "Of course I'm happy."
"You don't, uh . . . you don't miss Fraser?"
Frannie's voice went brittle. "Fraser? Why would I miss Fraser?"
He didn't have to push any further. He got the picture, even if he didn't know who the dad was. It obviously wasn't Fraser, and Frannie wished it was. "I'm sorry, Frannie."
She wiped surreptitiously under her eyes. "Sorry about what?"
"You know, for going away with him."
"Well, it wouldn't have been so bad if you'd stayed up there."
That couldn't mean what he thought it meant. "What?"
"You left him alone, Ray. What's he supposed to do now? How do you think he feels? You have some dumb argument and you take off? That's just so . . . so guy-like."
Whoa. He had no idea how she'd figured that out, because he certainly hadn't told her. Damn. "He's not alone. He's got his sister."
"It's not the same thing, and you know it. I mean, I'm sure she's a very nice person, but Fraser needs someone to love."
Oh, geez, she did understand. She understood better than Jerrit or anyone else had. "I'm sorry, Frannie," he said again.
"I'm not the one you should be apologizing to."
"Yeah, I know." Damn. He knew all too well. "Look, I . . . I better make this phone call."
"You do that," she said, and turned back to her desk.
Ray wandered over to his own desk -- Ray Vecchio's old one, which was his by default since Vecchio had left. He couldn't believe that Frannie knew, and didn't seem to blame him for it. That she was, in fact, mad at him for leaving Fraser.
He wanted to go back and argue with her, but it wasn't the place or the time. And right now he had less than an hour before he was supposed to be meeting with Jerrit.
He sat down in his chair, picked up the phone, and dialed the number.
Damn. There was one thing he hadn't anticipated, and it had more thorns than a rose bush in full bloom. "Uh, hi, Stella."
"Ray?" Her voice sounded shocked. "What are you doing, calling me here? I've moved on, Ray. I've made up my mind and I'm happy with my choices, and you have to learn to accept that."
Ray winced and rubbed his temples. Stella on a bad day was worse than a hangover. "Actually, I called to talk to Vecchio. Is he there?"
There was a moment of pure silence. "What's this about?"
"I need to talk to him about a case. An old one he worked on."
"Oh. So you're in Chicago?"
"Yeah, I'm in Chicago. Look, is he there or not?"
Stella's voice went a little softer. "So you got my note?"
Note? What note? "I dunno if I, uh . . ."
"I left it in your mailbox at the station. I tried to explain."
She'd tried to tell him, after all. For a moment Ray felt a tiny bit better. "I'm sorry, Stella. I still got a pile of mail to go through."
"Oh," Stella said, and there was another brief pause. "I'll go get Ray."
The line went silent, and Ray took the moment to paw through the heap of mail on his desk. Notices, junk mail, wait -- Stella's handwriting. He cupped the phone to his cheek with his shoulder and ripped the envelope open.
"Ray," it said, scrawled out far more messily than Stella's usual precise hand, "I know you won't understand this, but I'm leaving for Miami with Ray Vecchio. This is what I need. Your mother will have my new phone number as soon as I know it. Take care of yourself. Stella."
No "love." No "I'll miss you." But at least she'd thought to write.
His thoughts were interrupted by a voice in his ear. Vecchio's voice, saying, "Stanley?"
It put his hackles up, but he fought them back down. He didn't have to be jealous of Vecchio anymore. After all, he was the one who'd got Fraser. Or . . . well, whatever. "Yeah. Hi, Ray. Listen, I got a couple questions for you."
"You mean this is really about a case?"
"Uh, yeah. I mean, sort of. I need to know about Victoria Metcalf."
"Victoria? Oh, no. You do not want to know about Victoria. Trust me, the less you know about that woman, the happier you'll be. She was bad news all around."
"I know that. I just . . . look, I gotta understand him, so I gotta know."
There was a moment of silence. "Benny got to you pretty bad, huh?"
"Guess I spent too much time with him."
"It's a common hazard," Vecchio said, which suddenly made Ray wonder . . . but no, Vecchio was with Stella. He couldn't possibly have felt that way about Fraser. "Okay, okay. Tell me what you want to know about Victoria."
Everything, Ray thought, but that wasn't fair to ask. "So I guess he was in love with her."
"Oh, you could say that. In love, obsessed, crazy. He would have done anything for her. Almost did."
"What . . . what do you mean?"
"Oh, it was a long story, and I don't even know if I know all of it. All I know is she had him, hook, line, and sinker. He was willing to throw everything away, just to be with her. If I hadn't shot him, he would've done it, too."
"Wait, you're saying you shot him?" That hadn't been in the files. Somehow, he'd assumed Victoria had done the shooting.
Vecchio sighed audibly. "I was aiming for her. How was I supposed to know he'd jump in front of her at the last minute?"
"He took a bullet for her?"
"Oh, I don't think he knew it was coming. He was just trying to get on the train."
The train. Right. That had been in the files. "To capture her. To bring her in."
Another silence. "Okay, I'm only telling you this because you two are tight, all right? But he wasn't there to arrest her. He was going to leave with her on that train."
Ray tried to picture that, and failed. Fraser, running off with a bank robber? "Maybe he was just trying to, you know, get her to turn herself in."
"Nah, he'd already tried that. Didn't work. No, he was going to leave me in the lurch for a hundred thousand dollars' bail and leave Dief at the vet's with a bullet hole in him, all for some crazy broad who was yanking his chain. That's how far gone he was. He would've given up everything for her."
Oh, geez. He hadn't pictured that. Not in his wildest imagination. Love had meant that much to Fraser, that he'd been willing to compromise everything for it. "For love," Ray said.
"Yeah, Stanley. For love."
"Uh, thanks," Ray said.
"That was what you wanted to know?"
"Yeah, I think it was."
"So there's no hard feelings, right?"
"No," Ray said, and suddenly knew it was true. "No hard feelings. Tell Stella I'm glad she's happy. She deserves to be happy."
"She's one hell of a woman," Vecchio said.
"I know." And so did she. "I'll, uh, talk to you later."
Ray hung up the phone and leaned back in his chair, staring off at nothing. Fraser had been ready to betray his two best friends -- Vecchio and Dief -- for Victoria. It seemed wrong, somehow, and very unlike Fraser. Fraser would never do anything like that for him. Of course, he wouldn't ask Fraser to, but still . . . it made him wonder if Fraser really did love him, or if it was just some weird misunderstanding. Maybe Fraser just had the hots for him, and didn't really care.
Damn, he shouldn't be thinking like that. He didn't even know why it mattered. It wasn't like he would give up anything for Fraser, himself. Well, not really. Just because he'd been prepared to follow Fraser to the ends of the earth looking for that stupid hand . . .
Ray sat up with a jerk. That was the problem. He had wanted to give it all up for Fraser. Damn it, some part of him still did, though he didn't know why. All he knew was that he'd already done it, once, when he'd refused the transfer that would've given him back his name. It would have been the right career move, and he'd known it, but he'd chosen to stay the moment Fraser had said he wasn't leaving.
Not because he'd wanted to be Ray Vecchio. By that point, he hadn't given a damn about being Ray Vecchio. No, he'd wanted to be with Fraser. As a partner. As a buddy. Not . . . anything else.
Damn it all.
Of course . . . Fraser had stayed, too. Fraser had said it would be a better career move for him, too, to transfer up to Ottawa, but he'd defied logic and stayed.
It wasn't exactly the same as leaving Dief or even Vecchio in the lurch, but then, Ray would never have wanted him to do either of those things. Not taking the transfer . . . meant something. He didn't know quite what, but even knowing Fraser's secret, it made him feel warm inside.
"So, what's the smile for? You just get laid or something?"
Ray started, and looked up into Jerrit's broad, clueless face. "What's the matter, you jealous?" he managed.
Jerrit just grinned. "C'mon, we have to go talk to Welsh about the Randolph case."
Right. Work. Ray clambered to his feet and did his best to put his mind back on the case.
It wasn't easy.
The cabin was not actually finished. Well, it had walls, it had a roof, and it even had a door. But additional amenities -- luxuries like windows and chinking -- were still intention rather than substance.
It was not his father's cabin. If his father had built it, it would have had a fanciful touch or two, a gable on the roof, carving over the door. This was square, bare, and utilitarian, but it suited Fraser's mood.
He'd spent two months on it. Two months working as long as there was light, which by now meant nearly twenty-four hours a day. But the hard labor hadn't managed to cleanse his soul. He felt empty. Drained. Lonely.
It was beautiful, here. It was home. But he'd taken the dogs back to Buck Frobisher's outpost, so now it was just himself and Diefenbaker, and it wasn't enough.
Never thought you'd be one to miss the city. He could almost hear his father's voice. But his father wasn't here, and that hurt, too, another tiny ache to add to the rest.
"I'm tired, Dief."
Dief came up beside him, laid a head on his knee, and whimpered. Fraser scratched his ears absently. "I know. I do, too."
Dief shifted against his knee and gave him one of those looks.
"Well, it's not as though there's anything I can do about it."
"Oh, that's easy for you to say."
A series of barks.
"I am well aware of the fact that it's my fault, and I would appreciate it if you could limit yourself to mentioning it no more than once a day."
A self-satisfied woof.
"I have not been wallowing. I don't wallow."
A cock of the head.
"I couldn't possibly call him. I don't have a telephone. And even if I did, it would be highly inappropriate."
A quick bark.
"Ah, yes. Well, that's another story."
He got to his feet and surveyed his work. If he boarded up the window openings, it would stand the weather. And Dief was right. He still had duties to attend to, duties he had been neglecting shamefully. He found some planks in the barn, too warped and weathered to use in actual construction, and set to work.
The hike to the nearest outpost ordinarily took four days. Fraser made it in three and a half, pushing his already exhausted body to the limit. But physical pain felt irrelevant. It was at least a bit of a distraction.
Fortitude Bay had one general store, but the proprietor was happy to offer the use of his telephone, for a fee. Fraser thanked him kindly and dialed the number for the RCMP Detachment in Inuvik.
It took several minutes, but finally he heard the sound of an extension being picked up, and a familiar, firm voice said, "This is Constable Maggie Mackenzie, how can I help you?"
"Hi, Maggie. It's --"
"Ben." She sounded relieved. "How are you? Are you all right?"
All right was such a difficult term to define. "I'm quite well," he managed, which was reasonably truthful. "I apologize for not calling you sooner. I've been rebuilding my father's -- that is, our father's -- cabin, and I'm afraid telephone connections are rather sparse here."
"I understand," Maggie said. "Ben, it's good to hear from you. Are you planning to stay there, then?"
"I don't know," he said, and realized he meant it. As much as he loved this area, as hard as he had worked on the cabin, he felt no ties here. It was just a place. His home was elsewhere, with his heart.
"I haven't heard from Ray," Maggie said, as if she could follow the train of his thoughts from four hundred kilometers away. "I'm sorry."
It was one sentence, but it spoke volumes. Fraser felt flushed and cold, all at the same time. Ray was no longer with Maggie. He must have gone home to Chicago. "Was he, ah, was he all right when he left?"
"I think so," Maggie said. "Ben, you mean a great deal to him."
That hurt like salt on a fresh wound. Fraser swallowed hard, unable to speak.
"So are you still on leave?" Maggie asked after a moment, when the silence became painfully obvious.
"I have a few weeks remaining," Fraser managed.
"Do you have a post lined up, then?"
"No, I . . ." He hadn't thought that far ahead, truth be told. "I haven't made arrangements yet."
"I wish you would consider Inuvik. We have a position open for a constable, and we could really use a good officer. The last recruit couldn't take the winter."
Inuvik. His childhood home. Of all the places he'd lived in the Arctic, Inuvik was one of the oddest, the planned community, new and modern. As a child it had seemed normal, until he'd experienced more organic places, like Tuktoyaktuk, or the barren, icy wasteland of Alert. But Inuvik was where Maggie was, and if anyone were likely to hear from . . .
No, he couldn't think that way. She hadn't heard from Ray, and she wasn't likely to. Ray had made his choices. He had gone home.
"I can be there in a week," Fraser heard himself say.
"Great," Maggie said. "It will be good to see you, Ben."
"It will be good to see you as well."
Beside him, Dief barked his wholehearted agreement.
"Ray, are you okay?"
Ray opened his eyes. Frannie was looking down at him with a painfully concerned expression. Worried about him, which was stupid, only some days he was worried about himself, too.
He'd been in Chicago three months, now. It should have been long enough to sort things through and get over it all, but somehow he hadn't managed to. If anything, things were getting worse. He didn't even have the energy to dance, these days.
Ray took his feet off the desk and sat up in his chair. Yeah, he knew he should say, I'm just peachy. But all that came out was, "I don't know."
Frannie perched on the corner of his desk. She was really showing now, but it didn't look bad on her. In fact, she had this funny kind of glow about her, the kind of glow she only used to get when she was around Fraser.
Damn. Why was it that whatever he was thinking about, he always ended up thinking about Fraser?
"You want to talk about it?" Frannie asked.
That was part of the problem; he had no one to talk to. Half the detectives he knew had quit, including Huey and Dewey, who had started some comedy club. Welsh was giving them six months, tops, before they came crawling back begging for their old jobs, but in the meantime it meant damn few familiar faces around the squad room. "There's not much to talk about," he said. A nonanswer.
"You miss him, don't you?"
Ray didn't have to ask who the "him" referred to. For once he and Frannie were on the same wavelength. "Yeah," he admitted. He said it half under his breath, but Frannie heard.
"You ever think of calling him up there?"
Oh, geez. The thought was . . . tempting and terrifying, all at once. "I don't think he has a phone."
"Well, there has to be some way of tracking him down. I mean, they live in this century, right? Somebody must have a phone up there."
Maggie did, and Maggie would know where Fraser was, but Ray didn't know if he could face her, either. "I could call his sister."
"So what's stopping you? You forgot how to pick up the phone?"
Ray shook his head. "I don't know what to say to him."
"You'll think of something. Trust me. You could start by saying you miss him."
The very thought was enough to make him panic. Fraser would take it all wrong. Or he wouldn't, and that would be almost as bad. "Uh, I don't think so."
Frannie rolled her eyes. "Well, it's your problem if you want to keep moping around the station. But don't go blaming me if you're miserable."
"Don't worry, Frannie, I won't."
"You know what you are? You're as bad as Frayzh. The two of you . . . well, it's no wonder you ended up like this."
"Hey, enough with the psycho-babble, okay? If I wanted to have my head examined, I'd've made an appointment."
"Okay, okay, I get it. But if you change your mind . . . let me know how he's doing, okay?"
There wasn't much chance of that. "Right. Sure, Frannie."
She hopped off his desk with another telling look and sashayed back to her own work station.
Ray flopped back in his chair. Calling Fraser, or even Maggie, was insane . . . but he couldn't help wanting to. He missed Fraser like he'd miss a body part. Every time he and Jerrit solved a case -- or, almost as likely these days, failed to -- he found himself thinking about how Fraser would have done it. Every time he drove by the Consulate, which was more frequently than strictly necessary, he imagined Fraser standing guard there instead of Turnbull. He remembered stupid little things, the time Fraser had let him wear the hat at that Christmas party, the time Fraser had called his hair "full bodied and bushy," the time they'd shared a sleeping bag together. And he'd figured out something else, late one night when he hadn't been able to sleep: Fraser had given up something for him. Fraser had given him up.
Okay, so it was kind of screwy logic, the kind Fraser would give him grief about. But if Fraser loved him, the last thing he would've wanted Ray to do was leave, and Fraser had made it easy for him. Fraser hadn't even protested; he'd just walked out that door.
It seemed painfully unfair, that Fraser had done that for him and he'd just accepted it without questioning. It made him feel like a cad. Because now that he'd had months to think about it, he knew how he felt about Fraser. He loved Fraser. Not . . . not that way. But it was love just the same.
He had no idea what to do about it. He kept thinking about what Jerrit had said, the thing about reconsidering if it was the Mountie, and it was killing him. He couldn't do that . . . could he? He'd never tried it, personally, had never even wanted to. Okay, there was one kid, in eighth grade. They'd been goofing around in the shed behind the Nowaczewskis' house, and Brian had had a copy of Playboy he'd stolen from his older brother. Somehow they'd ended up jerking off in front of each other, looking at the pictures in the magazine. At least, that was what they'd been looking at most of the time . . .
Oh, God. Ray scrubbed his face and opened his eyes. He shouldn't be sitting here, drifting off. He had plenty of cases to work on. He just had to find the energy to get to it, when all he wanted to think about was Fraser.
He'd never felt like this about anyone. Not even Stella. Well, with Stella it had been easy -- he'd been crazy about her since he was thirteen, and he'd always known what he wanted with her, even if it had taken another five years to get it. With Fraser . . .
He knew one thing. He wanted to make that phone call. No, worse, he wanted to see Fraser. He wanted to hop on a plane and go up there, track Fraser down, and tell him . . . what? I love you, too? Oh, yeah, great. Just what he needed -- Fraser would probably misunderstand and kiss him or something.
But the sick thing was, he was starting to wonder if that would be so awful. The thing underwater hadn't been gross or anything. So how bad could it possibly . . . ?
No, it was wrong. It was twisted. He couldn't go up there and bargain: you can have my body if you'll be my friend again. He'd have to be seriously unhinged. Besides, if he didn't like it, if he freaked out, he'd just end up making things worse, and end up losing Fraser for good.
Oh, geez. He had to stop thinking like this, but he couldn't help himself. He knew that one experience at the age of fourteen was hardly enough to go on. He just wished he knew enough to know whether he could actually handle . . .
"Earth to Kowalski. Come in, Kowalski."
A hand waved in front of his face, and Ray jumped. Damn. It was Jerrit, and there was no telling how long he'd been there. Ray sat up and ran his hand through his hair. "Uh, sorry."
"Solve the Morin case yet?"
"No." Damn, he wished he had.
"Then we'd better get cracking."
Cracking. Right. Yeah, he was close to that already. "I'm all over it," Ray managed, dragging himself to his feet. Jerrit was still looking at him with a funny expression, almost like . . .
No, he was imagining that. Definitely imagining. There was no way Jerrit was interested in him like that. And even if he had been . . . okay, Jerrit was the right size and shape. But everything else was totally wrong. Besides, if Ray was going to try banging his partner, it had damn well better be Fraser.
"You want to interview the wife?" Jerrit asked.
"Let's start with the girlfriend," Ray decided, grabbing his jacket. He had no idea why. It was just a hunch. But lately it seemed like everything Jerrit suggested, he had to disagree with. He didn't even know why, except Jerrit's methods were sometimes kind of screwy, and he never really knew what Jerrit was going to do next. There was no mutual trust at all.
Oh, well, maybe it would get better with Jerrit, eventually. Maybe they'd eventually get their success rate up to a reasonable level. Yeah, and maybe he'd get hit by lightning and win the lottery, too.
"So what can I get you this evening?"
Ray cleared his throat and looked at the bartender. It was the same guy he'd seen here before, the one with the balding head and the too- familiar manner. "Uh, you got any of that despondency stuff?"
"You know I do."
"Okay, gimme a tall one." The bar wasn't very full tonight -- a few guys who looked like regulars down at the other end of the counter and a smattering of people sitting at tables. Probably had something to do with the fact that it was Tuesday night, and getting on into the wee hours of the morning.
Hey, it was better than being alone.
"So where's Big Red?" the bartender asked, sliding the drink in front of Ray. It didn't exactly look appetizing -- thick, muddy brown -- but tonight he didn't care.
"He's, uh . . . he's in Canada."
"Been there awhile, too, from the looks of you."
"Three months," Ray admitted.
The bartender leaned forward, all fawning sympathy. "Mmm, that's rough."
Ray took a long drag on the drink. It tasted almost as bad as he remembered, but he gulped it down. Whatever those St. John's warts were, he needed them big time. "Look, really, I . . ."
"You had a fight with him."
Damn, the guy was a mind reader of the worst kind. Ray took another gulp of the drink. "Sort of. I mean, it wasn't really . . ."
"Uh, yeah, intentional. I mean, I wasn't ready for it. I wasn't thinking. I didn't mean to, uh . . ."
Geez, this guy was annoying. "Right."
"Well, I can certainly understand that," the guy said. "He's a real pretty package. Actually, it's a shame you two broke up, because you made a very cute couple."
Oh, geez. He was assuming . . . but the worst part was, he wasn't that far off. At least not from Fraser's side. "Uh, thanks," Ray said, because it was too complicated to explain the whole ugly truth. He stared down into his muddy brown drink.
The bartender leaned, if anything, closer still. "Y'know, I think I know the cure for what ails you."
Oh, right. Like this guy could possibly fix the mess he was in. "Look, nothing personal, but I don't think these warts are doing it for me."
But the guy wasn't even listening. "Come on, now. You're moping. You're down in the dumps. You need to open your eyes and start looking around you. You," he proclaimed, poking a long finger into Ray's shoulder, "need to get laid."
Like he didn't know that? Ray tried for flippant: "Hey, look, I got motive and means, but I'm kinda lacking in opportunity."
The barkeep smiled. "That's because you don't have your eyes open."
Ray blinked. What was that supposed to mean? But as he was trying to figure out just what he wanted to ask, there was a motion at the far end of the bar. "Can we get a drink down here?" one of the regulars called out.
"Right with you," the bartender answered. He turned back to Ray and winked. "I get off work in an hour," he said. And then he was off to the other end of the counter.
Ray stared after him. He couldn't believe it: he'd just been propositioned. Sheesh. He hadn't seen it coming at all. Just went to show how out of it he was.
He took another swig of his drink, which didn't taste any better than it had a few moments ago. The guy was annoying as hell, and he wasn't even good-looking -- skinny and bald, and he had these funny little sad puppy- dog eyes. He wasn't a thing like Fraser . . . not that it would make a difference, of course. There was absolutely no point in considering the offer.
Damn. This was Fraser's fault. Because he was considering the offer, crazy as that was. Okay, the guy wasn't pretty, but he was interested, and he had the right equipment. And what better way to find out if he could stand it? If it was really, really bad, well, all it would mean was that there was another bar he couldn't show his face at.
Nuts, yes. Certifiably unhinged. But right now it was making a weird sort of sense he didn't know how to argue with.
He was still there when the bar closed, an hour later. The barkeeper came down to his end of the counter with a smarmy smile his face, and Ray almost left right then. "So, you want to go to my place?"
He knew the answer, and it was decidedly no. But he heard his voice say, "Uh, yeah, okay."
The smile went broader. "Great. Shall we take my car?"
"Actually, I got my car here, and I don't really, uh, want to leave it in this neighborhood." What he really didn't want was to be trapped at this guy's place, in case he needed to make a quick get-away. "How 'bout I just follow you?"
The barkeep tilted his head. "You're not having second thoughts, are you?"
Second? How about third and fourth? "Wh-- why would I be doing that?"
A hand came up to stroke his cheek and Ray couldn't help flinching. "I wouldn't think that love god of yours would be easy to replace."
Ray swallowed hard. The image of Fraser as a "love god" was somewhere between really weird and . . . well, terrifying. "I'm not looking to replace him."
"Mmm, that's probably for the best. Shall we?"
Following the guy's car up Broadway, Ray nearly turned off six or seven times. Every time he thought about what he was getting into, he felt his heart start to pound in his chest and his hands go cold. But when the guy finally turned onto a side street, Ray was still behind him. He found a space and parked, got out and went to meet the guy in front of a somewhat shabby three-story courtyard apartment building.
It was crazy. He was about to have sex with the guy, and he didn't even know his name. "I'm, uh, I'm Ray," he said.
"Sure. That's what Red calls you."
"Oh." That was weird. The guy remembered his name, when he hadn't been in that bar in months. "And you are . . . ?"
"Oh, I'm Rodney. Everyone knows me."
Yeah, right. Everyone but him. Ray followed the guy inside and up the stairs. His apartment was a little nicer than the building. Neater than Ray's own, anyway. The guy -- Rodney -- went into the kitchen and pulled down two glasses. "What can I get you to drink?"
"I guess you kinda take your job home with you."
Rodney looked at him quizzically. "I don't follow."
Ray gave a nervous laugh. "You know, drinks, bar, work?"
"Oh." Rodney looked down at the glasses. "I get it. So what do you want?"
"I'm good the way I am." Truth was, those St. John's warts were churning rather unpleasantly in his stomach, and he was still waiting for the supposed boost.
"Mmm, that you are," Rodney said.
Ray felt his stomach heave. Oh, geez, the last thing he needed was to have this guy drooling all over him, telling him he was hot or something. "Look, I . . ."
Rodney made a show of pouring something for himself. "You want me to put some music on? Or get you something to eat, maybe?"
"Could we just, you know, get to it?"
"Ooh, eager. I like that in a man." Rodney set his drink down and came over to where Ray was standing. He placed a hand on Ray's shoulder and brought the other one up to touch his cheek like he wanted a kiss, and suddenly Ray knew he couldn't bear that. It was too personal. Too intimate. Too real.
"No . . . no kissing, okay?" Hey, it wasn't like he needed to try that out -- Fraser had already kissed him. Well, close enough, anyway.
Rodney's thumb rubbed his cheek. "Oh, you've got it bad for him, all right," he murmured. "But don't worry. I'll make it good for you. I'll make you forget all about him, even if it's for just one night."
"Come on," Rodney said, and led the way to the bedroom. His bed was made -- weird -- and he went to go turn it down, then sat, patting the mattress beside him. Like a sleepwalker, Ray crossed the room and sat gingerly on the bed. "You know, I don't bite," Rodney said. "That is, not unless you want me to."
"Uh, no. I mean, that's okay. I don't really . . ."
"Know what you want. I know." Rodney reached over and patted his knee.
"No, I gotta do this." He'd made it this far. No point in backing out now.
"If you're sure."
"I'm sure." And to prove it, Ray took a deep breath and pulled his t-shirt over his head.
"Mmm, a tattoo. Nice."
Ray didn't answer that, just bent to take off his shoes. He wanted to get this over as soon as possible. He got the shoes off and then -- no time like the present -- ditched the jeans and underwear, too. A rustle next to him told him Rodney was following suit, but he really had no desire to look over. Ray lay back on the bed, staring up at the ceiling, and after a few moments felt a hand touch his chest.
Rodney's skin was pale -- even paler, Ray thought, than Fraser's - - and his bones were obvious beneath it. His touch was not entirely unpleasant. His fingers were a little damp, but other than that they felt okay. They trailed down onto Ray's stomach and he held his breath. If they had been Fraser's fingers, they would have felt different.
He knew that, suddenly, with a certainty he couldn't explain. Fraser's hands were always warm and strong, never clammy. Ray had touched Fraser, had been touched in return, too many times to count. How many times had they helped each other up? How many times had their hands brushed, in the course of their everyday interaction?
It had always felt perfectly natural. It was perfectly natural. Touching Fraser had been . . . a part of his life, ever since they'd first hugged. And now he knew he missed that, too.
"Mmm, that's better," Rodney said, and Ray felt the hand move lower, move down toward . . . oh, geez. It was weird. It was definitely weird. Ray closed his eyes. Would Fraser touch him like that? Was that what Fraser wanted? Rodney's hands moved lower still to squeeze his balls, and Ray jumped. "It really has been awhile, hasn't it?"
Ray muttered something meaningless and hopefully incomprehensible.
"All right," Rodney said. "Why don't you roll over? I'll make it good for you, baby, I promise."
Ray rolled onto his stomach, feeling his pulse pounding in his ears. This was it, the acid test, This was when he found out if he could take it. He heard a scraping sound, like the opening of a nightstand drawer, and a moment later felt something damn cold and slippery touch his ass. His whole body twitched, completely involuntarily.
"I'm hurrying, sweetie, don't worry."
Another noise, which he figured to be the sound of a condom packet tearing. Ray craned his neck around to be sure. Yes, that was definitely what it was. He buried his face back in the pillow. At least the guy knew what he was doing, playing it safe. That was worth something.
He felt pressure against his ass, then -- impossibly huge, though Rodney's dick hadn't looked all that big, from his one glance. Ray wriggled his hips, to do something, anything, to get this on with and over. Rodney giggled above him. "Hold on, hold on. You're so . . . oh, there."
Pain knifed through him. Not a dull pain or a burning, but a sharp, stabbing flare. "Fuck." Ray moaned.
"I'm working on it, I'm getting there. Oh God, you're so tight." Rodney moved, and it hurt worse.
"Listen, I, I can't . . ."
"It's okay, it's okay," Rodney crooned. He lurched again, and Ray had to bite his lip to keep from crying out. "Three months is a long time to do without."
Try thirty-seven years, Ray thought -- and if this was what it felt like, he could easily go another thirty-seven. "Shit."
"I got you, babe, I got you."
Oh, fuck. What had he gotten himself into? Rodney surged against him and the pain stabbed again, stabbed worse, so that it was all he could do to keep from screaming. And suddenly he couldn't take it anymore. Ray twisted and heaved, pushing Rodney up and off of him. He had his answer. He didn't need anything more.
"What the hell are you doing?"
"Look, I'm sorry." He reached for his clothes, right there on the floor, and yanked on his shorts and jeans. "I just . . . I can't do this."
"You picked a fine time to get cold feet." The condom-clad erection looked utterly ridiculous and sadly out of place, bobbing there.
"I said I'm sorry." He didn't know what else to say. There was nothing else to say. "It's not you. It's me. I just can't."
"You have it that bad for him."
The scary thing was, in a twisted way that was true. If he hadn't cared so much for Fraser, he never would have been here in the first place. Ray pulled his t-shirt over his head. "Yeah, I guess."
Rodney sighed and his sad-puppy eyes went morose. "I should have known it was too good to be true."
Ray shoved his feet into his shoes, not bothering to tie them. He could do that in the car. "I'll, uh, I'll see you around or something."
"No, you won't. You're never going to come to the bar again."
It was a pathetic sort of honesty, and Ray couldn't summon the strength to lie. "Look, I gotta go."
"I know." Rodney slid off the bed, still naked, but no longer hard. The condom drooped forlornly, threatening to slide off. "Ray, I . . ."
For once, Ray wasn't the one who ran out of words. "Yeah?"
"I wish I could have made you forget him."
There was nothing he could say to that. No kindness to soften the blow. "Thanks for . . . for not being too mad."
"These things happen."
"Yeah." Ray checked his pockets for his wallet and keys. Everything was in place. "It's uh, it's been real."
"It certainly has."
There was nothing more to say, so Ray made his escape. His ass still hurt, but it had dulled now to a throbbing ache. And at least he had his answer.
He made his way down the stairs and out to the street, where the GTO was parked under a street light. His hands were shaking as he unlocked the door. Delayed shock, Fraser would probably call it. He just called it stupidity.
What could he have been thinking, anyway? He had to be nuts. He should have known it would hurt. He wasn't that dumb.
Ray slid in behind the wheel and felt another twinge of pain. There was only one saving grace: it hadn't happened with Fraser. He leaned forward against the wheel, feeling a peculiar pain in his chest. It had been hard enough to face Rodney, afterward. If it had been Fraser . . .
Well, now he knew. He didn't want to have sex with Fraser, or any other guy. He didn't ever want to go through that again. So all crazy thoughts of bargains were off.
It should have been a relief. It should have felt better, to know that he wasn't going to do it, after all. Ray wrapped his hands around the steering wheel. He wanted . . . he didn't know what he wanted. Anything but this awful feeling in his gut and in his heart.
He wanted to be with Fraser. But Fraser wanted . . . something he could never give.
Ray buried his head in his arms and wept.
"You know, you look like shit."
Ray kept his face forward, staring out the windshield of Jerrit's car. His head was splitting, which was half hangover and half pure misery. "Thanks a lot."
"No, I mean it. Are you okay?"
Define okay; then he might know. "Oh, I'm just great."
"Ray . . ."
Sheesh, things had to be bad if Jerrit was calling him by his first name. "Look, I said I'm good. So I'm good."
"Well, you don't look good."
"Could you just . . . do whatever it is you were doing?"
"Good. So drive."
"The lieutenant was asking about you."
Oh, great. Just what he needed. Frannie's concern was bad enough. "He say I need to have my head examined?"
"No, he seems to think this has something to do with Fraser."
That was it. That was the absolute last straw. "Look, I am not in love with Fraser, okay? So just shut up about it!"
There was dead silence. When Ray finally dared to look over, Jerrit was staring at him with his mouth hanging open.
"Uh, watch the road."
Jerrit turned his eyes back to his driving, but his face still had that bemused look. "I don't think Welsh said anything about love."
Ray swallowed hard. Jerrit was right: he hadn't mentioned the word.
Jerrit glance over. "But boy, you sure are sensitive about it. A person would almost think there's something going on."
Ray gritted his teeth. "Hey, you want a knuckle sandwich? Cause I'll pop you one. I swear I will."
Jerrit took his hands off the wheel in a conciliatory gesture. "Sorry, man. No offense meant."
Oh, yeah, right. Ray turned to look out the side window, so he didn't have to look at his partner. The Chicago streets looked unusually calm for such a warm day. People were just out strolling, or chatting, or . . . oh, geez. That was a kid with a gun. "Stop the car."
"Honest, Ray, I swear I didn't mean . . ."
"No, I mean it. There's something going down." Ray reached for the door handle. "Stop the car or don't; either way I'm outta here."
Jerrit hit the brakes and Ray popped the door open at the same moment. He hit the ground running, heading back for the spot where he'd seen the kid.
"Don't move!" a shrill voice cried. "Don't nobody move!"
It was a kid with a gun, all right, a boy who couldn't be more than twelve or thirteen. "Chicago PD," Ray said, showing his badge. "Put the gun down."
The gun turned to point at him, and Ray's heart skipped a beat. That was no ordinary handgun. It looked like a TEC-9 semi- automatic assault pistol: cheap, deadly, and very illegal. Ray put a hand out, trying a conciliatory gesture, and left his weapon in its holster. He was seriously out-gunned, anyway. "Come on, you don't want to do this."
"Don't get any closer, mister." The hand holding the gun shook, and Ray had to suppress the urge to flinch, or run. All around them, people were scattering, which meant he was doing some good already. If the kid let loose with that thing, it would be that many fewer targets.
"See, you put that down, and you don't get hurt," Ray said. Damn, he wished he knew how to deal with this. If he'd been with Fraser . . . but he wasn't. He was with Jerrit. "That way everybody's happy." He let his eyes leave the kid for a split second and spotted Jerrit off to the left, on his cell phone. Thank God. Calling for backup.
"I didn't do it," the kid said. "Jeremy says I did it, but I didn't."
That was good; that was hopeful. What would Fraser say? "Hey, I believe you," he said. "I'd believe you even more if you put the gun down."
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Jerrit move, circling around behind the kid. "No, I mean it. I really didn't do it. She was so pretty. I wouldna touched her."
Hell, this was even worse than it looked. Ray tried to think. "Okay, do you, uh, do you know who did do it?"
The kid scrunched up his face, and for the first time the gun lowered, just a bit. Then he shook his head. "I dunno. Maybe Jeremy did it."
"You didn't see him."
Another shake of the head.
"Look, can you tell me what happened? Or where she is?" He needed something, anything that would give him a clue what the boy was talking about. But the boy just shuddered and raised the gun again.
"It wasn't me. I told you. I didn't do it."
"Uh, yeah, I know." Damn, damn, damn. "Listen, I said I believed you, but you gotta give me something. You gotta tell me where she is."
Another compression of that impossibly young face. "Okay."
"You gonna tell me?"
"She's by the train tracks. In the big weeds. Jeremy showed me."
The gun was at half-mast again, and Ray thought he had a chance. "Okay, I can take that," he said. "Then you can show me where she is."
The kid looked up at him, almost trusting. Almost there. The gun stayed lowered. And then, behind him, Jerrit moved.
"Jerrit, no!" Ray shouted, but it was too late. The kid swung around, his finger tightening on the trigger. Bullets sprayed and shop windows shattered. There was another report, from Jerrit's direction, and the kid dropped to the concrete.
"Shit!" Ray fell to his knees beside the kid. There was a single bullet wound to the chest, but it was pouring blood. So much blood for such a small body. Ray struggled out of his holster and pulled his t-shirt off, wadded it up, and applied pressure to the wound. There were sirens, coming closer -- Jerrit's backup, no doubt. Too damn late to do any good.
"Ray --" That was Jerrit's hand on his shoulder. Ray shrugged it off.
"What the hell were you thinking? I had him. He was gonna give me the gun!"
"He had you point blank. I saw him squeeze the trigger."
Jerrit hadn't seen a damn thing. "Anyone else get hit?" Ray asked.
"Just you and the kid."
Him? Ray glanced down at his bare arms. Oh, geez. There was blood all down his left side, but he didn't feel a thing. "Not me. The blood's his."
"I don't think so," Jerrit said.
The kid made a funny noise, and Ray turned his attention back to where it ought to be. Oh, damn. There was blood coming out of his mouth, now. Shit, shit, shit. Ray pressed harder against his wadded-up shirt, but it didn't look like it was doing much good.
"C'mon, stay with me," Ray said. "Don't crap out on me now, kid." There was a squealing of tires and sirens, slamming doors, running feet. Someone was at his elbow, pushing him out of the way.
For a moment, Ray resisted. But it was the paramedics. They were the ones who knew what the hell they were doing. He stood, and felt suddenly dizzy.
"You better let me look at that." It was one of the paramedics, looking at him, not the kid.
"Hey, he's the one that got shot."
"He's not the only one." The paramedic touched his arm, and it hurt with an odd, dull ache. Ray looked down again. There was fresh blood running down his arm. Damn. He'd been hit too.
The paramedics had the kid on a stretcher and were wheeling him toward the ambulance. There were medics all around him, so Ray couldn't even see his face.
"He gonna make it?" Ray asked. The woman was working on his arm, doing whatever she was doing.
"It's too early to tell."
That was not good. Ray pulled away from her. "Look, I gotta talk to him."
"Don't worry," the paramedic said. "You're going the same place he is." She grabbed his arm again. "Sir, hold still."
"That kid knows something. Could be about a homicide. I gotta talk to him before he goes under."
"Sir, you can't talk to him. He's not conscious. Please, sir."
Unconscious. Could be dead already. Ray hung his head in defeat and let her do her thing. A few minutes later he was patched and loaded into the second ambulance. He would have said forget the hospital, except that was where the kid was. He had no idea what had happened to Jerrit.
All he could think was that this never would have happened with Fraser. Not like this. If Fraser had been here, he would have talked the kid down, somehow, and Ray would've been the one calling for backup and, dammit, trusting Fraser, the way he wished Jerrit had trusted him.
Maybe it meant he wasn't trustworthy. But if he'd been with Fraser instead of Jerrit . . . no, Fraser would have trusted him, even only three months into their partnership. Fraser had trusted him about the Volpe thing. Or with Zoltan Motherwell, for that matter, on their very first case.
Ray leaned forward in his seat and hid his face in his hands. On a day like today, he didn't care what Fraser wanted to do to his body. He needed Fraser like he needed air.
He knew one thing for certain: if he had to keep living like this, it was going to kill him.
The kid didn't make it.
Ray found out at the hospital, an hour after they brought him in. His own injury turned out to be relatively minor: one bullet had creased his arm, deep enough to bleed, but not enough to do more than superficial muscle damage. Lieutenant Welsh showed up as the nurse was bandaging him up, and Ray gave him the full story, including the thing about the girl by the tracks.
"I'll get a team on it right away," Welsh said, pulling out his phone. "He didn't say where?"
"Just near the tracks, in the weeds." Ray sighed and pulled on the oversized t-shirt one of the nurses had found for him. His own shirt had been ruined. "He said someone named Jeremy showed him."
"All right. I'll get Wyatt on that angle." Welsh started to punch in the number.
Welsh looked up and paused in his dialing.
"I'll do it."
"Detective, you're hurt. You should go home."
"No, I want to do it. I'm fine. Really."
"You've done enough for one day, and your partner is holed up at the station talking to the shooting team. We had a kid die here today."
His partner? For a moment, Ray wondered what the heck Fraser was doing at the station. And then he realized Welsh meant Jerrit. "Look, just let me talk to the family, okay?"
Welsh sighed and gave in. "All right. You can talk to them. But Detective . . ."
"This thing is a mess already. Don't make it any worse."
Ray felt a lump rise in his throat. "I, uh, I'll try not to."
The family was still in the hospital, two women, a man, and five kids. The younger woman was sobbing, holding onto the older woman for support. The kids all looked lost and frightened.
"I'm from the police department," Ray introduced himself. "I, uh, wish to express my deepest condolences on the loss of --"
"Are you the one who shot my Billy?" The younger woman's eyes accused him of that, and worse.
"Uh, no ma'am." And then, because it was the truth and she deserved that much: "That was my partner."
"Then you're a murderer same as he is."
Ray felt something die inside. He couldn't argue with that, couldn't say anything to lessen her grief.
"No, Mama, not him," the oldest child said, a boy who looked around fourteen. Older than Billy, anyway. "He's the one tried to save Billy."
The mother looked up. "That true?"
"I tried to get him to give me the gun," Ray said. "I'm sorry."
"Where's my baby get a gun like that?" the mother wailed. "Can you tell me that? Where's he find it?"
"I wish I knew."
She went back to sobbing, but five pairs of kids' eyes were still looking at him. "Could I ask a couple of questions?" Ray tried.
The mother didn't answer, but her husband nodded silently, so Ray took that for license. "Anybody know who Jeremy is?"
There was a moment of complete silence; no sobs, no nothing. But several pairs of eyes turned toward the oldest boy.
"That you?" Ray asked, point blank. The kid nodded jerkily.
In a former life he would have jumped Bogart on the kid, no matter how young he was. But right now all Ray felt was tired. "You gonna tell me everything? Cause if you don't, you're in deep shit."
"I didn't do nothing," the kid said. "I swear to God, I didn't do it."
"Look, I know about the girl. Billy told me. So don't mess with me, okay?"
Jeremy's chin came up with false bravado. "You can't make me do nothing. I'm a minor. I got rights."
But he wasn't counting on his mother. She got to her feet, shedding the comfort of the older woman, and marched over to face him. "You know something, Jeremy Johnson? You know something about Billy?"
"Mama, I didn't do it!"
But he had done something: he'd scared Billy, enough to set off the whole dreadful chain of events. Ray knew it, and the kid knew he knew it, too.
"Tell the man!" the mother commanded. And Jeremy's face crumpled.
"I saw it happen," he said softly. "I saw the guy that done it."
"You know him?" Ray asked.
A moment's silence, while the kid tried to think it through. Then, softly: "Yeah."
"You better not be lying to me, 'cause if you're lying, we'll find out."
"I ain't lying."
There was no sense of triumph, no pleasure in having made a break in the case. There was only an aching hole where his heart should have been. "Okay," Ray said. "Here's what we're gonna do."
"That was good work, Kowalski."
He was in the lieutenant's office after what felt like a year packed into the space of a day. With Jeremy's help they'd found the girl -- or rather, her body, as Ray had feared. They'd also arrested the suspect and collected evidence, and it looked like there was enough to lock him away for good. Ray had given the shooting squad his account of the incident, as straight-up as he could. He didn't know if Jerrit would be acquitted, and he wasn't sure he cared.
"Look, I gotta ask you something." He hadn't been thinking about it all day. In fact, he hadn't been thinking about anything but Billy lying there, the blood pouring out of him, but he suddenly knew what he had to do. He couldn't stay here. He couldn't take any more of this. He needed peace and quiet and snow. He needed Fraser. "Uh, you remember that leave I requested before, when I was up in Canada, but I came back early? Y'know, no pay, no questions?"
"Is there a point to this, Detective?"
"I need that leave after all. Starting tomorrow."
"That's damn short notice."
"Okay, it's like this. I'm splitting tomorrow. If I get leave, there's a chance you see me again. Otherwise, no deal."
Welsh looked at him appraisingly, but didn't ask another question. "All right, Detective. I'll file the paperwork for you in the morning."
"Thank you." Ray turned to leave.
"You going back to Canada, then?"
Damn. Welsh probably knew -- or thought he knew -- as much as Frannie did. "Looks like it."
"Good," Welsh said. Nothing more, just "Good."
Ray turned and went to clean out his desk.
Part III: ChinookOn the fifth leg of the plane trip, Norman Wells to Inuvik, Ray started having regrets. Well, not regrets, exactly -- it was closer to panic. He'd been running on adrenaline for forty-eight hours, and now his body felt so heavy he wasn't sure he could get out of his seat. Either that or it was the cramped quarters on the 737.
He'd packed too fast, that was part of the problem. He didn't know if he'd managed to take care of everything. He'd remembered to pay his landlady three months in advance, which was the best compromise he could think of short of tossing all his stuff. He'd taken the GTO up to Skokie for his dad to take care of, and he'd given his turtle to Frannie, who hadn't seemed to mind too much. Then he'd thrown every warm piece of clothing he owned into two suitcases and hightailed it out to the airport.
He'd made one stop on the way. One stop that was a big part of the panic he was feeling now. Because now that the adrenaline had washed out of him, he knew it was one of the stupidest ideas he'd ever had.
He wasn't going to go through with it. He couldn't possibly, not even for Fraser. It was too much, he already knew what it felt like, and he didn't ever want to feel that again.
But somewhere, buried now in the middle of his suitcase, was a box of condoms and a tube of K-Y.
The plane banked left, descending through light clouds, and Ray glanced out the window. Wait, something was wrong. The land below him was green. There were trees and plants and things everywhere -- okay, yeah, he remembered trees, but not quite so many. And there was no snow.
Maybe he was wrong, and this wasn't Inuvik. He was so wiped he could have counted wrong, or forgotten a stop after Edmonton. Because this couldn't possibly be . . . wait, there was a river. Could be the river he and Fraser had crossed getting to Maggie's place. There were lakes everywhere, like he'd remembered, only not frozen. And the town was just a little scrap of buildings by the water, not nearly as big as Edmonton or -- what was it? -- oh, yeah, Yellowknife.
They landed on the runway, coasted, taxied, and finally came to a stop. Ray grabbed the knapsack he'd taken as a carry-on and followed the other passengers down the aisle to the door of the plane. Three months. He'd been away three months and it looked like a completely different place.
At the top of the stairs, Ray had to stop to take it in. He turned to the flight attendant as she told him to have a nice day. "I didn't get on the wrong plane or something, did I?"
"This is Inuvik, sir. Was that not your destination?"
"But it's . . . it's warm."
The flight attendant looked politely baffled. "Well, it's summer, sir."
Summer. For some reason it hadn't occurred to him that it was ever summer up here. But it had to be seventy degrees. Maybe even warmer. It felt . . . good.
Ray felt the butterflies in his stomach calm, just a bit. Maybe, just maybe, this wouldn't be a disaster. He shouldered his knapsack and went to collect his luggage and find out if, in addition to summer, they had taxis in this place.
There was a note on his desk, in Maggie's handwriting. Fraser set his pack down and picked it up. He'd been on patrol all week, which meant he'd only just got back to town.
It was just a few brief lines: "Ben, please come to my place for dinner tonight. It's important. Love, Maggie."
It's important. That wasn't her usual style. Nor was it usual for her to issue an invitation when he'd just returned from patrol duty. This must be something different, something special.
Perhaps she had news for him. She had certainly been seeing a lot of Constable Thomsen lately. It might be about that.
Fraser set the note down and frowned. He really needed a shower and a shave, but it was late already, and if he delayed further he might miss the dinner hour altogether. Maggie had seen him look worse, and so, for that matter, had Jim Thomsen. He could leave his pack at his desk and collect it tomorrow.
At his feet, Dief whined.
"Yes, I realize that appearances are important," Fraser told him. "I'm afraid I don't have the energy right now."
Dief gave a disapproving bark, but led the way out of the station.
Maggie's cabin was five kilometers from town, a negligible walk even in his current, weary state. It wasn't so much a physical weariness as a spiritual one, in any case. His body was sound enough, but his soul still ached.
He had thought that time would dull the pain as it had with Victoria, and it had, but only barely. He still thought of Ray every morning when he woke, and every evening as he tried to sleep. He dreamt of Ray nearly every night, usually nightmares, although last night had been different. Last night he'd dreamt of snow and caribou, thousands of caribou, thundering through his head -- and he'd woken feeling peaceful, if not fully rested.
It had to be humanly possible to forget and let go. There had to be a way. But every technique he'd tried -- yoga breathing, directed imagery, self-hypnosis -- had only worked briefly, at best. It was as though his thoughts were in orbit around a single point, always falling inward toward that inevitable gravity.
Time was the only hope he had left. The simple passage of time. Perhaps in a year, or two, or ten, he would be able to think of Ray fondly but distantly, and no longer feel this gaping hole in his heart.
He could hear soft voices as he crossed the clearing to Maggie's cabin. It would be Jim Thomsen, then. Well, he was happy for Maggie, if she were finally finding happiness. She certainly deserved to find love, after all she'd been through.
The door was propped open, with just the mosquito-netting screen door barring the entrance, so instead of knocking, Fraser called out, "Maggie?"
"Come on in, Ben."
He wiped his boots on her mat and opened the door. "I'm sorry to be so late. I'm afraid I was delayed crossing the river. I hope I haven't kept dinner."
Diefenbaker trotted happily into the cabin, and Fraser followed. He was right, Maggie had company, and Dief, who had never seemed to care for Jim Thomsen one way or the other, went to give him a joyous greeting.
Fraser's eyes followed Dief, and his heart skipped a beat. It wasn't possible. He was seeing things, seeing what he wanted so desperately to see. Fraser closed his eyes, willing the false image to go away, but when he opened them again, he saw the same vision in spiky golden hair.
Ray, here -- when he'd thought never to see him again. Ray in Maggie's cabin. For a moment it was all Fraser could do to stand there without swaying. It was more than he'd dared hope for. But why on earth would Ray be here? To have come all this way . . . Fraser swallowed the sudden lump in his throat. Of course. Maggie had something important to tell him. He had simply mistaken the object of her affections.
Ray stayed where he was, seated at Maggie's table, with Dief still happily barking at him and jumping up to lick his face. "Crazy wolf," Ray said, but he didn't seem to mind the attention. He buried his hands in Dief's fur, letting Dief lick him, and Fraser felt an insane stab of jealousy. He wanted to feel those hands himself, to feel Ray's arms around him, but he couldn't move.
"Please come in," Maggie said, hovering. "You're not late. I've only just put the steaks on."
Sensation returned then, and he knew he was smelling caribou steaks. "Ah, yes. Yes, of course." He took a step forward and then stopped, paralyzed. There were two empty chairs, one across from Ray, and one next to him. Either one was impossible. If he sat next to Ray, he'd be resisting the urge to touch him all evening. If he sat across, he'd be resisting the urge to stare.
"C'mon, Fraser, have a seat."
Right. Time to choose. Fraser took the lesser of two evils and sat across from Ray, turning his chair a little so that he was half-facing the room. Every glance in Ray's direction hurt his eyes, like looking at a too-bright light. Ray looked . . . tired, perhaps, but that might be his long journey, and the jet lag that accompanied it. His hair was mussed, his forehead rumpled, his t-shirt stained. He was the most beautiful thing Fraser had ever seen.
"So how you been?" Ray was looking at him with those sky-blue eyes, and Fraser couldn't bear it. He had to look away or be lost.
"All right," he managed. "I've been all right."
"You didn't go finish the quest thing without me, did you?"
He had to look up at that, but Ray's face appeared innocent of any darker emotion. "No, it didn't seem . . . appropriate without your company."
"You, uh, you ever miss Chicago?"
Every day, Fraser wanted to say, only it wasn't strictly speaking true. It wasn't the city he missed. "I, ah, that is . . ." But before he had to commit himself to a misstatement, Maggie rescued him by bringing the food to the table. In the bustle to distribute steaks, rolls, and salad, Ray seemed to forget the conversation topic entirely.
"Enjoy," Maggie said, seating herself next to Ray.
"It looks delicious," Fraser pronounced. "The greens are from your garden, I assume?"
Maggie smiled encouragingly, obviously trying to smooth the conversation along, which meant she'd noticed his fumbling, earlier. "Yes, and the radishes as well."
"Hey, this is pretty good," Ray said around a mouthful of steak.
"Thank you," Maggie said. But the conversation, stilted to begin with, lapsed into silence.
Fraser ate steadily, barely tasting the good food. Ray was here, and some part of him knew he ought to be happy, but it was too new, too unexpected. He felt raw and open, blindsided, confused. He wanted to look at Ray, but he didn't dare. It was agony being here, but he didn't want to be anywhere else.
The silence was the worst of it. Maggie and Ray ought to be chatting with each other, but it seemed his presence was serving as a damper. Fraser dared a glance across the table. Ray was staring at his plate.
This was intolerable. He couldn't bear it any longer. "So are you having a pleasant visit?" he asked, first thing that came to mind.
"Just got here today, Fraser, so I really couldn't tell you."
"Oh, I see." For some reason he had imagined Ray had arrived earlier in the week. "So when are you planning to return to Chicago?" It shouldn't matter to him. After this dinner, Ray probably wouldn't even want to get together again. But he couldn't help himself.
Ray paused, a forkful of caribou steak midway between his plate and his mouth. "Wasn't planning to," he said. "I got a one-way ticket."
Fraser felt his whole body go hot, then cold. Ray was here for good. It could mean only one thing, that things were far more settled between him and Maggie than Fraser had thought. "I see," he said. There was nothing else he could say. "I'm very happy for you."
Ray's head came up with a jerk. "What's that supposed to mean? You're happy for me? I drag my skinny ass all the way up here, and that's all you got to say?"
Fraser blinked in confusion. Ray was angry, he understood that much. But he had no idea why a simple well-wishing would set him off.
"Ray," Maggie said, and placed a hand on his shoulder.
"I was merely wishing you well," Fraser said. "It was certainly not my intention to offend you."
"Oh, yeah. I bet."
"Ray," Maggie said again.
Ray set his fork down and leaned forward over his plate, his head bent, his hands at his forehead, massaging his temples. "Look, I, uh . . . this isn't easy, okay?"
"No, I know," Fraser said gently. "I'm sorry for that, too."
"I just . . . I had a pretty crappy three months."
Fraser stared at that bowed head, feeling utterly helpless. Ray had been unhappy, and he hadn't known. He'd been too caught up in his own misery. "I'm very sorry to hear that."
"Wasn't your fault," Ray said, which was the ultimate generosity. "Everything was messed up. I guess you probably heard about Stella and Vecchio."
"I'm afraid I haven't heard any news."
Ray's head came up, those hooded blue eyes meeting his. "They went to Florida. Together."
Oh, dear. Fraser felt a peculiar pain in his chest, a pain that was hurting for Ray. It wasn't jealousy, well, at least not mostly. It was simply knowing what Stella meant to Ray, and how such an abandonment would make him feel. "Ray, I . . ."
"No, it got worse. Trust me. I got this new partner, and I mean, he wasn't a bad guy. We just, we didn't work so good together. And then he shot this kid." Ray paused and rubbed his eyes, then continued in a soft, tired voice. "The kid had a gun. I was trying to talk him into giving it to me. I think I had him. I mean, I was this close. And Jerrit shot him."
Despite the painful words, it was a little easier watching Ray now. Fraser could nod and be sympathetic and not worry that he was staring. Ray obviously needed to talk, needed an audience. "You did what you could," Fraser said, and Maggie reached over to rub Ray's neck.
Ray sighed. "I don't know. I mean, I don't know if I did. I keep thinking, you know, maybe I could have said something, before, so Jerrit would know not to do that. Or maybe I could've tried harder and worked with him better. I just . . ."
"Everyone makes mistakes, Ray. Including your partner. You can't make his mistakes your own."
"Not you," Ray said. "You would never've shot that kid."
"No," Fraser agreed. "My mistakes are of an entirely different nature. But they are very real, and have the power to hurt just the same."
Ray's eyes locked with his, hearing that apology. Accepting it, Fraser dared to hope. "Yeah, I guess we all got our own . . ."
"Weaknesses?" Fraser suggested.
Ray smiled wanly. "Idiocies."
Ah, that, too. "Yes," Fraser agreed.
Ray gave him a ghost of a smile and went back to the remains of his steak. Fraser felt a small knot loosen in his heart. It was good to be able to help Ray, even if it was only in a small way, by listening and making sympathetic noises. It was good to see Ray, even if Ray was now Maggie's, even if he wasn't sure how often he'd be able to see Ray again. For now, it was enough just to watch that quicksilver face. It felt . . . almost like old times, back in Chicago, when Ray had sometimes talked about things that bothered him, and Fraser had lent him a sympathetic ear.
Maybe, someday, Ray might find the heart to forgive him. He couldn't count on that . . . but he could hope.
It was still early when Fraser got up to leave. Ray knew it was early, because it was still light out. Of course, his watch said it was close to midnight, but he didn't trust it, because he didn't even know what time zone he was in. He'd probably set it wrong on the plane, anyway.
The thing was, his watch wasn't the only thing wrong. Fraser hadn't exactly greeted him with open arms. He hadn't even smiled or said hello -- he'd just walked in the door and stared, like Ray was some kind of space alien or something. It had taken until well into dinner before Fraser had loosened up any, and even then he hadn't really been his old self.
It was . . . disturbing. Yeah, okay, it was too much to ask for everything to be like it had been, before. But Fraser looked tired and old, like he'd aged three years instead of three months. Of course, part of that might be the several days' worth of very un-Fraser-like stubble he was sporting.
Still, it was enough to make Ray think Fraser wasn't all that happy to see him. It was the one thing he hadn't considered in his haste to get out of Chicago. What if Fraser was pissed off at him, for leaving? What if Fraser wasn't in love with him anymore?
He didn't know what to think, what to feel. If Fraser didn't love him anymore . . . no, he didn't want to go there. Not tonight. Tonight he just wanted to go to Fraser's place and sleep forever.
"Thank you for dinner, Maggie," Fraser was saying. And: "Ray, it was good to see you. I hope to have the pleasure of seeing you again sometime."
"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Ray broke in. Where did Fraser think he was going? "I'm coming with you."
Fraser . . . froze. There was no other word for it. He just stood there, staring, eyes gone wide. "Ray, I . . . that is, I assumed you were . . ."
Staying here with Maggie. It was as clear as if Fraser had actually said it. Almost like Fraser wanted it that way. "You got a couch or something I can sleep on?"
"Well, I could certainly make arrangements, yes."
"So what's the problem?"
Fraser swallowed visibly, then tilted his head to the side until his neck cracked, first to the left, then to the right. He cleared his throat and said, a little stiffly, "Ray, I would be honored if you would stay with me."
Damn it, that was Fraser being polite. He hated that, but he didn't have the energy to fight it. "Thank you." Ray went to get his knapsack and suitcases from the corner.
"Oh, dear," Fraser said, looking at them.
"Well, it's not a particularly long walk, but these do look a bit awkward."
Walk? Fraser wanted him to walk? "You didn't drive?"
"I don't own a car."
"Borrow my truck, Ben," Maggie said. She held out the keys. "I'll pick it up tomorrow, or if you're feeling chivalrous, you can come by and drive me to work."
Fraser hesitated for a moment, then took the keys. "Thank you kindly, Maggie. I'll be here at quarter to seven."
"That'll be fine," Maggie said. She came over and gave Ray a tight hug. "It's good to see you."
"Um, yeah, you too," Ray said, returning the embrace. "Thanks for everything."
Fraser was waiting at the door, a suitcase in either hand. Ray would've argued, but he was too tired. He let Fraser lead the way out to Maggie's truck and opened the door to let Dief in the passenger side while Fraser put his suitcases in the back. Ray climbed in after Dief and sat next to him. He didn't know why he was so tired. The sun was low on the horizon, only just now close to setting, but it felt like it really was eleven or midnight.
Fraser got in behind the wheel and looked over at him. "I'm sorry, Ray, but I'm afraid I have to ask: are you sure this is what you want?"
Oh, that was Fraser, all right. How could he have forgotten in three short months just how annoying the man could be? "You got a problem with that?"
Dief whined and hunched down between them on the seat, but Fraser didn't seem to notice. "Well, no, I mean, not precisely. I'm afraid I . . . don't quite understand why you're here."
Because I can't stop thinking about you. Because my life's a mess without you. It was enough to tick him off, that Fraser could be so clueless about him. And that Fraser could be so closed-off and controlled that it was impossible to tell what he was thinking or feeling right now.
Damn it, he needed to know.
"Look, I didn't come up here to be your boyfriend, if that's what you're wondering."
It was out before he had a chance to stop it, and then he regretted every word, because Fraser jerked upright in his seat and took three tries to get the key in the ignition.
"Ray, I . . . I certainly hope I never suggested that I believed that was the case. In all honesty, the possibility had not occurred to me."
In all honesty. Right. "I'm sorry, Fraser," Ray muttered.
Fraser got the ignition started and turned Maggie's truck toward the gravel road. "There's no need to apologize. It's important that we understand each other."
Oh, yeah. That was rich, coming from Fraser, the most incomprehensible man on the planet. Ray hunched down in his seat. He wanted to ask, do you still love me? but he didn't have the nerve. If Fraser said yes, he'd probably panic. And if he said no . . .
"No, I mean I'm sorry for everything. For leaving."
Dead silence. He didn't dare look over. Fraser made that crunching sound that said he was cracking his neck again. And then, finally, in a low, quiet voice, Fraser said, "I think perhaps it was for the best, Ray."
Damn it, the man couldn't even accept an apology properly. "Yeah, whatever," Ray said, and Fraser didn't answer that.
They drove in silence over the bumpy gravel road, and Ray stared out the passenger-side window at the trees and bushes and things. His eyes were drooping: too many days of adrenaline. Too much panic. "I gotta get some sleep."
Fraser's voice was back to normal. "Yes, I'm sorry for keeping you so late. I wasn't paying attention to the time."
Ray turned to look out the back window. The sun was still above the horizon, bright as day. "It's not that late, Fraser."
"Ah," Fraser said. "Well, it's true that in the summer we do tend to ignore the clock in these parts. Still, after your long journey, I should have realized you'd need rest."
"I'm okay, really."
The drive was a short one, and the road turned to pavement when they reached town. Inuvik was a weird-looking place. The buildings were all low, square, and very utilitarian, and a lot of them were built on posts that looked like stubby stilts. Running from building to building were these big, square pipes. Like conduits or sewers or something, only they were above ground rather than buried. And the license plates on all the cars were shaped like polar bears.
Fraser pulled up in front of one of the buildings on stilts. It was a long, plain, two-story apartment building, painted in a funny two-tone effect, white for the top story, olive-drab for the bottom. Ray didn't know what he was expecting, but it wasn't this.
"You live here?"
Fraser turned back to face him, halfway out of the truck already. "Yes. It's standard RCMP housing, courtesy of the Public Works department."
"You live in public housing?" That was worse, somehow, than living in his office at the Consulate.
"Oh, it's not the same as in Chicago, Ray. City planning is far more integral to the community here."
Right. Ray got out of the truck and followed Fraser, who was carrying both suitcases again.
"In fact," Fraser went on, "most officers stationed here get assigned to single family dwellings. I chose an apartment because I don't have family, well, apart from Diefenbaker, anyway."
"I figured you'd have a cabin or something, you know, like Maggie."
Fraser opened the door and gestured to Ray to climb the stairs. "Ah. Well, I do have a cabin, but it's in the Yukon."
"So why not live there?"
Fraser didn't answer that for a moment, long enough for Ray to wonder what that was about. And then he said, "I was there until a month ago. It got . . . lonely."
Fraser, lonely, and admitting to it. That hurt, in some way Ray didn't even know how to define. He caught up to Fraser on the landing and then followed him into the apartment.
It was small, which was only to be expected, and very bare. There was a kitchen area in an alcove, with a small table covered by a blue-and- white checked tablecloth. At the other end of the room was a bed, a single-width army-style cot. There was no couch, and no chairs apart from the four around the table.
"Wow." Ray walked into the middle of the room and turned all the way around in a circle, but it really was that Spartan. "You live like this?"
"Yes," Fraser said simply.
Ray pictured his own dark cave of an apartment, piled knee-high in junk. For the first time, he wondered what Fraser thought of it. Well, Fraser couldn't have been too disgusted, if he loved him. Used to love him. Whatever.
"I think we should go straight to bed," Fraser said. "If you don't mind. You can unpack tomorrow."
Ray glanced out the window. The sun was still low on the horizon. "Fraser, it's not even dark yet. I'm not going to bed until it's dark."
"I'm afraid you'll have to wait several weeks, then."
"What?" That did not make sense.
"We are nearly two degrees north of the Arctic Circle," Fraser explained. "The sun doesn't set in midsummer."
Oh, geez. He remembered something, vaguely, from some geography class, or maybe it was song lyrics, about a midnight sun. "For how long?"
"Fifty-six days," Fraser said.
"It doesn't get dark for fifty-six days?"
"This about as dark as it gets."
It looked like late afternoon out there, like the sun was thinking about setting but not quite getting around to it. "Fraser, this place is weird."
For the first time, Fraser actually almost smiled. "It's certainly not Chicago."
"You could say that again."
Fraser's smile faded back to the same vaguely weary expression. "Would you like the bathroom first?"
"Uh, no, you go ahead."
Fraser disappeared into the bathroom, and Ray took the opportunity to open his suitcase. He had a toothbrush somewhere. Oh, yeah, that felt like a tube of toothpaste. But when he pulled it out from between layers of t-shirts and sweaters, it was the K-Y.
Damn. He'd almost forgotten. Ray shoved the tube back into the suitcase and rooted till he found his toothbrush and toothpaste. What could he have been thinking? That he'd come up here and somehow, magically, decide he wanted to have sex with Fraser after all? It was nuts. Completely unhinged. Besides, there wasn't any point, because Fraser wasn't showing any signs that he actually still wanted that.
The weirdest part of it was that it bugged him. Not that he wanted Fraser all over him or anything. But some sign that Fraser had actually missed him would be nice. Some sign that Fraser wanted him here . . .
It was as bad as it had been with Stella, after the divorce, when he'd been so desperate to know she still cared for him. And just look how that had turned out. Might as well stamp "loser" on his forehead and throw him to the polar bears.
"The bathroom is free," Fraser announced, coming out of it. He looked different, and for a moment Ray's tired brain couldn't figure out why. And then he saw it: Fraser had shaved.
"Thanks." He got to his feet and took his toothbrush into the bathroom. It wasn't exactly a declaration of undying love, but it was something. Like maybe Fraser still cared what he thought enough to not want to look scruffy. Or like maybe Fraser was thinking about kissing him.
That was a strange thought. Kissing Fraser . . . well, it wasn't like he was actually hankering for it or anything, but it didn't seem particularly disgusting, either. Even now, when it might be a very real possibility.
Ray shook his head and glanced at his reflection in the little vanity mirror over the sink. He looked as bad as Fraser had, earlier -- serious stubble, circles under his eyes. But there was no way he was shaving for Fraser. If Fraser wanted to kiss him, he could deal with stubble.
Ray finished brushing his teeth and used the can, then went back out into the single room of the apartment. Fraser was lying on a bedroll on the floor, laid out against the wall on the side of the room farthest from the bed. He had his eyes closed, like he was asleep already, which was nuts because it was still bright as day in the apartment.
"Fraser, I can't sleep like this. It's not dark."
The eyes popped open and Fraser sat up. "I'll see what I can do." He got to his feet and went to the closet. He was wearing boxer shorts and a tank-style undershirt, which ought to have been perfectly decent, but for some reason it set Ray on edge. He'd seen Fraser in the long johns before, but never in boxers. It wasn't that they were more revealing . . . well, okay, maybe it was. He could see Fraser's legs, and his shoulders, and Fraser wasn't grossly muscle-bound, like Jerrit. He was just nicely filled out, the way Ray had always wanted to be.
Fraser got a pile of blankets out of the closet and went to the nearest window. There was a curtain-rod, Ray noticed, but no curtain, so Fraser proceeded to hang the blanket from the rod so that it covered the window. That helped. Fraser went to each window and hung another blanket. There were just enough blankets to go around, and when he was finished it was reasonably dark. Not pitch-black, more like Chicago-with-streetlights- outside. But Ray could deal with that. He was used to it.
"So you want me to take the bed?"
It felt a little weird, to be given the bed while Fraser was on the floor, but this was a guy who had lived in his office for two years. He didn't know the meaning of comfort, anyway.
Ray shucked his pants, untucked the military-straight sheets and slid between them, watching through slitted eyes as Fraser went back to his bedroll and lay down. And then he realized: Fraser might have shaved, but he hadn't made anything resembling a pass. No kisses. No hugs. Hell, Fraser hadn't so much as touched him all evening. So the shaving probably didn't mean anything, after all.
Damn. Ray rolled over to face the wall. He shouldn't be thinking about it. He was exhausted; he should just go to sleep. But his head was buzzing like a jar full of mosquitos. He wanted to know if Fraser was still in love with him. He had to know.
So ask him in the morning. How hard could it be? He'd just say, Fraser, you still love me? and Fraser would stutter and stammer and finally spit it out. Yes or no. It shouldn't matter. It didn't matter. He wanted to be friends again, not anything else.
But he still wanted to know. And the worst part was, he knew exactly how to find out. Wouldn't need to ask. If he . . . offered himself . . . he'd find out fast enough.
He didn't want to have sex with Fraser. He knew that much. But if he made the offer, he could always take it back. Fraser would never do anything against his will; he was pretty sure of that. So maybe it was cruel to do that to a friend, but he wasn't going to be able to sleep like this, and it didn't sound like Fraser was sleeping, either. There certainly weren't any snores coming from across the room.
Ray sat up and pulled his t-shirt off over his head. Just to make it clear what he was offering. He left his boxer-briefs on. He was dumb, but he wasn't that stupid.
Dief looked up from his place at Fraser's feet as Ray came closer, but he didn't make a sound. Fraser's body was completely still -- as still as he had looked lying in the coffin that time. Ray got down on the floor next to him, found the edge of the bedroll, and slid inside.
"Ray," Fraser whispered.
His body felt solid and very warm. Ray slid an arm around Fraser's chest and it felt good, so good. He'd missed this so badly, the warmth of reality, the touch of the one person who had never meant to hurt him. Ray slipped his other hand under Fraser's shoulder and laid his head on Fraser's chest, just hugging him.
"Ray, what are you doing?"
Ray buried his head deeper into Fraser's shoulder. "Missed you."
He felt Fraser swallow, and then one hand came up to stroke his hair, very lightly. It felt . . . nice. Not the least bit demanding. But then Fraser's hand fell away again.
Ray didn't care anymore. He had to know. "You want me?" he whispered.
Fraser stiffened beneath him, every single muscle in his body pulled tight. "No, Ray."
Damn it. That hurt. It shouldn't have, but it did. Ray shifted, pressing his body full-length against Fraser's side. "You sure?"
Fraser moved under him, trying to pull away, but Ray squeezed his arms tight and didn't let him. "Ray, I . . ."
"'Cause I can do it. I'm good to go. Whatever you want, I'm it." And suddenly, Ray knew he meant that. He wasn't going to make the offer and take it back. Whatever Fraser wanted, he'd do . . . even if he hated it, even if it hurt like hell. He'd do anything to make Fraser care about him again.
"That's an exceedingly generous offer," Fraser said softly, "but I couldn't possibly take you up on it."
"Oh yeah? Why not?"
"Listen to yourself," Fraser said gently. "You don't want this. You didn't come here to be . . . ah, to do this."
"Look, I said I could do it, okay? You want me, I'm yours."
"You are capable of many things, Ray. I was talking about what you want."
He wanted Fraser to love him. In whatever way. "This is what I want."
"Look at me," Fraser said. "Look me in the eye and say that again."
Ray lifted his head, looking into Fraser's face in the strange half-light. Fraser's hair was on the longish side, for him -- one dark curl mussed forward to brush his forehead. His face looked open and tired and . . . sad. And Ray knew he couldn't lie. Not to that face. "I'm sorry," he whispered.
Fraser's arm came up around him, easing him back down against that broad chest. "There's no need to apologize for being honest." Fraser's hand stroked his back, skin on skin, warm and soothing. "I don't need a . . . ah, 'boyfriend.' I just need your friendship, Ray."
He had to lift his head. Had to see Fraser's face, to see that expression of pure honesty he so craved. "You still care about me?"
Oh, thank God. Ray dropped his head back down onto Fraser's shoulder, feeling the warmth spread through his gut. "Could you, uh . . . could you say that again?"
"I am, and always have been, honored and proud to be your friend."
Ray let out a long sigh, feeling the tension seep out of his bones. He hadn't known, until this moment, how desperate he was to hear those words. "So you won't mind if I stay with you."
"Of course not."
"You know, it's, uh, it's funny. I really couldn't tell. I mean, I didn't know if you still . . . if you . . ."
"I'm sorry," Fraser said.
"'Cause I, you know, I mean, I really . . ."
Ray let out another breath and relaxed against Fraser's body. Fraser really did understand, or close enough. And Fraser was still his friend. With the tension gone, he drifted in the warmth of it, feeling a delicious lassitude creep through his body. He was so tired. He didn't know when he'd last slept, but it had been on the plane, so it hadn't been worth much.
"Ray," an insistent whisper, disturbing the warm place he was drifting in. "Ray, Ray, Ray."
"You should go back to bed."
Oh, right. He was on the floor. On the floor in Fraser's bed. But it wasn't uncomfortable, for a floor. Fraser made a nice pillow. "Don't want to."
"You can't sleep here."
There was a pause then, like Fraser was trying to come up with an argument. Ray let himself drift again, so warm . . .
"You'll wake up sore."
Like that mattered. "Don't care."
The chest beneath him rose and fell abruptly, as Fraser heaved a sigh. "Well, all right."
Ray snuggled closer and gave himself up to the warmth. "Thanks, Fraser. G'Night."
And the warmth won out.
It was medieval torture, like having molten lead poured onto an open wound. Fraser lay still, keeping his breathing low and steady through sheer force of will. Ray was lying draped half across him, and had been, in various positions, all night. It was the most beautiful, wonderful gift Fraser could ever have imagined. And it was torture.
Torture. Think of the rack, bones and sinews stretched to the breaking point, confession nigh. Think of the iron maiden, thumb screws, burning at the stake. His arm underneath Ray had fallen asleep hours ago, all sensation gone. His back hurt from being pressed against the cold, hard floor. His free hand ached from being clenched all night, clenched tightly so that it could not possibly stray anywhere where it might, accidentally or otherwise, brush against Ray.
And his groin burned.
Fraser had never felt anything like this before. Oh, he had lusted before, and he had lain with the object of his desire -- once Victoria, later Ray -- without consummating that passion.
But he'd never had quite so much at stake. This understanding he and Ray had come to last night was so delicate he feared it would shatter at the slightest touch. It both astonished and horrified him that Ray had been ready to sacrifice his feelings and his body for . . . well, for what? To assuage guilt? Loneliness? Desperation?
It hurt, that Ray could be so miserable that he would consider such a thing. Ray deserved better, far better.
Ray deserved better than him.
The warm body stirred against him, finally, and Fraser felt a faint prickling in his imprisoned hand. Oh, dear. He really needed to move it. Ray shifted once more, and Fraser took his advantage, easing his arm out from underneath Ray's weight. He settled Ray back down as carefully as he could, but Ray twitched again and opened his eyes. He blinked at Fraser a couple of times, and then broke into a heart-stopping smile.
For a moment, Fraser couldn't breathe. Ray looked achingly wonderful, sleepy and tousled as he was, with the imprint of Fraser's undershirt on his cheek. There was something astonishing and new about the line of his neck, the curve where it met his bare shoulder, though Fraser had seen him shirtless before and memorized every line. Maybe it was spending the night in his arms. Maybe it was the smile. Or maybe it was the knowledge that Ray had bought a one-way ticket and wanted to stay with him.
Fraser couldn't help it. He had to smile back.
"Guess it wasn't a dream," Ray said.
There were pins and needles all through Fraser's arm, now, but he just shook it out and waited for real sensation to return. "No, I'm afraid not."
Ray glanced toward one of the blanket-covered windows, as if he still thought he could tell time by the sun. "How long did we sleep?"
Truth be told, Fraser hadn't slept at all. But then, Ray hadn't asked about him specifically. "About six hours."
Ray yawned right on cue, and Fraser had to fight not to join him. "Not enough," Ray pronounced, and put his head back down on the bed roll.
"Excuse me, Ray," Fraser said, trying to untangle his legs from Ray's, but Ray put a hand out to catch his still-tingling arm.
It was tempting. Ray could have no idea how tempting. "I have to go to work."
"Call in sick. You gotta have a few sick days coming."
A few? It was closer to eighty-five. But he couldn't call in sick. He'd done that for Victoria, and it had been just as wrong, then. He wasn't going to lose his head over Ray, the way he had with her. He was going to love with his head as well as his heart. "I can't. I promised Maggie I'd pick her up."
"I'm sorry, Ray."
"It's okay." Ray let go of him and rolled over onto his back, throwing one arm up over his eyes, and for the first time, Fraser saw the bandage. He hadn't noticed it last night, because it had been under the covers, but now it was obvious. Not just a band- aid or a piece of gauze, but a full, hospital dressing, wrapped around Ray's arm just below his tattoo.
Fraser couldn't stop himself; he reached to touch the skin below the white band. Ray twitched and opened one eye, peeking out from below his hand.
"You're hurt," Fraser said, which was stating the obvious, but Ray didn't take issue with that.
"Got caught in the crossfire."
Images of Ray hurt, shot, bleeding flashed across Fraser's mind, and something in his chest squeezed tight in pain. "Is it bad? Perhaps I should look at it."
But Ray twitched away from him. "It's just a scratch, Fraser. Kid wasn't even trying to hit me, just panicked and squeezed the trigger."
With sudden clarity, Fraser knew why Ray was here. He was wounded, body and soul. He needed refuge, and this was probably the farthest place from Chicago he could conceive of.
"Yeah." Ray moved his hand and opened both eyes. "So, you going or staying?"
"Going," Fraser managed, and slid out of the bedroll to get ready for work.
He showered and shaved quickly, donned his brown uniform, and then went to say good-bye. Ray was sprawled across his bedroll, bare feet sticking out one end, his bandaged arm across his eyes once again. Fraser bent forward to say something, and heard the quiet, steady snore.
Ray would be sore for sure when he woke up, but Fraser didn't have the heart to disturb him. Goodness knew he needed the rest. Fraser straightened again. For the first and probably the last time in his life, he had Ray in his bed.
As he signaled Dief to follow and left the apartment, his heart felt foolishly light, like a snowflake on an autumn breeze.
It was light out when Ray woke. Oh, yeah. It was always light out, here. At least Fraser had left those blankets up over the windows.
Ray sat up. He was on the cot, but still in Fraser's bedroll. He vaguely remembered moving it, sometime during the middle of the day, when the hard floor had started to make his bones ache. For some reason that escaped him now, he hadn't wanted to leave the bedroll, so he'd taken it with him.
He was really here, in Inuvik. He had found Fraser, and Fraser still cared about him. He'd accomplished everything he'd been worried about in less than a day, and now he had no idea what to do next.
It just hadn't occurred to him that it would be like this, so bright, so green, so warm. Well, it wasn't as warm as Chicago, but that was hardly a drawback, because Chicago in July was a steam bath. He just hadn't imagined that Fraser would go back to his old job, that Fraser would be living here, near Maggie. I got lonely, Fraser had said.
The problem was, he'd left Chicago so fast he hadn't thought it through. If he'd thought anything, it was that he'd have to search half the Northwest Areas to find Fraser, and then when he finally did, they'd be able to finish the quest. But they couldn't take a dog sled out now -- no snow for it to run on. And Fraser seemed so . . . ensconced, here, with an apartment, bare as it was, and a job. He couldn't just disturb that life. He'd have to figure out how to fit in, somehow.
There was a thumping noise, then, on the landing outside the apartment door, and a moment later Fraser entered. He was carrying something that looked like a big, metal . . . oh. It was a cot frame. Maggie came in just behind him, carrying a mattress, and Dief trotted past both of them to greet Ray with a woof.
"Ah, you're awake," Fraser said.
Ray looked down at himself and suddenly realized he was wearing nothing but a pair of boxer-briefs. He pulled the bedroll up around his waist. "What time is it?"
"It's a quarter past six."
"Geez. How long did I sleep?"
"Well, if you woke recently, approximately eighteen hours."
"Damn." But he felt like he'd slept eighteen hours. He felt almost rested, better than he had in three months. He looked around and saw his jeans in a pile on the floor where he'd left them last night. "Uh, would you guys mind if I . . ."
"I was just going back down to the truck," Maggie said.
"I'll go with you," Fraser said, just as quickly, and a moment later they were out the door.
Ray hopped out of bed and pulled on his previously-worn jeans. He could find clean ones later. He didn't bother putting on a shirt, because the moment he was on his feet, he realized he really, really needed to take a leak.
When he came out of the bathroom, Fraser and Maggie were back, this time carrying armfuls of long tube-shaped things.
"You want help putting these up?" Maggie asked.
"I'm sure you have something better to do," Fraser said.
"Nope, not a thing." Maggie picked up one of the roll-things and held it up against the window, and something clicked in Ray's still-sleepy head. It was a window shade. "I've got tools in the truck," Maggie pronounced, and set the shade she was holding down to go fetch them.
That left him alone with Fraser. For one long, awkward moment they just looked at each other. Ray didn't even know why it felt strange, but it did. Maybe it was because he was suddenly remembering that they'd spent all night curled up together in Fraser's bedroll. Or maybe it was because Fraser had gone and gotten a second bed, meaning he didn't want it to happen again.
That was the weird part, that he still couldn't tell what Fraser was feeling. Fraser wanted to be friends, and that was good. But he couldn't really tell if Fraser still felt the other stuff. His refusal last night was . . . disconcerting, in some bizarre way.
"I, ah, I'll just get some screws," Fraser said, and headed toward the kitchen. Ray padded barefoot after him.
"You got all this stuff for me."
"I'm afraid I was ill-prepared for guests."
"I shoulda told you I was coming."
Fraser shot him a glance that lingered, for a moment, on his right arm. The one with the bandage. "I was under the impression that you had left rather precipitously."
"Yeah." Fraser had picked up on that, without him even needing to explain. "I had to get out."
"I understand," Fraser said. He found what he was looking for in the cabinet -- a screwdriver and a jelly jar with screws in it -- and turned around to face Ray again. Of course, Fraser had probably never run away from anything in his life, unless you counted leaving him in Maggie's cabin. Ray wasn't sure if that counted or not.
Fraser set the screws down on the kitchen table and glanced over at Ray, then looked quickly away. "Perhaps you would be more comfortable if you were fully dressed."
"What's the matter, it bother you?"
Fraser still wasn't looking at him. "No."
Ray felt a slow smile start to break across his face.
"Well, perhaps a little," Fraser amended.
Ray grinned. Fraser was still attracted to him. Maybe not enough to want to share a bed again, but at least enough to disturb him. He didn't know why that made him feel better, but it did. He was even tempted to keep his shirt off, just to see how much it bothered Fraser, but that wouldn't be . . . chivalrous. Yeah. Fraser believed in chivalry. "Yeah, okay, if it really bugs you."
He was pulling on a t-shirt when Maggie showed up again. "Oh, good, you've got screws," she said, shutting the door behind her. She was carrying a drill and a tape measure. "Shall we get to work?"
Fraser and Maggie went to it while Ray stood back and tried not to get in the way. They took the blankets down and measured all the windows; then Maggie drilled pilot holes so that Fraser could screw the brackets for the shades in place.
"You want me to hold that for you?" Ray asked.
So he ended up holding the brackets for Fraser while Fraser put the screws in. Working like a team again. They got pretty good at it by the second window -- Ray figured out just how to hold the thing so Fraser could get the angle right, and the screws went in easy as pie. He was almost sorry when they finished the final window and all they had to do was fit the shade parts in place.
Yeah, he'd missed this. Working together, even on little stuff. This was the way things were supposed to be: Fraser-and-Ray the team, not needing words, just anticipating each other's moves and being there at the right moment doing exactly the right thing.
It was crazy to get all sappy about hanging window shades, but then, maybe that was what three rotten months did to a guy. Three months without Fraser.
"Well, there we are," Maggie said. "I'll just be on my way."
"Maggie," Fraser stopped her, "do you have plans for the evening?"
"Well, no, but I . . ."
"Would you like to get something to eat with us?" Maggie looked from her brother to Ray and back again, like she was trying to figure out what that was about. Ray was kind of wondering, himself. But maybe it was just gratitude for the help, and it had nothing to do with not wanting to be alone with him. When Maggie's eyes met his, he nodded briefly.
"That sounds lovely," she said. "The Roost?"
"I was thinking perhaps the Peppermill," Fraser answered. "They have muskox stew."
"Is that good?" Ray asked.
"Well, it depends on your taste. Some people do find it rather strong."
That sounded kind of scary, but if Maggie and Fraser could eat it, so could he. Ray grinned. "Sounds good to me."
Ray seemed almost content. Despite the fact that he hadn't managed to shave yet, he looked much better than he had last night. The deep lines of weariness were gone from his face, and his quick smile flashed a little more readily, now.
Fraser watched him all through dinner, watched the changing expressions of that mobile face, watched the slender fingers with their prominent knuckles, marveling in their easy dexterity. He listened to Ray's low chuckle as he chatted with Maggie, so quick and quiet one might not even notice it, if one were not paying close attention.
"Hey, Fraser. Frah-zur."
Oh, dear. That did not sound like the first time Ray had said his name. "Yes?"
"Maggie says they're going to have a blanket toss in a couple of weeks. You wanna go?"
"Ah, yes. I believe it's part of the opening ceremonies for the arts festival."
"So you wanna go with me?"
Fraser swallowed his last spoonful of muskox stew. Ray wasn't asking for a date. It was a perfectly innocent question. "Well, I'm afraid it depends on my assignment. If I'm out on patrol, or assigned to security, I'll be unable to attend as a participant."
"Oh," Ray said, and his face fell.
"You could request the evening off, Ben," Maggie said.
It wasn't something he would ordinarily consider, but Maggie seemed to think it perfectly acceptable. "Yes, I suppose you're right."
It was worth it, to see the light go on again behind Ray's eyes. "So you could make it."
"I'll see what I can do," Fraser promised. And Ray gave him one of those lightening-quick smiles that turned his heart over.
This was dangerous. He was playing with fire, and he knew it. But he wasn't sure he could deny Ray anything he really wanted. It had been hard enough to refuse his . . . offer . . . last night.
Fraser went warm at the thought, as he had been going warm off and on all day. He couldn't be certain that Ray would have followed through on it, but he was sure that Ray would have hated it, and hated himself, if he had. It had been right to refuse, but knowing it was right hadn't made it easy.
Duty seldom is, as his father would say. His now twice-departed father, whom he still missed dearly, and who had referred to his partnership with Ray as a "marriage" on more than one occasion.
If his father only knew. Except that sometimes, when he wasn't quite in his right mind, Fraser thought his father had known, and might even have approved.
He looked up just in time to see Ray's hand snaking for the check. Oh, no. He'd issued the invitation, and there was no way he was going to let Ray pay for a meal at the best (and most expensive) restaurant in town. Fraser appropriated the check before Ray's hand could reach it, and counted out the requisite number of bills from his hat.
"Thanks, Fraser," Ray said, and from the look on his face, he'd noticed just how many bills it had come to. "It was great."
"It was my pleasure."
Maggie drove them back to the apartment and dropped them off with a "See you both later." They climbed the stairs side by side.
"Y'know, that muskox stew wasn't so bad."
"I'm glad you liked it."
"That blanket toss thing, uh, sounds kinda fun."
"It is usually quite high-spirited."
"So when's it gonna snow?"
"Probably in September. But it can snow in any month of the year, here."
"Wow." They made it into the apartment, which was still bright because they'd left the shades up. Ray bent to pet Dief, who was greeting him rather enthusiastically, and then turned to face Fraser again. "You like it up here. I mean, you really like it?"
"I'm home," Fraser said simply. Although, truth be told, Inuvik really was too urban to feel like home. But it was a close approximation, and it meant he was near Maggie, and now Ray. That was worth putting up with the inconveniences of living in a town.
Right. Well, one of the conveniences of living in a town was that one could actually buy things like window-shades and beds when one had unexpected company, and there was no time like the present. Fraser went to set up the new bed. He unfolded the frame and pushed to the spot by the closet where he'd had his bedroll last night.
"Fraser, what are you doing?"
He would have thought it perfectly obvious. "I'm making the bed."
"No, I mean, why're you putting it over there?"
Oh, dear. His motivation for that was apparently obvious, as well. "Well, I . . . that is, I thought it might be . . . ah, somewhat more convenient."
"Look, it's stupid to put it over there. It's blocking the closet."
Fraser couldn't argue with that; it was perfectly true. He unrolled the mattress and laid it over the frame. "I won't need to get into the closet while I'm sleeping."
"Fraser, you're not making sense." Ray was right behind him, and Fraser almost jumped out of his skin. "C'mon," Ray said, and grabbed the end of the cot frame, dragging it toward the other end of the room. "See? It fits over here just fine."
It did fit there. Ray had put it just a meter from the other cot, but there was room to walk around both beds easily, and it wasn't blocking anything. Logically speaking, it was the only arrangement that made sense, but logic had nothing to do with the queasy feeling in Fraser's gut. He hadn't slept in thirty-six hours, but if he had to lie that close to Ray, he wasn't sure he'd be able to sleep at all.
Ray patted the mattress and straightened. "You got a problem with that?"
Fraser shook his head, admitting defeat. "No, I'll, ah . . . just get the sheets."
Ray helped him make the bed, though he hadn't asked, and actually did a credible job of it. He knew how to make hospital corners, anyway. When they were done Fraser went to brush his teeth. He was so tired he was dragging, now. Maybe he'd get some rest, after all.
Ray showed up at the half-open bathroom door just as Fraser was rinsing his mouth. He straightened and wiped his face on the towel.
"You mad at me?" Ray asked.
Oh, dear. "Of course not."
"Good. Uh, you sure?"
Ray leaned against the door jam, his mouth pursed tight in that half- belligerent, half-thoughtful expression that was like no one else but Ray. "You want a backrub or something? 'Cause I give a pretty good one. I mean, that's, uh, that's what Stella always said."
"Ray . . ." What could he possibly say to that? Fraser felt his heart thumping in his chest. He dearly wanted Ray to touch him, and just as clearly knew he could not ask for it. He was too exhausted. He couldn't count on being able to keep his control. "That's a very kind offer, but I'm afraid I might fall asleep on you, and I'd hate to be so churlish."
"You could fall asleep," Ray said. "I wouldn't mind."
"Ah, but I would. I . . . thank you, but I can't. Not tonight."
"Yeah, okay. I get that. Not tonight." But Ray looked ever-so-slightly hurt.
Fraser closed his eyes. He couldn't say yes. He couldn't, no matter how tempting it was. "Good-night, Ray," he said, and brushed past him.
Ray didn't say anything more, or follow him, so Fraser stripped down to his undershirt and boxers, placed his clothes neatly in the closet, and went over to the beds. The new one would be more comfortable, he decided, so he got into the old bed and pulled the covers up. The sheets smelled of Ray, but in his current exhausted state that was more comforting than anything else.
Fraser's head met his pillow, and darkness swallowed him.
Fraser was asleep. Ray could tell when he came out of the bathroom, because Fraser was sprawled in the far bed: head tipped back, mouth open, lightly snoring. Dief was on the floor between the beds, his head between his paws.
Ray had to smile, looking at the two of them. Hey, if Frannie could see Fraser like this, maybe she wouldn't be pining so bad for him. But then again . . . there was something intensely vulnerable about Fraser in that position. He didn't look nearly as old -- thirty-seven, thirty-eight? -- as Ray knew he was. And he was obviously exhausted, if he'd fallen asleep that fast. Maybe he hadn't slept as well as Ray had last night on the floor.
In some weird sort of way, it made Ray feel better about the backrub thing. It wasn't personal. Fraser was just tired. It had nothing to do with him thinking Ray was trying to seduce him.
The thing was, Ray wasn't. He was beyond that. It was a dumb idea, anyway, even if Fraser was maybe still attracted to him. He'd just thought Fraser was looking a little tense. Fraser had seemed kind of out of it through most of dinner, and it wasn't the muskox stew, which had been surprisingly edible. Fraser had just seemed spacey, which was pretty un-Fraser-like. But maybe it wasn't tension. Maybe those lines in his face were because he was tired. They seemed to be relaxed, now.
Fraser shifted in the bed and his snores quieted, although he didn't wake. Ray grinned suddenly. Maybe that was why Fraser had wanted to put his bed across the room. He was afraid he'd keep him up all night with the noise.
No worry of that, at the moment. Besides, Ray wasn't the least bit sleepy. Might have something to do with sleeping eighteen hours straight. Yeah, that and the fact that it was still daylight (nightlight? what did you call it up here?) in the apartment.
Ray went to close the new window shades one by one, until it was close to dark in the room. He left the last one, the one over his bed, open at the bottom, so a patch of light fell on his pillow.
Fraser had a pile of books on a shelf in the kitchen. Ray figured if he couldn't sleep, he might as well take a look at what Fraser considered pleasure-reading. He was certain it would be enlightening.
The books were a mixture of hard- and paperbacks, but they all had call-numbers on the spine: library books. There was a book on linguistics, another about DNA, one on car engines -- which was kind of weird, considering Fraser didn't own a car -- and two more that were set off to the side. Ray took them off the shelf and tilted them to the light to read the titles properly: In the Wake of Erebus and Terror and Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony.
Damn. It was the quest. Fraser was reading about the quest three months after the fact, after he'd settled into a job and an apartment and everything.
Ray wasn't sure what to think. Had Fraser been considering finishing it without him, after all? Or had he been expecting Ray to return?
That was an odd thought, but maybe Fraser knew him better than he knew himself. Wouldn't surprise him. Fraser knew lots of things he didn't. Came from reading weird books like the ones in his hand.
Well, two could play that game. Ray took the books on Franklin over to his bed. There was plenty of light to see by from the one half-open window shade.
He opened the top volume and turned to the first page.
"Please sit still, Ray. I'll do the dishes." Fraser cleared the table of tin plates and pots. Ray had cooked dinner tonight -- his offer, though Fraser hadn't protested. It had seemed perfectly appropriate, and the dinner had actually been quite tasty.
After a week of having Ray here it felt, well, not exactly normal, but slightly more comfortable. It was still a tiny shock every time he looked over and saw that spiky gold hair, every time he woke in the night and heard Ray's breathing, a scant meter away. But he'd managed to damp down some of the burning through sheer force of will. It was that or lose his mind.
It was harder than it had ever been in Chicago. Harder than it had been on the aborted quest. Fraser wasn't exactly sure why, except that the act of living together felt different than working as partners, different even than adventuring together. It was far more intimate.
"Fraser, can I ask you something?" Ray, true to form, had not heeded the request to sit still. He was leaning against the counter, looking down at his hands, which were no more still than the rest of him.
"Of course." Fraser dunked the spaghetti pot into the soapy water and began scrubbing.
"You ever think of going back to finish the quest?"
Ah. He'd been expecting a question like this for a week now, ever since he'd first noticed Ray reading his library books. He'd felt vaguely unsettled that Ray was still interested, one part of him desperately wanting it, another too frightened to disturb the peace he thought they were starting to build, here in Inuvik. "I've considered it, yes," he said. "I'm afraid we've missed the window of opportunity this season, but we could try next year, if that's what you want."
Ray frowned, still looking down. "You think we got a chance of finding him?"
"I don't know," Fraser said. "Many have tried, but none succeeded."
"You think it's nuts." Not a question.
Fraser chose his words carefully. "I think that while our chances for success are not high, it would nevertheless be a worthy endeavor. Sometimes the striving itself is more worthwhile than the goal."
Ray looked up at him. "That what you thought before?"
"Yeah, me, too."
Fraser looked over at him, surprised. But then, he shouldn't be surprised that Ray had grasped the real meaning of the adventure. The fact that Ray's intelligence tended to be intuitive rather than analytical did not mean he had any lesser understanding. "Are you considering it?"
Ray frowned. "You'd have to take leave again or something."
"Yes, but it could be done."
"You'd do that for me? I'd say, 'Hey, Fraser, let's go,' and you'd drop everything and run off with me?"
In a heartbeat, Fraser wanted to say, but that might make Ray uncomfortable, so he settled for a simple, "Yes."
"So I guess you still like me."
Oh, dear. This was steering for dangerous territory, and fast. "You're a good friend, Ray," Fraser said, which was an evasion, but nevertheless the truth.
"Not like that. Not like that. Like, uh, you know."
Fraser took refuge in drying the pot. "I'm sorry, Ray." When he finally looked over again, Ray was staring at the floor and fidgeting.
"You wanna read or something before we go to bed?" Ray asked after a few minutes.
It was the rhythm they'd fallen into, after a few evenings. Ray hadn't asked about a television. He'd just started reading. In a week's time he had made it through both volumes on Franklin and was now working on the automotive manual, although Fraser suspected he found it rather elementary. Fraser had chosen that one purely because it reminded him of Ray. He had never expected to see Ray reading it.
"If you wish."
An hour and a half later Ray was sprawled on his bed, and Fraser was sitting up at the kitchen table because the only other place to sit was his own bed, which was too close to Ray.
"Can I borrow your library card?"
It was a good sign, if Ray was content enough to want to continue like this. Fraser pushed it the tiniest bit further. "You should apply for your own."
"I tried. They want proof of address."
"Ah." Of course. But Ray did live here, and would continue to, if Fraser had any say in it. "Well, I'd be happy to vouch for you."
"Can you do it tomorrow?"
"Okay, good. Thanks." Ray rolled over and sat up. "I'm getting ready for bed," he announced, and went into the bathroom.
Fraser glanced at his watch. It was ten o'clock, which was a reasonable bedtime for himself, but early for Ray. Ray usually acted like it wasn't even night-time until after midnight. But if he were going to turn in early tonight, Fraser wouldn't complain. He could use the extra sleep, himself, because while having Ray around was certainly pleasant, it could not be described as restful.
Ray came out of the bathroom and started closing window shades, so Fraser took his cue and went to perform his own evening ablutions. When he came out again, Ray was already in bed, face down with the covers drawn up and little showing apart from the golden brush of his hair and the tip of his nose, pressed against the pillow.
Fraser stripped down to his undershirt and boxers and got into his own bed, willing himself to ignore the figure a scant meter away.
Ray wasn't asleep. It was clear from the sound of his breathing. That and the fact that he wasn't lying still. First it was just a twitch here, a creak of the cot frame there, but after a few minutes Ray rolled over and pounded his pillow.
"Would you like me to make you some warm milk?" Fraser whispered. "It would help you relax."
Ray shifted again. "Uh, no thanks."
"Some bark tea, then?"
"Fraser, I'm not in the mood, okay?"
"Is there something else you'd like?"
Ray shifted onto his back, staring up at the ceiling with his hands behind his head. Fraser could see him quite clearly, now that his eyes had adjusted to having the window shades down. He had the covers pushed down almost to his waist, and he wasn't wearing a t-shirt, which meant Fraser could see the angry, dark line of his wound across his upper arm. Ray had taken the bandage off a few days ago, but the sight of it still made Fraser's heart ache.
"Perhaps you'd like to read some more, then," Fraser said, for the first time regretting that he didn't have a television. It would be something more to offer, anyway.
"Look, that's not the problem, okay?"
Well, at least he was admitting there was a problem. "If you told me what was wrong, I might be able to help."
"Uh, not for this, Fraser. Trust me."
"Ray, I --"
"Look, it's no big deal, okay? I'm just horny. So go to sleep or something."
Oh, dear God. Fraser felt his whole body go hot. Ray was right; this was not something he could help with, as much as he dearly wished he could. He sat up in bed. Ray could want only two things: to be with someone he loved, or to be alone. "Well," he said in a voice that was half an octave higher than his usual, "I'll, ah, right, I'll just be going out for a bit. It's a lovely time of the evening for a walk. A rather long walk, I should think." He swung his feet over the edge of the bed and stood, but Ray was faster than he was. Ray was right there in front of him, staring him down.
Fraser steeled himself not to look. He was not going to do it. He wasn't.
Oh, dear, there was a definite bulge in Ray's undershorts. Fraser dragged his eyes back up to Ray's face, his cheeks burning.
"Go back to bed, Fraser," Ray said.
"It's a beautiful evening," Fraser said. "Really, I think a walk would do me some good."
"You want a kick in the head? 'Cause I'll do it, I swear I will."
"Ray . . ." But staring into those shadowed eyes, Fraser had no idea how to protest. If he lived in a larger apartment, Ray would have some privacy, and it would never have come to this.
"C'mon, lie down. Just do it, Fraser. For once, just do something for me."
Phrased that way, the request was irresistible. Fraser sank back down, then turned and got under the covers. "I'm terribly sorry, Ray," he said. "I'm afraid this is all --"
"Shut up," Ray said, getting into bed himself.
"Truly, Ray, I --"
"I said, shut up, okay?" Ray said.
Oh, dear. Now Ray sounded angry. "Understood." Fraser lay back and stared up at the ceiling. It was his fault for prying in the first place. He should have let Ray toss and turn on his own.
The problem was, he couldn't steel himself to do that. He hurt when Ray hurt, and not just because it was . . . this. He hurt for every slight, every blow Ray had ever received. He always had, only now, magnified by proximity, it was far stronger. So it was doubly difficult to lie here listening to the sound of Ray's breathing and knowing that neither of them were likely to find sleep anytime soon.
But as he lay there, Fraser realized that the sound of Ray's fidgeting had gone -- no, he wasn't imagining things -- decidedly rhythmic.
Oh, dear. Fraser rolled onto his side, facing away from Ray. He needed earplugs, but he didn't dare get up. He could stand this. He could bear it. It just took strength and fortitude and the knowledge that if he did anything, anything at all, he would lose Ray for good.
Fraser lay perfectly still, trying to think of anything apart from the rhythmic sounds coming from the next bed . . . or the ache in his own groin.
Fraser was listening. Oh, he'd rolled over to face the wall, but he was lying as still as a dead man. Or one paralyzed by embarrassment.
Yeah, okay, it was mean to be doing this to him, but Ray had it pretty bad. He should have taken care of it earlier, before Fraser came home, but he hadn't really noticed it then. He'd been too busy planning dinner and applying for a library card and trying his damndest to fit in, here, and find something to do with his days so Fraser would stop thinking of him as a guest and a dead weight, and start figuring he was here to stay.
He didn't want to go back. He didn't want to hang out in the squad room or be partners with Jerrit or see another twelve-year- old kid shot and bleeding all over the sidewalk. He wanted to be here, with Fraser . . . even if it meant Fraser was dying of embarrassment just three feet away.
Yeah, it was cruel, but he couldn't help it. He itched, and bad. It had been so long since he'd been held in anyone's arms . . . okay, except Rodney, but Rodney did not count. Absolutely, positively did not count.
'Course, the only one who really counted was Stella, that last time in her apartment. The time he'd ditched Fraser and gone back to make desperate, sweet love in Stella's bed . . . after which Stella had kicked him out with a couple of hard truths, and he'd ended up feeling far worse than he had to begin with.
He couldn't think of Stella now. He didn't even want to. Stella felt long ago and far away, and the thing he had here was . . . what, Fraser?
If you looked at it right, it was almost funny. Him and Fraser, the original odd couple. It was still hard to picture, even after all these months of thinking about it: Fraser the pure, lusting after him. Fraser the polite, wanting to grab him and hold him and . . . what? He couldn't see Fraser doing it like Rodney had. Fraser wouldn't hurt him. Fraser wouldn't want to.
Or would he?
But then there was the annoying thing about Fraser, which was that he never let on what he really wanted. Especially not the intimate, personal stuff. I'm sorry, Fraser had said, when Ray asked him if he was still interested. Talk about a nonanswer. It could mean anything. And that bugged him worse than knowing, either way.
So here he was, lying in bed yanking on his dick, with Fraser in the next bed and Dief on the floor between them making an occasional whuffling noise. Like he wasn't sleeping, either.
There was a soft sound, then, somewhere between a sigh and a whimper. Not Dief. No, that was definitely Fraser. Ray used his free hand to shove the covers down to his knees. The cool air felt good against his heated skin, but Fraser didn't make another sound.
Ignoring him. Doing it on purpose, because Ray knew how good Fraser's ears were. Oh, Fraser knew what he was doing, all right.
Okay, so it was a bit of the devil taking him, but Ray didn't feel like fighting it. Fraser deserved what he had coming, for being so impossible. Ray increased the speed of his hand and let out a little noise, a kind of self-satisfied grunt. And Fraser twitched in response.
Maybe not all embarrassment, then. Maybe it really was something else. Ray suddenly felt several degrees warmer. Fraser might have refused to have sex with him before, but he could do this. Oh, yeah, he had to be up for it.
Ray kicked the covers all the way off and pushed his shorts off his ankles, too. And right on cue, Fraser groaned.
Ray grinned. So much for ambiguous answers. Fraser was hot to trot. Hot and desperate, from the sound of it. Ray stilled his hand and turned his head to face that dark form.
"Uh, Fraser, you could watch."
Fraser's big body shuddered but did not turn toward him. "No, I . . . I don't think I could."
It was suddenly desperately important. Ray didn't know why, he just knew that he didn't want to be torturing Fraser any longer. "Please?"
Fraser rolled slowly onto his back. "I couldn't possibly do that to you, Ray."
"Hey, it's no skin off my teeth," Ray said, though part of him knew it would feel very different to have Fraser watching. "I'm just doing what I'm doing."
Fraser turned his head just a tiny bit more, glanced over, and flinched.
"What's the matter? You don't like what you see?"
"No!" There was an astonishing amount of vehemence in that. "You are . . . very beautiful, Ray."
Ray felt the warmth seep into his face. Stella had never called him beautiful. Or handsome, for that matter. He'd joked about being the pretty one, sometimes, but they'd both known it was a joke. "Fraser, you're unhinged."
"I have on occasion had reason to question my sanity, but never for this, Ray."
It sank in, then: Fraser still loved him. Was still in love with him. The whole shebang. He'd just been hiding it earlier, for whatever Fraser-like reasons he had.
Ray reached down and touched his dick again. So this was what three months spent apart had bought him: the last time he'd come to that realization, he'd freaked out. Now he just felt . . . relieved.
Okay, maybe he was the one who was unhinged, but right now he needed Fraser to love him, in whatever way Fraser could. If that meant having an audience when he jerked off, well, it wasn't much of a price to pay.
Fraser shifted in his bed, stretching out a bit, pushing the covers down off his chest like he was hot, but he left them there bunched around his waist, and his hands dropped back to his sides, resolutely motionless.
Ray smiled at him, pushing the tease one step further. "What's the matter? You don't wanna join me?"
Fraser looked over at him, and this time he didn't look away, but Ray could see him swallow, hard.
"Nobody's stopping you," Ray said softly. "I told you I don't mind."
Fraser's eyes were locked to his. Then, achingly slowly, Fraser's hand came up and then disappeared under the covers.
"See? That wasn't so tough."
Fraser didn't answer that, so after a moment Ray settled back and closed his eyes. It was a long time since he'd done this. Too long. He'd been so caught up in all the mess in Chicago, he hadn't felt like it, so now he had weeks to make up for.
He let his mind drift, not trying to focus on any one image, just letting the sensation of his moving hand wash through him. The only thing that would have made it better was if he could have used some hand lotion or something, but the only thing he had was the K-Y, and he didn't want to have to explain that to Fraser. It was okay. He'd done it dry enough times to know how.
There was a muffled grunt from the next bed. Oh, yeah. Fraser was getting into it. In a weird sort of way, that was kind of sexy. It felt like being fourteen again, and beating off to Playboy with Brian Nowaczewski. It felt . . . oh, yeah, good, and Fraser was breathing hard now, three feet away.
He needed release. He needed it soon. Ray sped up his rhythm, tightening the muscles in his butt and legs. Yeah, he was close, he was . . . and then he realized that Fraser had gone still again.
Ray opened his eyes and looked over. Fraser had the covers completely off him, his undershirt pushed up and his hand in his boxer shorts, but he wasn't moving at all. And there was no sign of splatter, no damp stain on the crisp cotton. "What's wrong?"
"Did you, uh, did you already . . .?"
Fraser looked away. "No. That is, ah, not yet."
"So what's the matter?"
"I thought it would be more . . . that is, I thought perhaps I should wait for . . ."
Oh, geez. Fraser was that close and holding back, which Ray hated doing, himself. Hated with a passion. "Fraser, you don't have to wait for me."
Fraser looked at him. "I wanted to."
Oh, that was twisted. That was sick. It was, in some weird, unfathomable way, almost kinky. Ray reached for his cock. "Okay, okay, you don't have to wait long." He found his rhythm again, and heard Fraser's breath catch next to him. He was still close. He could get closer. It just took a squeeze like that, yeah, and the muscle tension again, and, oh God, Fraser was watching him, Fraser's breaths were matching his gasps, and shit that was it. He was over the top and falling, falling and spurting, and damn, it was good, so good . . . it had been so long and Fraser was still next to him; Fraser was panting, Fraser was whispering his name.
He looked over in time to see the pure, flushed pleasure on Fraser's face, the glistening liquid spattering across his stomach. Fraser had his eyes closed and he looked . . . beautiful. Damn. The same word Fraser had used to describe him, but it fit in some bizarre way. It had nothing to do with Fraser being good-looking. It was the inner stuff, the radiant stuff. It was Fraser's soul, shining through his sweetly sated face.
Fraser's hand fell away from his dick and it was just a dick. Nothing to get excited about. Maybe a little bigger than Rodney's, but it was hard to tell 'cause Ray hadn't really seen it before, and now it was starting to go limp. Actually, it looked a little weird, even in the dim light. Kind of funny at the end. And then Ray figured it: Fraser was uncut.
Yeah, well, that was no big deal. Maybe they did things differently up here. Ray let his gaze travel up Fraser's body to his face and met Fraser's eyes, looking back at him.
"Ray, I . . ."
"Shh." He didn't want to talk, didn't want to break the moment with awkwardness, but it was already too late, 'cause he was starting to feel kind of stupid. Ray sat up, swung his feet over the edge of his cot, and got up to go to the bathroom. When he came back from cleaning himself up, Fraser had his covers pulled up to his chin and had turned to face the wall again.
That was okay. It was cool. It meant not having to deal with this, face to face, now that Ray wasn't sure exactly what he'd just done. He'd egged Fraser on, and he wasn't sure why, except that Fraser had seemed so desperate and so lonely.
It wasn't like anything had changed between them. Fraser wouldn't take it like that; he was sure of it. Fraser wouldn't even talk about it if he didn't bring it up.
Ray got into bed and pulled the covers up. Everything would be okay in the morning, and the release felt good. He let the languor of the moment seep into him, listening to Fraser's breathing gone low and steady, listening to Dief's soft wheeze from the floor.
He belonged here, with the two of them. He was going to make this thing work, whatever it took.
The thought was gentle peace, come to steal his dreams away.
Part IV: Thaw
"So this is a blanket toss."
The three of them -- Fraser had brought Dief -- were nearing the end of the park where a crowd was gathered around a large, circular tarp that was held up by twenty-some people. As they watched, a young man climbed up onto the tarp and the people in the circle stretched it tight, bouncing him slightly. He remained nimbly on his feet.
Fraser glanced over. "Yes, Ray. You see, what appears to be a simple game is actually a traditional hunting technique." The tarp tightened again, bouncing the man a second time. "In the flat terrain of tundra, increasing your elevation allows for a much greater visual radius." There was laughter and a series of shouts, and the tarp snapped tight a third time, this time tossing the man high into the air. He sprang gracefully with the throw, head up and grinning fifteen feet above the ground, and then landed back down easily amid more calls and more laughter.
"That's one heckuva trampoline."
"Well, technically speaking, the mechanics are slightly different. A trampoline stores and then releases the energy of the jumper, whereas the nalukatak makes use of the combined strength of the people holding it."
Oh, right. Leave it to Fraser to take all the fun out of it. "Fraser, this is supposed to be a game. Do not get technical on me."
"As you wish."
The jumper in the middle of the blanket flew high in the air again, and this time performed a full somersault in midair before landing nimbly once again. The shouts and laughter doubled, and Dief barked in what almost sounded like approval.
"Wow. That looks like fun."
"Would you like to try it?"
"Hey, you know me, I'll try anything."
Fraser froze for just the briefest of moments, but Ray saw it. Damn. He should have watched the way he phrased that. "Excuse me," Fraser said, not smoothly. "I'll just, ah, go ask for you."
Fraser stepped forward to talk to one of the people in the ring around the blanket, and Ray kicked himself again. Things had been . . . okay, for the past week. Fraser hadn't mentioned the jerk off thing, and Ray hadn't brought it up. Hadn't proposed a repeat engagement, either, although he'd thought about it. The thing was, it hadn't bothered him at the time. It had been -- admit it -- weirdly satisfying. He just wasn't sure he could face it if Fraser started asking him for that as a regular thing.
Of course, truth was, Fraser hadn't asked. Hadn't even hinted. Okay, sometimes it felt like Fraser was looking at him a little too long, and there were occasionally still awkwardnesses in the conversation, but Fraser almost never touched him. If their hands happened to brush while they were making dinner -- which they'd started doing together, this week -- Fraser would pull away immediately. And Ray suspected he'd pushed the beds further apart. He hadn't noticed Fraser do it, but he was pretty sure there was at least a foot extra gap between them.
It was like Fraser was trying to tell him something, only he wasn't sure quite what. He didn't think Fraser was trying to deny being attracted to him. No, it was more along the lines of Fraser being willing to pretend it didn't exist if that made him feel better.
He just wasn't sure it did.
Fraser finished his conversation -- from what Ray could hear it was half in that Inuit lingo (on Fraser's side) and half in English (on the blanket people's side) -- and came back over. "I've arranged for you to go next," Fraser announced.
"Oh, geez." The current jumper was doing another mid-air flip, and there was a big difference between thinking about it and actually getting up there. "Do I gotta do those acrobat things?"
"Oh, no. He's displaying exceptional skill. All you're required to do is jump and attempt to keep your feet on the landing."
"Yeah, okay, I could do that."
"Think of it as a very responsive trampoline."
Ray whipped around to see his face. Oh, yeah, Fraser's eyes were twinkling. Getting him back for that "technical" comment earlier. Well, two could pull that one. "Nah, Fraser, you got it wrong. The mechanics are different."
Fraser's eyes twinkled brighter. "So I understand."
The guy on the blanket jumped one more time, higher than any of his previous attempts, twisting and spinning gracefully in the air, but he overbalanced and came down off center to land on his knees. Amid a hail of good-natured ribbing, he bounced to a halt and then climbed off the blanket.
The guy Fraser had talked to turned to catch Ray's eye. "You ready?"
"What's your name?" someone asked.
Ray climbed up onto the blanket, which, as he could see this close, had the words Northern Games, Inuvik in big letters across it, with a rope around the outside for all the people to hold onto. He looked at the circle of faces. "It's Ray."
"You ever done this before, Ray?"
"Uh, no. That okay?"
The friendly face smiled at him. "Oh, you're going to enjoy yourself, then."
"Just go with the toss," another voice suggested.
"Keep your feet under you."
"Don't try anything fancy."
"At least not until the second toss," a voice said, and everyone laughed.
Ray made his way to the middle of the blanket. Fraser was right. It didn't feel like a trampoline at all. It felt alive. He had to fight for his balance, but he found it.
"Yeah, go for it."
The blanket dipped smoothly, and he rode it up to the crest and down again.
"Again," voices called, and he rode it a second time.
"Here we go," someone called, and he felt the blanket heave.
Jump, he remembered at the last moment, and then he was flying, up, up -- wow, he was ten feet up, and there were Fraser and Dief, watching him -- and then he was falling back down. His feet hit the blanket and he staggered, but it dipped with him, absorbing the impact, and he managed to keep his feet amid shouts of encouragement. "Again!" someone said, and he was dipping, heaving, jumping again -- higher than before -- damn, it was like being a bird, only it didn't last nearly long enough. There was laughter, encouragement, smiles all around, and the blanket heaved a third time. Hard. He was flying for real, so high he could see the whole park and all the faces looking up at him . . . including Fraser's.
Damn. Fraser's eyes were glued to him, and Fraser's face had an expression of pure, open joy. Like Fraser was the one who was flying, not him.
Ray forgot about the blanket, forgot he was flying, forgot he had to land. The blanket met his butt with a thwack that would have hurt more if it hadn't dipped again, absorbing the shock, and bounced him lightly up again as people shouted good-natured ribs.
"What's the matter, you see a caribou up there?" "Forget which end your feet are at?"
Ray just grinned as the blanket stilled. He'd had his fun, he didn't care about anything else. He made his way to the edge of the blanket, and Fraser held out an arm to help him down. There was the slightest hint of joy still there, pure and real underneath the usual mask of composure.
"That was great," Ray said, smiling. "Thanks, Fraser."
The warm look didn't fade. "You're most welcome."
"You gonna try it?"
Fraser looked at the blanket, where a girl no older than thirteen or fourteen was already scrambling up. "I suspect my services will be more useful here," he said, and said something in the lingo to the nearest person holding the blanket rope.
"Hey, you bet," the man answered, and relinquished his position to Fraser.
It was crowded around the blanket, but there was room for one more. Ray squeezed in beside Fraser, grasping the rope firmly. He was touching the arm of the woman next to him, and his right hand was right up against Fraser's
It wasn't like holding hands or anything. No, of course not -- he wouldn't have wanted that, anyway. But it was nice, for once, that Fraser wasn't pulling away.
The blanket heaved, and Ray heaved with it, tossing the girl high in the air. She laughed and crowed and landed perfectly, not even a wobble.
Oh yeah, he could do this. This was, as Fraser said, high-spirited. With everyone laughing and joking and Fraser grinning like an idiot beside him, it was better than fun.
For two weeks, he'd been trying to find a way to belong in this town. He'd wandered the streets, talked to a few people, gotten himself a library card, and tried to figure out what he was going to do with his days. It had proved more difficult than he'd expected. Not that people weren't perfectly friendly. He just felt like an outsider, like one of the summer tourists wandering around town with their cameras and guidebooks and clueless expressions. The few people he'd asked about jobs had given him vague nonanswers, like they didn't expect him to be there long enough to be worth hiring. Wait for winter, they'd said. And, You must miss Chicago. Like they didn't think he'd ever fit in.
It was almost to the point where Ray had started wondering, too. But standing next to Fraser, adding his muscles to those of the laughing circle around him, it almost felt like he had a right to be here.
They stayed in the blanket circle until the nalukatak was over. Ray seemed to be enjoying himself, and it was sweet suffering to be this close to him, hands touching, bodies pressed together and apart again as they heaved the blanket over and over, tossing men and women, novices and skilled athletes, into the air. Fraser felt like every nerve was tingling, like every cell of his body was aware of Ray's presence next to him. In any other circumstance, he would never have allowed himself such an indulgence. But Ray was the one who had squeezed in next to him. In some sense (though he knew it to be innocent of any ulterior motive), Ray was the one touching him.
The game finally wound down, and the last participant finished with a series of flips and twists that made Ray laugh in astonishment. Fraser laughed with him, reveling in his joy. In the two weeks he'd been in Inuvik, Ray seemed to be letting go of some of the pain he'd brought back from Chicago. He was perhaps not quite as free and easy as he'd been on the quest, but Fraser knew that was too much to ask for. Ray had already given him far more than he needed to, far more than Fraser deserved.
Fraser went warm at the thought. He should never have given in. He'd known it immediately, when Ray hadn't even wanted to hear his apology afterward. He'd been weak . . . and now he was trying to make up for it, doing his very best to keep his control. But it was difficult, now that he'd seen the angles and planes of Ray's face softened with arousal, now that he'd seen that long, lean body convulsed with pleasure.
Oh, dear. This was not helping, not in the least. And Ray was looking at him with a rather odd expression on his face.
"You wanna go see the art tents?" Ray asked. "I think they're open now."
Fraser wet his lips and hoped Ray wasn't looking below his waist. That was the one disadvantage of wearing jeans. A uniform hid a multitude of sins. "Yes, of course, Ray."
"Fraser, c'mon," Ray said, and Fraser realized he was staring again.
"I'm right with you," he managed, and followed Ray and Dief across the square to the tents. The central aisles were crowded so they skirted around to the right side of the stalls, which meant they were close by when they heard the cry.
"Aiiieeeee! Who has done this?" In Inuvialuktun. And then, in English: "Thief, thief!"
Fraser took off at a run, with Ray right beside him. Following the sound of the cry, they ducked between two stalls and skidded to a stop before an empty table. Behind it, an Inuvialuk woman was wringing her hands.
"Constable Benton Fraser, RCMP," he introduced himself. And in Inuvialuktun: "What seems to be the matter?"
"My work is gone! Carvings, jewelry, all of it stolen. I walked away for a few moments only, and when I came back, it was like this. Who would do such a thing?"
"I don't know, ma'am," Fraser said, "but I'll do my best to find out." He examined the table, and the ground in front of it, then gestured to Dief to have a try. "Was there anyone nearby who might have seen what happened? Someone at the next table, perhaps?"
The woman shook her head. "We all went to see the last throw together. Just to the edge of the tents. When we came back, everything was gone."
Other festival goers were arriving, now, and Fraser had to ask them to keep back so he could look for tracks, but it was fruitless. The ground was sharp gravel -- no useful imprints. Still, there was something -- a thread caught in the metal edge where the table was not covered by the tablecloth. Fraser extracted it carefully -- green nylon. The Inuvialuk artist was wearing traditional garb, and most of the people around them were dressed in cotton t-shirts. It was a cool but pleasant evening -- no local would feel the need for a jacket.
"Find something?" Ray asked.
"I believe so," Fraser said, showing it to him. "You?"
"Yeah." Fraser turned to him and found Ray kneeling beside the table, looking underneath. He crouched down beside him and saw the small child hiding behind the drape of the tablecloth.
"Little boy, how long have you been here?" he asked in Inuvialuktun, but the boy just stared at him with big eyes, and the woman above chuckled.
"Try English on that one," she said, speaking English herself. "He has yet to learn anything from his grandmother."
Ray took that for a cue. "You see anything, kid?" he asked, and the boy nodded.
"A man," he whispered.
Ray gave the child an encouraging smile. "A big man? Small? Skinny? Fat?"
"Green," the boy said.
"Green," Ray repeated. "Okay, he was green. Anything else?"
The boy cocked his head. "Took Granna's pretty things."
"Did you stay here? Under the table?"
The boy nodded vigorously. "Scary man."
"Green and scary, huh?"
The boy pursed his lips, considering. Fraser stayed where he was. Ray seemed to be handling this perfectly well, and he had no desire to interrupt. "Like you," the boy said finally.
"Like me? What, tall, skinny?"
The boy shook his head. "Funny hair."
Ray grinned, and Fraser couldn't help smiling, himself. "This color?" Ray said.
"Yellow hair," the boy agreed. "Like this." And he stuck his fingers in his hair, pulling it up to stand on end.
"Okay, green, scary, funny hair," Ray said, and straightened. "Oh, hi, Maggie."
Fraser turned to find Maggie and Jim Thomsen, both in uniform, both out of breath. "We heard the shouts," Maggie said. "What happened?"
Fraser briefed her succinctly, and Ray added a word or two. When they were done Maggie looked thoughtful, and Dief was whining.
"Did you find something?" Fraser asked, and got a series of excited woofs in return.
"All right," Maggie said, as if she understood the barks as well as he did. "You track him. Jim and I will attempt to find more witnesses. That okay?"
"Yes," Fraser agreed. "Keep an eye out. If he was this bold, he may return."
"We'll be careful," Maggie said. "Ben, you be, too. I don't like the look of this."
"We'll watch our backs. Dief?"
Dief was more than ready. He took off toward the edge of the tents, with Fraser in tow and Ray right behind him. He finally paused at the park boundary, sniffing carefully.
"You are tracking a man in a green nylon windbreaker," Fraser told him. Dief whined.
"He can smell that?" Ray asked.
"Well, being a manmade material, nylon has a rather distinctive odor."
Ray looked skeptical. "So how's he know it's green?"
"Well, he can't actually smell color, Ray."
"I know that."
"But contrary to popular belief, wolves have some color vision. I was merely informing him in case he happened to spot our quarry."
"Oh, you mean like over there?"
Fraser jerked his head up just in time to see a flash of green disappear behind the hotel across the street. Ray was already pelting toward the spot, with Dief beside him, and Fraser followed on his heels.
"Ray!" Fraser called.
Ray didn't slacken his pace. "Yeah?"
"You don't have jurisdiction here."
"Don't need it. I got you."
That was true enough. "You don't have a gun."
That made Ray nearly stumble, and Fraser caught up to him, catching his elbow to right him. Ray shook off the assistance and rounded the corner of the hotel building. "You wanna argue technicalities now? Damn it, there he is!"
Fraser got a line of sight just in time to see a bulky man in a green jacket -- and, yes, bushy blond hair -- turn their way and raise a rifle.
Fraser grabbed for Ray's shirt, pulling him back to the cover of the building. Ray landed hard against his body.
"Fraser! Look, if you're gonna grab a guy, you gotta --"
A shot rang out, and then a second, and Ray stopped protesting. There was the sound of feet on gravel -- moving away, Fraser thought, not closer.
"Damn it," Ray said, voicing Fraser's thoughts, if not his chosen method of expressing them.
Fraser disentangled himself from Ray's body and peered around the corner. The green-clad figure was gone. Then he heard the squeal of tires on pavement.
He and Ray made it to the front of the hotel just in time to see a black truck speeding away. The plates were not local -- a fact easily discernible from their shape -- but the number was obscured with mud.
"Dief!" Fraser called, but for once Dief was not chasing after the fleeing vehicle. Instead, there was a bark from the direction in which they'd come.
"Fraser, I think he found something."
"I believe you're right."
They made there way back around the building to the spot where they'd first seen the suspect. Dief had his nose to the ground, investigating something white. A piece of paper.
Ray reached it first, but, mindful of his police training, didn't touch it. "Looks like a note. Some kind of a code."
Fraser pulled out a handkerchief and used it to pick up the paper. "17," it said in a heavy scrawl, "1400. Otter."
"Seventeen could be a date," Ray speculated. "That's tomorrow, right?"
Yes, that was it. "Then fourteen hundred is the time."
"What about the otter thing? This has something to do with fur- bearing animals?"
"I believe it's a reference to an airplane, Ray. The deHavilland Otter is one of the more commonly used aircraft in the Arctic."
"It's a rondy view," Ray said.
It took Fraser a moment to translate that. "Do you mean 'rendez-vous'?"
"That's what I said."
"So you did. Yes. The problem is, this doesn't specify a location."
"No, not that. Here. Someone was supposed to meet him here. That's why he left the note."
It was good thinking. "If that's the case, it will be soon," Fraser said, looking around for cover. There wasn't much apart from a shadowed doorway at the hotel's rear loading dock. Fraser ducked into the darkened space. "Ray," he called.
"I'm good right here."
"The second party could be along any minute now."
"I know that." Ray glanced around quickly, then turned back to Fraser. "I want him to see me."
"Ray, you're not making any sense."
"Look, I got a green shirt on. The hair's right. It may not fool the guy for long, but it could be long enough for you to jump him."
Fraser felt his pulse leap. Ray was talking about setting himself up as bait. "I can't let you do that, Ray. You're not a police officer here."
Ray's jaw tightened. "Hey, did I ever say anything like that to you in Chicago? No? I didn't think so. C'mon, you gotta give me this one, Fraser. We're partners."
Logic fled in the face of that onslaught. In some sense, Ray was right: they'd risked each other's lives so often, it was like second nature to them. And he hadn't had jurisdiction in Chicago, he'd simply had a thirst for justice, which was what Ray had now. "Okay," Fraser said. "As you wish. But Ray --"
He couldn't say be careful, as Maggie had said to him. Ray would take it wrong. "Ah, it's not important."
Ray gave him a look, but a moment later there was the crunch of footsteps on gravel. Fraser shrank back into his alcove, grateful not to be wearing red, and Ray turned away from the sound, crouching down as if he were tying a shoe. Another good call -- in that position, his size and shape were obscured, and he almost looked like their suspect.
"Riley!" A voice called out. The footsteps came closer.
"Yeah?" Ray answered, low and muffled.
"Riley, what the hell's going on, here?" That was no Canadian accent. It sounded like flat, midwestern American. "You were supposed to be here an hour ago. I go over to check and that damn Mountie chick is asking everyone questions. You said it would be quiet. You said we'd -- hey, what the f--"
He'd realized that Ray was not his partner. Ray spun to face him just as he came into Fraser's range of vision. "Uh, you know, Riley asked me to meet you here, to tell you that the, uh, the thing is set up for tomorrow."
The man wasn't fooled for a moment. He swung at Ray, catching Ray's jaw with his fist, and Ray went flying as Fraser leaped from his hiding place. Unfortunately, the man seemed to have a sixth sense, because he whirled to face Fraser, and this time he had a weapon in his hand.
Fraser raised his .38. "I advise you to drop your weapon and surrender. You are under arrest."
The suspect clicked his safety off. "Oh, yeah, says who?"
"Constable Benton Fraser, Royal Canadian Mounted Police."
"Well, look here, see? I got a gun and you got a gun, and the way I see it, my gun's bigger, so you should just drop yours. You got that?"
Behind him, Fraser saw Ray make it to his feet, rubbing his jaw. "Yes, but there is one aspect of the situation you appear to have overlooked."
The heavy face looked confused. "Oh yeah? Like what?"
"Like the fact that I have a partner." Ray made his move right on cue, a nice chop to the man's upraised arm that sent the weapon flying. A second blow and Ray had the much-larger suspect on his knees.
Fraser stepped forward and bent to secure the man's hands behind his back using his belt since he wasn't carrying handcuffs. "Thank you kindly, Ray."
"Sure thing, Fraser." Ray's cheek was red where he was rubbing it, which might mean a future bruise, but he didn't seem seriously hurt. "You taking this scumbag in?"
There was something too obvious about that, like Ray had meant it for the ears of their captive. "Yes, that would be the appropriate thing to do."
"See, 'cause I think he might have a thing or two to tell us, first. Like the whereabouts of tomorrow's meet-up."
"I don't know anything," the prisoner said. "Riley doesn't tell me dick."
"Oh, yeah?" Ray cocked a fist. "Well, maybe this will refresh your memory."
"Hey, you can't do that! You're Canadian."
Ray made a face. "Do I look Canadian? Huh? Do I sound Canadian? I don't think so. Well, let me show you how we treat guys like you in Chicago."
"That's police brutality!"
"No, you see, up here, I'm not a cop. I'm just an ordinary citizen dealing with a two-bit fart hammer like you."
The captive swiveled to face Fraser. "You can't let him do this. Arrest him or something!"
"Well, I'm afraid that since he is a private citizen, I can't arrest him until after he's broken the law."
Ray pulled his fist back. "You gonna spill?"
"He can't do this."
"Actually, I've seen him do it a number times in Chicago," Fraser said, not specifying what "it" referred to. "He is rather, ah, respected by certain members of the criminal element there."
Ray bared his teeth and took hold of the man's shirt.
"Okay, okay," the suspect said, "You win. I'll talk."
"C'mon, out with it."
"There's a cabin out past Simpson Lake. Riley's been holed up there. I'm supposed to meet him with the plane there tonight or tomorrow, but he didn't tell me what time."
Ray gave him a smile that didn't reach anywhere near his eyes. "Thank you." Then he looked over at Fraser, and the smile went real.
This was Ray Kowalski in his element, and doing quite an efficient job. Fraser hadn't realized he'd missed this Ray, too, but he had -- the intuitive grasp of the situation, the instinctive courage. And the fierceness, yes, that was part of Ray, too, but in this case he was certain (well, fairly certain) that Ray had had no intention of doing any bodily harm. He was just very, very convincing.
"If you would kindly get to your feet," Fraser said, helping the prisoner up, "and Ray, if you could collect his gun, we'll be on our way."
"You got it," Ray said, with another grin wide enough to make Fraser's heart stop.
It was one case, nothing more, but it felt wonderful to be working with Ray again.
They made the arrest cleanly. Maggie drove them out there and they surprised the guy, surrounded him, and cuffed him, just like that. Then it was a question of waiting for Maggie's friend Jim and another constable named Rick to show up so they could cart Riley plus the stolen goods back to the Detachment in town.
It felt good. On the way home, Ray bounced happily in the front seat of Maggie's pickup, crammed as he was between Maggie and Fraser, with Dief at their feet, squashing them worse. Okay, so part of the bounce was from the rough gravel road, but most of it was pure satisfaction from a case solved and ten crates of recovered artwork in the back of the pickup.
"Ray," Fraser said.
They hit another bump and Fraser winced. "I wonder if you might manage to move your elbow."
Oops. He was digging into Fraser's side. "Sorry." But truth be told, there wasn't really anywhere for him to move his elbow to. He didn't want to crowd Maggie; she needed to be able to drive. Ray leaned forward and extracted his arm. He could stay in this awkward position, leaning forward . . . or he could lean back.
Yeah, that worked. Ray rested his elbow on the seat back, which meant his hand had nowhere to go except Fraser's shoulder.
"Oh dear." That was spoken under Fraser's breath, which meant he wasn't supposed to hear it. Ray felt the devil take hold of him once again. He didn't know why Fraser tweaked that part of him, but he did. Instead of pulling back, Ray stretched his arm out and slid it down until it was resting along the seat back, just brushing up against Fraser's now- tense shoulders.
"That better?" he asked with his best who, me? look.
Fraser kept his chin resolutely forward, but Ray saw him do that little flick thing with his tongue, running it along the inside of his lower lip. "It was perfectly acceptable before."
"Is it acceptable now?"
Ray kept his arm like that the whole way back to the RCMP Detachment. He knew what was going through Fraser's mind, and he didn't care. He was just so damn happy they'd solved the case. Solved? Hell, he was thrilled they'd had a case. Him and Fraser together, proving the team still worked. Trusting each other. And getting the job done.
They were greeted by the Head Mountie -- a sergeant, Ray remembered -- and the elderly woman who was the artist the stuff had been stolen from. Well, some of the stuff, anyway. Ten crates worth looked like the guy had been busy for quite some time.
"Mackenzie," the Sarge said, "Fraser! Nice work."
"Thank you, sir," Maggie said, and Fraser said, "Oh, it wasn't just us, sir. We had help." He gestured for Ray to join them. "Sir, this is my friend and partner from Chicago, Ray Kowalski. Ray, this is Staff Sergeant Meeks."
"Nice to meet you," Meeks said, clasping Ray's hand in a hearty handshake.
"Detective Kowalski was instrumental in tracking and apprehending the suspects," Fraser said.
"Good, good, we're always happy to have competent assistance," Meeks said. "You here for a long visit?"
"Uh, yeah," Ray said. "It kinda looks like it could be awhile."
"Great. See if you can't keep Fraser out of trouble, eh?" Meeks smiled broadly, then turned to spy the load in the back of the truck. "Now let's see what we've got here."
They all went to unload the boxes under the eager eye of the Inuit artist. When Fraser pried the second one open, she cried out happily. She was talking in the native lingo, but Ray didn't have to understand the words to know what she was saying.
"I'm afraid we need to inventory everything before we can give it back to you," the sergeant said, but the woman didn't seem to care.
"Who did this? Who found my treasures?"
Maggie smiled at her. "You owe your thanks to Constable Fraser and Detective Kowalski."
"Constable, thank you," she said, shaking Fraser's hand. Then she turned to Ray. "You are not a Mountie."
"Uh, no, ma'am. I'm from Chicago."
She gripped his hand tightly. "Thank you for coming from Chicago to find my artwork."
Ray gave an embarrassed laugh. "Well, um, actually, I was already in the neighborhood. We just happened to be around when you noticed your stuff had been swiped."
Bright, intelligent eyes peered up at him. "You are here to stay, then?"
Damn, she knew the hardest thing to ask. "I hope so," Ray said.
She looked at him a moment longer and then nodded her head sharply. "If you need something, you will ask me. Mary Mangilaluk. I live on Centennial street, but you can just ask. Everyone knows me."
It was almost overwhelming. Certainly far cry from the polite but distant friendliness he'd previously encountered around town. "Uh, thank you. That's really kind."
She patted his hand again and turned back to the crates, watching as her carvings and jewelry were unpacked, checked, and catalogued. Fraser was already working on the fourth crate, so Ray went to join him.
He was expecting a protest, but Fraser didn't so much as quibble, and neither did anyone else. Like everyone just accepted he belonged here.
After two long weeks of worrying and not fitting in, it felt great. Almost as good as solving the case in the first place. Ray worked side-by- side with Fraser until the last crate was unpacked and inventoried and stored in the evidence room of the Detachment's main building.
It was late when they finally got home to the apartment. The sun was hovering on the horizon -- peeking through buildings and treetops like it really was going to set tonight -- but for some reason, Ray wasn't tired. Still hyped up from the day, no doubt. So no doubt he'd crash, soon. But right now . . . right now he knew what he wanted. He wanted to blow off some steam.
They got ready for bed quickly, and Fraser lay down, closing his eyes like he was already asleep. Ray went to adjust the window shades. There was no way Fraser was asleep that fast. Not the way he'd been looking at him, at the blanket toss. Not after the thing in Maggie's truck. Fraser had it bad, tonight.
Ray left one shade open -- the one in kitchen, so it was bright enough to see, but still private. Hey, there was no point in playing without an audience. He got into bed, pulled his t-shirt off over his head, and then lifted his hips to squirm his way out of his boxer briefs, too. Fraser's eyes didn't open, but he couldn't possibly have missed the commotion.
Oh, well, if that was the way Fraser wanted it, he could suffer. Ray pushed the covers down to his knees and reached to touch his cock, which was already halfway hard. He made a little noise, just to make sure Fraser knew what he was doing, but Fraser didn't even flinch. Damn he had good control.
Ray pulled on his dick for a bit, but it wasn't as much fun as he'd been expecting, with Fraser so studiously ignoring him. It was enough to make him think he'd been wrong about the looks and the tongue thing earlier. Enough to make him wonder if maybe Fraser really was asleep.
Well, there was one way to tell for sure. Ray got out of his bed and crouched beside Fraser's. In one easy motion, he flipped the covers off, shoving them down to Fraser's feet. Oh, yeah. That was better. Fraser might be pretending to be asleep, but he had a tent in his boxer shorts the size of a kielbasa.
"Fraser," Ray said quietly. But Fraser's eyes stayed shut. "Look, I know you're awake. You can't fool me."
Fraser's eyes opened, then, and turned to meet Ray's, but there was something wrong. Those eyes were full of a nameless pain -- not the studied innocence he usually used to deflect a good-natured ribbing, but something deep and ageless and very, very lonely.
"Oh, geez," Ray whispered. "Fraser, I'm sorry. I didn't mean . . ."
"You didn't do anything, Ray," Fraser said softly. "I'm afraid I'm the one who should apologize."
"For wanting . . . more than you can give."
Ray swallowed, hard. Fraser was wrong. It was his fault, for teasing that control, for wanting, in some weird, inexplicable way, to see Fraser break it. "Take off your clothes," he said.
"I don't think that's a good idea right now."
"Look, I've seen it before. Take 'em off."
Fraser closed his eyes again, but not in pretense. It looked more like he was doing battle inside himself, that awesome willpower fighting against his obvious need. Ray had no idea which would win. He had no idea which he wanted to have win. And then Fraser said, "As you wish," and stripped off his undershirt and boxers.
Ray looked up and down the length of that body, stretched out pale and strong before him, and knew he'd been lying. Yeah, he'd seen it, but he hadn't really looked. Not like this. Not this close.
Fraser was watching him, the hunger now plain on his face, and Ray suddenly knew he couldn't just ask Fraser to watch him beat off. Surely he could give his friend -- the best friend he'd ever had - - something more than that.
"You know, you're not so bad," he said.
Fraser's eyes widened. "That's very kind of you, Ray."
"No, I mean it. For a guy, you're, uh . . . you're pretty much gorgeous."
"You don't have to say things like that."
"Wasn't saying it 'cause I had to." The weirdest thing was, that was the truth. Fraser was gorgeous. Even he could see it. Without really thinking about it, he reached forward and ran a finger across the smooth, pale skin at Fraser's hip.
Fraser's breath caught.
"You got soft skin," Ray said: more unexpected truth. "I know girls who'd kill for skin like that."
"I'm not a girl."
"Funny thing, Fraser. I noticed that myself." It wasn't like he could miss it. He could see Fraser's pulse in the slight bobbing of his long, swollen cock. Uncut -- yeah, he'd noticed that before, but now he was seeing it up close. The extra sheath of skin looked . . . smooth, between the ridges of criss-crossing veins. He didn't stop to think, because if he thought, he'd be second-guessing himself. Instead he slid his hand down the little hollow of Fraser's hip and across to the dark, curling hair. He'd certainly touched himself often enough. Touching Fraser couldn't be that different. Ray slid his fingers through the curls and felt Fraser shiver beneath him. Okay, a little different, but not necessarily in a bad way.
"Ray . . ."
"You don't have to do this."
"Never said I had to." He ran his fingers to the base of Fraser's cock, and then, very slowly, slid them up the length of the shaft. Fraser's cock twitched, and he let out a sound somewhere between a sigh and a moan.
Ray let his whole hand wrap around the shaft and squeezed gently. The skin felt as silky-smooth as it looked. Not unpleasant, on any level. And Fraser didn't seem to be complaining. Ray moved his hand up, pumping lightly, and felt Fraser's foreskin slide with him. "That okay?"
Fraser's answer was half grunt: "Yes, Ray."
He pumped again, and felt Fraser's whole body shudder. Sheesh. If he wanted to, he could have Fraser off in a matter of minutes. But truth be told, he was kind of curious, and he didn't know if he'd get this chance again.
"Can I touch you . . . here?"
The tip of Fraser's cock felt kind of like his own -- if anything a little bit softer. Ray rubbed his finger across the slit and down to the turtleneck collar of the foreskin. It moved easily, but he really didn't want to do anything to cause pain.
"Ray, could I . . . ?" Fraser said softly. His hand closed around Ray's, pulling it away, like maybe he'd done something wrong. But then Fraser brought Ray's hand up to his mouth and sucked his fingers inside, one by one.
It should have been weird, but somehow it didn't feel strange at all. It felt warm and wet and he could feel the pebbled texture of Fraser's tongue against his fingertips, the soft pressure of lips. Fraser's mouth was . . . talented, definitely talented. It was enough to make him think . . .
Oh, geez. He'd never really pictured that before. But why not, if Fraser wanted it? It wasn't like Fraser had any other qualms about where he put his mouth. And, God, that tongue . . .
Fraser released his fingers, finally, and guided them back down to his cock. They were wet and slippery now, cooling rapidly in the air, and they slid across Fraser's cockhead like a sled runner on smooth ice. Mmm, yeah, Fraser liked that. Ray got bolder, and encircled the foreskin, pushing it down. It slid easily, revealing more soft, moist skin. Ray ran a slippery finger across the revealed underside of the cockhead, and Fraser's whole body jerked.
"No, it's just . . ."
Sensitive as hell. Not that that was a bad thing. Ray brushed his finger around to the top side of the cockhead, and this time Fraser merely twitched. That was better. He kept his touch light -- much lighter than he would have, touching himself -- and stroked up over the head. This time Fraser whimpered.
Fraser was just so damn responsive. It wasn't like he had to worry about whether he was hitting the sweet spot. He could tell instantaneously, and there was something kind of cool about that.
Ray moved his hand down and slid the foreskin forward again, and this time Fraser moaned. Hmm, that was interesting. He did it again, with a little more pressure, then tightened his hand to pump like that, over the head, back and forth.
"Ray," Fraser said, but it didn't sound like a complaint, so Ray kept pumping.
But Fraser was too far gone to answer coherently. "Ray, I . . ." he said, and Ray suddenly realized just how close he was. He hadn't meant . . . but it was too late. Fraser's whole body tightened, abs and legs and arms, even -- so tight his hips lifted up off the bed. "Ray," he said, and bucked against Ray's hand. Ray held on as Fraser spasmed again, and then there was hot, sticky fluid shooting all over Fraser's stomach and the bed.
"Ray . . ."
"S'okay, Fraser, I'm still here."
"I realize that. I . . ." Fraser's face was flushed and damp, his breathing ragged. "Thank you."
Oh, geez. That felt wrong, very wrong. Being thanked for a hand job felt cheap, somehow, like he'd done it all for Fraser. But, then, well, hadn't he?
Ray shifted on his knees and stared at a point on the wall across the room. Of course he'd done it for Fraser. Out of friendship and -- admit it -- curiosity. There was nothing else going on.
"Are you all right?"
"Oh, yeah, I'm great." But he couldn't make himself look over. He didn't want to see the expression on Fraser's face: concern, and undoubtedly love. Fraser wouldn't understand, even if he tried to explain.
He thought Fraser was going to press it, but he didn't. Fraser shifted on the bed and busied himself doing something or other -- probably mopping up the mess they'd made. Ray sighed, straightened his cramped legs, and climbed back onto his own bed. And then, finally, Fraser went still. Leaving him alone. Not even trying to return the favor.
For a few minutes, Ray thought he was grateful. Fraser wasn't going to push him, and that was cool. But it was weird that Fraser hadn't even made an offer. What kind of friendship was that? A guy does something for you -- a big something -- and all you say is, "thanks"?
"You could, uh . . . you could touch me."
Dead silence. Then: "Are you sure?"
"'Course I'm sure. Why would I be asking if I'm not sure?"
"Well, you might feel that -- "
"That was one of those rhetorical questions."
Fraser sat up in bed, and Ray had to look over. Fraser looked . . . almost scared. Fraser, who was braver that anyone Ray knew. "It won't freak me out," Ray said softly, certain it was truth. "I promise."
Fraser swallowed visibly and slid off the bed, down on his knees beside Ray. One hand came up and stroked the side of Ray's ribs so gently his fingers might as well have been a feather. He obviously needed encouragement. Ray wriggled toward him, closer to the edge of the bed, and covered Fraser's hand with his so Fraser couldn't pull it away.
"I won't break," he said.
"I realize that." But Fraser didn't exactly look like he believed it.
Ray took Fraser's hand, still caught in his own, and rubbed it against his chest. "See?" He pushed Fraser's hand downward, down to his navel, lower. He'd lost his earlier hard-on, but it felt like it was starting to come back.
Fraser finally found some initiative and moved his hand under Ray's. He stroked Ray's stomach, and Ray let him do it, just for the curiosity of seeing what he'd do next. Fraser had big, warm hands that felt . . . nice on his skin. Yeah, Fraser could keep doing that.
Fraser's hand pulled away from Ray's and slid down to explore his hip, skirting the danger zone, but that was okay, for now. It slid lower still, onto his leg, stroking all the way down to his knee, which was nuts, but then, very slowly, it started to come up again, this time along his inner thigh. Yeah, that was okay, that was nice, that was . . . right, he was just about hard already. Fraser could touch his dick any old time. But he didn't, just went on to explore the other leg, damn it, like he was scared of the equipment.
Ray gritted his teeth. He wanted to be touched, now, and if Fraser wasn't going to do it, he would have to do it himself. He lifted his hand to do the honors, but Fraser caught it before it ever got there.
"Ray . . ." There was too much messed up stuff in that one syllable. Ray didn't even want to think about it.
"Hurry up, Fraser. I don't wanna wait all evening."
"It hasn't been five minutes, Ray."
"I'm not good at waiting. Thought I told you that."
"I see." Fraser bent his head so that Ray couldn't see his face, but after a moment, his hand let go of Ray's. It came down, circling closer, and finally slid over to touch his dick, feather-light. It was maddening. It was as if Fraser thought he was made of eggshells, when what he really wanted was fast and hot and hard. "I'm sorry, Ray," Fraser said. "I'm not sure I know how to do this."
"It's not that difficult." Sheesh, the man was impossible. "Do it like you do yourself."
"I'm afraid that's the problem. The anatomical differences make it rather difficult to replicate the usual mechanics."
Ray couldn't help it: he had to laugh. He'd thought it was just his problem, figuring out what to do with all that extra skin. He hadn't figured on Fraser having the same difficulty, in reverse.
Fraser flinched at his laugh and tried to pull his hand away, but Ray reached down and caught it before he could. "No, like this," he said, still smiling. He wrapped Fraser's fingers around his now half-hard dick and squeezed. Hmm, not bad. Fraser's hand moved under his, slid up a bit and squeezed again, and that was even better. "Just, um, just play with it."
Fraser took his cue, then, and played, rubbing and rolling and squeezing -- well, almost hard enough -- until Ray was fully erect and starting to feel damn good. And then, just when he'd got his eyes closed and was really getting into it, Fraser's hand left him.
"Wh- what?" He opened his eyes in time to see Fraser stick his fingers in his mouth, and then they came back to touch him, damp and slippery, and damned if that didn't feel even better. Fraser's hand came around him, circling right below the cockhead, and started pumping him properly. Ray let out a long sigh and lay back, letting the sensation build. Okay, Fraser knew what he was doing, after all. It was nice, it was good . . . but suddenly, he knew he wanted something else.
"Fraser, could you . . . ?"
"Could you use your mouth?"
"Of course, Ray." This time Fraser didn't hesitate. His hand was replace by warm, wet lips, that soft-textured tongue, and no . . . no teeth, just smooth heat that went . . . too far, way too far, Fraser had to be swallowing him, damn it.
"Mmmm?" Fraser didn't let go of his cock, and the humming sound felt, oh God, amazing.
Ray didn't even know what he wanted to say. "Don't choke, okay?"
He didn't get an answer to that, just warm wet heat moving up and down him, swirling around him, making his head buzz and his feet tingle. The heat in his groin spread outward, creeping into his gut and down his legs, setting his nerves on fire. Talented didn't even begin to describe it. There was another word, there had to be, only right now he couldn't remember his own name, much less come up with a term that could describe this feeling. He was close. He was so close. And just as he realized that, he felt Fraser start to slow down.
Oh, geez. He couldn't. Fraser wouldn't do that to him. But Fraser slowed further, easing up and down his shaft like a kid with a popsicle he wanted to make last. The tongue . . . did a weird sort of circular flick against him that made his whole body tremble. It was torture. And Fraser was doing it on purpose, damn him.
"Fraser . . ."
Oh, God, that humming thing again. He was going to go nuts. "C'mon, finish me. Don't leave me hanging. Oh, God, Fraser, please . . ."
That did the trick. Fraser shuddered against him and started moving fast, almost too fast, but no, it was right. It was perfect. Sensation shot through him, turning his brain to fire. He was a goner; he could feel it start in his balls and fill him, rushing outward, rushing fast, but Fraser didn't let go of him. Fraser's mouth kept working as he gushed and, oh geez, Fraser was swallowing, Fraser was licking him dry.
Ray couldn't move. It felt like his bones had turned to jello, and the best he could do was quiver. So that was why they called it a blow job, 'cause it blew your mind.
Fraser finally lifted his head. "Are you all right, Ray?"
All right didn't begin to describe it. "Yeah. No. I don't know."
Ray managed to force his eyelids open so that he could look up into Fraser's concerned face. "How . . . no, I mean . . . where did you learn how to do that?"
Fraser's face looked suddenly pink. "Right here, Ray. I learned it from you."
"Hey, I just touched you. I didn't do that."
"I didn't mean . . . that is, I learned by doing it, Ray. You made it . . . amply clear when you appreciated my efforts."
"Oh. You mean you never did that before?"
"I'm afraid not."
"Wow." But it made sense in a weird, Fraser-sort of way. Only Fraser would be able to get it that right the first time. "So this is one of those only-been-in-love-twice things, right?"
"I'm afraid so."
"That's okay. It's fine. I'm not complaining or nothing." Actually, in a weird way, it was pretty cool. It made them more like equals in this, even if in other ways they weren't equal at all. "It was great."
"Thank you, Ray."
"Uhn-uh. No way. You do not thank a guy for letting you give him a blow job. That's not the way it works, okay?"
"Well, in this particular case, I thought --"
"Then stop thinking, okay? Just . . . just go to sleep."
Fraser, being Fraser, should have protested that, but all he said was, "All right," and went to climb back into his own bed.
Which meant Ray had won this round. Whatever that meant. "Good."
"'Night, Fraser." Ray settled down on his back with his hands behind his head. He could feel Fraser's presence in the next bed, and it felt . . . all right. Close. So maybe he ought to be freaked out that they'd just basically had sex, but somehow, panic didn't come. It wasn't a thing like that time with Rodney. Fraser hadn't done anything to hurt him.
In fact, Fraser had made it surprisingly easy. So now he just had to figure out whether he wanted to do it again.
Ray was sleeping like a dead man, but the way Fraser saw it, he had a right. It had been an eventful day yesterday, what with the blanket toss and the chase afterward. They hadn't made it home until nearly three in the morning, and they hadn't exactly gone straight to sleep.
Fraser looked down at the mixing bowl on the counter in front of him. Oh, dear.
"Did you happen to notice whether I added the salt?" he asked.
"That's what I was afraid of." He used a spoon to fish out as much of the extra salt as he could, then stirred the batter together. He still couldn't believe what Ray had let him do last night. What Ray had asked him to do, a request he had been helpless to refuse.
He didn't know if he should be panicked this morning. He didn't know how he should feel; he only knew that his blood was singing and his pulse was racing and he wasn't sure quite which direction was up. He only knew that the sleeping form in the bed across the room was the most important thing in his universe, and he both craved and dreaded Ray's waking.
Fraser spooned batter into the hot skillet and then poured water over the grounds for coffee. He rarely drank the stuff, himself, but Ray wasn't human in the morning without it.
Fraser was checking one of the flapjacks to see if it was ready to turn when he heard the floorboards creak behind him.
"That smells good."
Fraser willed his face into a bland, composed expression and turned around. "Good morning, Ray."
Ray yawned. He looked sleepy and rumpled and perfectly edible. "Uh, don't let them burn."
Right. The flapjacks. Fraser turned them hastily -- barely in time -- and then went to pour Ray's coffee. "Please sit down. These will be ready in a moment."
Ray yawned again and took the coffee. "Thanks, Frase." He sat down in front of his plate and waited while Fraser dished out cakes and poured another batch.
Fraser sat down opposite and passed him the maple syrup. Ray had taken a gulp of coffee, now, and was looking a little more awake. "I'm afraid the flapjacks may be a bit salty," Fraser warned him.
Ray doused his with syrup and took a bite. "Nah, they're great." He shoveled several more forkfuls in and then looked up with an open, teasing expression that made Fraser's pulse jump. "So I guess last night wasn't exactly what you been dreaming of, huh?"
Fraser felt his face go warm. "Ray, I . . ."
"What? Don't tell me you don't fantasize, Fraser. I won't believe it."
Oh, dear. He didn't even know how to be honest about such a subject. "Well, no, I didn't mean . . . that is, it's just that my fantasies don't usually go, ah, quite so far."
Ray set his fork down. "Oh, yeah? How far do they go?"
Fraser looked down at his plate, his face burning. "Usually I just think about kissing you, Ray."
He didn't dare look up. "Well, I . . . I generally don't need anything more than that."
"Oh. Oh. I, uh . . . is there something burning?"
Damn. Fraser was so rattled that he almost said the curse out loud. "Excuse me."
The second batch of cakes was burned beyond edibility. Fraser put them in Dief's dish and started a new batch. He should have known not to make flapjacks around Ray. It was a given he'd be distracted.
"So, you going in to work late or something?"
"I'm not due until nine o'clock," Fraser said, grateful for the change of topic. "I meant to tell you yesterday that the duty roster was changed. I'll be on patrol for the next five days."
Ray looked up from the rim of his coffee cup. "Oh, yeah? On patrol where?"
"Heading out toward Tsiigehtchic, actually. I'll be home on Tuesday."
"Wait, you're not gonna be back until Tuesday?"
"Yes. As I said, the Staff Sergeant altered the duty roster yesterday afternoon."
"And you couldn't have mentioned it? You couldn't have said, 'Sorry, buddy, I gotta split for a few'? I mean, how hard would that have been?"
Ray was genuinely upset, and Fraser felt his heart sink. "I intended to tell you yesterday evening. I suppose I forgot in the midst of all the excitement. I'm sorry, Ray."
Ray's mouth compressed for a moment, but then his expression cleared. "Yeah, okay. I buy that. But next time, give a guy some warning, okay?"
"I'll do my best," Fraser promised.
"Thank you." Ray looked up again. "Fraser, your pancakes?"
Double damn. Fraser jumped to his feet to turn them, only to find hopeless black chars, worse than the last time. "Oh, dear."
"Might help to pay attention," Ray said.
There was no point in arguing that. Ray was perfectly correct. Fraser poured out a fresh batch of flapjacks. "Perhaps if I stood here and watched them . . ."
"Yeah, you do that," Ray said. But then he smiled.
Fraser turned and forced himself to watch the skillet, and nothing else. Because that smile . . . oh, dear, that smile was as distracting as, well, as anything Fraser could think of.
Ordinarily he enjoyed patrol duty, enjoyed being out in the clean open spaces away from town. But today he felt no such inclination. He didn't even want to go to work. He'd much rather stay here and spend the day with Ray, even if they didn't engage in anything remotely resembling last night's activities.
It was tempting, once again, to call in sick, but once again he resisted. He could not do that to Ray or to himself, no matter how much he wanted. And no matter how much Ray had been willing to give him last night.
Fraser jerked back to awareness in time to realize that the flapjacks needed turning. He managed to avoid burning this time . . . barely.
Distracting didn't even begin to describe it. Ah, well. He was certainly going to have a lot to think about, out on patrol.
A day without Fraser felt like an eternity. Okay, it was stupid, because Fraser spent his days at work, anyway. But there was nothing to look forward to in the evening, nothing to wake up to the next morning. Ray got up, made himself a quick breakfast of toast and pemmican -- which, weird though it was, he'd actually gotten used to -- and went out.
He tried the library first, but he didn't feel much like reading, so he wandered around town instead. After two weeks he felt a little more familiar with the place, which had seemed so stark, open and unfinished when he'd first gotten here. The buildings all seemed bare and new, still -- nothing more than forty years old -- and there were parts of town that felt like some kind of 50s wonderland, with identical Monopoly-board houses all painted pink and yellow and blue pastel. But he no longer expected to see manicured lawns or parking garages, and he didn't blink twice at the mix of people -- Dene (that was Indian, Fraser had explained), Inuvialuit (Western Inuit), and white (meaning everyone else, dark or light). He even knew the reason for the buildings on stilts and the big conduits, now: everything was above ground because of the permafrost, which was only a few feet (or, in some places, inches) down.
Ray walked by the Catholic church (which was white, and shaped like a giant igloo), passed a few bars (open for business already), and ended up in the park overlooking the Mackenzie River. There were benches by the river, so he sat down. He needed to do some hard thinking, anyway, and this looked like as good a place as anywhere. He had to get a grip on things, because now that the flush of solving a case was over, he was pretty sure he'd made a serious mistake.
He should never have gone that far with Fraser. It was leading him on. No, worse, it was using him . . . but he'd gone and asked for that blow job without thinking. Oh, yeah, not thinking was what had gotten him into this, and now, damn it, he couldn't stop thinking.
Fraser had never been with a man before. Ray was certain of that, now. The fact that he'd never gone down on a guy, that he'd never fantasized about anything but kissing . . . well, Ray didn't actually believe that part. Oh, sure, Fraser probably did manage to get off that easily -- from what he'd seen, Fraser pretty much had a hair trigger. But Fraser had to think about other things, at other times. Ray just didn't know how realistic those thoughts were.
Weird truth: if he was the only guy Fraser had ever been with, that meant he, Ray, was the more experienced of the two of them. He was the one who knew what he was doing . . . and, damn it, he knew exactly what he didn't want to do.
But he couldn't stop thinking about Fraser's mouth. Fraser's tongue on his cock. Fraser's lips, and his throat, and that crazy humming thing. And somehow that got mixed up with the thought of Fraser fantasizing about kissing him, just kissing, and the realization that the only time they'd ever kissed -- if you could call it that -- had been the buddy breathing thing.
He could kiss Fraser. He knew he wouldn't flip out, the way he'd known he wouldn't freak when Fraser touched him. In fact, he kind of wondered what it would feel like: if Fraser would taste as good as he remembered, if his lips would be as soft, and as strong.
But that wouldn't be fair to Fraser. He couldn't go using Fraser to satisfy his curiosity, because Fraser really loved him. If he kissed Fraser once, he had to be prepared to do it again, and again -- so he shouldn't do it at all, like he shouldn't have asked for that blow job.
Of course, he wouldn't mind repeating that. The problem was, it wasn't reciprocal, and he wasn't about to make it reciprocal, so he shouldn't have asked for it in the first place.
It was a mess. A complete and total mess, and he'd gotten into it all on his own.
And the craziest thing about it was, mess and all, right now the only thing he wanted was for Fraser to come home.
Part V: Spring Greening
Monday morning found Ray alone in the apartment once again -- and getting pretty damn sick of that state of affairs. It wasn't that he didn't get out. He'd gone to check out the Arts Festival again on Friday, and to his surprise, Mary Mangilaluk had asked him to stick around. So he'd gone every other night, too, and on Saturday he'd even broken up the beginnings of an ugly-looking fist fight. Not that Maggie or the other Mounties couldn't have handled it, but he'd been there, and they'd been across the square, so he'd taken care of it. And then, on the last day, Mary had taken him aside and pressed fifty dollars into his hand. An honorarium, she called it, not pay, but maybe they could budget for security next year.
Next year, like she believed he was going to stick around that long. It meant as much as the fact that he had money, Canadian money earned on Canadian soil, in his pocket. She believed in him. It made believing in himself just a little bit easier.
Yeah, it helped. But it would help even more if it was Tuesday, and Fraser was home. Ray hauled himself to his feet and went into the kitchen, where he'd put the little boombox he'd bought yesterday. It wasn't the same as a stereo, but he'd brought a few CDs with him, and he was going nuts without music.
He searched through the stack of disks for the one he was looking for: Lhasa's La Llorona. Okay, so half the songs reminded him of Stella, but right now, that part didn't matter. He still cared about Stella. He always would. But he was back to the point where he'd been on the quest, when thinking of her didn't hurt nearly as much. He could remember the good times, her sweet smile, the way she had felt in his arms when they danced, and he felt . . . fondness. Not desperation. Not even all that much guilt.
He didn't know why it felt like that when the rest of his head was a mess, but it did.
The CD was only half-over when there was a sharp knock on the door. Ray's heart jumped, but, no, if it had been Fraser, he wouldn't have knocked.
It was Maggie, out of uniform and relaxed. "Hi, Ray."
Well, Maggie wasn't Fraser, but she was the next best thing. "Uh, Fraser's not here. He's not due back 'til tomorrow."
Maggie just smiled a friendly smile. "I wasn't looking for Ben. I stopped by to see you."
It didn't mean anything that way. Of all the people on the planet, Maggie was the only one who even came close to understanding what was going on. "You want to come in?"
Maggie stepped inside and closed the door behind her. "I just wanted to thank you for helping us out at the festival. I didn't get a chance last night."
"That's okay. It was, uh, it was my pleasure."
"Mary Mangilaluk is quite impressed with you. You should know she carries a lot of weight in this community."
He'd figured that much already by the way other people seemed to defer to her. "Thanks. That's cool."
She tipped her head. "So you and Ben are all right, then?"
Ray knew what she was asking. He wasn't sure he could talk about it, but he understood. "We're good," he managed. "We're buddies."
Maggie touched his arm. "I'm glad for that."
She stood there looking at him for a long moment, reading who- knows- what in his features. And then she smiled again. "I should have you both out for dinner sometime."
"That's great. Hey, maybe we should have you and, uh . . ."
"Jim over here."
Maggie smiled. "I'd like that."
"Well," Maggie said, "I suppose I really should be --"
She was taking off, leaving him alone in the empty apartment, and suddenly Ray wanted her to stay. He needed a distraction, any distraction, and Maggie would do. The strains of "De Cara a la Pared" were coming out of the boom-box, sweet and sad, and they suited his mood perfectly.
"May I have this dance?" Ray asked.
He took her hand and held it lightly. "C'mon, just one little dance. Then you can go do Mountie stuff or something."
"It's my day off," Maggie admitted.
"See? So you got time for a dance."
"Ray, I don't really think . . ."
"Not like that," Ray said, suddenly realizing what she was thinking. "Just like friends, okay? Friends can dance."
Maggie looked up into his face, searching again, and apparently finding something. "Well, all right." She put her hand on his shoulder and let him pull her into a light clasp, moving with him as he took the lead.
It wasn't like dancing with Stella. Maggie was light on her feet and althletic, but she didn't have Stella's skill, or Stella's almost-magic way of anticipating what he would do next so that it never felt like leading. Still, it felt good. Maggie was his friend, really and truly. And it was a distraction from all the crazy thoughts buzzing around in his head.
Oh, yeah, he needed that.
It was all Fraser could do not to appear impatient. The support staff in the Detachment were usually reasonably efficient at booking a suspect, but today it was lost files and computers not working and delay after delay, when he desperately wanted to be home already. He had no right to feel put-upon. He was a day and a half early, returned because he'd apprehended a liquor-smuggler, and Sergeant Meeks had told him he should go home as soon as he was done with the booking. So he knew he ought to be grateful, he really should, but it was astonishingly difficult to school his face into a pleasant, patient expression.
Another fifteen minutes and the paperwork was finally, mercifully over with. Fraser shouldered his pack, thanked the harassed clerk kindly, motioned to Dief to follow, and hightailed it out of there.
There was no telling Ray would be home, he chided himself. He knew Ray tended to spend his days out, at the library or elsewhere in town. Ray wouldn't be expecting him. There was no reason to get excited. But as he climbed the stairs to the apartment, his heart was pounding with anticipation.
He heard it as he reached for the door: music, a song that sounded oddly familiar. Oh, dear. He knew what he remembered it from: the night he'd interrupted Ray in Stella's apartment, this was the tune they'd been dancing to.
Fraser took a deep breath and expelled it slowly. If Ray was playing that music, he was undoubtedly in the middle of a very private moment. He should leave, go somewhere else, give Ray the space he undoubtedly needed. But it had been four long days without him, four days in which he'd found himself fantasizing about more than just kissing, and he couldn't bear to go even a few more hours without seeing Ray's face. If it were truly private, he promised himself, he'd make up some excuse to leave.
Fraser pushed the door open slowly, letting Dief in before him to give Ray some warning, but Ray didn't even look up. Fraser halted, the door half-open. Ray was having a private moment, certainly, but not of the sort he'd imagined, because Ray was not alone. He was dancing with Maggie, holding her gently about the waist.
There was a loud thud, and Fraser realized he'd dropped his pack. Ray and Maggie both started at the noise, pulling apart with a jerk and turning toward the door.
"Fraser, whatcha doing here?"
That was a very good question. Fraser realized with a peculiar pain in his gut that this was the very last place he wanted to be. He shouldn't be jealous. He had no right to be jealous, had no claim whatsoever on Ray's affections, and Maggie . . . Maggie wouldn't do that to him, he knew she wouldn't. But he couldn't help himself. Logic had nothing to do with this feeling "I'm terribly sorry, Ray. I didn't mean to interrupt. I'll just be . . ."
"Fraser, don't be an idiot."
"Ben, we were just dancing."
Just dancing. Well, Ray had a right to dance with anyone he pleased. Just because Ray would never want to dance with him . . . "Yes, of course," he managed, but he knew his tone didn't match the polite words at all.
"Fraser --" Ray said, and Maggie said, "I just stopped by to see how Ray was doing. It's nothing more than that."
But the song was still playing, the song that had to remind Ray of Stella. Dancing with Maggie, thinking of Stella . . . what did it matter, anyway?
"Maggie," Ray said, speaking when he couldn't, "would you mind, uh . . ."
Maggie looked almost relieved. "Of course not. Ben, I'm sorry, I . . . I'll see you later."
"Yeah," Ray said.
Fraser had to move to let her by. He stepped aside and held the door for her. He could not be impolite, no matter how his heart was aching. But if she'd been anyone other than his sister . . . no. He squelched the thought and turned back to face Ray, who was busy petting Dief.
"I'm terribly sorry to have interrupted you. I'm afraid I returned rather earlier than expected due to the fact that I apprehended --"
"Fraser," Ray interrupted, straightening, "it's not what you think."
"I think I interrupted two people dancing."
"Look, I was just lonely, and she stopped by. It didn't mean anything. It was just dancing."
"A worthwhile pursuit, to be sure. It has been said that dancing is as old as --"
"We're just friends, Fraser."
"-- love. Ray, there's no need to coddle my feelings." He had to say it, had to keep talking because if he didn't, he didn't know what he'd do. "I understand that you have a social life. I'm quite happy to see that you --"
Ray took two steps toward him. "She's practically engaged to Jim Whatsisnose."
"-- get along well with my sister, and I certainly would never stand in the way of your developing --"
"Fraser, shut up."
"-- personal attachments to anyone --"
"-- you might happen to meet, either here or --"
"Okay, that's it." And before Fraser could say anything more, Ray closed the distance between them, cupped warm hands around Fraser's cheeks, and kissed him.
Fraser forgot what he was saying. Forgot the music, the dancing, and his own name. Ray's lips were warm and soft, an exquisite contrast to the rough brush of razor stubble. And they didn't pull away. They moved against Fraser's mouth in a long, slow exploration as Ray tipped his head and buried his fingers in Fraser's hair.
It was nothing like his fantasies. It was achingly real. He could feel the heat from Ray's body, so close to his, could feel every movement of Ray's lips like a tiny taste of fire. It was better on dry land, Fraser's dazed brain decided. Oh, yes. Much better.
Ray finally pulled back, looked hard into Fraser's eyes and then dropped his hands back to his sides. "Enough of that shit, okay?"
Fraser stared at him, still too stunned to think straight. "Ray, I . . ."
Ray's mouth went belligerent. "Do I gotta kiss you again?"
Yes, please. "Ah, no."
"Good." Ray gave him another assessing look, and then stepped back and leaned against the kitchen counter. "So did you get your man?" he asked, like they'd been in the middle of a perfectly normal conversation.
Fraser's brain somehow managed to connect to his tongue. "Well, yes, actually, I did."
"Good," Ray said. "Now that's the Fraser I know and love."
It was just a figure of speech. If he said something, Ray would tell him he'd meant it symbolically or something. But Fraser couldn't help it, he felt a shiver run all the way up his spine. Ray had kissed him. It still didn't seem possible, but Ray had done it without any prompting. Of course, Ray had done it to shut him up, but he'd certainly taken his time about it, even so.
It was painfully confusing. He didn't want to hope, but he couldn't help himself. Something, somewhere in the bottom of his heart had started humming a deep, sweet melody, and he didn't know how to make it stop.
He needed . . . too much. Far more than what Ray could give him. He needed to hold Ray and touch him, to please Ray with his hands or his mouth or any other body part. He needed to see Ray's face suffused with pleasure, not just once, but again and again.
It was too much to ask. Too much to hope for. Too much to even be thinking about, if he considered it logically.
But this humming in his heart had nothing to do with logic.
Oh, now he'd gone and done it. Ray stared at Fraser's stunned expression, watching the involuntary flick of his tongue across his lips. He'd blown it big, this time.
What was he thinking? Fraser showed up, and all his resolutions went out the window? It was insane. It was stupid. He ought to be committed. But it had felt damn good.
Oh, yeah. That was the problem. Fraser tasted even better than he remembered. Not like lake water. No, this time Fraser tasted almost sweet, with that hint of a piney scent he always seemed to have, like he carried the great outdoors around with him even in the middle of town.
It wasn't fair. If there had been something, anything, to turn him off, this would have been easier. But Fraser's lips had been warm and inviting, and he'd only just managed to resist the urge to open his mouth and . . .
"So tell me about this smuggling thing," he said, like he really wanted to know. Okay, it wasn't that he didn't, but what he really wanted was to get Fraser talking about something, anything, so that he didn't have to stare at those lips and think stupid thoughts about kissing them again.
"Ah. Yes. Right. Well, I imagine you know that a number of the communities in this area forbid the sale or transport of alcohol. As there are no community police here, it is the duty of the RCMP to . . ."
Ray let him go on, feeling the words wash over him without really listening. Trying to listen and failing miserably, because there was a funny buzzing sound in his head and all his arguments about Rodney and being fair to Fraser were making less sense by the minute. He wanted another kiss. He really wanted another kiss. It was insane, but . . .
His thoughts and Fraser's story were interrupted by another knock at the door. Ray answered it because he was closer, and found Maggie on the landing once again. But something in her manner said she hadn't just come back to apologize or check up on them. She had a cell phone in her hand.
"Ray, I'm sorry. I would never do this to you, but there's a situation out there and it looks like we need Ben. A fugitive in the bush, out past Aklavik. They think he has a hostage and we're desperate for trackers."
Ray felt Fraser's presence behind him, solid and close. "Of course," Fraser said, all business. "I'll just need a few minutes."
Maggie looked both guilty and relieved. "Thanks, Ben. I'll tell them you're coming." She turned to Ray. "Forgive me."
"It's okay," Ray said, the thought forming as he spoke. "I'm going with him."
Two pairs of blue eyes stared at him. "Ray, this is official police business," Fraser said.
"That's funny. I thought you admitted I never said that to you in Chicago." Ray turned back to Maggie, suddenly more sure of himself than he had been in months. "You're short on manpower, right?"
"Yes, but I'm not sure . . ."
"Hey, they'd be sending out the posse if they could, right? So what's the difference?"
"We can certainly ask Sergeant Meeks," Maggie conceded.
"Good," Ray said, and turned back to Fraser. "Okay, what do I need to bring?"
"Ray, I can't let you do this."
"Are we gonna waste time arguing, or are we gonna get cracking?"
"Ray," Fraser said, but then Maggie jumped in.
"Ben, he's a trained professional. We're not likely to get another volunteer as competent."
"Thank you," Ray said. "Fraser?"
Fraser looked back and forth between them, and then, finally, conceded defeat. "We'll ask," he said. "I can't guarantee anything, but we'll try."
"Okay, good," Maggie said. "I'll see you both --" she stopped at Dief's woof "-- that is, you three, at the Detachment."
Fraser set to work before the door had closed behind her. He exchanged a few items in his own pack and put together a second for Ray, organizing food (pemmican, biscuits, dried fruit, and dog food), a bedroll, and a few items of clothing. Ray fetched things for him and made a few suggestions, but mostly just watched the astonishing efficiency of it all. But as he watched, the magnitude of what he had just done slowly dawned on him.
He was asking to go with Fraser when things were a mess between them. He was talking about spending an unknown amount of time together, when he hadn't been able to go five minutes without kissing him. He was risking messing things up worse, or . . . oh, yeah. He knew what he was risking. It was put up or shut up time.
He could stay here. Stay and have a heart-to-heart with sanity and this time really get his head on straight: promise himself he'd never tease Fraser, or kiss him, or touch him again. Or he could go and let whatever happened happen.
It was nuts, but he couldn't stay. He didn't want to be sitting around waiting for Fraser to come home again. He wanted to be out there where the action was. Where Fraser was. And if that meant going all the way, doing things he didn't really want to do, well, that was the price he'd have to pay. He couldn't keep doling out little favors like a virgin saving herself (himself, whatever) for the wedding night. It was all or nothing. It had to be, because the alternative was this crazy limbo that wasn't doing either of them any good.
"Excuse me, Ray. I'll be back in a moment," Fraser said, and ducked into the bathroom.
It was his chance, the only chance he was likely to get. Ray dug in the closet for the stuff he'd brought from Chicago, the K-Y and condoms. Yeah, there they were. He stuffed them in a plastic bag and shoved them down into the pack. Not that he was planning on using them. Well, not for sure, anyway. But if anything was going to happen, he knew damn well they'd better be prepared.
He wasn't that stupid.
"Are you ready to go?" Fraser asked, coming out of the bathroom.
"Pitter patter," Ray said.
They shouldered their packs and headed down the stairs.
Ray wanted to come along on the manhunt. It was perfectly understandable, if one knew Ray as well as Fraser did. Ray had to be going stir crazy here in Inuvik, with no job and nothing else to occupy his days. Ray was a person designed for perpetual activity, for risk and danger.
It was not as though Fraser had forgotten the fact. It was just that . . . well, one-way-ticket or no, Fraser simply hadn't expected that Ray would want to stay. For three weeks, now, he had been holding his metaphorical breath, waiting for Ray to recover from his shell-shock, realize that the situation was untenable, and go back to Chicago.
But it didn't seem to be working that way. Ray had given no indication of wanting to leave. His cabin fever, if that was what it was, was only showing up now, as this insistence to join the tracking party.
Well, if this was what Ray truly wanted, Fraser would do his best to get it for him.
"Sir," Fraser said, when the Staff Sergeant appeared to have a moment. "I wonder if I might ask you something."
"Certainly, if you make it quick."
"I was wondering if it would be possible for a civilian to join the search."
"Ah, you've rounded up an experienced tracker?"
"Well, not exactly, sir."
"Fraser, this is no place for amateurs. We need seasoned men who know the area and know what they're doing."
Fraser bowed his head. "I understand, sir. It's just that --"
Ray chose that moment to poke his head around the door. "Fraser, did you find those flare guns? Maggie says she got extra cartridges for us."
"Ah, yes, I did," Fraser said, his heart sinking. Ray looked so eager and hopeful that it broke his heart. "I'll be with you in a moment, Ray."
Ray nodded and left, and Meeks chuckled. "Oh, you meant Kowalski? Why didn't you say so in the first place?"
"Well, I hadn't made it to that part of the explanation yet, sir."
"He's a good man. We could use his help."
Fraser felt the relief flood through him. "Thank you, sir."
"If I partner you with him, that means I can send Thomsen with Mackenzie."
"They're a good team, sir."
"Yes, yes, in more ways than one. All right, let's get moving."
Ray and Maggie were waiting outside, talking to Jim Thomsen. "Fraser," Ray said looking up at him with the question plain on his face.
"I brought the flare guns," Fraser said, crouching to add them to the packs. "Also, Ray, you should have this." He handed him a hunting knife. "Consider it a tool rather than a weapon. I'm afraid the permit issue for a gun is still a thorny one."
Ray's face split in a delighted grin. "Thanks, Fraser. Are you and me partnered?"
"If you'll have me," Fraser said, echoing the words he'd said to Ray so many months ago.
Ray's chin jerked up, blue eyes meeting his in clear recognition. "Oh, yeah," Ray said, and Fraser suddenly thought . . . but, no. Ray meant for tracking, and nothing more.
"Come on, you two," Maggie said, her own pack already on her shoulder. "The plane's waiting."
The fugitive's name was Michael O'Connor. He had come up from Edmonton in a prop plane, apparently piloting it himself. The RCMP pilot set them down near O'Connor's plane, at the edge one of the many lakes that dotted the flat terrain.
There were a couple of Mounties were already at work, examining the little aircraft. Ray followed Fraser as he went over to talk to them.
They'd gotten their briefing on the short flight. O'Connor was a convicted murderer -- yeah, apparently they had those up here, too -- who had escaped prison in Saskatchewan, disappeared for a week, and then resurfaced to steal the plane in Edmonton, taking an airport employee with him as a hostage. Theories were divided on whether he was headed for Alaska or Russia. They had mug shots, fingerprints, and a whole lot of speculation, but not much in the way of hard details. The worst part was, the guy had a two-day lead on them.
"Looks like he had engine trouble," the early team reported. "He was lucky to land this thing."
"May I look?" Fraser asked, and climbed into the plane when they gave their assent. He came out again a few minutes later. "He appears to have taken some emergency equipment. Possibly life jackets or a raft."
"Smart guy, then."
"It would appear so. Dief?"
Dief came up, jumped into the plane and sniffed around, then came back out, still sniffing. He followed whatever he was smelling off to the right, and Fraser followed after him, so Ray figured he should tag along. The search ended with a whine at a narrow, winding stream.
"Looks like he knows what he's doing," Maggie said, coming up behind them. "He used the water to hide his scent."
"That means there are only two ways he could have gone," Fraser said. "Upstream or down."
"Down is more likely," Maggie reasoned. "He would be hoping it led to a bigger body of water."
"Hmm," Fraser said. Ray knew that sound well. It meant Fraser had some other idea up his sleeve.
"So, uh, why don't you and Jim go downstream, and Fraser and me go up?" Ray suggested.
"That what you want to do, Ben?"
"Hmm? Oh, yes, that would be perfectly acceptable."
They shouldered their packs, confirmed the general patterns the search-planes would be flying, and wished Jim and Maggie luck. Then the three of them took off upstream, walking among the low plants and bushes and scattered, stunted trees that were what grew around here. It was slow going, because they kept coming to ponds and lakes that were close to, or even connected to the stream, and whenever they did, Fraser would stop and take Dief all the way around the perimeter, looking for the trail. But each time they ended up back on the course of the stream, which meant they'd found exactly nothing.
"So what makes you think he went this way?" Ray asked after awhile. He could still see the squat form of O'Connor's airplane behind them, but Maggie and Jim's figures had dwindled to nothingness.
"Well, I can't be certain, Ray."
"C'mon, you got a hunch or something. You got a reason."
"The stream runs generally north," Fraser said. "O'Connor would have been able to see the general terrain from his aircraft, even if he is otherwise unfamiliar with the area. So he has to know that the only thing due north of here is the Beaufort Sea."
"So if he's got a blow-up raft or whatever, why doesn't he want to go there? It's water. He could paddle off to Russia or somewhere."
"It's a long paddle on open water," Fraser said. "The route south leads to the Rat River, which connects to a number of inland waterways and would provide better cover."
"You mean, cover like trees?"
"Yes, we should reach denser forest before sunset."
"Fraser, we're north. The sun doesn't set."
"Actually, it will set tonight, Ray. At our current latitude I calculate that it will go down for approximately seven minutes."
"Wow. Seven minutes of dark?"
"More like twilight, I'm afraid."
Ray grinned. That was one thing he'd forgotten to take into account -- they were out in the open, so there wouldn't be any window shades to close. "Guess that's better than nothing."
Fraser . . . turned pink at that, and Ray suddenly realized what he was thinking. Nighttime, darkness, sleep, other things. Oh, yeah.
Ray felt a surge of something wash through him: anticipation, nerves? All he knew was that it left him short of breath and more than a little confused. The thing was, he was happy to be here, to be out doing something, to be on a case for the second time in two weeks. He was happy to be with Fraser, as buddies, as partners. But it was more than that. He could admit it, now. The impulse that had made him want to kiss Fraser just a few hours ago was back, and growing stronger as they walked.
Fraser was wearing jeans and a flannel shirt -- apparently the uniform wasn't real practical for the bush -- and he looked good. Not good like the kind of guy you didn't want to be standing next to when you were cruising for chicks. Good like somebody you'd be cruising for.
It was back to that thing Jerrit had said, about if it was the Mountie asking, he'd reconsider. It was back to thinking hard about what he wanted, and whether he knew what he wanted, and what it would mean if he did. But, damn it, Fraser's butt looked good in those jeans. It wasn't a crime to think that. Half the planet already thought that. He was just a little slow to come around.
He hadn't been doing that stuff just for Fraser. He knew that now, with a growing certainty that felt honest, real, and right. The teasing, the touching, the kiss . . . he could admit it, he'd enjoyed them all. A part of him now even wished . . . but, see, that was the problem. He did not want to be doing anything that involved pain. He didn't like pain. And even if he maybe almost felt that way about Fraser, he just wasn't sure he could make that kind of sacrifice.
But it was put up or shut up time for sure, with Fraser blushing at the thought of darkness, and him thinking weird thoughts about Fraser's butt. It was going to be the time of reckoning, whether Fraser's theory about O'Connor was right or not.
For a moment, heretic thought, Ray almost wished it wasn't. But then he thought about who he was with, and the satisfaction they'd both get from nailing the guy, and the crazy wish vanished.
Anyway, knowing Fraser, the chance that he was wrong was, well, pretty damn small.
They started seeing more trees by evening. First there were just bigger clumps of them here and there. But as they kept going up the now- dwindling stream bed, the trees started showing up in tens and twenties, some of them even kind of tall.
As the trees got more common, the stream got narrower and the ponds fewer, but Fraser continued scouting along the banks with Dief. Ray kept his eyes peeled, too, but he knew this was one realm where Fraser and Dief knew a lot more than he did. And then, on one such scouting expedition, Dief got excited, barking and sniffing around, and Ray followed Fraser to investigate.
"Hmm," Fraser said, and then, "Ah."
"You find something?"
It was a broken branch. Just a branch, but Fraser thought it was significant, so Ray didn't question it. "He went that way," Ray said, pointing to the most obvious path through the trees.
"Yes, I think he did," Fraser agreed, and they all three set out in that direction.
The going was even slower now, with plenty of pauses to look for tracks and clues. There were occasional signs here and there: more broken twigs, some disturbances on the ground that might have been footprints, and once a bit of torn fabric. Navy blue polyester, Fraser said, like an airline employee's uniform.
"So maybe she's still alive."
"This does appear to be cause for hope."
Around eleven, with all three of them dragging and Ray's feet starting to seriously ache, Fraser called a halt. They set up camp quickly, rolling out their bedrolls and eating a quick meal of hard biscuits and pemmican, and when they were finished, Fraser lay down on his bedroll.
"You going to sleep?" Ray asked. It was still bright as day out, even here in the shade of a clump of pine trees, and he felt . . . tired, yes, but on edge, too. Fraser had been almost distant during dinner, speaking only about their quarry, and maybe that was just tiredness, but maybe it was something more.
Fraser didn't look over at him. "Yes, Ray. Sleep is very important. As a matter of fact, sleep deprivation can lead to serious consequences, including errors of judgment and in extreme circumstances even hallucinations."
Errors in judgment. Yeah, he was all over that. But it was too late now, because the error had been made a long time ago . . . this morning, when he'd kissed Fraser, or three weeks ago, when he'd gotten on that plane, or two years ago, when he'd agreed to go undercover as Ray Vecchio. The inevitable had led him here, and he didn't want to fight it any longer. Ray picked up his bedroll and repositioned it, spreading it out right next to Fraser's, so that they made a single wide bed. "I know a good way to make us sleepy," he said, and stretched out next to Fraser's long form.
"Ray --" Fraser started, but Ray cut his words off with a kiss. Oh, yeah, Fraser had nice lips. And if his stubble was a bit prickly, well, Ray had to figure his own was worse.
Ray opened his mouth, teasing Fraser's lips with the tip of his tongue, and without warning, Fraser lost it. Fraser's mouth opened to his, tongue against tongue, and Fraser's arms came around him to pull him close, body hard against body.
This was how it was supposed to feel. Ray ground his hips against Fraser's, feeling Fraser's hard-on and not caring, because he was hard already, himself. Fraser wanted him. Fraser needed him. Fraser loved him.
Fraser's mouth left his to find the corner of his jaw, then a spot lower on his neck. Ray felt a shiver run through him. He wanted . . . he still didn't know what he wanted. Fraser would suck him off, he knew that, but somehow that wasn't enough. Wasn't reciprocal enough. He needed to do something for Fraser, too.
"Hang on a sec." Ray sat up and shed his clothes in record time, then twisted to dig in his pack as Fraser finished undressing beside him. He knew exactly where the stuff was, it was just a question of digging under . . . oh, there. He pulled out the lube and condoms and tore off one packet, then turned back to Fraser and set the supplies on the bedroll between them.
Fraser saw what they were and looked up at him, then lifted a hand to stroke his cheek, eyes searching Ray's face like he could read something there. "Are you sure this is what you want?"
Ray nodded slowly. Okay, it would hurt, but he was prepared for that. He wanted, no, he needed to do this. To feel this close to Fraser. He didn't care if it hurt.
"All right," Fraser said, still with that very serious look. But he reached for Ray, pulling him close, and lips met lips again.
There was bare skin everywhere, pressed against Ray's thighs, his hips, his cock. It was new and overwhelming, and he couldn't think straight. Ray dug his fingers into Fraser's back, and Fraser groaned and devoured his mouth once again.
This was right. It was weird to be so sure, after so many hours of wondering, but the feel of Fraser's body against his left no room for doubt. He needed this, maybe even as much as Fraser did. He just hadn't realized how good it would feel.
Fraser's mouth left his again, trailed down to his chest again, and he felt an electric jolt shoot through him as that tongue found a nipple. Oh, geez, that was . . . Fraser's mouth slid down further, and Ray knew he should protest, knew he should say he wasn't asking for that, but he couldn't figure out how to make his tongue move to form the words.
The sweet, moist shock of lips closing around his cock set all his nerves singing. Okay, so Fraser shouldn't be doing it, but, damn, it felt incredible. Ray thrust up into that mouth, and Fraser took it all, took him in and did that incomprehensible thing with his throat until Ray couldn't believe he wasn't choking.
Fraser eased up on him, took him all the way in again, eased up a second time and then abandoned him. "Shit."
"Patience, Ray," Fraser said, and Ray heard the sound of the condom wrapper tearing.
Oh, God. But right now, he'd take anything, do anything, just for another moment of that sensation. Fraser touched him -- another tiny shock -- and then he felt . . .
"Fraser, what are you doing?"
"Well, I assumed you got out the prophylactic because you wanted to use it."
Ray squeezed his eyes shut. The man couldn't possibly be that clueless. "Not on me, Fraser. You were supposed to put it on yourself."
"Is there something wrong with doing it this way?"
"No, I . . . look, you don't want to do it like that. It hurts."
"I see." Fraser's hand touched him, stroking him through the latex sheath, and it was suddenly hard to think straight.
"Look, you gotta trust me on this one. I know. I've tried it."
Fraser's hand went abruptly still. "But you're willing to try it again. For me."
"You think I'm that selfish? You think I'd want to hurt you?"
Fraser's hand started moving again, sending tingles up his spine. "No, Ray, I don't believe you have a selfish bone in your body. But I think perhaps you might do better to cultivate one."
"You want me to be selfish?"
"Just this once, yes, I would appreciate it."
Ray opened his eyes and stared up into the pine branches and the endless sky. "Fraser, you're nuts."
"Perhaps," Fraser said. "Ray, please?"
The hand on his cock was merciless, and Ray didn't know how to fight it. He needed something. Anything. All he knew was he needed it now. "Okay, yeah, whatever."
"Thank you." Ray heard the pop of the K-Y tube opening, felt Fraser's hand stroke down him again, and then Fraser pulled him close and he had to look into that face again.
Okay, it was no hardship. Fraser's eyes were soft with desire. Fraser wanted this, wanted him, and that was all he needed. "Fraser, roll over."
"I'd rather not."
"Look, I know what I'm doing. That's how it works." That was what Rodney had done, anyway, and Rodney had a hell of a lot more experience than either of the two of them.
"I believe that the anatomy will allow for this position as well, Ray. It's simply a question of achieving the appropriate angle."
"I want to be able to see your face, Ray. Please?"
Damn it, he couldn't even get Fraser to listen to him this much. "Okay, we can try it, just . . ."
Fraser cut him off by pulling him up and on top of that long, solid body, and all protests were off. Damn, it felt good. Ray pushed himself up with his arms, not sure what the hell angle Fraser was talking about, but Fraser reached to touch him, to guide him, and he felt the soft opening, slippery with lube.
Oh, God, he wanted . . . but he didn't want to hurt Fraser. Ray held himself up, held himself back . . . and felt Fraser's hands on his hips, propelling him forward.
Fraser's body gave around him, and he felt heat and tightness, and . . . the hands stopped abruptly, holding him still.
"Oh, shit. Fraser, I'm sorry, I --"
"No, it's all right. I just need to relax the . . . ah, yes, there." And Fraser's hands tugged him forward again.
It didn't feel like Stella. It didn't feel like anything he'd ever felt before. Hot and tight, yes. But the angle was different, and it just felt . . . oh, geez, he was all the way in, balls tight against Fraser's ass.
"Fraser, you okay?"
"Yes, Ray." Fraser's hands slid up his sides to his shoulders, pressing, insistent. Ray bent forward and Fraser's mouth caught his, wet and demanding. And then he felt Fraser's body squeeze tight around him.
It was assault from both ends, and it was overwhelming. Ray released Fraser's mouth and pulled back to thrust into him. Oh, God, it felt good, and Fraser didn't protest. Fraser moaned. Ray did it again, and Fraser reached between them to touch his cock.
It couldn't be so awful for him, if he wanted to do that. Ray moved and felt Fraser move with him, meeting push with shove, matching Ray's strokes with corresponding pumps on his own cock.
Ray was lost. He needed this, more than he had ever needed anything in his life. Needed Fraser, and needed release. But, oh damn, he couldn't, not just yet. He had to wait. Fraser would wait for him.
Ray slowed his rhythm. He wanted . . . he needed . . . But then Fraser squeezed him again, arching up against him, and oh God, he didn't have to wait anymore, because Fraser was coming, coming hard beneath him. Ray thrust into him, feeling the rhythm of that pulse, shoving harder as Fraser moaned. It was beautiful, it was right -- Fraser was squeezing him hard, and with another thrust he was there, too -- and then Fraser's eyes were open and looking up into his for one perfect, timeless moment, as the waves of pleasure rocked him all the way to his soul.
Ray bent forward and kissed that swollen mouth as the shudders slowly calmed between them. Was this what love was? It wasn't like it had been with Stella, but then, he'd always felt like he had to prove himself to Stella, even in bed. Fraser . . . gave as much as he took, and gave it unconditionally.
He already knew he loved Fraser as a friend. Now he knew he was going to want this, too. Add up the equation: maybe this was real love -- this, not the heartache yearning he'd always felt for Stella, the one that never got filled no matter how much time he spent with her because he'd never quite believed she felt the same way about him.
"You okay?" he whispered against Fraser's lips.
"No, Ray. I'm far better than okay."
He couldn't help it. He had to smile. "It didn't hurt?" he asked, even though he knew it had.
"No." Fraser's blue eyes looked up into his, then glanced away momentarily. "Well, only at the beginning. After that it was . . . quite pleasurable."
Damn, that was Fraser being polite. But he'd seemed to get something out of it, however he'd managed that. Ray didn't want to think he was a masochist. No, don't go there.
He was losing his erection rapidly; he could feel it happen. Ray reached down to grab the edge of the condom, holding it on as he slipped out. Damn, he'd filled it up but good.
Ray lifted his head to meet Fraser's soft blue gaze. "Yeah?"
"We should get dressed."
Ah, hell. Why did Fraser have to pick now to be practical? "Do we have to?"
"Well, between the ambient air temperature, the risk of biting insects, and the potential need to get moving quickly in the morning, it would seem prudent."
"Oh, now that's romantic."
"Yeah, yeah, okay." Ray slipped the condom off and turned to pick up his scattered clothes. He got back into everything but his shoes and turned to find Fraser similarly dressed. "You want me to put my bedroll back where it was, too?"
Fraser's eyes held his steadily. "No, Ray."
"Good," Ray said, and crawled into his bed. Fraser was close beside him, and after a moment, Fraser slid even closer. That was better.
Ray shifted until he was lying against him, one arm across Fraser's chest, his head pillowed on Fraser's shoulder, and Fraser let out a long sigh.
"Am I squashing you?"
It was still bright out -- hours from sunset, if there was really going to be a sunset -- but it no longer seemed to matter. Ray held Fraser tighter and let the mind's gentle darkness overtake him.
They woke early, packed camp efficiently, and set off on the trail once again, but today everything felt different. They were lovers, now. Ray hadn't said anything about it directly, but Fraser knew, somehow, that the inner line had been crossed. Whatever Ray's reasons for doing so, he had decided on this course. In point of fact, he had decided before they ever set off on this manhunt, because he'd brought the supplies with him.
That was the confusing part. The lubricant and condoms appeared to be of American origin. They were American brands, labeled in English only. But if Ray had brought them from Chicago, he must have truly meant the offer he'd made that first night. Even if Fraser had been certain, at the time, that Ray hadn't wanted it.
It bothered him, even now that Ray seemed relatively comfortable with the act of making love. What if Ray had just gotten better at pretending? What if Ray were simply so lonely, he'd decided to sacrifice his normal desires for . . . this?
Fraser tried to concentrate on his tracking, but the doubts and worries niggled in the back of his mind. That, and Ray's casual revelation that he had had sexual intercourse with another man.
That part bothered him even more than the rest of it. All right, so it was probably mostly simple jealousy, but he was also concerned, because Ray had apparently not enjoyed the prior encounter. It hurts, Ray had said, and, well, so it did, but the pain had been transient. It had merely been a question of relaxing the sphincter muscles before proceeding any further. And then, oh dear, it had proved to be most pleasurable, far beyond anything he'd been expecting, and not merely for the emotional component. No, the physical side had been most illuminating. There were a number of things about the anatomy in question that he had not previously understood.
"Fraser, you sure he went that way?"
Fraser glanced around and realized he'd lost the trail entirely. Dief was off to his left, nosing around the base of a tree, and Ray was hanging back, looking at him like he had a hole in his bag of marbles. It wasn't so far from the truth.
"I'm terribly sorry." Fraser retraced his steps and went to look at the tree Dief was investigating. There was a noticeable scar on the bark, and the spruce needles and stones below it had been disturbed. "They stopped here," Fraser said. "It looks quite fresh."
"Fresh, like yesterday fresh, or fresh like a few minutes ago?"
Fraser bent and tasted the scar, feeling the granulation of the sap on his tongue. "A few hours ago, I think."
"I was wondering when you were going to start licking things."
Fraser looked up to meet Ray's smile. "I didn't think you minded so much any more."
The smile went teasing. "Depends what you're licking. I might get jealous of the tree."
Oh, dear. Fraser felt his face go warm. "There's no need for that."
"What're you saying? The tongue's mine for the asking?"
Warm was now hot, all over. "If you like."
"Oh, I like, Fraser. Trust me on that."
"Ray . . ."
The teasing grin was in full force, now. "What if I asked for it right now?"
It was tempting, so very tempting. But they were close on the trail now, and they couldn't afford to waste the time. "I'm sorry, I'm afraid we really should get moving."
Ray laughed. "See? Told you I was jealous of the tree." But he followed as Fraser set off on their path once again.
Despite the tantalizing clues, they did not appear to be gaining on their quarry. Fraser kept up the pace, but the signs they found continued to suggest they still several hours behind.
As they walked his mind went back to the problem between them, like a dog worrying an old bone. It wasn't that he doubted Ray. It was just that it was too new, too raw, and he doubted himself. He desperately wanted to know what Ray was feeling, and more, why he was feeling that way.
It hit the breaking point in the evening, after they'd lost the trail and spent an hour trying to pick it up again, only eventually rediscovering it when Dief decided to backtrack a good half a kilometer. It was clear they weren't going to find the fugitives tonight, and that frustration added in to the simmering confusion in Fraser's brain.
"Ray, would you mind if I asked you something?"
Ray gave him a sideways glance that said he knew this was trouble, but all he said was, "Fire away."
Right. Fire it was. "Who was he?"
Ray frowned. "Who was who?"
"The man who hurt you."
Ray grunted and made an impatient gesture. "Look, it doesn't matter, okay?"
"Yes, it does matter. It matters to me."
"Ray, did he violate you? Did he take you without your consent?"
"No. Geez, no." Ray shoved his hands into his pockets, studiously watching the ground in front of him as he walked. "It wasn't like that. Look, I was just . . . I was in a bad way, and I, uh, I had to know if I could take it. If I could stand to, you know, with a guy. So I found a guy, and I tried it, and it hurt. End of story."
Fraser was trying to understand, but it was hard. "This was some time ago, then."
"Yeah. No. It was a couple weeks ago. A month. Whatever."
That recent. A lump settled cold in Fraser's stomach. "Here or in Chicago?"
"Chicago. Look, can we just drop this?"
"It was because of me, wasn't it?"
Ray sighed and hunched his shoulders. "Okay, yeah, it was because of you. I had to know. I thought if I could stand it, I could come up here and be what you needed. But I hated it."
It was overwhelming. It explained a good deal . . . too much, in fact. "And you came here anyway," Fraser said gently.
"Yeah, I guess I did."
"You offered yourself to me."
"Look, I was out of my mind. I thought you didn't love me anymore."
That hurt. Ray's motivation was now all too clear. He'd come north looking for friendship, and fearing he'd lost it, so he'd been willing to sacrifice himself even though it wasn't what he wanted. "You need never fear that, Ray."
"I know that, now."
"Good," Fraser said. "Thank you. For coming up here, and for telling me this." He took a deep breath, but no, it had to be said. "I will understand if you are no longer interested in pursuing the physical side of our relationship."
"I realize that I have been demanding, and I can only apologize. I had no idea how you felt. And I am grateful for your friendship, Ray. You know that always comes first."
"Fraser, shut up."
"Ray, I'm very serious."
"Oh, yeah. Seriously unhinged." Ray caught his arm, swinging him around, and before Fraser could protest he was being kissed. Passionately.
They were still both wearing packs, but it didn't matter. Fraser felt desire surge through him, and he was powerless to resist. Ray's mouth demanded his soul, and he gave it, willingly. There was no other way. When Ray touched him, logic crumbled away, and there was nothing left but dust and rubble and raw, aching need.
In moments they were shedding their packs and Ray's hands were at his waistband, undoing his fly. Fraser wanted to stop him, to tell him he needed to take off his boots, first, but Ray caught his mouth in another kiss, and he forgot how to form words.
Ray released his mouth and pulled him down to the ground, carpeted here with sweet-smelling spruce needles. Ray turned to fumble in his pack, remembering -- thank goodness one of them still had enough sense -- to get out the supplies. And then he was pulling Fraser's jeans down to mid-thigh, and yanking on his own, and pressing himself against Fraser's bare buttocks.
Fraser had barely enough capacity for logic left to consider the angles, but he thought it would work this way, so he stayed as he was, on his hands and knees. He felt the cool touch of the lubricant, then the hardness of Ray's erection pressing against him. It was easier, this time, to relax the appropriate muscles, and Ray slid inside him like he belonged. Ray didn't pause for finesse, and Fraser didn't care. They could go slow some other time. Right now this was exactly what he needed.
Fraser reached to touch himself, but Ray swatted his hand away and took over the task himself, grasping him firmly and matching the thrusts of his body with strokes of his hand.
It was pleasure stripped down to the essence, need and impatience and desire rolled up into one. It was overwhelmingly, brutally physical. Fraser bit his tongue to keep from crying out and moved with Ray, pressing hard against him, squeezing tight those same muscles he'd relaxed, and exulting in Ray's corresponding gasps. He wanted to hear that sound over and over again, wanted to make this feeling last forever, but all too soon the sensation overpowered him. Pleasure crested, hung midair for a timeless moment, and crashed to earth in the age-old rhythm. And this time Ray was with him, pulsing inside him like a powerful heartbeat and gasping hard against his ear.
"Fraser," Ray whispered. Just his name, but it felt like a declaration. "Fraser."
"I know," Fraser said.
"Fraser, I --"
It was exactly in that moment that Dief whined. Not a jealous or a mocking whine. It was a warning, and very clearly so. Fraser silenced Ray with a finger over his mouth, and Ray rolled off him. Then, in that moment of silence, Fraser heard a twig snap.
They had let down their guard. Foolishly, knowing how close they were. Fraser berated himself silently as he hauled his jeans back up. His gun was in his pack. He should have had it in his waistband from the moment they determined the trail was only a few hours stale, but he'd been thinking about Ray, which meant he hadn't been thinking at all.
There were two people approaching through the trees, one heavy, the second lighter, and hurt, handicapped, or possibly bound. His gun was in his pack, right beside him. Fraser dug for it, a moment to late. He heard the sound of a shotgun being racked.
"Get your hands where I can see them."
"Hey, what d'ya think you're doing?" Ray asked. A bluff, Fraser recognized instantly. "You out hunting or something? 'Cause we're not exactly caribou."
It was O'Connor, easily recognizable from his mug shot even with two week's growth of beard. He stepped into the open, training the shotgun on Ray, and Dief growled.
"You're not Canadian," O'Connor said, and Fraser gestured to Dief to back down. Dief conceded by ceasing the growl, but his lip remained curled in a snarl.
"Who, me? Canadian? Uh, no. I'm from Chicago."
"Then what are you doing out here?"
"Look, we're just, uh, you know, out here hiking. Enjoying the wilderness. Actually, we were looking for the Rat River. You know where that is?"
"Jesus Christ, what did I do to deserve this?"
"'Cause, y'know, our compass seems to be working kind of screwy. It's that thing with magnetic north and true north. You know how that works?"
"Perhaps if you lowered the shotgun, we might discuss this more reasonably," Fraser said, but the gun in question only pivoted to point at him.
"You're not from Chicago."
"Nah, he's uh, he's from Minnesota. They talk funny up there."
It was a nice try, but something went hard and cold in O'Connor's face. "No," he said slowly, "I don't think so."
He'd seen something. Fraser glanced around. Ray had somehow managed to restow their lovemaking supplies, so it wasn't that. And then he saw it: his Stetson, lying on the forest floor where it had fallen in the midst of their passion.
"I don't know what you're doing with him, Mountie, but I know what you're doing here."
"Uh, what makes you think he's a Mountie?" Ray tried, but it was pointless.
"Ray," Fraser stopped him.
"I should kill you both."
It was time to play a different card. "That would be foolish, since we possess information that would be of value to you."
"Oh yeah, like what?"
"The layout of the terrain, the location of the Rat River, and the pattern currently being flown by the RCMP search planes."
"Okay, but I only need one of you," O'Connor said, and trained the shotgun once again on Ray.
Fraser's blood ran cold. O'Connor was perfectly capable of murder -- that was why they were here. "I would advise you not to hurt him," he said in a voice that felt as cold as his heart. "If you do so, I will not be responsible for my actions."
"Oh, please. You're another of these damn do-gooder cops. I know your type."
"You do not know me. If you kill him, you will not leave this wilderness alive."
There was a small, human noise from behind O'Connor, and Fraser was unsurprised to see the hostage, a slender woman with her hands bound in front of her and a second rope hobbling her feet.
"You shut up," O'Connor spat back at her.
"He'll kill you," the hostage said, shaky but defiant. "You know the motto. Mounties always get their man."
"Well, that's not actually our motto," Fraser said, anything to break the tension. "The real motto is 'Maintain the right.'"
"Fraser," Ray said, as the gun came back level with Fraser's head.
"It's all right, Ray," Fraser said, desperately wishing it were so. "He's not going to kill either of us."
"Well, not immediately, anyway. You need to think this through, first."
"Oh, thanks a lot, Fraser."
"Okay," O'Connor said, apparently coming to a decision. "On your knees, both of you. I want you back to back."
Fraser moved closer to Ray, but the gun was trained on both of them now. If it had been merely his own life he was risking, he might not have considered it, but he didn't want the bullet that killed him to hurt Ray as well. O'Connor moved closer to them, and Dief did as well, his hackles raised, growling once again.
"Call off your dog," O'Connor said.
"Dief," Fraser said, but Dief wasn't paying attention.
"Call him off."
"Well, I'm trying, but I'm afraid he's deaf."
"Oh, great. A stupid Mountie, a crazy Yank, and a deaf dog."
Dief chose that moment to attack. He sprang at O'Connor and Fraser leaped after him, trying to get his hands on that gun, but he heard a yelp and a howl from Dief and a moment later felt a shock of pain rocket through him. He was on the ground, looking up, and O'Connor was laughing, standing over him. It took Fraser a moment to recognize the implement in his hand: a cattle prod.
"Fraser, damn it, you okay?" Ray was crouched over him, his face as white as a sheet. "C'mon, look at me."
"I'm all right, Ray," Fraser said. Dief had fled to a safe distance in the shelter of a clump of spruce trees.
"Up on your knees," O'Connor said. "Come on, move it."
Fraser managed to get up, back-to-back with Ray, and maintained enough sense to hold his breath as O'Connor tied them together, but O'Connor did a thorough, professional job, tying them waist, chest, and both hands.
"There, now," he said. "That's better." And, apparently satisfied with his handiwork, he set about making camp, lighting a fire and laying out a sleeping bag.
It was their chance, while he was distracted. "Ray," Fraser whispered, "can you get any slack in the ropes?"
Ray grunted against him, shifting his back. It wasn't exactly a caress, but it reminded Fraser of how glad he was that Ray was still alive. "Nah, nothing."
Fraser wriggled his hands, but he couldn't move them enough to get access to the knots. "Just hold still," he said, and set to work trying every way he knew to get out of the bonds.
Oh, this was just great. Fraser was yanking on the ropes, trying to get them free, but from the feel of it he wasn't getting much of anywhere. The situation didn't look good. In fact, it looked downright ugly. And it was Ray's fault.
He wasn't stupid. He knew why they'd been caught unawares. Fraser would never have let his guard -- or his hair, or his pants -- down if Ray hadn't made him.
It was idiotic, but he just hadn't been thinking. Or rather, he'd been thinking about Fraser, which was far more dangerous.
Well, now he was going to have to help get them out of this, because Fraser's methods didn't seem to be doing much apart from cutting off the circulation to his hands.
"Fraser," he whispered.
"I can't feel my fingers."
"Understood," Fraser said, and the ropes loosened a bit.
Ray tipped his head back against Fraser's, turning his face away from O'Connor. "There's gotta be another way."
"We could attempt to cut the rope with a sharp rock."
"Yeah, but if he sees us doing it, he'll shoot us."
"We gotta take him out," Ray decided. And then he saw O'Connor's big mistake: he'd left their feet free. "Fraser, you remember the swimming lesson you gave me? You know, that time on the Henry Ander-- I mean, Allen?"
"Yes, I believe so."
"Good. I wanna do the third part."
"The third part," Fraser said, like he was thinking it through. "Right. That would be bloom, close --"
"Hey, shut up over there." O'Connor had his gun pointed at them once again.
It was now or never. "Look, I gotta take a leak," Ray called out.
O'Connor rolled his eyes. "So suffer."
"No, I mean I really gotta go. You don't let me loose, I'll piss in my pants."
"Doesn't bother me," O'Connor said. "But if you keep talking, I'll give you a taste of this." And he set down the shotgun to brandish the cattle prod instead.
"Oh, yeah, you're a tough guy," Ray said, laying it on thick. Fraser twitched against him, but didn't say anything. Trusting him, Ray hoped. "Real tough. But you know something? You wouldn't last a day on the streets in Chicago, and you wanna know why? Huh? Do you?"
"Shut the fuck up," O'Connor shouted.
Yeah, it was working. "'Cause you're a stupid sack of shit," Ray said.
That got him. O'Connor jumped to his feet and came closer, waving the cattle prod. "Take it back," he said.
Ray felt Fraser tense against him. Not yet, Ray willed him. "No."
"You're going regret this, you skinny little bastard. You're going to regret it big time."
Ray twitched his right hand against Fraser's, and Fraser understood. Fraser heaved against him, propelling him right up into O'Connor's face. Ray saw the cattle prod and knew, in that moment, that he wasn't going to be able to avoid it. But all that meant was that he had to make this one blow count.
He kicked hard, and with Fraser's strength behind him, his legs crashed into O'Connor. The pain slammed through him, worse than he'd been expecting, and for a moment the world made no sense. But Fraser was still there, Fraser was tied to him, and when he was able to think again they were both on top of O'Connor's chest, pinning him to the ground.
With a series of woofs and bounds, Dief was with them, snarling into O'Connor's face.
"Ray," Fraser said, twisting and pulling the ropes painfully tight. "Are you all right?"
"Remind me to have a little talk with you about me and pain," Ray said, although the truth was, they'd already had the important part of that conversation.
"Understood," Fraser said. "Ma'am, if you would kindly assist us, I believe my partner has a knife in his left boot."
Ray felt a touch on his leg, and looked down to see the hostage, her hands still bound, fumbling at his ankle. After a moment she extracted the knife, got it open with Fraser's help, and set to work on their ropes.
They were all free in a matter of minutes. Okay, all except O'Connor, who was handcuffed and bound and very carefully patted down.
"Thank you kindly, ma'am," Fraser said. "Dief, keep an eye on him. If he moves, tear his throat out."
"No," the woman said, in a voice that was still shaky, "thank you. He was going to kill me. He said so."
"Hey, look, it's okay," Ray said, and moved closer to pat her shoulder. "It's gonna be okay, now."
"That was good work, Ray," Fraser said.
Ray looked over the hostage's head to meet Fraser's eyes. "We're partners," he said, because that said everything.
"Yes," Fraser said, eyes locked to his. "Partners."
They made contact with one of the search planes two days later, just as they were about to set up camp for the evening. Fraser fired off one of the flare guns, and the plane circled around to get them. Ray left O'Connor to Fraser and did his best to help the former hostage, whose name was Claire. She was clearly shell-shocked from her ordeal, but she hadn't ever cried. She just flinched whenever someone came up behind her without giving warning, first.
They landed at the airport, where they were met by RCMP vans and trucks and more Mounties than Ray thought existed in Inuvik, and somehow in the rush of congratulations and handshakes and slaps on the back, Ray got separated from Fraser and ended up in a different vehicle. He craned his neck, looking for Fraser, but damn, at least they were all headed for the Detachment. He'd see Fraser soon enough.
Well, almost soon enough. The only thing truly soon enough would be right now. It had been a hard two days, splitting shifts sleeping so that one of them would always be watching O'Connor, and not being able to touch each other. Yeah, that part had just about driven Ray crazy. They'd had sex twice now -- okay, maybe three times, depending on what you counted -- and it wasn't nearly enough. He wanted Fraser with an intensity that hurt, wanted to kiss him again, to feel that big, hard body against his, to try all kinds of things they hadn't tried yet. Hell, he was even starting to wonder what it would be like to go down on Fraser: what it would taste like, if he could figure out how to do that thing with his tongue or maybe even the thing with the throat. He wanted to make Fraser gasp and moan. Oh, yeah. He loved the noises Fraser made.
Someone touched his hand, and he looked up, almost hoping (crazy thought) that it would be Fraser, but it was Claire.
"We're here," she said, and he realized everyone else was getting out of the van.
"I knew that." He escorted her out and then up the steps to the RCMP main building, and she clung to him the whole way, like glue. Too many people, he realized. She needed serious recuperation time.
"C'mon," he said, taking her arm gently. "They're gonna want a statement, so we might as well go somewhere a little less noisy." He led the way, looking for someplace suitable.
A woman constable -- not Maggie, who was apparently still out in the bush -- finally found them in the supply room. Ray stayed for the interview because Claire asked him, and stayed afterward because he could tell Claire wanted him to. What he really wanted to do was go looking for Fraser, but Fraser was probably busy filling out forms and giving his own report, so Ray hung tight. It was almost midnight by his watch when Fraser finally poked his head into the room.
"Ray." Fraser looked dead tired, but when Ray met his eyes, he smiled with a warmth that went straight to Ray's core. "I was wondering if you might see Ms. Harris to her hotel." He looked over at Claire. "Ma'am, we've arranged accommodations for you at the Eskimo Inn. I hope that's acceptable."
"Yes, I . . . I can do that."
"Okay," Ray said, getting to his feet. "You want me to come back here?"
Fraser rubbed a hand across his eyes, mute acknowledgement of his weariness. "No, you'd better go straight home. I don't know how long I'll be here, but it could be hours yet."
Home. Like it was home to both of them. "You got it," Ray said, "Claire?"
They made it to the Eskimo Inn, got checked in, got to the room. Claire didn't have any luggage, so there was nothing more to do.
"So you're okay, right? You're good?"
She had these big, sad eyes that could make him feel bad just by looking at him. "I'll be okay. I will. I . . . no," she contradicted in a low, desperate voice. "Could you stay with me?"
Damn. He knew she'd been through hell, knew she'd never complained, but he didn't want to be here. He wanted to be with Fraser, back in the apartment, snuggled up together in one of their too-narrow beds. Yeah, okay, so that part would be a pain, but they could always buy a bigger bed. Preferably tomorrow.
"I know there's somewhere else you'd rather be," she said softly, sitting down on the far bed and looking up at him with those eyes. "I just . . . I don't want to be alone."
"Look," Ray tried, "I don't really think you want me around. I, uh, I snore. Real loud."
"I don't mind. Please, there are two beds. I'm not asking for, you know. I just need to be near someone I trust."
Ray swallowed hard, but he couldn't say no to that. And, anyway, Fraser was still at work, and might be for hours. It wasn't like they'd get much in the way of quality time together tonight. "Yeah, okay. I'll stay."
"Thank you," Claire said. "I can't tell you how much I appreciate it." She kicked her shoes off, rearranged the pillows on her bed, and curled up against them. "I guess you two haven't been partners very long."
Ray felt his whole body go a half a degree warmer. "Uh, who do you mean?" he asked, even though he knew perfectly well.
"You and Constable Fraser."
It wasn't what it sounded like. He was imagining things. Ray sat down gingerly on the other bed. "Uh, no, actually. We were partners in Chicago for a long time. More than a year. That was before he came up here."
"Really? I wouldn't have guessed that."
Ray scratched the back of his head. Hell, he needed a shower, but he was too tired. He could do it in the morning. "What, you think we don't work so good together?"
"Oh, no." She shook her head emphatically. "No, you work together beautifully. Almost as if you have a psychic bond. No, I just thought . . . well, you don't seem to take each other for granted."
Okay, good. She was talking about work, not the innuendo thing. "We try not to," he said carefully.
She nodded. "That's wise. It's important at any stage of a relationship."
Ray froze. Damn, he was reading in again. But it was weirdly tempting to believe the innuendo, to believe that someone who'd been with them could see it, and say nice things about them. "Look, we better get some sleep. They're gonna want you back at the Detachment tomorrow, right?"
"I think so. I think I get to go home tomorrow afternoon."
"Well, that's better than Chicago, anyway."
"Bad things can happen anywhere."
He looked over at her, startled, but she looked perfectly calm. Considering what she'd been through, she wasn't doing that badly. "Yeah, I guess they can." He sat up, and then remembered that he had no change of clothes, not even a toothbrush. Oh, well. His teeth wouldn't rot in a single night, and Claire was in the same boat. "You want to use the bathroom, or you want me to just turn out the light?"
"The light, please."
"Okay, good-night, then." He pulled down his covers, yanked his shoes, off, and switched off the light. The pillows here were big and fluffy, and he took the second one and hugged it to his chest.
It wasn't Fraser, but it would have to do.
He really shouldn't worry. Fraser knew that. He'd sent Ray with Ms. Harris to the hotel last night, and undoubtedly Ray had had some good reason for remaining there. This was not jealousy he was feeling, it was envy -- the simple longing to have something possessed by another, without the accompanying anger or sense of rivalry.
At least, he dearly hoped so. He left a note on the kitchen table, in case Ray happened to come here instead of to the Detachment, and headed for work.
He had been there less than an hour, with no sign of Ray, when he was called to the telephone.
"Constable Benton Fraser, RCMP," he announced himself.
"Oh, Fraser, I've finally managed to track you down." He recognized the voice immediately: Lieutenant Welsh, calling all the way from Chicago.
"Yes, Lieutenant. What can I do for you?"
"Is Kowalski with you?"
"Well, no, sir, not at the moment. Although I am expecting him sometime this morning."
"Oh, good, so you know where he is."
"Ah, not exactly. That is, I know where he went, or rather, where he was intending to go, but his current whereabouts is not --"
"Constable, can you give him a message for me when you see him next?"
"Tell him we need him in Chicago, pronto. We've got a real mess on our hands here, and if he doesn't show, the excrement is going to hit the air conditioner like we've never seen before."
Fraser felt a peculiar stabbing pain in his chest. Ray had to go back to Chicago. Ray had to leave him. "I see."
"If it were up to me, I'd tell him to enjoy the ice floes, but we've got a city up in arms here. I take it he told you about the Williams case."
"Not specifically by name, no."
"Little girl got raped and shot and left by the railroad tracks. Kowalski's the one who solved it, but another kid got shot in the process. People want to know what happened, Constable, and the report he left leaves something to be desired in the detail department. The States Attorney's office is getting real antsy on this one."
Oh, no. It was the case Ray had been upset about, the one involving his new partner. "I'll be sure to tell him, Lieutenant," he said.
"You get him on that plane, Fraser," Welsh said. "I want to see him in my office tomorrow."
Tomorrow. That was impossible, or nearly so. "I'll do my best," he promised.
"Good," Welsh said.
Fraser hung up the phone with his heart sinking into his shoes. He didn't want Ray to leave, ever, but this was duty with a capital D. And there was an additional reason, one which Fraser had to force himself to think about.
Ray had left Chicago in a hurry, upset and not thinking. He had fallen into their current . . . relationship . . . without ever really making a conscious choice. Not that Fraser thought he'd done it against his will. It was just that Ray had chosen Inuvik, and him, as the lesser of two evils.
There was no way to know if Ray would have chosen to be here if circumstances had been different. But Ray could reconsider his choice, and the best way to do that was for him to return to Chicago. To face his former life there now that he was no longer hurting so badly, and to remember the good as well as the painful. To rediscover all of the things he'd left behind -- his family, his friends, his apartment, pizza with pineapple . . .
Yes, it was necessary. It would not be enjoyable, but if Ray went, and chose to come back, it would mean something. Something important. And that was worth the risk of his not coming back at all.
"Fraser, I need to talk to you for a minute."
That was Staff Sergeant Meeks. "Sir?"
"It's about Kowalski."
Oh, dear. Fraser followed the sergeant into his office and waited as he closed the door.
"That was a fine bit of tracking you did, and from what I've seen in the reports, a tricky bit of capture."
Fraser hung his head. His report had included the fact that they had been distracted when they'd encountered O'Connor. He hadn't gone into detail about the nature of the distraction, but he'd done his best to indicate that it had been a true error of judgment. "The fault was mine," he said. "I let down my guard when I should not have."
"You know, Fraser, when I accepted your transfer here, I did so with a certain amount of trepidation. You have quite a reputation."
"I'm sure it's not undeserved, sir."
"But I'm beginning to see that your methods, while often unorthodox, also produce results."
"I like to hope so, sir."
"Fraser, you know how it is. I can't possibly suggest or even condone a partnership with a man who is not a member of the RCMP. But unofficially and off the record, if you just happen to occasionally solicit his assistance with certain of your duties, this department will be happy to turn a blind eye to the breach of standard procedure."
It was the last thing he was expecting. Fraser shifted on his feet and cleared his throat. "Sir?"
"I think we understand each other, Fraser."
He was offering an unofficial partnership. A true reversal of the roles he and Ray had played in Chicago. "Ah, yes, sir. Thank you."
"Don't mention it."
It did not seem to be the right time to mention that Ray was going back to Chicago. Fraser excused himself and left Meeks's office, only to spot a very familiar blond head across the staff room.
"Fraser, what's up?"
Ray's hair was tousled and damp from a recent shower, his eyes tired and bleary, his chin still unshaven. He looked wonderful.
"Well, it would appear that your hair is not up this morning."
Ray laughed a little self-consciously and ran a hand over his head, tousling the golden mess further. "Oh, yeah, I took my shower at the hotel. Look, I'm sorry about that. She kind of needed me to stay."
"I understand," Fraser said.
Ray's face came up abruptly, his eyes searching Fraser's. "No, it wasn't like that. I didn't . . . I mean, I would never do that to you. You know I wouldn't."
"Yes," Fraser said softly. "I know."
"Ray, you got a phone call this morning. From Lieutenant Welsh."
Ray's easy posture went tense and vibrating in a matter of milliseconds. "What does he want?"
"He needs you to go back to Chicago," Fraser said, hurting at every word. "He needs you to give a statement in the Williams case."
"Oh, I bet he does."
"Look, I'm not going, okay? I'm staying right here where I belong."
Fraser felt himself go warm right down to the soles of his feet. He wanted to believe that Ray belonged here, more than anything. "He said it was very important. Apparently the case has become a popular concern among the citizens of Chicago."
"What, are you deaf? I said I'm not going, so I'm not going."
"It's your duty, Ray."
"Hey, you're the one who believes in duty. Me, I got other priorities."
Fraser shivered, daring to hope that he was part of those priorities. "I see."
"Fraser, don't look at me like that."
"Like you think I'm being a jerk."
"I don't think you're 'being a jerk,' Ray. I'm sure you've thought this through carefully. Perhaps your former partner will be able to testify in your stead."
"Mmnh." Ray grimaced. "Not likely."
"No?" Fraser prompted. Whatever his personal desires, he had to make Ray see the decision he was making, and see it clearly.
"He wasn't even there for most of it. After he shot the kid, they hauled him in for questioning."
"Then perhaps someone else can testify."
"Damn it." Ray looked suddenly, achingly miserable, and Fraser felt his heart sink. For a moment, wrong though he knew it to be, he'd almost let himself hope that Ray would find a way to avoid making the journey.
"You'll feel better if you go," Fraser said gently. "You'll have the satisfaction of knowing you've done your duty."
Ray hunched his shoulders, looking down. "Oh, yeah. Big satisfaction."
Fraser didn't know what to say to that. He didn't believe Ray meant that flippant dismissal, but he also didn't know how to argue against it. He was still searching for words when Ray's chin came up again, and his eyes met Fraser's, somehow both pugnacious and anguished.
"You want me to go. You want me to pack up my things and get on that plane."
"No," Fraser said. "But I think it might be for the best. Although you're welcome to leave some of your things here if you like. If you decide not to return, I would be happy to ship them to you."
"'Decide not to return'? Fraser, what is that? You think I'm gonna go back to Chicago and forget about you? You think I don't want to be here?"
Fraser suddenly realized they were in the middle of the crowded staff room, and several people were looking at them. "Well, you did leave rather precipitously, Ray. I'm sure you left a number of loose ends."
"Loose ends." Ray's voice went soft and gravelly. "Yeah, I got a lot of loose ends. I never finish anything I start, do I?"
"Actually, I've never noticed a penchant for abandoning projects uncompleted," Fraser said. "I would have said your character tended more toward the opposite end of that particular spectrum."
"Understood." He stood waiting for Ray to say something else, but nothing was forthcoming, so after a moment, he said, "If you leave this afternoon, you will be able to accompany Ms. Harris on her journey to Edmonton. I'm certain she would appreciate that."
Ray's expression went from anguish to despair. "I gotta leave today?"
"I'm sorry, Ray."
"Oh, yeah. Me, too. I'm one sorry camper."
There was no proper answer to that, with both of them hurting. They couldn't even hold each other, here in the middle of the Detachment. Fraser considered, momentarily, telling him about Sergeant Meeks's offer, but that might constitute unfair enticement.
"I'll see you to the airport," Fraser offered.
"What time's the plane?"
Fraser checked his watch. "In a little over two hours. You'd better pack a suitcase."
Ray shifted on his feet. "You wanna come back to the apartment and help me?"
Oh, dear. Fraser felt the heat rise in his cheeks. He suspected that was more than just a simple request for assistance, and he also dearly wished he could say yes. But he had duties himself -- getting the time to drive to the airport was going to be difficult enough. "I can't, Ray. I'm very sorry."
Ray's face fell, and he turned to go. "Thanks a lot, Fraser. Guess I'll see you in a few."
"I'll pick you up at one o'clock."
"Whatever," Ray muttered, and then he was gone.
Inuvik's airport wasn't what you'd call big, and now that Ray had already seen it twice, it wasn't much worth looking at.
"Your ticket," Fraser said, handing it to him. "And your knapsack."
"Okay. Yeah, thanks." Ray shouldered the knapsack and tucked the ticket in the inner pocket of his leather jacket. Fraser was all business-like, and had been since he'd stopped by the apartment in Maggie's truck. It probably had something to do with the fact that he had Claire with him, but it still hurt. Ray desperately wanted a kiss good-bye, but he had a sinking feeling he wasn't going to get one.
"Ray," Fraser said then, in a voice that was low and furry.
Ray shivered. He knew that voice well, recognized all its sensuous depths. It was the one voice he couldn't ignore.
He turned around and -- screw the onlookers, and whatever Claire Harris might think -- wrapped his arms around Fraser's shoulders in a tight hug. Fraser's hands came up around him like instinct, like this was the one place in the world where they belonged. Fraser's arms pulled him close, so strong he thought his ribs were going to pop, and Fraser's cheek pressed tight against his.
"Don't forget me," Ray whispered into the ear that was right next to his lips.
"Never," Fraser said.
"I'll be back as soon as I can."
"I'll be here."
They held each other as long as they could. Longer. But something had to break -- the plane was going to leave, and he'd promised Fraser he'd be on it. Ray shifted ever so slightly in that hold, and Fraser's soft lips pressed against his ear in response. Then Fraser released him, and he stumbled out onto the tarmac, following Claire and all of the other passengers who were already most of the way up the gangplank stairs.
He found his way to his seat mostly by feel, because for some reason his eyes had gone all blurry. He had the window seat next to Claire, and she stood to let him squeeze by without a word.
It hurt. It hurt as bad as leaving Fraser the first time, even though this time he knew he was coming back. It hurt as bad as having Stella leave him, which was crazy, because Fraser loved him. He trusted that, like he'd never trusted anything else in his life.
Ray shrugged out of his jacket and then used the arm of his sweatshirt to wipe surreptitiously under his eyes. He had his glasses here somewhere. Yeah, there they were. He put them on and stared out the window, but he couldn't make out Fraser's figure at the door to the terminal. Wait, no, there he was. Standing there with his arms crossed over his chest, watching the plane.
Ray lifted his hand to the window and waved, but he couldn't tell if Fraser could see him. The plane started rolling, taxiing toward the runway, and Ray had to crane his neck to see Fraser. There was a movement, a hand raised to wave. And then the plane turned and the engine roared, and Fraser was gone.
Ray took his glasses off and closed his eyes, bracing himself for take- off with every inch of his body wishing to remain earthbound. But the engines pressed him back into his seat and the world tipped as the rough bump of wheels on pavement was replaced by the smooth flow of air beneath the wings.
When he opened his eyes, Inuvik was dwindling below them and Claire was watching him with those soft, sad eyes.
"You must miss him already," she said gently "And you didn't even get to kiss him good-bye. I suppose that means you have to keep it pretty quiet, then."
The plane banked, and his world canted with it. She knew. She'd known all along. She'd meant the innuendo last night. And she sympathized. Ray felt the prickle behind his eyes return.
"Uh, we . . . I mean, we haven't really talked about that," he stammered.
"Never?" Her eyes went wide in genuine surprise. "But I thought you'd been partners for a year."
"Not that kind of partners. Working partners. Buddy-buddy cop stuff. This thing is . . . uh, it's pretty new."
"How new?" she asked softly.
"About a week," he admitted.
"Oh, Ray." Her hand covered his. "I'm so sorry. If I'd known, I never would have asked you to stay with me last night. I didn't realize you had to leave today."
"Yeah," Ray said. "Me neither. Can I . . . can I ask you something?"
"How did you know about, uh, about me and Fraser?"
She smiled sweetly, the first time he'd ever seen her smile. "It was obvious every time you looked at each other. Even when you weren't touching, it looked like you were."
"I didn't lay a hand on him. For two days, I never touched him."
"Yes, you did," Claire contradicted. "Oh, you made it look casual enough, just a brush here or a bump there. But you touched him."
Damn. She was right. "So you think everyone knows?"
"Those who are observant do. Those who aren't, don't. That's pretty much the way the world works, isn't it?"
"Yeah," Ray said. "I guess it is." But for some reason, her quiet explanation made him feel better. Maggie knew. Other people probably knew, too. It somehow made it feel more real, like he hadn't imagined it, like he wasn't going to wake up in his apartment in Chicago and find out he'd dreamed the whole thing.
That would be too painful to even think about.
"So, you got any advice for me?"
Claire flashed her shy smile again. "Sure. Go do whatever you have to do in Chicago and get back to him just as fast as you can."
"Good advice," Ray said.
Part 6: High Summer
The thing about having time to think was that if you'd already done your thinking, it got old pretty fast. Ray already knew two things: one, that he was in love with Fraser, and two, that Fraser didn't know it. The second took him a little longer to figure out, but not much. He knew he'd never said the words, and he knew Fraser had been kind of confused, right before the last time they'd made love. There hadn't been a chance to clear things up, afterward, even though he'd tried.
He really had tried.
Ray went straight to the 27th from the airport, not even stopping to see what his hair looked like. He was well beyond caring about things like that.
He was greeted by Huey and Dewey coming down the stairs. "Ray!" "Kowalski." "Good to see you." "Welsh was wondering if you were going to show up."
They were the last people he'd been expecting to see. They hadn't set foot in the 27th in the last three months he'd been there. "Hey, what are you two doing here?"
"Oh, we were just stopping by." "It's not like we work here." "You should catch us at the comedy club. Friday night at eight."
Yeah, sure. It looked like Welsh had won his bet, after all. "That's funny, 'cause that kinda looks like a case file in your hand."
"Oh, we were just looking at it." "You know, helping out." "Not actually moonlighting." "No, of course not."
"Right," Ray said. But hey, it was the first thing that had made him smile all day. He made his way into the squad room, to find it full of people -- detectives, desk clerks, civilian aides -- cooing over a very small baby.
"Ray!" It was Frannie, right in the middle of the crowd. She pushed her way through the gathering and hugged him hard. "It's so great to see you. What are you doing here? Did you come to see Benjamin?"
It took a minute for it to hit him: she was skinny again. Which meant that the baby now starting to holler was . . . hers.
"Oops, sorry," Frannie said, and reached for the wailing bundle. She rocked it, patted it, cooed to it, and finally calmed it. When the noise stopped, she turned to show the little face to Ray. "Oh, isn't he a good boo-boo," she cooed.
"Cute little thing," Ray said, without thinking. But, red face and all, it was a beautiful baby. It had an astonishing amount of almost-black hair, a sweet little button nose, and the bluest eyes Ray had ever seen. Yeah, okay, he was seeing things, but it kind of looked like Fraser. "Aren't you?" he said in a silly little voice, and the baby's mouth curved in what almost looked like a smile. "What's his name?"
"Benjamin," Frannie said.
Benjamin. Ben. Damn, the kid really looked like Fraser. Jealousy flared, hard and hot. "Uh, Frannie, can I have a word with you?"
"No, I mean in private."
"Like, really private?"
"Yeah, really private."
She made an odd face at him, but then turned to the gathered crowd, who were starting to dissipate a bit, anyway. "If you'll excuse us," she said. "We'll be right back."
Interview Two was open, so Ray ushered Frannie in. He didn't want to believe the kid was Fraser's, but what other explanation was there? Those eyes, the hair . . . the kid hardly looked like Frannie at all. Of course, if it had blue eyes that meant the trait had to be at least recessive in the Vecchios.
Damn it, that was something Fraser would say.
"Okay, who's the dad?" Ray said, leaning against the closed door.
Frannie rocked little Ben against her. "I don't see how that's any of your business, Ray."
"No, it is my business." If it was Fraser's business, it was his, even if Fraser hadn't told him. Oh, hell. It had happened -- well, it would've had to -- during the period when Fraser claimed to have been in love with him. But maybe Fraser didn't know, himself. Yeah, that was it. Not that that made it much better, but, well, at least it meant Fraser hadn't lied to him. "Don't you think you should tell him?"
Frannie's chin came up. "Listen, 'bro,' I tried, okay? It isn't all that easy when a person's in a whole other country, you know."
"Hey, Welsh found me. It's not that hard. You coulda done it if you really wanted to."
"Okay, if you're so smart, you find him for me."
"Look, I know where he is. I just came from there, Frannie."
"Oh, now you're a big globe-trotter or something? I thought you were in Canada."
Something was not computing here. "Uh, yeah, I was."
"So how'd you get to Germany, then, smarty-pants?"
"Germany? What's with Germany? I thought we were talking about Fraser."
She laughed, and the kid made a funny little surprised noise. "You know, sometimes you're just as bad as my real brother. Of course it's not Fraser, silly."
"Uh, Frannie, you actually looked at that kid?"
She looked down into the little face, and her expression went soft and dreamy. "Isn't he the sweetest little boo-dums?"
"Frannie, he looks like Fraser."
"No, he doesn't, Ray. He looks like his papa. Just exactly like his papa, well, you know, except for the glasses and the sideburns."
Glasses and sideburns. She meant it. And then it hit him: she must've found somebody who looked like Fraser. A lot like Fraser, only with the glasses and the sideburn things. Oh, yeah, that would be just like Frannie.
Relief coursed through him. "So he's, uh, he's in Germany then?"
"Yeah, he had to go back. He didn't want to leave, but you know how it is."
Oh, yeah. He knew. "I'm sorry, Frannie."
"No, it's okay. I have Ben," she said, and smiled.
Ray backed away, feeling sheepish. He'd doubted Fraser, without any real cause. He was going to have to get out of the habit of doing things like that. "It's uh, it's good to see you, Frannie," Ray said, and went to open the door. "I'm glad he's got all his little fingers and toes."
"Ray," Frannie said, and he let his hand fall away from the doorknob. "Are you and Frayzh okay, then?"
"Yeah, we're good. We're real good."
There was something wistful in her face, something that told him the missing German boyfriend wasn't the whole story, either. "I'm glad for you," she said. "He deserves to be happy."
"Thanks, Frannie," Ray said. He took a step toward her, and she took a step toward him, and then they were half-hugging, kind of awkwardly because of the baby, who picked that moment to start fussing again.
"Sorry," Frannie said. "I think I'd better change him."
"Okay, you, uh, you do that. I gotta go talk to Welsh."
He made his way back through the squad room, said hello to a few people, and knocked on Welsh's door.
"Well, well, well. The prodigal detective returns."
"Yeah, I'm here. Look, can we get this over with? I got places I need to be."
"I'm going to need a full report, Kowalski. This thing you turned in isn't worth the paper it's written on. And the States' Attorney wants a full statement and a promise that you'll testify at the trial. We've got good evidence on this guy. We just need your word to back it up."
Damn it. A trial could last weeks, and there was no telling when it would start. He'd have to come back again, because there was no way he was sticking around here waiting for the court to get to it. But he would do it. Because Fraser would want him to, and because two kids had died out there, and he was the only person who could help sort out the mess and transform it into some meager sort of justice.
"Okay, I'll get you that report tomorrow," he promised recklessly. "And I'll talk to DuBois or whoever in the States Attorney's office. But I'm not sticking around for the trial. If I gotta come back for that, you can call me again."
Welsh raised an eyebrow at that. "Up in Canada?"
Ray tried to clamp down on the attitude. Welsh was a good guy. There was no point in ticking him off. "I like it up there."
Welsh leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers thoughtfully. "So you and Fraser are . . .?"
Ray couldn't control the smart-ass twitch of his chin. "Happy. Sir."
"Happy." Welsh looked up at him with his usual equanimity. "Good, good. I'm glad to hear that."
"You hear about Jerrit?"
"No." Ray wasn't sure he even wanted to.
"Got a slap on the wrist and a transfer to the 17th. Might have been different if you'd been around."
Ray contemplated that and found he didn't really care, one way or another. Jerrit had made a mistake, and he'd paid for it. Maybe enough, maybe not. Either way, Billy Johnson would never get to play with his friends again. "Yeah, well, lots of things might've been different."
"Right," Welsh said. "I want to see that report tomorrow, Kowalski."
"Yeah, yeah, I'm on it."
The day of report-writing turned into three, after Welsh asked him for revisions, and then revisions of the revisions. The statement to Ms. DuBois took another day and a half. On the sixth day, he decided he had to do something with his apartment, and started packing boxes.
He was done with the seventh box and starting the eighth -- CDs, mostly -- when he heard the key in the door.
"Stanley?" She came around the kitchen divider and got a good look at the mess. "What on earth are you doing?"
"I'm, uh, I'm packing."
"Yes, dear, I can see that."
"Mom, I've kinda been meaning to tell you this. You and Dad. I, I'm not gonna be in Chicago much longer. I'm moving to Canada."
"For good, Stanley?"
"Yeah, for good."
"Oh, honey." She pulled him up to his feet and folded him in her arms.
"Look, I'm sorry," he said, in the warmth of that embrace. "I know you and Dad came back here 'cause of me, and I didn't mean this to happen, but it kind of just did."
"It's that Constable Fraser, isn't it?" she asked, pushing him back to arm's length to look up into his face.
"Uh, yeah, it's him."
She patted his cheek. "I'm so happy for you."
Whoa. That sounded like . . . but she couldn't know that, could she? "Mom, um, I don't know how to tell you this, but, uh, Fraser and me, we're . . ." Damn, this was hard. This was really hard. "I mean, we're partners, not just, not just cop-type partners. We're, uh, life partners, too."
"Oh, Stanley, do you really think your mother doesn't know you? I knew it the day you introduced us. You were so worried, so proud of him."
Ray closed his eyes. She couldn't possibly have known, then. He hadn't felt that way about Fraser back then. Or had he? Damn it. It was impossible. But maybe, just maybe she was right. "Does Dad know?"
"Oh, I expect he does. Not that he'd say anything, you know. But he's quite impressed by your . . . dear, what is his first name?"
Fraser's first name. It was funny, most of the time Ray didn't even think of him as someone who had a first name. "It's Ben."
"Ben. Yes, that suits him. Now, then, would you like me to help you pack?"
"Look, you don't have to. Really, Mom, I can do it myself."
"Oh, nonsense. And look, you have laundry that needs doing. I'll just go and take care of that for you, and when I come back, you can tell me all about your Ben."
"No, really, you don't have to . . ." Damn. There was no stopping his mother when she was on a roll. "Look, uh, you don't have to iron my shirts, okay? They're just gonna get wrinkled in the suitcase."
"Oh, it's not trouble, no trouble at all."
Oh, great. Ray shook his head, giving up and giving in. Well, there were worse things in the world than talking about Fraser. Even if he did have to do it with his mother. "Uh, Mom?"
"No starch, okay?"
He was getting used to this plane trip. Chicago to Calgary. Calgary to Edmonton. Edmonton to Yellowknife. Yellowknife to Inuvik by way of Norman Wells. It took nineteen hours, end to end, which meant arriving looking anything but dazed and rumpled was utterly impossible.
Ray checked his hair in the airplane bathroom. It was still standing on end, mostly. He ran a hand over the top. Yeah, not too prickly. In case Fraser wanted to touch it or something. The rest of him was reasonably okay, too.
It was silly. He hadn't worried this much about his looks since . . . well, since Stella broke up with him. And the crazy thing was, he knew Fraser loved him. It wasn't like he had to worry about making a good impression. But he couldn't help himself.
Nervous as a kid on a prom date. Yeah, that was what it felt like. It was stupid, maybe, but it felt nice, too. And nicer still that this was the only thing he had to worry about.
He'd gotten a reprieve at the eleventh hour. He'd been about to leave for the airport when Welsh had called him -- at his parents', no less -- to say the trial was off. Williams had taken a plea bargain, and he didn't need to testify. So he was headed home -- yeah, home -- to stay.
The plane began its descent, and the seatbelt sign went on, so Ray made his way back to his seat. The 737 was half-empty this time: too late in the season for tourists, although they had picked up a group of school kids in Norman Wells who were singing noisily at the back of the plane.
He didn't even know if Fraser would be there. He'd talked to Maggie on the phone, but Fraser had been out on patrol. Due back this morning, but there was no telling he wouldn't get caught up in some wild chase across the tundra and not get back for another week.
That was the kind of thing he was asking for, loving the man. Fraser was who he was, and wild horses, threats, or bribery wouldn't change that. So he wasn't complaining. He was just hoping like hell that the wild horses and grizzly bears weren't going to get in his way this time, and Fraser would be there to meet him. If not, well, he knew where the apartment was, and Fraser never locked the door.
They'd have to have a talk about that, once his stuff arrived.
He could see the Mackenzie River out the window, now, and all the lakes, everywhere. He was on the wrong side of the plane to see the town, but in a matter of minutes they were on the ground and coasting to a stop. Ray was on his feet before the seatbelt sign was off, knapsack over his shoulder, impatient to be off.
He didn't see Fraser as he descended the stairs, but he didn't see Maggie's blond head, either. And then there was movement at the gate, and he saw that figure he'd know anywhere.
Ray broke into a run and collided with Fraser's body, hard enough to knock down someone less solidly built. Oh, yeah. This was home. Fraser's arms gripped him tight, held him close, and it was like the good-bye hug, only ten times better.
"Ray," Fraser whispered into his ear.
He didn't stop to think. He shifted in Fraser's arms and kissed his jaw, then his cheek, feeling his way like a blind man. He needed this, needed Fraser to know what he was feeling. And then he found Fraser's lips, and the rest of the world dropped away.
It was as if his whole life came down to this, to the pressure of lips against lips, to the scent of pine and leather, to the knowledge that he was well and truly loved. Ray brought his hands up to Fraser's cheeks -- freshly shaved -- and tipped Fraser's head so he could get a better angle. Mmm, yeah.
"Ray," Fraser said, muffled against his mouth. "Ray, Ray, Ray."
Ray let his hands slip down to the collar of Fraser's jacket. "What?"
Fraser's face was pink. "We're blocking the doorway."
"Oh." Fraser was right. They were standing right in front of the gate, and the other passengers were lined up behind them. "Sorry," he said, and pulled Fraser to the side.
"Perhaps we should continue this in a more private place," Fraser said.
Ray looked around, noticing for the first time that people were staring. Not exactly hostilely. It was mostly just open curiosity. "Okay, yeah," he said, and disengaged from Fraser's body even though it almost hurt to let go. But then, they had to go to baggage claim eventually. "So I guess I just blew it, huh?" he said as they walked, not touching, but close enough to brush arms every once in awhile.
"In what sense?"
"I never asked you if you, you know, wanted to keep this thing quiet."
Fraser frowned. "Keep what thing quiet?"
"This, this thing. You know. Between you and me."
"Oh," Fraser said, in slow comprehension like the idea was utterly foreign to him. "I see. But, Ray, that would be lying."
"I thought you might see it as one of those evading or delaying things."
"Ah. Well, certainly if there were some compelling ethical reason to do so, I might consider it, but I don't believe that's the case in this situation."
"You don't think people will give us grief?"
"They may well. That's no reason to perpetrate a lie."
They had arrived at the waiting area for the luggage, so Ray took the opportunity to slide closer to Fraser and slip a hand around his waist. "Good," he said, leaning close. "I like it better this way."
Fraser cleared his throat, and looked a little pink, but he didn't move away. For now, that was as much as Ray needed. "So you gotta go straight back to work?"
"No, Ray. I took the liberty of taking the rest of the afternoon off."
Oh, that was even better. "Thanks, Fraser."
"It's my pleasure," Fraser said, and turned a shade pinker when Ray laughed.
They managed to arrive safely at the apartment, although Fraser wasn't sure exactly how he managed to drive properly with Ray's voice in his ear and Ray's hand on his thigh. It felt almost unreal. After nearly two weeks of waiting and worrying, he had Ray here, and acting very sure of himself. Kissing him, touching him . . . It was overwhelming, but Fraser wouldn't have traded a minute of it for the world.
They climbed the stairs breathless, laughing. Fraser didn't even remember what the joke was, but he was laughing anyway. He didn't need jokes. He had Ray. He managed to get the door shut behind them and to put down the suitcase before he was enveloped once again by a pair of very strong, very insistent arms.
He'd had two weeks to miss this, and not nearly enough time to get used to the astonishing reality of it. Ray wanted him. Ray was in his arms, and warmly, vibrantly, demandingly genuine. At the moment he was trying to take off Fraser's jacket with Fraser's arms still around him.
"Ray," Fraser said, and let go for a moment to pull his arms out of the sleeves.
"C'mon," Ray said, pulling him toward the bed. And then Ray got a good look at it, and froze in his tracks. "Wait, you got a new bed. A double bed."
Fraser felt his face go warm again. Ray seemed to have an astonishing capacity for embarrassing him, as well. "Actually, it's a queen size. I thought that with both of us, plus Dief, it might be wise to --"
"You knew I was coming back. You believed me."
"I hoped," Fraser said. "I didn't think you would lie to me."
"Not to you," Ray said. "I don't ever want to do that."
"Thank you," Fraser said softly, and anything else he might have said was forgotten as Ray pulled him down onto the bed and kissed him.
This was honesty in its purest form, no possibility of equivocating or bluffing. Fraser opened to the kiss, feeling the touch of Ray's tongue as a lifeline, feeling every tiny pressure of Ray's body against his as a live connection, though they were both still fully clothed. This was what he needed, what he had always needed and never known how to ask for.
Ray didn't ask. He just gave. He was quick to anger -- yes, Fraser had always known that. But he had never guessed that Ray would be so quick to love.
"Gotta get you out of these," Ray said, releasing Fraser's mouth to set to work on his buttons.
Yes, love. He could feel it in every touch, every gesture, when he had never dared believe before that Ray could love him. But this was truth. The language of touch hid far less that the language of words.
"C'mon, Fraser, lift up." Fraser sat up obligingly to let Ray slide his shirt off his shoulders, then pull the undershirt off over his head. "Much better," Ray said, and set to work on his belt.
Fraser did his best to return the favor, unbuttoning Ray's jeans, and somehow or other they managed to get out of all of their clothes. Ray shoved socks and jeans onto the floor and reached for him, but for the first time, Fraser resisted. He wanted to look at Ray, really look at him. He'd never had that leisure before.
There were too many details to drink in at once: the golden expanse of skin, the smooth curve of pectoral muscles, the flat, dusty-rose nipples, the shallow navel with its trail of golden hair leading downward.
"Gonna make me die of waiting, here?"
"I'm sorry, Ray." He let Ray pull him close, then, savoring the thousand tiny surprises of skin against skin, the rough brush of hair here, the velvet hardness of muscle there. And then Ray's mouth found the place where his neck met his shoulder, and Fraser's focus narrowed down to that one tingling spot.
It felt like having all of Ray's energy, all his intense, vibrating need, concentrated down into a single circle of lips and mobile tongue. And like Ray, it didn't stay still. It migrated to his clavicle, to his shoulder, to the valley between his arm and his chest.
Ray chuckled. "Damn it, you got no right to smell good there, too."
Oh, dear. "I don't believe I do."
"Hey, your opinion doesn't count. Trust me on this one."
"As you wish."
Ray looked up at him, grinning, and then lowered his head to kiss his chest, his abdomen, his . . .
"Ray, that's not necess--"
"Oh, it's necessary. Very necessary."
But he couldn't get anything else out, couldn't think, because that moist, mobile mouth was moving . . . oh, my. Fraser arched off the bed as Ray's hand touched him, easing his foreskin back, and then Ray's mouth followed, first with the barest of moth-wing kisses, then the exquisite graze of tongue, then wet heat all around him.
It was almost too much. He could feel the vibration -- Ray's vibration, Ray's soul -- in his legs and his feet and traveling up his spine to spread outward to his fingertips. It was sweet torture. It was overload. It felt as if his entire body were a single, perfectly tuned string reverberating with Ray's every motion.
"Ray . . ."
Heat abandoned him, vibration calmed, and he felt an aching sense of loss. "'M'I doing it wrong?"
"No, Ray. That was . . ."
"Mmm. Good. Not done with you yet."
Oh, dear. Ray squirmed next to him, twisting around to . . . yes, that was the sound of a plastic packet tearing. Fraser pushed himself up on his elbows, not about to let Ray do that on his own. But when he reached for the condom, Ray pulled his hand away.
"Uhn-uh. My turn."
He couldn't mean . . . but he did. Ray reached for him, reached to put that little ring of latex . . . no. Fraser grabbed Ray's wrist, pulling him away before he could complete the action.
"Why are you doing this?"
Ray tried to yank his wrist away, but Fraser held fast. "'Cause I want to."
"Ray . . ." Fraser used his free hand to tip Ray's chin toward him. Ray's mouth was set in that stubborn line he knew all too well. "There's no need to do this," Fraser said softly. "I am more than satisfied -- extremely happy, in point of fact -- to be the one who, who . . ."
"Gets fucked?" Ray supplied.
Fraser did his best not to wince at the choice of words. "Yes."
"So if it's so great, why don't you want me to try it?"
"Because you already have, and it didn't appeal to you."
"Yeah, but I didn't try it with you."
That was true enough, but there was an edge to that voice that suggested there was something more. "Ray, there's no need to try to prove something to me."
"Oh, thanks a lot, Fraser." Ray jerked his wrist away and this time Fraser let him go. Ray sat up, the rolled condom hanging disconsolately from his tapered fingers. "You think I'd do that? You think I'd do any of this if I didn't love you?"
The words were sweet music, even if he'd already experienced their synonyms in the lexicon of touch. "No, Ray."
Ray took a couple of deep breaths and met his eyes. "I want you to feel what I feel when I'm inside you. If it's, uh, if it's really bad, we don't have to do it again. Just once, Fraser, please?"
Fraser felt his heart melt, and the rest of him with it. By no means did he need what Ray was offering, but the depth of feeling that would lead him to make such an offer . . . oh, yes, that was something he craved. Love was not a simple word, in any lexicon. And this love, he was starting to believe, was something no language had words for. "All right," he conceded. "If you will promise not to be impatient. I believe it will be easier if we go slowly."
"I'm not good at waiting, Fraser."
"I know. But you must try." Fraser touched Ray's hand, slipping the condom out of his fingers, and setting it aside on the sheets.
"Ah, c'mon. We're s'posed to use that thing."
"Later, Ray." Fraser eased him back down to the pillows, covered his mouth with a gentle kiss, and stroked one hand across his chest. There were so many things he wanted to explore, so many places he wanted to touch, but he remembered Ray's impatience and slid his hand downward. Ray's erection had flagged over the course of their conversation, but as Fraser's hand drew nearer, it grew again with visible pulses. Fraser cupped his fingers around Ray's testicles -- gently, very gently -- and then slid his hand up the shaft to encircle the glans.
In mere moments Ray was warm and hard in his hand, and Fraser bent to taste him, the warm saltiness that was Ray's skin, the heady musk, the sharp tang -- yes, already -- of pre-ejaculate. Ray shifted under him, trembling, and then moaned, and Fraser knew exactly what he wanted. He positioned his tongue properly, relaxed his throat muscles, suppressed his gag reflex, and lowered his mouth around Ray's shaft until Ray's pubic hairs tickled his nose. Oh, yes, it was good, good to hear Ray's gasp, good to taste the whole, hot length of him. Fraser slid back up, remembered to breathe, and took it in all the way in once more.
"Fraser," Ray gasped. "Don't . . . you don't want to . . ."
Ray was that close, that quickly. Fraser eased up on him reluctantly, but he didn't want to end things prematurely. This was not the time to be testing Ray's stamina. He moved his mouth instead to the heavy sac of Ray's scrotum with its intricate pattern of wrinkles, moved down further . . .
Fraser lifted his head to see Ray's outstretched hand offering the tube of lubricant. Oh, dear. Ray was always chiding him for licking things. "As you wish."
He squeezed a dollop of the clear gel onto one finger and rubbed it with his thumb to warm it. Then he slid his hand gently between Ray's thighs.
Ray tensed at the touch. Fraser drew his hand back, resting it on the silky-coarse hair of Ray's inner thigh.
"You have to trust me, Ray."
"I trust you. I trust you. It's me I don't trust."
"I know." Fraser touched the puckered opening again, stroking lightly, and this time Ray merely twitched. Fraser didn't pull away, and slowly the quadriceps beneath his forearm began to relax. "Deep breaths," Fraser said softly.
"Oh, yeah? Lie back and think of England?"
Fraser smiled. It was a good sign that Ray was joking. "If you like."
"Nah, I got better things to think about."
Fraser tried a little pressure, and the sphincter muscles gave, allowing him to insert his finger up to the first knuckle. Ray's breath caught, then went back to deep and steady. "All right?"
A few more strokes and he gained more ground, and more still, until one finger was fully inserted.
"Fraser, this is Chinese water torture."
"Does it hurt?"
"No. Not . . . it's kinda weird."
"I know." It was a question of anatomy, and he didn't know exactly how it worked, although he suspected it was simply a matter of finding the . . . ah, there.
Ray's whole body shuddered. "Jesus! Fraser, what was that?"
"I believe it was your prostate."
Oh, dear. In his own experience, the stimulation had been most pleasurable. "I'm sorry."
"No. Oh, geez. Do that again."
He did, and Ray groaned. Not in a bad way, Fraser hoped. He could feel the muscles relaxing further, and he thought he just might be able to . . .
"Damn it, hurry up."
Fraser did his best, easing in a second finger, and then a third, fighting his own growing impatience that was only made worse by Ray's wriggles and moans.
His patience collapsed with that low, desperate plea. Fraser fumbled for the prophylactic, managed to get it on, and rocked back onto his knees.
"You want me like this?" Ray asked, rolling over onto his stomach and arching up onto his hands and knees.
"Yes, if that's . . ." He could barely think straight. "If that's acceptable. The angle is particularly --"
"You don't have to rhapsodize, Fraser. Just do it."
Right. Do it. Fraser put his hands on Ray's hips, easing himself forward. He had to control himself. He had to go slowly, still, because even with the preparation, he knew Ray was still tense. He pressed against Ray's body, feeling soft tissue give slowly. It was all right for a moment, and then Ray's muscles all tightened. Fraser eased back slightly.
"No, damn it. Keep going. Don't stop now."
"Ray, hold still for a moment. Just a moment."
Ray held, and after three long breaths, Fraser felt the tension begin to ease, and pressed forward again. It was achingly slow, but it felt astonishing. As good as having Ray make love to him, only completely different.
"C'mon," Ray chanted under his breath. "C'mon, c'mon, c'mon. Fraser, come on."
He kept up the steady pressure, kept his hands on Ray's hips, alert for any further signs of pain, but then, finally, he was in, all the way in, and Ray's breathing had gone ragged.
"Fraser . . ."
"Ray, just hold still. Get used to it."
"I'm used to it. I'm used to it already, okay?"
Impatience was contagious. Pleasure doubly so. Fraser eased back and slid forward, and Ray gasped. Yes, he had the angle right. He moved again, a little faster, and was rewarded with a whimper.
It was good, so good. Fraser wrapped his arm around Ray's body, found Ray's erection with the hand that was still slippery with lube, and stroked him. He remembered Ray's rhythm from the times they'd made love before, a dancer's rhythm, point and counterpoint to the thrusts, and imitated that, feeling every shudder of Ray's body resonate within his own.
The mind's last vestigial control vanished in that fusion of need. He heard gasps and moans and no longer knew if they were his own or Ray's. He felt every sensation as though it were shared, and magnified immeasurably by that sharing.
It was almost a surprise when the sweet rush came, when the body beneath him, around him, somehow, impossibly, inside him, tightened and shuddered, when the hot liquid spilled over his hand just as the pure, rich thrum coursed through him, as the waves of ecstasy crashed over his soul, gentle and cleansing as snowfall.
They collapsed forward onto the bedsheets, still linked together, hearts pounding out the same heaving rhythm. Fraser tipped his head to lick the sweat from the back of Ray's neck, then brought a hand up to run through Ray's hair. The spikes were softer than he'd remembered. He kissed the back of Ray's head, and felt them tickle his nose.
"Oh, God," Ray muttered.
"Are you all right?"
"Geez, what kind of a question is that?"
"A practical one."
Ray shifted, and Fraser slipped out of him, then shifted himself so that he could remove the condom. He set it gingerly on the floor -- he'd have to dispose of it properly later -- and turned back to find Ray watching him with bemused and slightly belligerent expression.
"Why the hell didn't you tell me?"
"Tell you what, Ray?"
"That it felt like that."
Fraser felt his cheeks go warm. "Well, I did try."
"You said it hurt."
"Momentarily. I also said it was pleasurable."
"'Pleasurable'? You call that pleasurable?"
Oh, dear. "Well, actually, yes. I'm sorry if it wasn't quite as pleasant for you. I thought that I --"
"Fraser, that was fucking incredible."
"You're a maniac and a freak, Fraser, and I must be a total nutcase to be in love with you."
The words, and the ease with which Ray said them, warmed Fraser's soul. He reached for Ray's body, wrapping himself tightly about that lean form, and Ray snuggled close, pillowing his head on Fraser's arm.
Fraser let the fingers of his other hand trail through Ray's spiky hair. There were so many things he wanted to say, and many more he wanted to know. Ray loved him. He believed in that, the way he believed in truth and goodness. "So did you . . . that is, was there a specific . . . an event, or a moment, when . . ."
"Spit it out, Fraser."
"When did you know that it was love?"
Ray shifted in his arms. "I don't know. My mom thinks it happened a long time ago."
Ray's parents knew. It was one more reassurance, piled on top of all the others. "What do you think?"
"I, uh," Ray smiled and gave a little self-deprecating laugh under his breath. "I wish I knew. I mean, it wasn't like one day I wasn't and the next day I was. It just happened."
That wasn't an answer, not really, but it would have to do. "I see."
Ray's mouth twitched. "So how 'bout you?"
"What do you mean?"
"Look, you're the one said it was love at first sight. So what was it? My face, my bod, my hair?"
Ah. They were back to that question, but this time he was free to answer it honestly and completely. "You hugged me."
"I hugged you?"
"Yes. I was feeling rather down, and you hugged me. It felt as though you could read my mind, and I had no idea who you were. It was quite confusing."
Ray's look went teasing. "So you're saying you fall in love with everyone who hugs you?"
"Of course not."
"You weren't in love with Vecchio?"
"Ray Vecchio is a good friend."
"That's not an answer, Fraser."
Fraser smiled in astonishment, that Ray could honestly think that. "No, I was not in love with Ray Vecchio," he said clearly.
"Good. Okay, so what about Victoria?"
That was a far more difficult question. But somehow, he had a different perspective on her, now. The whole, painful ordeal felt distant, and somehow almost purified. "I . . . I'm not sure I was truly in love with Victoria. I thought I was at the time, but I'm afraid it was more of an obsession. I thought I knew her, and I did not. I thought . . ."
"You wanted to trust her, but you couldn't."
That was it, exactly. In hindsight, that was what he had needed, and what Victoria had never been able to give him, hard as he had tried. "Yes."
Ray was looking up at the ceiling, now. "Yeah, I know that one. I lived that one for years."
"Yeah. I loved her. I mean, I really loved her. But I didn't know how to trust her."
This was the heart of it, the core of what he needed. "Do you trust me?"
Blue eyes met his without an instant's hesitation. "With my life, Fraser."
Oh, yes. That was it. Fraser trailed a hand over Ray's hair and down to his cheek, and found the words he'd wanted to say for so long they were engraved on his soul: "I love you, Ray."
Ray's smile was blinding, and his embrace tight and hard. "Been waiting for you to say that."
"You have?" He couldn't imagine why. Ray had known the truth about his feelings since April.
"You always skirt around it. I mean, I'm not saying you lied, but it's not the same as saying the words."
No, he could see that. The words themselves had a power all their own. "I didn't realize you wanted me to."
"Oh, yeah," Ray said, and touched lips to Fraser's, then turned and settled back down into the circle of Fraser's arms. "I got a ton of stuff to tell you."
"Yeah. I shipped some boxes here. Hope that's okay."
Fraser's heart glowed. "Perfectly all right."
"Gave the GTO back to my dad. I think that made him happy. He and Mom are going back to Arizona. Said they didn't wanna have to deal with the Chicago winter, anyway."
"I'm sorry to have taken you away from your family."
"Nah, that's okay. We're good now. We can deal."
"Me, too. Now I just gotta figure out what I'm gonna do with myself up here. I was thinking maybe I could fix cars or something. I'm pretty good at that."
Fraser realized, then, what he hadn't mentioned, what he should have mentioned long before. "Perhaps you might consider joining me on patrol duty," he said carefully. "That is, when you're not otherwise occupied with automotive repair. I'm afraid it wouldn't be a paid position, but I'm quite willing to --"
"Whoa, whoa, wait a sec. What happened to that 'official police work' crap?"
"Well, I, ah, I had a discussion with Staff Sergeant Meeks, and while he cannot condone it in any official capacity, he did suggest that the Detachment would be grateful for your good will and assistance on various police-related matters."
Ray stared at him. "Jesus. You mean partners for real."
"As real as it was in Chicago."
"Uhng," Ray said, and whatever else he meant was muffled as he pressed his face tight to Fraser's neck and the rest of his body followed suit.
"Should I take that for an affirmative?"
"Oh, yeah," Ray said into his ear. He pulled back far enough to look into Fraser's eyes, then kissed him, delicious warmth going suddenly achingly hot.
"Then we're partners?" Fraser asked against those now-demanding lips.
"Always," Ray said, punctuating the word with a touch of his mouth. "Doesn't matter where we are, or what we're doing. Partners."
It was simple truth. It was the essence of things.
Fraser leaned into the kiss and lost himself in the glory of that sweet certainty.
The thaw comes slowly at first, a mild wind, the sound of water dripping. But trickles join into rivulets, snow collapses, caves in, melts away, and when spring comes, it comes quickly. The landscape emerges pale green and trembling -- eager to spread its leaves to the boundless embrace of the midnight sun.