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"Did I ever tell you about the Mountie who encountered the ghost of a counterfeiter?"
Ray suppressed a grin. Fraser was wearing what Ray had come to think of as his campfire look: a private twinkle that said, "Out there, the wilderness. Here around this fire, just you and me." Or possibly "you and I." Anyway, just the two of them, which was just the way Ray liked it, even though some of Fraser's stories were just plain weird.
"Go on," Ray said. "Tell me."
The very first night, after they'd pitched their tent, Ray had discovered, to his dismay, that he couldn't remember a single tall tale. Couldn't even tell a good madman-with-a-hook story without getting it mixed up with babysitter-on-the-extension and girl-with-dog-under-the-bed.
So now Fraser would tell a good campfire story, and then when it was Ray's turn, he'd tell a story that wasn't really a story.
The time he and Napolitano pulled over a van for having no brake lights and found four underage prostitutes and enough stuff to make ten pipe bombs. The woman who used to call the department a couple of times a year complaining that aliens were watching her through her television screen. The time in junior high when he and Eric Mitchell decided to use a pack of cards and a dish-towel blindfold to repeat the famous ESP experiments, and Stephanie Kovak, who wasn't even smart, had a run of twelve cards in a row.
Fraser didn't seem to care that they weren't real stories. "Very interesting, Ray," he'd say. "That reminds me of a tale that I heard once from an old man from the Czech Republic, who told me that on a moonlit night ..."
It was easy to be with Fraser until they blew the lantern out.
Well, maybe not easy. But exasperating the same way it was always exasperating, because the guy always thought he knew the right way to do everything, and then he was always right, which made matters worse. So, familiar. Almost comforting.
But in the tent, in the dark, all that stuff went out the window they didn't have. He'd lie there in the tent and breathe in the smell of himself and Fraser -- not too fresh, honestly, but that didn't stop it from making him want things he had no business wanting. For a long time Ray had known something about himself that he didn't like to put a name to, something that made his relationship with Fraser something else in addition to what it was on the surface.
In the tent, in the dark, it got harder to pretend that part wasn't there.
"The tailor said to his wife, 'I saw the oddest thing today. There were twelve black cats all carrying a tiny coffin, and behind them came twelve white cats crying in lace handkerchiefs, and behind them came a gray cat ringing a bell, and a gray cat swinging a censer of incense, and a gray cat carrying a little open book. And behind them all came hundreds of cats of every color, all in procession, all wailing and moaning and making a most horrible noise.'
"And the cat asleep on the hearth leapt up and cried, 'Then I'm to be king of the cats!' And it ran up the chimney and was never seen again."
Ray grinned at him. "Good one. Except every cat thinks he's king." He stomped a spark that jumped out of the fire and settled back again for his turn. "When I was in high school, there was this girl named Anne in my Spanish class who was all the time like this," he sat on the edge of his log and waved his hand in the air like a girl who knew all the answers. "And Senor Gries -- that's what we had to call him -- he'd go, 'Gracias, Anita,' with a big stupid smile like she was just the greatest thing in the world, right?"
"Right. So the fall after graduation, I ran into Senor Gries at the blues festival, and this girl who was always the teacher's pet was with him, and they're holding hands. And it turns out that she used to be the teacher's pet, but now she's the teacher's wife." He grinned at Fraser. "Like, way to get an A in Spanish."
Fraser smiled. "That reminds me of the story of how Lord Cherrytrees tried to outrun a prophecy. Now, you're probably familiar with the story of Oedipus, but this is an unusual variation --"
Fraser was pretty serious in the daytime -- or at least, he was always working on something, improving something. But he'd kick back at night and just tell stories that weren't for anything but passing the time away while the fire died down and the gazillions of Northern stars came out.
It was kind of cool.
One day, weirdly, an actual fictional story popped into Ray's mind. That night, he told it. Or tried to.
"What is it?" Fraser said when Ray stopped in the middle.
"I don't remember how the guy rescues the princess. How can he go up the glass mountain when it's too slick for his horse to climb?"
"Make up an ending," Fraser suggested, and so he did, and it turned out OK, even though he kind of doubted there'd been Superglue in the original. But he felt pretty good about it when he finished, and he crossed his ankles and waited to see what Fraser had to offer for the evening.
Fraser twitched for a minute, displaying his whole collection of nervous habits one by one, and then he took a deep breath and began. "The first time I spoke to my father after his death, I assumed he was an hallucination brought on by stress and anxiety."
Ray choked on a mouthful of tea, and for a while there was nothing but Fraser pounding him on the back while he coughed and gasped for breath.
"The first time?" he wheezed when he'd recovered enough to speak.
Fraser nodded. "I'm afraid so." He had a look like he was bracing for impact.
"Jesus." Ray mopped his watering eyes. "Was he scary?"
"Well, no," Fraser said. "Not as such. He was interfering and baffling and infuriating, just as he had been when he was alive. It was his existence, or perhaps his presence, which was frightening, in terms of what it seemed to indicate about my mental stability."
"You can talk to dead people without being crazy," Ray said immediately. "I mean, you're OK the rest of the time, right? You don't hallucinate, you don't got wild mood swings, you got reason to think your judgment's OK?"
Fraser's face tightened at the last bit, but after a minute he said, "For the most part, yes."
Ray understood. There was another story there, but it looked like Fraser'd told as many stories on himself as he could handle, for now.
Ray knew the feeling.
Fraser stared down at his cup for a bit, not looking very happy, and Ray opened his mouth.
"In high school I had a buddy named Kevin Lizak," and shit! Why the hell was he telling that? He'd had some idea that if he told a personal secret, then they'd be even again and it would make Fraser feel better, but not this personal secret -- fuck, he'd never told this one to anybody -- why the hell was his mouth still going?
"Senior year we used to hang out at this vacant apartment his grandmother owned, sit on the floor and run the air conditioner and get wasted on beer and, uh, other stuff --"
He looked up hopefully -- maybe Fraser would say something about Ray's delinquency and Ray wouldn't have to finish the story -- but Fraser was giving him a steady, listening look. Ray looked off at the snow and kept going.
"So the night after graduation, the whole bunch of us went out drinking, and at two in the morning me and Kevin stumbled into this apartment with a bottle of Jack that was still more than half full, and --"
It seemed like time slowed down and opened out, and he looked down at his own hands fiddling with his cup, and they seemed really far away. "So first we were talking, and then we were laughing, and then --" It seemed to have gotten very quiet all around. "Tell you the truth, I'm not really clear on what happened next. That much liquor, things get kind of fuzzy. But I wake up and I'm all, I'm all --"
He gestured impatiently downward. Fraser gave him a puzzled look. "Unzipped, OK?" he clarified tightly. "I'm all unzipped, and I got a headache like a spike in the eye, and Kevin's all unzipped too, and then he wakes up and looks at me and pukes his guts out all over the carpet --"
He'd had just enough flashes of memory to be pretty sure it wasn't a coincidence they were both hanging out of their jeans. The hell of it was that he couldn't even remember if it had been good. It was always good in his head, later, when he let himself think about it.
"We got out of there in about two minutes flat without ever looking at each other," he said to his cup. "And the next day I went and asked Stella to marry me, and I kept on asking till she finally gave in just to shut me up, which took the rest of the summer. And Kevin got drunk again and scraped his Chevette down half a mile of retaining fence on Lake Shore Drive, and he didn't get out of the hospital for a month."
Fraser looked up, and Ray's gut clenched at his expression: distant, sympathetic, totally fucking impersonal, like he was looking at a criminal, for christ's sake. Your country appreciates your confession. You've done the right thing.
Shit, shit, shit. He never should have said anything, because now he could see that he'd had hopes for this conversation, how stupid was that, he'd had motives he hadn't even known about, and now he'd fucked up everything.
"I'm going to sleep," he muttered, and nearly fell over his feet as he went into the tent, stripping as he went.
When Fraser came in, Ray pretended really hard to be asleep, and after a while Fraser gave up and lay down.
They kept pretty busy the next day, and made more miles than they usually did, and Ray could ignore that the silence between them wasn't the usual kind of silence. They did all the camp-making chores the usual way, and after dinner Ray was thinking it would probably be better for both of them if he just went to bed right now, when Fraser folded his hands around his tin cup and said, "In Crescent Bay, they used to tell the tale of a Mountie who incurred the wrath of the local --"
The next word wasn't any language Ray had ever heard. "A witch," he guessed, because if Fraser wanted to pretend like nothing had happened, he pretty much had to go along with it.
"You've heard this story before?"
"Nah. It's always a witch."
"Right you are. Now, this -- witch -- was angry because the Mountie had lied to her regarding some land that was in dispute between them. So she cast a spell on him, dooming him always to tell only the truth."
Ray looked up sharply. Surely Fraser wouldn't scold him in a story, would he? There was something hard in Fraser's face, but Ray had a feeling it wasn't pointed at him.
"Exactly. To begin with, he was forced to abandon a long-planned effort to infiltrate the local snowmobiling club, which was suspected of poaching and drug trafficking and other unsavory activities, because he feared he'd inform them of his true intentions. Next, he was unfortunate enough to express his true opinion of his commanding officer, who responded by relieving him of his employment. Finally he confessed a certain mutual fondness for his partner's wife, a reckless act which led to his partner abandoning him in the middle of Devil's Pass with only a broken wristwatch and a pair of shoelaces."
Sounded familiar. "Man," Ray said.
"Indeed. To add insult to injury, the wristwatch was digital."
"So the moral of the story," Ray said slowly, "is, he died because he couldn't lie?"
"Oh, no. He was rescued by the partner's wife, who was an excellent wilderness navigator in her own right. But over time, he came to see the exchange of the partner for the wife as a bad bargain." Fraser looked up with a counterfeit of the usual twinkle that was painful to contemplate. "And of course very few occupations are open to someone who's unable to lie. After failing spectacularly as a salesman, a newspaper reporter, and a clergyman, he finally took the only option available to him and became a librarian, and found that silence was indeed golden."
There was some kind of unspoken rule governing these nights around the campfire -- Ray knew it, even though he couldn't have said what it was. But he'd broken it once, telling about him and Kevin, and if he asked any questions now, he'd be breaking it again.
He did it anyway, as Fraser straightened out his sleeping bag to geometric perfection. "I thought you Mounties always told the truth anyway."
There was a moment of silence, and then Fraser said without looking at him, "No, not always."
In the bit of nighttime light that crept into the tent, Ray could just make out Fraser's head, dark against the light inner surface of the sleeping bag, but he couldn't make out his expression. He didn't need to. He was thinking with the back part of his brain, now, the part that controlled his mouth in interrogations, the part that told him where the fingerprints would be and which way the getaway car went and where the idiot would have hidden the drugs.
That part told him that Fraser's arguments were all in the word part of his brain. And that wasn't the lonesome part.
Ray rolled closer. Leaned closer still.
"Fraser," he whispered, so close he could feel Fraser's breath against his cheek. "You can lie to me if you need to. If that's what you need."
Fraser opened his mouth, probably to say, Thank you, Ray. Ray interrupted him with a finger on his lips. He heard Fraser's sudden intake of breath.
"Or," he said, "you and me can lie to the whole goddamned world and tell the truth to each other."
For a long, scary moment Fraser did nothing at all, though Ray could hear him breathing, fast and shallow. Then just as Ray was deciding that this silence was his answer, all at once Fraser's arms came around him, and Fraser was kissing him, hard, desperate, terrified.
With a sudden visceral impact, Ray recognized that terror and desperation, remembered it -- him and Kevin clawing at each other, some sort of clumsy drunken race between getting off and actually having to understand what they were doing, like maybe everything would be OK if they could come before they had to think.
But reality had still been there grinning at them when they woke up the next morning, just like Fraser's story about the guy trying to outrun the prophecy. You couldn't outrun reality. It always knew all the shortcuts. When you got where you were going, there it was.
It was like that time in the crypt, telling this total stranger something he'd never told anybody in his life: the fear and the relief, dizzying and perfect, and then that feeling like a wind or a noise or a fever had stopped suddenly and he could think again.
He pressed Fraser back against the sleeping bag and kissed him, mouth and temple and jaw and throat. Fraser held him hard and kissed him fervently, every part of him taut against Ray, like maybe for him the wind was still roaring in his head.
When Ray put his hand through the fly of the longjohns, the first surprise was the heat, so strong that Fraser's belly was actually a little damp with sweat. His cock was hot, too, and silky-smooth -- fuck, he hadn't remembered at all, nothing could have prepared him for this -- and when Ray gripped it, Fraser buried his face in Ray's shoulder, panting. God, it felt like Fraser was ready to come already. Whatever might be going on in his head, the rest of him had no doubts whatever.
From the way his hips moved, Ray could get a feel for the rhythm that would get him there the fastest. He resisted it, going slower and slower, until Fraser's breathing started to sound distressed, until Ray had to throw his leg over Fraser's thighs to keep him still. Until Fraser finally looked up, like he wanted to see if Ray was frustrating him on purpose.
God, he was beautiful, all red-faced and mussed with his mouth still reddened from kissing. And damn the adventure, anyway, the way they had to do this in a tent in the freezing cold. He wanted Fraser naked, someplace warm where Ray could look at him, because he and Kevin Lizak had wrecked each other's lives without ever taking their Levi's off, and he wanted it for real this time.
"When I get you back to civilization," he said softly, "I'm gonna spread you out on a bed someplace and lick you all over."
Fraser's eyes widened, and closed, and it was like something broke open in his face, and he dropped his head back to the sleeping bag, baring his throat and offering up the long smooth curve of his body.
"Ray," he whispered, and Ray's lips vibrated with the next word he said, which was, "Yes."
When they lay panting and satisfied in each other's arms, the tent seemed bigger. It was amazing to be able to stretch his arms and legs out without jerking them back away from the cold nylon.
Amazing, too, to be so warm. Maybe they'd been walking the edge of freezing to death out here, all the time feeling like it was safer to be apart than to be together. Maybe Fraser had a story about that.
Fraser's hand was resting on Ray's chest. Ray put his own hand on top of it and laced their fingers together.
"Mm?" Fraser said sleepily against Ray's neck.
"I ever tell you the story about the boy that got in a wizard's way and got thrown into a whirlwind for seven years?"
Fraser put his leg over one of Ray's so that his foot was between Ray's two feet. "Tell me," he said.
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March 11, 2005