Charting The Decline
It was a jump he'd done a thousand times, a jump so instinctive and right and suited for his body—whether the object of the jump be an out-of-control sled team or a snowmobile or a speeding taxicab—that he was stunned when he missed it. The hard lip defining the trunk was under his fingertips one second and not the next; his booted toe sought and failed to find the edge of the chrome bumper, and then he was falling hard, backwards, onto the flying asphalt behind him. He rolled, then seemed to be dragged along the black tar, unable to come to a stop, feeling the burn on his hands, the side of his face, feeling his trousers rip and—bam! a blaring pain from his arm as it twisted underneath him and smashed into the street.
Shocked, dazed, he lifted his head and realized he'd finally come to a stop. But much more painful than the fall was the sight of the black car tearing away down the street (AXY 3201, AXY 3201, AXY 3201) and the pale face staring out the back window. Lilly Easton—they had her!—the bastards had her!—and all their promises to Wilbur Easton were—
He heard the sound of the motorcycle only a second before it roared past his head, and instantly recognized Ray's back crouched over the machine. Ray—his brilliant partner had commandeered a motorcycle—and Fraser pushed himself up on his scraped and bleeding hands and watched, heart pounding. He was hoping actively, hoping hard, like he could help Ray stop these men by mere force of will.
The cycle was fast as hell, but it was small, and Fraser suddenly realized that in a contest between the two machines, the cycle was likelier to get pushed off the road than the reverse. That thought was enough to bring him to his feet, though he stumbled and nearly fell down again—-his goddamned knee wasn't doing what it ought to!—before limping lamely after them. Ray could catch up, perhaps, but Ray couldn't stop them. How was Ray supposed to stop them?—and as if in answer to the question, the motorcycle suddenly took off, leaping into the air and arcing forward and then landing with a bang! on the trunk of the black car. It was there for only a split second though, and then with an ear-splitting whine it launched forward and drove over the car's hard top and down the hood. The motorcycle sped ahead and then turned and skidded to a halt. The black car—its front and back windows broken, its hood badly dented, steam rising out of its engine—screeched to a stop, and Fraser saw that Ray, still sitting astride the motorcycle, had his gun out and aimed at the driver.
The back door opened and, sobbing, Lilly Easton ran out. Ray's daredevil act had drawn a crowd, and Lilly Easton ran straight into the arms of a motherly-looking woman who instantly dropped her bags of groceries and started tending to her. Gritting his teeth, Fraser put on a burst of speed.
"Get out of the car," Ray yelled. "Now! Both of you!" and two minutes later, Wallace and Doyle were face down in the street and handcuffed.
He began running down by the lakefront in the early mornings, his evening constitutional having clearly proven inadequate. Two miles became five, then ten, and still he couldn't regain his physical confidence.
"Fraser." Ray was sprawled lazily on the Consulate steps, legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles, munching what smelled distinctly like a butter-slathered muffin. "Give it a rest already, will you?"
Fraser clutched at the wrought iron railing and tried to catch his breath. "Right...you...are...Ray."
But he couldn't give it a rest, because he had made the mistake of pulling his personnel file and checking the results of his most recent physical. He thought he'd done well, and he had, but not comparatively. Slowly, he flipped through the pages in reverse order— he had been both faster and stronger in years past, with better lung capacity and more acute reflexes. He'd done markedly better two years ago, better still the year before that...and the results he'd achieved ten years ago now made him feel painfully inadequate. Taken together, these exams charted a slow but definite decline; it made for a dismal afternoon's reading.
The next day, he asked Ray if he could recommend a gym.
Ray's gym was old and fairly primitive, but it had a well-cared-for weight room, a pool, and a quarter-mile track. It also had a warm and masculine atmosphere, which Fraser appreciated. Ray came in twice a week to do laps and punch the bag ("because I can not exercise in the park or on a city street, Fraser, because I'm always on edge, waiting for someone to be robbed, attacked, or killed, maybe even me—") but Fraser tried to come oftener, replacing his evening constitutional with a more aggressive workout.
He much preferred the days when Ray came to the gym, though he reminded himself that true discipline transcended personal preferences. Still, it was comforting having Ray in the corner, boxing gloves on, beating a rhythmic thud-di-dah, thud-di-dah, thud-di-dah, out on the small punching bag while he himself worked with the weights. Then Ray would shower and work on his hair for twenty minutes while Fraser took a quick swim and his own (purely utilitarian) shower. After that, they'd generally go out for a meal—though Ray tended to be quiet during these dinners, oddly restrained in both word and gesture. But Fraser assumed that Ray's low energy was simply due to exhaustion, and indeed, Ray often did perk up again by the end of the meal, whereupon he would badger and tease Fraser about his new exercise regimen: "You've got to relax, Fraser," and "We're none of us as young as we used to be, all right?" and "Give yourself a break, will you? Join the fucking human race for a change." Sometimes Ray ribbed him using a German accent, which was apparently the trademark of some bodybuilder or other.
One evening, however, Fraser was just finishing up the last of his left bicep repetitions when he saw Ray watching him narrowly from the weight bench beside his. Ray wasn't actually using the weights; rather, he was hunched on the bench in his shorts and t-shirt, which was badly stained with sweat. Ray, Fraser surmised, had been running, and was working up the energy to have a go at the bag.
But Ray didn't go to the bag; instead, Ray just sat there and watched him switch arms and start again, one, two, three... And there was something about Ray's posture that bothered him, some quality of detachment in the tilt of his head, a closed-off look in his eyes, a protective hunch to his shoulders. Ray looked like a stranger—and that was such an unfamiliar and upsetting thought that Fraser slowly ground to a halt and let the barbell drop to the mat between his feet.
Ray didn't even blink; Ray was staring at him like he'd never seen him before.
"Ray?" Fraser asked; he was sweating hard and feeling slightly sick. His muscles hurt; possibly he'd overdone it today. "Is everything all right?"
For a moment, Fraser thought that Ray hadn't even heard him, but then Ray answered in a voice as distracted as the rest of him was focused. "Yeah."
"Because you're not..." Fraser trailed off and waved a hand toward the bag in the corner.
"No," Ray said vaguely. "No, I..." and then Ray's frown deepened and he said, in an edgy, unfamiliar voice, "So does it really bother you that much?"
Fraser found himself momentarily lost for words. "Does what bother...?"
"Being partnered with me," Ray said, and his face was like a stone wall. "Because Jesus, all this, it's...." and here Ray seemed to have to snap his mouth shut for a moment and regroup. "You're not exactly what I'd call a team player, Fraser," Ray said finally, and the words were brittle as they came out of his mouth.
"That's not true," Fraser protested, but Ray was tight-lipped and already shaking his head.
"It is true, it is true, it is totally fucking true. Because look at you, you can't even handle..." and now Ray trailed off and gestured at Fraser with both hands, taking in the bench and the weights and the entire gymnasium around them. "You can not even handle the idea that maybe someone else makes the play now and then, even if you're the one who set them up to do it. You have to slam the ball yourself—and if you don't it's apparently a national fucking emergency, hold everything, the world can not be functioning properly because Fraser's not a hero. Well, fine then. Fine." Ray abruptly stood up and wiped his forehead with the hem of his shirt, then let his arms drop. "You know, the whole point of having a partner is that maybe someone picks up the ball when you drop it. It's a nice thing, you know?—or at least I used to think it was a nice thing. You don't seem to think so. That's fine, though," Ray said, in a voice that made it clear that he thought it was anything but fine. "People are different, I guess." Ray shrugged and looked toward where two men were sparring, grunting as they landed and received individual blows. "Just—I always missed more shots than I made, plus I'm getting older, too. But I thought—you know. That you and me could... I don't know what I thought," Ray said, and seemed to be physically shaking off the thought. "But I guess that—I mean, with the standards you have? I guess I get it; probably everybody's a liability. I don't even want to know what you think of me. I just don't want to know."
Fraser's mind was both spinning and utterly blank. Thoughts were crashing into each other so fast that he couldn't isolate any one in particular, couldn't form a coherent idea, let alone a sentence. "Ray—"
But Ray cut him off. "I'm going to shower, Fraser," Ray said, and turned toward the gym's musty locker room, and somehow Fraser could only sit there in mute horror as the future fell out of his world.
- Alternate (Happy!) Endings for Charting the Decline by Speranza
Note: Thanks to Terri for beta! For the DS_Flashfiction "Fraser Fucks Up" Challenge.