Author's Note: For the "Necking Challenge" on DS_Flashfiction. Thanks to Resonant and Terri and Mia for beta!
I. First Sight.
It wasn't what you'd call love at first sight. It wasn't even like at first sight—in fact, the only first-sight-type-thought he had about Fraser was, "Whoa—red," and then a lot of things had caught fire. Only later, when Fraser was clutching his hand and pulling him to his feet, ribs aching from the crash of the bullet, did Ray have time for a second, more measured, assessment. The Mountie was square enough to be a rectangle, and kind of nuts, but he was smart, you could see that, and plenty brave. Plus Fraser had a subtle, mocking sense of humor that Ray figured would wear well over the long term—better than, say, a farter or a practical joker.
So that was Ray Kowalski's first day opinion of Constable Benton Fraser: Red, Rectangular, Neither A Farter Nor A Practical Joker. Or, as he told Stella later that night, over the telephone, "Yeah, it's all right. I can work with him." It wasn't like they were going to be buddies or anything, but Fraser seemed like an okay enough guy.
It was an opinion Ray soon had to revise, not just because—okay, yeah, there were some benefits to being friends with Fraser that Ray hadn't anticipated—but more because the pain in the ass factor was through the fucking roof. The problem, Ray realized, was that Fraser knew perfectly well that he was smart(er than everybody) and brave(r than everybody) and right about almost everything, and so the whole Canadian Politeness thing was just a nice way of saying, "I'm being patient with you, dumbass." It was like the nicest way of being hostile ever, and it drove Ray insane, because everyone seemed to think that Fraser was some kind of saint, but it was all about being insulted in a foreign language. It was like how Ray wanted to buy those cool looking shirts covered in Chinese or Japanese writing, except he always secretly suspected that they read, "Kill the White People." He didn't know any Chinese or Japanese, but after a couple of months he began to pick up some Canadian—enough to understand what was being said, even though he couldn't speak any himself.
Which was why he had to pop Fraser one, finally; it was the only way he had of telling Fraser that he'd passed his Canadian Correspondence Course and he wasn't going to take Fraser's oh-so-polite bullcrap anymore. If he'd been able to speak Canadian, Ray could have said something like, "Fraser, I'm sick of your supercilious attitude; you're a fine officer, granted, but you haven't mastered every single law-enforcement technique ever invented, nor are you in possession of all the cultural information you need to function at maximum efficiency here in Chicago—which is why you've been partnered with me, so I'd appreciate it if you'd take a moment to look past your own gigantic ego to see the various skill sets and aptitudes I bring to the metaphorical table, thank you kindly." Instead, he yelled, "Christ, give it a rest already!" and socked Fraser in the face.
Still, Fraser got the message—and even though Ray felt pretty terrible about it afterwards, things got better between them. They were friends before the fight, but afterwards they were buddies, because—well, because Fraser finally gave it a rest. Oh, he was still polite and all that, except that was for other people now. Suddenly, Ray was on the inside of the Great Canadian Wall—and on the inside, Fraser said things like, "God, I hate that restaurant," and "Bossy isn't the half of it," and "He's a little understaffed in the brains department," which allowed Ray to practice his Canadian: "Yeah, but he's got a good heart." Fraser raised an eyebrow but didn't look up from his desk. "Yes, and I'm sure his liver functions admirably as well." Once, when Fraser was really pissed off, he yelled: "God damn it, Ray—would you just listen for a minute?" and not only did Ray listen, he bought Fraser ice cream.
Still, it was weird that they were any kind of friends at all, because Fraser wasn't the guy Ray'd have picked to be buddies with. After all, Ray had a CD collection whereas Fraser's preferred audio technology was sheet music, and Fraser didn't so much dance as totter awkwardly from side to side. Ray wasn't even sure that Fraser knew they made movies in color now. But if you're stuck in a car with someone for long enough, your choices come down to "find common ground" or "commit murder"—and so they finally figured out they both liked hockey and games of strategy and Humphrey Bogart movies. (Ray, with his mouth stuffed full of popcorn, pointed at the flickering television screen in his apartment: "This is the best part, right here," and Fraser shook his head and said, "No, the best part is later, when he turns her in.")
That was another unexpected plus about Fraser: he understood what it was like to lose the only woman you'd ever loved, and so he didn't say stupid-ass things like, "Oh, you'll meet someone else," or "There are plenty of fish in the sea." In fact, Fraser looked to be even more gun-shy than Ray was—though that had its up-side, too. Ray was not a man too proud to take cast-offs or hand-me-downs; in fact, his life was all about the sloppy seconds. So he was happy to score with the occasional woman who'd gotten hot and bothered by Fraser—and nothing else. After all, Ray was both 1) willing and 2) breathing—and so right there, he was fifty percent up on Fraser as far as the ladies were concerned.
Fraser got all Canadian with him then, all right—saying things like, "Well, if that's what you feel you need to do, Ray," which, translated into American, was something like, "Man, you're such a skank." Still, Ray was only human, and sometimes he just needed sex— smooth legs tightening around his waist, soft breasts in his hands. He liked making women come, which was basically an ego-thing with him—even after things had gone bad, Stella admitted he was good in bed. He missed having sex on a regular basis (or even a semi-regular basis), and not just the fucking, but the rest of it, too—the staring up at the ceiling afterwards, feeling dopey and fine. But Fraser didn't seem to need women or sex—which wasn't so strange, really, considering that Fraser didn't need an apartment or a credit card or a phone, either. Fraser was just weird like that, and you had to accept a certain level of weirdness to be friends with Constable Benton Fraser—which, somehow, he was.
It was harder to figure out when they'd passed the normal weirdness threshold and crossed into the territory of abnormal weirdness. Maybe it happened on the Beckman case, where Fraser was taken hostage and Ray not only figured out where he was being held, but apprehended Beckman by jumping a motorcycle onto a moving boat. And then, as he was handcuffing Beckman to the boat's railing, the motorcycle's wheels still spinning, Ray suddenly swelled with an almost hysterical ecstasy because, holy fuck, he'd just jumped a motorcycle onto a moving boat! He—Stanley Raymond Kowalski, lowly cop from Chicago— was a kicker of asses, a rocker of houses; he was James Bond, James Brown, and James Dean rolled into one. In short, he was pretty fucking amazing—and he turned to look at Fraser, who smirked and gave him a sharp little nod of approval and YES! HE WAS A SUPERHERO! HE WAS A GOD! If it had been raining, Ray would have howled and turned his face up into it—but it wasn't, so he just balled his hands into fists and shadowboxed a little, a left!-right!-left!, ignoring the rolled eyes of the other cops when they came. Huey and Dewey could go fuck themselves; they were dumbasses, and he could afford to be patient with them.
Or maybe the abnormal weirdness started on the day he nearly drowned—which was, technically, the third time he nearly drowned. He'd nearly drowned when they'd driven into the lake that first day, and he'd nearly gone down with the Henry Allen a year later, but this time, Ray really nearly didn't make it. He'd thought he'd gotten about as close to drowning as a person could get, but he'd been wrong about that, because he'd never lost consciousness before, and he'd never swallowed water. But he did both when he was held face down in Georgie O'Swanson's swimming pool by two huge thugs—who, thankfully, Fraser explained to him later, weren't all that familiar with the mechanics of drowning and so mistook his laryngospasm and subsequent unconsciousness for death, whereas of course, Ray, the seal created by your laryngospasm and the resultant oxygen deprivation leading to unconsciousness is actually what saved your life. (American translation: "Holy shit, Ray; you nearly died!") The thugs let go of him then, and left him floating—not that Ray remembered this part, being mid-laryngospasm at the time.
No, the last thing Ray remembered thinking was, "I can't believe I'm going to die in this stupid, pointless way..." and the first thing he saw when he opened his eyes was Fraser bending down over him, face contorted, crossed hands pumping his chest, two, three, four, five... and then Ray was vomiting water, and Fraser was roughly turning him over and holding him tightly while he convulsed and spewed chlorinated water all over the side of the pool—and suddenly Ray was overcome with some combination of gratitude at being alive and post-traumatic shock and burst into tears. Fraser pulled him hard against his chest, and Ray grabbed a handful of wet serge. "Fraser, thank you, thank you, oh God," and then he dissolved into horrible, braying sobs.
So that might have been where things started getting weird. Ray remembered being in the hospital afterwards getting his lungs checked, tubes down his throat, knowing that he'd done himself real damage this time. He was pretty sure he'd broken something important, though he didn't know exactly what it was, and the doctors didn't seem to know either.
It was only later—after Fraser started making noises about being homesick, and they'd flown up to Canada and fallen out of an airplane and nearly frozen to death—that Ray finally figured out what part of him had gotten broken that night. It came to him about five minutes after he decided that he had to stay in Canada to find the Hand of Sir John Franklin. What he'd broken, Ray suddenly realized, was the part of him that said that hanging out in the Arctic to look for a dead guy's hand was a really stupid idea.
Ray was kind of worried that he wouldn't last long without the part of him that said "Don't go to the Arctic," because he figured it was the same part that said, "Don't put rocket fuel in your car," and "Don't fuck the vacuum cleaner attachments," and "Don't lick electrical sockets." It was the part that had stopped him from offing himself in dumb-ass ways his whole life till now.
Still, gone was gone: this was your ass, and this was your ass on a dog sled.
They outfitted for the trip at the small RCMP outpost run by Buck Frobisher, and Ray shivered in the dark storeroom and watched as Fraser carefully packed up a whole lotta shit he couldn't identify: strange canisters, weird looking tools, dried meat and funky-smelling leaves, various rolled-up tarps. Fraser kept loading their packs, hefting them up, then unpacking them again; when Ray asked why, Fraser explained that he was trying to keep their total weight down, just in case they had to abandon the sled and walk.
Fraser gave him a bunch of stuff to carry and a leather belt to carry it on: knife, compass, can opener, sharpening stone, animal snare, flashlight, waterproof matches, needles, emergency flare. Buck found a pair of regulation RCMP snowboots in Ray's size (11), and Fraser did what must have been the fucking Arctic equivalent of ordering from Sears-Roebuck, because the day before they were supposed to leave, a grave-faced Inuit man Fraser cheerfully greeted as "Charlie" appeared over the horizon with a carefully-wrapped package—a hooded coat, made of heavy skins and furs. Ray couldn't get over that it was meant for him; it was far and away the best thing he had ever owned, even if it smelled kind of gamy. He put it on; it weighed a thousand pounds and he worried that it was too big, but Fraser explained that no, the Inuit made them like that so you could pull your arms inside if you wanted to. Ray grinned and pulled his arms inside the coat and yeah, okay, toasty. Fraser made him practice wearing everything he might need to wear at once: long underwear beneath layers of wool, fleece, and fur; two layers of socks, three layers of gloves; ski boots, snowshoes, sunglasses, pack on his back, a ski pole in each hand. Ray felt buried under all that stuff, but he felt well balanced and about as ready as he thought he was gonna get. He wasn't exactly fit for this, but he didn't see any way around that except to buck up and get at 'er. He saluted Fraser, half-forgetting the ski pole in his hand and nearly braining Dief, who leaped away from them with a yelp. But Fraser was staring at him meditatively, arms crossed over his own parka, and then he was nodding, and saying, "All right, then. Okay."
And then some scary words: "We'll leave tomorrow."
Ray took what he figured would be his last hot bath for some time in the barrel-shaped wooden tub at the curtained edge of the RCMP barracks. Some of the guys—Mounties, technically, but here, on their own turf, they were just guys shoving at each other, joking around and using sarcasm, like they'd forgotten they had an American on the premises—showed him how to heat the water, and by the time he stripped down and slung a leg over the high side of the tub (hot, hot, such bliss) his muscles were aching. He slowly hunkered down so that the hot water was practically up to his ears, which felt great.
Then he took a deep breath and slid under.
It was quiet down here, and warm, and if drowning was like this he wouldn't have been afraid of it. But drowning wasn't like this. Drowning was all about the panic and the helpless thrashing that dragged you down, and right now he felt just about the opposite of that. He felt calm. He felt safe—and whoa, wasn't that a weird idea, considering that he was squatting naked in a barrel of hot water, about to risk life and limb on a pointless adventure with a Mountie and a half-a-dozen sled dogs.
He lingered until the water began to cool off, feeling pleasantly drowsy. His skin was pink with heat when he finally got out of the tub. He slipped into longjohns, socks, and boots, then wandered up the barracks' long row of cots, drying his hair with a towel. He passed a card game being played out on a blanket, a young guy writing a letter, another couple of Mounties passing around a flask, before reaching the cot he'd been assigned, which was neatly made with brown military blankets.
Fraser looked up from the cot beside his, where he'd been reading a book by the light of an oil lamp. "You all right?"
"Mmm," Ray said, sitting down and pulling his boots off. He didn't feel much like talking; he just wanted to ride this fine, fine feeling down into sleep. "Took a bath."
"Ah," Fraser said, looking down again at his book. "Good idea."
He slid under the worn blankets and closed his eyes, listening to the faraway sound of men laughing, the creaking of the floorboards as people walked past, and the comforting sound of Fraser turning a page.
They set off early the next morning. The sun was bright and the sky was huge and blue and the snow-topped mountains stretched out all around them. Frobisher, who was a first-class freak and no mistake, saluted them smartly. The dogs took off, barking, pulling—and they were off.
Ray rode on the sled for the first stretch while Fraser stood behind him and steered. There was so much to see, he couldn't quite take it all in, and he kept being distracted by the stinging wind on his face and his painfully cold nose. They stopped for a nutritious lunch of dried meat (which was stringy) and tea (which smelled like a fart), and Fraser tore off a piece of jerky with his teeth and suggested, still chewing, that Ray take a turn mushing while the light was good. Ray agreed, and after lunch, still cupping his steaming mug of tea in one hand, Fraser gave him a quick tour of the sled. Ray got the basics pretty quickly, though it was nice to know the names of things (brushbow, snowhook, towlines, track) and there were clearly some skills that were gonna take practice. Mostly it reminded him of riding a motorcycle, what with all the leaning and braking, the keen sense of balance. He beat his gloved hands together, eager to get at it.
Fraser settled himself in the sled as Ray released the snublines and put one foot onto the footboard. "Ready?" he asked Fraser, and gripped the handlebar.
"Ready, Freddie," Fraser said and tugged a blanket up over his lap.
"Okay," Ray said—and suddenly he felt stupid, because he had no idea how to get the dogs moving. "Uh—where's the ignition key on this thing?"
"In your mouth," Fraser replied, and then he was cupping his hands to his mouth and yelling, "Heeeeeyah!" The dogs took off like a shot, and Ray struggled for balance before finding it, tightening his grip, hanging on. Because Dief was lead dog and Dief was deaf as a doornail, you had to control the sled more by touch than by yelled-out commands, which was okay, because Ray didn't speak much dog yet. Instead, he experimented with the steering, guiding them rightward and leftward and then hard right, dropping a foot onto the track to slow them down. It wasn't exactly the smoothest or most logical course a sled team had ever taken—in fact, it looked like the route Big Drunken Joe might take on his way home from the tavern, but at least he didn't crash into anything or dump Fraser's ass out into the snow. Plus, he could really see where he was going to like this, cause dogsledding was a whole body experience—like dancing, like boxing. You had to steer with your brain and your hands and your hips, straining forward, leaning backward, using your feet and the muscles of your arms and thighs. He could already see that, with practice, he could get good at this, he could race the fuckers, he could—
"Ray." Fraser'd twisted his head around and was looking back at him. "We're losing the light."
Suddenly Ray realized—not intellectually, as an interesting point of information, but viscerally—that they weren't going to reach anywhere tonight. Not tonight, not tomorrow, not for days, or even months. We're losing the light, Fraser said, and that meant that they needed to think about making camp somewhere out here in the middle of motherfucking nowhere, oh my Jesus God. They weren't going to get anywhere, they were just going to stop, and whatever they weren't carrying with them, whatever they couldn't find or kill, was—
"Ray. Ray. Ray." Ray blinked and looked down; Fraser's concerned face was turned toward his. "That looks like a good place right there."
Their camp was a helluvalot better than hanging in a hammock off the side of a mountain; Fraser'd packed really well, and their camp was an oddly cheerful place with its small, low tent, sleeping bags, and—because they were below the treeline— a fire. "Don't get used to it," Fraser warned him, as he stoked the cheerful orange flames. "Once we head north, what shrubs there are are much too rare to—"
"Okay, okay," Ray said impatiently; he got it. No fire later, but he was really glad to have one now, more for psychological reasons than for warmth. It made the camp seem a lot less foreign, more like the camping he'd done as a kid, and it helped him forget that they were miles away from anything familiar, miles away from help.
Fraser let him pull himself together in front of the fire and went to take care of the dogs. The sun was going down fast, but around them, the snow was beginning to glow gray-white with starlight—and Ray remembered with a start that they were only getting daylight because it was spring. In the winter here, there was no daylight at all.
That shook him out of his lethargy, and he went to investigate their food options. Fraser seemed to have packed any number of one-pot-dinners, and so Ray picked one (dehydrated beef and potato, yum) and started boiling water. Dinner—add water and stir. Tea—add water and you don't even need to stir. By the time Fraser came back to the fire, flushed and a little out of breath with all the unharnessing, feeding, watering, etc., Ray was able to hand him a steaming mug of tea and say, "Dinner's almost ready,"—and then he had to look away fast, because Fraser's look of surprised pleasure was weirdly hard to take. After all, what the fuck—did Fraser think that he was gonna be sitting around this whole trip, waiting to be served hand and foot? Okay, maybe he wasn't quite up to speed yet on how to pack the sled or chart a path through nowhere using only the sun and a stick, but he'd get there soon enough, and Lipton's Noodles were well within his range of cooking skills. He shot a nasty look at Fraser intended to emphasize the point but Fraser was just sitting there on his cushion by the fire, staring down into his metal mug of tea.
Everything was okay until it was time for bed. Fraser put the fire out and they crawled into the small tent. Already feeling chilly, Ray quickly stripped down to his long underwear and made to get into his sleeping bag.
Fraser grabbed his arm. "You can't do that."
Ray frowned. "What?"
"Sleep in anything you wore during the day," Fraser said seriously. "The key to staying warm is staying dry, Ray, and there's a lot of moisture trapped in your clothes. You've got to take those off and dry them out." Fraser let go of Ray's arm and nodded toward Ray's small sack of clothes. "Either sleep naked or change into your spare pair."
"Oh. Right. Okay." Reluctantly, Ray began to undo the snaps at the top of his longjohns. Crouching on his side of the tent, Fraser stripped to the skin and reached for a pair of flannel boxer shorts. Ray rummaged through his pack, searching for his spare longjohns, paying absolutely no attention to the quick flash of Fraser's dick and black pubes. His own dick was trying to crawl back into his body, it was so freakin' cold. He was shivering violently by the time he got the spare longjohns on and buttoned, and Ray was sure that their sleeping bag was rated for a billion degrees below zero, but he was still goosepimpled with cold as he zipped into his half. A moment later, Fraser slid into the bag's other compartment, blew out the candle, and fell asleep; Ray could tell by the sound of his breathing.
He himself was not asleep, because he was cold—bone cold, aching with it. He rolled onto his side, wrapped his arms around himself, and drew his knees up to his chest, trying to conserve as much of his own heat as possible. He tried to think warm thoughts: the Bahamas, Arizona, the radiator in his old apartment. He became aware that the wall of his sleeping bag that he had in common with Fraser was a hell of a lot warmer than the wall which only had air on the other side, and after a long, cold moment in which he weighed what was left of his dignity against the misery of the tundra, Ray backed up against it. This helped less than he thought, because having Fraser's body heating the nylon at his back only made his front seem colder. He lay there, shivering, for what felt like hours—dammit, he wasn't going to be able to sleep, and then he'd be tired, and eventually exhaustion would lead to...
When he opened his eyes, a single, tiny crack of sunlight was streaming through the vent at the top of the tent. It was morning. He'd fallen asleep after all. He was warm—the damn subzero sleeping bag had finally warmed up enough to be comfortable. He let his eyes drift closed again—five more minutes wouldn't kill anybody, and it wasn't like Fraser was up or anything. Because Fraser was—
Ray opened his eyes.
Fraser was all around him, arms wrapped around his torso, a leg slung over his leg, sleep-heavy and hot. Fraser'd unzipped the layer of nylon between them, making one big bag of their joined bags. Which was a million kinds of wrong, but it was nice, too; he hadn't felt so warm since Chicago, and he felt wonderfully safe and snug. Not to mention that the bone-ache in his shins and forearms was gone—man, he was warm. Relaxing back into drowsiness, he let himself drift off for just another five minutes.
It wasn't like there were witnesses. Who the hell was there to judge them, the dogs?
Ray didn't mention it until later that morning, when Fraser parked the team atop a ridge overlooking a truly spectacular vista of blue sky and purple-green mountains and Ray realized he wasn't seeing any of it, because he was thinking about the fact that he'd slept in Fraser's arms all night. He appreciated it and all, but wasn't it also sort of weird? Was that normal for guys to do up here? Were they gonna sleep like that again tonight, on purpose?
"...and look," Fraser was saying. "There!—down by Coleman's Ridge. I think those are caribou tracks—"
"It was really cold last night," Ray said, and Fraser's head jerked around to look at him.
"Yes, it was." Fraser nervously flicked his tongue out over his lip. "But I wouldn't worry about it if I were you," Fraser suggested cautiously. "You'll acclimatize soon enough. The body needs time to adjust—"
"I'm not worried about it," Ray said, and that was almost sort of true.
"—to Arctic temperatures, to acquire the right nutrients to build layers of muscle and fat. And it's March already, in any case; it'll be getting steadily warmer even despite our northern course—"
"I'm not worried, I said. Just, it was cold last night, and—" Ray wasn't sure exactly what he wanted to say. "Just. I appreciate—I guess—that you helped me not be cold."
Fraser turned to stare out across the valley, and when he spoke, his voice sounded slightly strangled. "It's—customary. No thanks necessary."
That was exactly what Ray had wanted to know, but it kind of pissed him off to know it. He wanted it to be no big deal, but somehow not this not-big of a deal, because it was kind of a big deal to him. "Hey, it's not customary to me, all right?"
But Fraser slammed a reply right back. "Yes, because this is the Arctic," he said, taking in the whole scene— snowy mountain, giant sky, caribou tracks, yapping sled dogs—with a sweep of his arm. "Which I'm pretty sure hasn't escaped you. And we do things differently up here—"
Pretty sure? "I'm going to shove you off this cliff and into the snow," Ray warned.
"I wouldn't," and Fraser's voice was sharp, "advise you to try it."
Okay, so they were both going to die here; he was gonna shove Fraser off this cliff and then freeze to death like Jack Nicholson at the end of The Shining. "I'm trying to thank you, you dumb fuck!"
"You're fucking welcome!" Fraser shouted back—and that was so wildly surprising that Ray burst out laughing. Welcome to Benton Fraser's home turf!—but Fraser didn't seem to find this funny. In fact, he looked visibly infuriated, and stomped off without another word to sulk in the sled.
"Aw, come on," Ray said, stumbling after him through the drifts. "Don't be like that..."
Fraser was already in the sled, arms crossed and expression carefully neutral.
"You're saying you want me to drive?" Ray asked.
Fraser made a non-committal gesture with his hand.
"Where am I going?" Ray asked, and this time Fraser gave a little snort that said, "Ah, so now that you've remembered that you haven't the faintest idea where you are in this vast wilderness, you'll have reconsidered your insult," or, in Canadian, "Who's the dumb fuck now, eh?" "Fine," Ray said, releasing the snublines and grabbing onto the handlebar. "Once around the park, then—Heeeeyah!" and they were off.
Ray drove the sled for the rest of the day, choosing his course mainly through instinct and the vague sense that if they headed steadily downhill, they at least wouldn't be going in circles. They passed some of the most gorgeous countryside Ray had ever seen, but Fraser didn't comment or even so much as turn around—though his head seemed to Ray to drop steadily, declining from "Arrogant Superiority" to "Default Canadian" to "Slightly Embarrassed" and finally ending up, chin to chest, at "Really Rather Ashamed of Myself" over the course of the afternoon.
When the sun started to brush the tops of the trees, Ray decided that they should make camp. He slowed the team to a trot, looked around, and decided on a spot that seemed level and sheltered.
"Yes," Fraser said, and that was the first word Fraser'd said for hours, "that's good—right there." Ray halted the sled, and then they were both moving, working to make camp. Level the snow, stake the dogs, set up the tent—and then suddenly Fraser was gripping his arm. Ray turned around and saw that Fraser was wearing skis and holding a shotgun. "I'll be back in about ten minutes," Fraser said, and then he reached into his parka and pulled out a second gun: a flare gun. "Just in case," Fraser said, handing it to Ray. "If I don't come back, fire your flare southeast. We're actually not too far from Kangiqsujuaq village."
"I—yeah," Ray said, suddenly at a loss for words. Fraser nodded, strapped the shotgun on his back, gripped the handles of his ski poles, and skied off—and sooner than Ray would have thought possible, there was no sign of Fraser except for a long, smooth curling track—like calligraphy in the snow—that swirled away from Ray's feet.
Hey! Great! Anything happened to Fraser, he could just pop over to Kangapangjack Village, have dinner, take in a movie at the fucking Kangapangjack Multiplex. Ray kicked at a drift of snow, but it was soft and his boot flew right through it, throwing him off balance. On the verge of a freakout, Ray forcibly stopped himself, took a deep breath and went back to making camp.
Fraser would be back in ten minutes. Everything would be fine.
Five minutes later, Ray heard the faint echo of a gun-blast—ka-chow! ka-chow!-and he told himself that that was just Fraser killing something for dinner and not Fraser confronting some unexpected and heavily armed master criminal—despite the fact that experience said the latter was way more likely. But ten minutes later Ray saw the first brown glimmer of Fraser skiing back toward camp. Fraser swerved to a stop in front of the fire and pushed his goggles up; he was flushed pink and breathing hard. "Dinner," he said, and held up a number of small, dead, already-skinned-and-eviscerated animals, legs tied together with string. They looked disgusting, but Ray knew Fraser well enough to know that this was kind of an apology, so he just nodded and said "Cool."
The rabbits turned out to be a whole lot better than cool. The smell of roasting meat had Ray literally drooling; he couldn't remember ever smelling anything so delicious. Fraser cooked them on a spit, then dished out the meat—and they ate like animals, tearing flesh off the bone with their teeth and eating everything from fat to marrow. Fraser explained that it wasn't at all surprising that they should have this kind of appetite because camping in the snow required literally double the calories required for normal city living. Ray just licked fat off his fingers and nodded, his mouth smeared with grease.
Afterwards, they sat there, stuffed to the gills, and drank their evening mugs of tea. Ray was dopey and content, and he was just about to say, "Great apology, Fraser; let's do it again sometime," when Fraser frowned into the fire and said, "You were cold."
"What?" Ray sat up on his cushion.
"You were cold," Fraser repeated, not meeting his eyes. "What was I supposed to do?"
"Do? Nothing," Ray replied, frowning. "I mean—what you did was fine, I—"
"I knew you'd take it wrong," Fraser told the fire. "But I could hear your teeth chattering... Was I supposed to let you suffer out of some misguided sense of..."
Fraser didn't say what misguided sense that was, but Ray knew anyway. "No," Ray said, leaning forward—and then, because he wasn't close enough, Ray got up and dragged his cushion closer to Fraser's so that they were practically knee-to-knee. "No, okay? That was what I was trying to tell you. I—appreciated that. I really did."
"All right," Fraser said, but he still couldn't look at Ray's face.
"Fraser, I'm serious. I'm fine with it."
"I knew you'd take it wrong," Fraser muttered to himself. "But I swear I didn't mean anything funny—"
"Fraser," and now Ray really was exasperated, "you're the least funny man I've ever met," and that at least earned him a crooked smile and a sideways glance. "Your sense of humor would have to be represented with negative numbers," Ray continued, feeling on safer ground. "Looked for with a microscope. On a scale of one to ten of funny? You're just not. You make Mr. Rogers look like Lenny Bruce. So don't worry about it, all right?" and Fraser was grinning down at his mittened hands and nodding.
IX. Sight Unseen.
But that night, Fraser was careful to keep to his side of the sleeping bag, and the nylon partition between them was fully zipped. Ray lay there, blindly staring into the darkness. It was cold, sure, though he was getting used to that. What he didn't like was the feeling that there was something wrong between them—that Fraser was avoiding him, or was maybe even afraid of him. Because they were out here on their own with only each other to depend on, and whether or not they survived this crazy trip might well depend on some small point of communication. This adventure thing was partnership in its most elemental form—and Ray knew from long experience that you couldn't work with somebody if you were carrying baggage. Last time, he and Fraser had gotten rid of the baggage by duking it out and requesting transfers; this time, Ray suspected, it wasn't gonna be anything so easy.
But he couldn't have Fraser be afraid to touch him, so he groaned and rolled over in the tight sleeping bag, fumbling for the zipper which separated their compartments. "Fraser," he said, finding the thick plastic tab and yanking it down. Fraser didn't answer, but Ray wasn't fooled; no way was Fraser sleeping. "Fraser, get over here," he said. Fraser's side of the bag was like an oven; it was like Fraser's body was a massively effective heat generator. He put his arms around Fraser—it was like embracing a very warm plank of wood—like, maybe a wooden Indian that had been standing in the sun all day. His own cold skin goosepimpled by comparison.
"Ray," Fraser said, sounding strangled.
"Shut up, Fraser," Ray said, nudging close and trying to snuggle into that heat, and for a wonder, Fraser really did shut up. A moment later, he relaxed, tense muscles easing, and he became softer and more pliable in Ray's arms. Nice to have a human pillow, and Ray was just drifting off when his hand slid to Fraser's side and touched—Christ! Cold! What the fuck was—? It was like a block of ice—
"It's snow," Fraser admitted; he moved Ray's chilled hand away from the ice and put it into his armpit instead; Fraser's armpit was steaming. "Well, slush really," and then Fraser started explaining how he always took a bag of snow into his sleeping bag with him so they'd have water first thing in the morning without wasting fuel—
"Shut up. Geez," Ray muttered, and pulled Fraser back into his own goosepimpled arms.
Ray learned how to read a map. He learned how to plot a course using a compass and a sextant. He learned what the fuck a sextant was. He learned how to survive above the tree-line, where their tent was the only blip on the vast, bare landscape of iridescent ice. He learned to ice fish and track caribou. He learned what an Inukshuk was for. He learned to stand before the vast ice fields in silent awe. He learned to be surprised by Arctic flowers.
So that was how they spent the trip: adventuring by day, curled up like puppies at night. And that was fine, Ray thought, because it kept them warm and on the same page, literally in touch. You couldn't stay mad at a guy you were sleeping with, and you couldn't lie to him, either—you'd feel the lie in his bones and muscles, and he'd feel it in yours, like a tumor. And so Ray was fine with the fact that he and Fraser ended every day in each other's arms, that he knew Fraser's smells and beard growth pattern better than his own (Fraser could only grow a couple days' worth of hip-looking stubble before his beard went horribly, terribly wrong).
Fine, that was, until one night when Fraser made a soft, contented sound in his sleep and Ray realized that he was stroking Fraser's hair. And that was something he used to do with Stella—he would hold Stella and stroke her hair while she slept, not even realizing it sometimes until he found long strands of gold hair twined around his wedding band or tangled around the metal beads of his bracelet. And that made him think of everything he'd lost. His soft, golden Stella with her slinky body. Her soft belly, her wet mouth and sweet kisses. Her tiny, high breasts with their huge, erect nipples in their circle of pale pink—Christ, he got horny even thinking about it. Nipples round as dimes poking up under her tiny cotton t-shirts and light cotton dresses, back in the days when Stella went braless and barefoot. Back before her casual clothes were crowded out by blouses and suits. Back before he was crowded out right along with them. And now here he was with this big, dumb Canuck in the Arctic—so fucking unfair. Probably nobody had ever seen a cotton dress up here, or a golden tan, or the way a bracelet of tiny shells danced against the warm, downy skin of a woman's arm. Everything up here was pale, heavy, clunky, buried under a mountain of fur and leather. Even the people were like that, even the women—they'd seen two Inuit women hauling baskets of fish, and Fraser had waved at them. To Ray, the women looked round and squat—but then again, who the hell could tell what they looked like under all those animal skins? They could've been Julia Roberts and Sharon Stone under there, but Ray sort of doubted it.
He turned his head a little so that he could see Fraser's face—it was easier to see, now, because the dark wasn't as dark as it used to be, and soon there'd be no dark at all. Fraser's face was ghostly pale, his eyelashes and eyebrows dark against his skin, his eyelids veined with light purple, the color of one of Stella's summer dresses. Fraser had fallen asleep with his head on Ray's shoulder, and his hand was on Ray's hip, right on the skin where the top of Ray's longjohns had ridden up. Incredibly, Fraser's palm was damp; he seemed to be sweating slightly as he slept. Ray pulled away a little so that he could lie flat on his back, then draped his arm across his eyes. At least they'd have water in the morning. Christ, what was he doing here?
He kept it together for most of the next day, though the question was like a knot he couldn't untie. Finally, after dinner, he snarled and reached for the scissors.
"Look, I don't love you," he told Fraser, who looked up, blinking, from his tin bowl of stew. "Most days I don't even like you."
Fraser tilted his head to the side, his unflappable expression marred only slightly by the whiplash flick of an eyebrow. "Well, I appreciate your honesty, Ray, though I do question your timing. You might have mentioned this before we embarked on an adventure through the frozen tundra—"
"All right, all right," Ray said, groaning.
"—with only each other for company," and okay, Fraser was angry, and really, who could blame him?
Ray tried to crawl out of the hole he'd dug. "Okay, that's not what I meant, that's not what I mean—"
"It's what you said," Fraser pointed out sharply. "And they were all single syllable words, so I don't think I mis—"
"Just shut up for a second!" God! A guy could bleed to death from Fraser's sarcasm. "I'm not—that's not what I'm saying." Though he wasn't sure what he was saying, which was half of the problem. Fraser had turned his face up to the vast, gloomy sky; he was avoiding Ray's eyes, maybe angry or hurt or both. "Just—" and when had he started feeling invisible if Fraser wasn't looking at him? "Just, I—I'm kind of feeling that—" and it was close, now; right on the tip of his tongue, and so he blurted it out. "I'm not gay, Fraser."
He wasn't sure what reaction he was expecting from Fraser, but it wasn't laughter. "I'll say," Fraser said, blithely tossing his stew plate into the snow. "Most days, you're not even chipper."
"That's not what I meant."
"I know what you meant," and Ray didn't think he'd ever heard Fraser sound like that before, both cheerful and hard at the same time. "I'm not sure why the fact warrants an announcement, but since it has been announced, let me just say," and here, Fraser raised a gloved hand to his forehead and saluted, "'Duly acknowledged.' Do you want some tea?"
Nuh-uh, no good—that didn't end it, however much Ray wished it would. "I'm not gay, Fraser," Ray repeated, as Fraser reached for his tin mug and a teabag. "But—" and was it his imagination, or did Fraser's hand wobble a little as it reached for the kettle? "I got feelings I don't know what to do with."
"Hm," Fraser said, and there had been a time when Ray thought that there was something mysterious behind that "hm." Now he knew it was what Fraser said when he didn't know what the fuck else to say.
Ray didn't know what the fuck else to say either. "I guess I'll have that tea now."
He watched as Fraser prepared two mugs of tea with what seemed to Ray over-elaborate care, like he'd forgotten how to do it or something. The evening gloom deepened. They drank their tea.
"So," Ray said finally, "you got nothing to say?"
Fraser bit his lip. "I..." and Ray leaned forward to listen. But Fraser seemed to bite down on whatever thought he'd been having. "No," Fraser said faintly, and there was a weird hollow sound to his voice, like his chest was an echo chamber. "I don't think I do."
One final last ditch effort: "You got no weird feelings to deal with?"
Fraser opened his mouth, then closed it tightly. "I didn't say that."
Ray felt anger building, and he couldn't tell if that was because anger was comfortable and familiar or because Fraser was a fucking lily-livered coward who couldn't fucking be bothered to meet a drowning man halfway. "Okay, so you just don't want to talk about it. You'd rather have another exciting conversation like yesterday about why cable is better than polyethylene rope—"
"What do you want me to say?" Fraser asked in a tight, tortured-sounding voice.
That stopped Ray for a moment, and then he just took a deep breath and said it. "Is it just me, or do you want to do something?"
"Something?" Fraser echoed.
"Yeah. Something—with sex."
Fraser stared down at the ground between his snow-encrusted boots. His cheeks seemed to have gone redder. "I... Jesus, Ray, you don't know what you're doing."
"Yeah," Ray agreed immediately; this much, he figured, was obvious. "Absolutely fucking right I don't. Still, this is not a brain-surgery type of question, Fraser."
Fraser's entire body seemed to have gone tense over his tea, like he was bracing for something. "All right," he said, and exhaled a long breath. "Let's say this. If you wanted to—touch me, I wouldn't, hm. Object."
"You wouldn't object," Ray repeated doggedly.
"Right," Fraser said, and shot Ray a keen, nervous glance.
Well, that was an exciting offer. "Let me get this straight," Ray said, and leaned forward, lacing his gloved fingers together. "If I were to do something, you wouldn't object. But it's nothing you're looking for. You're saying you can go either way, you don't need anything else—"
"I'm saying that normally I would be out here alone with the dogs," and because Fraser sounded angry, it took Ray a moment to hear what he was saying. "I'm saying that having you out here at all is...." Fraser trailed off, apparently searching for the right word—though for Fraser not to find a word was almost unthinkable. "Well, it's annoying, for one thing," Fraser said, finding at least one applicable word. "In fact, over recent years, there's been something of an upward trend in that area, starting, I think, with Diefenbaker. My companions have tended to be as annoying as they are extraordinary, sometimes supernaturally so. Still, I've increasing cause to be grateful for any companionship at all. I don't think I could..." Again Fraser trailed off, but this time he seemed to lose the thread completely. A moment later he blinked rapidly and lifted his head. "In any case, what you're proposing is far beyond my expect—"
"Promise me you're not going to move," Ray said urgently.
Fraser's eyebrows flew up. "What?"
"Don't move, okay?" Ray said, kneeing his way toward Fraser through the snow. "I'm serious. I need you to stay absolutely still, otherwise I'm going to freak out or something. Pretend you're outside the Consulate—"
Fraser couldn't seem to help snorting ever so softly. "Happy memories..."
"Seriously, shut up," and Ray was kneeling on Fraser's cushion now, and he could feel his heart kicking nervously in his chest. He was close, now—too close unless he was gonna pick an eyelash out of Fraser's eye with his fingertip or something. He saw that Fraser's cheek was blotchy with the cold—not milky smooth the way it was at night, but red and veined under the skin, and shadowed with patchy stubble. Fraser's lips were also lightly chapped; he hadn't had a chance to reapply a coat of the thick wax they used to protect themselves. Ray instinctively raised a hand to touch Fraser's face, then realized he was still wearing his gloves. He yanked the glove off with his teeth and let it fall into the snow at Fraser's feet, then tugged off the detachable index and middle fingers of his second pair and touched Fraser's face.
Cold—Jesus! and he bent forward to press his cheek to Fraser's. Fraser's skin felt papery-thin and icy against his, and after a moment, Ray closed his eyes and pressed his lips to Fraser's cheek. Fraser trembled a little, but obeyed his order to keep still, and stayed as frozen as a statue, like he'd frozen to death—and that somehow gave Ray the courage to turn and press his mouth to Fraser's.
Mouth. Just a mouth like any other mouth he'd kissed, except colder and faintly waxy and chapped. Fraser was being good, staying perfectly still and keeping his mouth closed, though Ray could feel him breathing deeply through his nose—and soon Ray felt calm enough to let the hard pressure of mouth against mouth soften into a real kiss—even if it was kind of ninth grade. It was a lot like the kisses he'd given Stella, back in the day, full of things he couldn't say—and the thought sent him surging forward against Fraser's lips, because actually it was exactly like that. This was the only way he could think of to tell Fraser he loved him. Maybe not at first sight, or second sight, or even in hindsight, but in the way that creeps up on you when somebody's been quietly good for you for a long, long time.
He brushed a final, soft kiss against Fraser's mouth and slowly drew back; he was breathing fast, but he felt otherwise okay. "All right," he told Fraser. "You can move now,"—and Fraser inhaled sharply and clutched at the back of Ray's head with his gloved hand and pulled their mouths back together, changing the kiss into something fierce, something desperate. Ray felt a moment of sudden, terrifying panic and pushed against Fraser's shoulder. The moment Fraser broke off the kiss—looking flushed and guilty—Ray realized that the crazed fluttering in his gut was excitement, not panic, and he dragged Fraser forward and took his mouth again. Fraser groaned and opened his mouth—and suddenly Ray felt hands grabbing at his parka and his tongue was in Fraser's mouth and they were tilting, falling backward, Fraser landing heavily on top of him, kissing blindly in the snow.