Mangy Dog

by Speranza

Author's Notes: Many thanks to Gear, Mia, Terri, Cin, and Linda for help with this, Kat for encouragement, Resonant for helpful critique.

Weight. The first thing he could let himself think about was Ray's weight. Ray was heavy, so heavy—though that was probably mostly due to the layers of winter gear he was wearing: layers of shirts, navy blue parka, thick leather gloves, black wool hat. Fraser's arm muscles screamed with pain and nearly buckled, but he forced himself to be steady as he laid Ray down in the snow.

It must all have happened in a split second, because his ears were still ringing from the shot, and Holbrook was just standing there, looking stunned, the gun in his hand. Holbrook was distracted, off-guard. Ray was—out of it for the moment. That left him, and if he could only focus, keep focused, despite everything—

No, he was wrong, he wasn't the only one here capable of focusing. Diefenbaker was already in the air, leaping at Holbrook and knocking him back into the snow. Fraser got to his feet and stumbled through the foot-high drifts toward them—and then he was on Holbrook too, roughly turning the man over and binding his hands behind his back.

Focus on that. Tight knots. Stay clearheaded, stay present.

The gun. Find the gun.

It took a moment to spot it—the snow around them had been violently disturbed during the chase and the subsequent struggle. But then he saw it, its textured grip protruding from the snow near Holbrook's head. He picked it up, checked it carefully, and then rose to his feet.

The temptation to just aim and shoot—back of the head, execution-style—gripped him strongly. It would be quick, it would be perfect, it would make life so much easier.

Shoot him with the same gun. Right here. Justice, poetic and actual.

And wrong. And, a voice said clearly, in his head, it won't make anything easier. Nothing important would be easier. Not a jot easier.

Fraser turned and stumbled back to Ray, dropping to his knees in the snow beside him. Ray was staring up at the wide blue sky, eyes open. He seemed to be having trouble breathing, but his eyes were clear, thank God—clear and rational and full of pain.

"Ray..." Fraser almost didn't recognize the sound of his own voice.

Ray's eyes flicked toward him, then focused on him. "Hey, buddy," and Ray's voice wasn't recognizable either; that hoarse, dry whisper didn't sound like his partner at all. "That was dumb, huh?"

"That was dumb," Fraser repeated numbly, "that was very dumb, Ray." He tugged his gloves off, dropped them into the snow, and then reached helplessly for Ray's face—tucking his sweat-drenched hair into his hat, then gently skimming the dirty blond beard with his fingertips.

Ray's dry, cracked lips came together tightly, as if he were fighting back a smile. "Dumb. Yeah." Ray's eyes closed momentarily, then opened again. "Old habits. Dying hard."

The words sent a shudder through Fraser, and he launched into motion, as if motion could blot them out, make him forget he'd ever heard them. He reached for the zipper of Ray's parka, pulled the tab downward, and pushed the bloodstained fabric away.

"Stupid." Ray grunted with pain and closed his eyes again. "Sorry."

Fraser was digging through the layers, and now—finally—he could see the entrance wound. It was low, down on Ray's left side, right about where his rib cage ended, maybe an inch or two above his waist. Tricky spot—could be anything or nothing there, depending on the angle of the bullet. Upward into the thoracic cavity—heart, arteries, lungs. Downward—could be liver, kidney, stomach, intestines. Either way: not good.

"Did it hit your ribs?" Fraser asked urgently, fingertips skimming the bloody skin around the wound. Ray didn't answer, and Fraser looked up sharply. "Ray! Any idea where it hit?"

"No clue," Ray replied vaguely; he was now blinking rapidly, irregularly, like he was trying to stay focused. "Just screaming mimis of pain, here, Fraser—can't place where..."

Fraser nodded quickly and sat back on his heels. He unzipped his own parka and yanked it off his shoulders, then stripped off his sweater and flannel shirt until he came to his thermal underwear. He tugged that off too, pulling the top up over his head, and then, sitting barechested in the snow, he folded the fabric into a thick bandage and pressed it hard against the wound in Ray's side. One hand pushing down, Fraser slowly pulled layer upon layer of clothing back over Ray's body, lifting up only long enough to tug each layer down and under his hand.

Finally, Fraser grabbed Ray's own hand and pressed it firmly against the bulge of bandage. "Press down, Ray," Fraser murmured. "Hard as you can," and Ray did, or Ray tried anyway—it was terrifying how little strength Ray seemed to have in his arms. But it was long enough for Fraser to pull the bloodstained edges of Ray's parka together, to zip Ray up tightly, pull his own clothes back on—

—and turn to Diefenbaker. Diefenbaker was standing guard over Holbrook's body, growling savagely, looking like he wanted to tear the stinking bastard's throat out.

"Diefenbaker!" Fraser called, but Dief wasn't focused on him, and didn't answer. "Dief! Dief, goddammit!" Fraser reached into the snow bare-handed, shaped a handful into a ball, and hurled it at Dief's head. Dief barked angrily and whirled to face him.

"I need you!" Fraser shouted. "Hurry!"

Instantly Dief was beside him, anger instantly evaporated. Fraser took Dief's face in his cold hands and stroked him with rough, desperate affection. Diefenbaker responded with a low, happy sound in his throat.

Fraser held Dief's face still and said, clearly, "I need you to go back to camp, get the dogs, get the sled. Can you do that for me?"

Diefenbaker stared at him for a second and then barked, sharply, once.

"Are you sure? Because this is important, Dief. This is very, very, important—"

Diefenbaker barked again, for longer this time, sounding irritated.

"I don't doubt you," Fraser said quietly. "I have never, ever doubted you."

Diefenbaker stared at him for another moment, then pulled out of his hands and turned his attention to Ray. He nosed around Ray's torso, then paused to sniff hard at the wound. Then he worked his way up to Ray's face and licked his nose—twice.

Ray's eyes flew open and he glared at the wolf. "Dief, quit it." Ray lifted a hand to shove the wolf away—and failed. His gloved hand fell back into the snow.

Dief stared at Ray for another moment, then looked back at Fraser.

"Yes," Fraser said; he felt strangled. "Please hurry."

Diefenbaker instantly bolted, his legs blurring as he ran across the plain back toward camp. Fraser watched him go, then carefully pulled Ray's torso into his lap—he had to get something between Ray's body and the snow, and at the moment, he himself was the best, warmest choice. Ray panted with pain as Fraser moved him, but thankfully his breathing evened out once he was sprawled in Fraser's arms and lying still.

Ray let his head fall awkwardly against Fraser's chest and closed his eyes. "I'm...okay, Fraser, really..."

"Yes," Fraser agreed quickly. "Of course."

"Everything's gonna be fine..."

Fraser rested his cheek against the top of Ray's wool hat and pressed his hand against Ray's side. "No doubt."

"The wolf is on it," Ray murmured, and Fraser could hear amusement, and pain, and maybe a little hypothermia in his voice. "Go, wolf...yay, wolf...rah, wolf...wolf-o-rama..."

"He won't let you down, Ray," Fraser assured him.

Beneath him, Ray's head bobbed in agreement. "I know that, Fraser. I know that deep in here." Ray slowly moved his arm across his chest and tapped his left armpit.

Fraser knew exactly what he meant. Diefenbaker was deeply ensconced in his own left armpit as well.


March 23, 1991

Benton sat on the floor, holding the ice pack to his still-aching head, and watched the pup eat. Amazing, really, to see that much food going into such a small animal—but the pup was feeding with fierce determination, head bowed and utterly focused. The dish was far too large for him—it had been designed for a group of hungry, adult dogs to fight over—but the pup seemed game enough, utterly unbothered and apparently unwilling to miss a bite.

Finally the pup lifted his head and licked his chops with quick flashes of pink tongue.

Benton smiled and leaned forward. "Are you done now?"

The pup looked doubtful for a moment, then barked and lowered his head to eat again.

"Apparently not." Benton shook his head, still smiling, and watched the pup devour the rest of the food in tiny, intense bites. "Don't make yourself sick," he added, carefully moving the icepack to the back of his head.

The pup ignored him, which Benton supposed was only fair. The poor thing had been on the verge of starvation, as had he—and it would take time to convince the pup that food would henceforth arrive on a regular basis.

Benton heard the front door open, felt a cold gust of wind at his back, and then heard it slam shut again. The pup instantly raised its head, ears flattening. "It's all right," Benton murmured, casually tossing the ice pack underneath the sofa. "Keep eating."

"Why are you on the floor? You're not still doing that Eastern mumbo-jumbo, are you?"

"No, Dad." The pup was frozen in a posture of intense listening, his entire body tense. Benton reached over to cup the white head, and stroked the flattened ears with his thumb.

"Good. A man doesn't like to be startled by sudden outbreaks of Buddhism." Benton heard the thump of his father's boots, the creak of the wooden floorboards beneath them—and then the boots themselves appeared in his peripheral vision, a blur of brown leather. "Well, what have we here? Hello, boy!"

The pup went into a crouch and began to growl.

"Now, now, don't get yourself all worked up." Benton could hear amusement in his father's voice, and then the soft tsk. "He won't make a sled dog, son."

"I think he's a wolf, actually," Benton replied, pulling his hand back. "Or part wolf."

His father chuckled. "Even worse. Runt of the litter, looks like." The pup started to bark furiously, as if he'd heard and taken offense. "Loud little bugger, too," he added. The boots turned and thumped toward the kitchen. "Take him out to the shed, will you?"

"He's too small to be in the shed." Benton brushed wolf hair off his hands and got to his feet. Robert Fraser had taken off his coat and hat, and was inspecting the cooking stove, wincing slightly at the pup's frenzied yips. "The other dogs'll have at him."

His father nodded sympathetically and scratched at his graying thatch of hair. "You going to take him into town? Mrs. Braddon might have him."

"I thought I might keep him myself." Benton moved to the sink and focused on washing his hands. The water was cold, and the soap felt rough against his skin. "I didn't expect to see you," he added, "but I'm fairly certain there's enough food for two—"

"Keep him?" His father was looking at him with amused tolerance: a look that Benton privately detested. "What do you want a mangy dog like that for?"

Benton shrugged and flicked the tap off. "Well. He saved my life for one thing."

"Oh, yes, yes." Robert Fraser leaned against the counter, suddenly looking interested. "I heard about that. Poachers, eh? The bastards. Bear traps, the men were saying—is that true?"

"Yes." Benton reached for the threadbare towel and dried his hands. "They converted some of the older mines into traps. It took a while to detect the problem, as the bears were not visible to an aboveground scan."

"Criminal," Robert Fraser said, shaking his head. "Stinking bastards. Well, I hope you gave them what for, son."

"I did try, yes." Benton looked over at the pup, who had stopped barking, just in time to see him fly across the room on clumsy limbs. Robert Fraser jumped backwards in surprise as the pup landed on his boots and tried to gnaw through the leather.

"Mangy dog," his father muttered, yanking his foot away. The pup skittered over to Benton's feet and settled there in a protective crouch. "It'll be good for nothing and always underfoot. I don't know why you'd want to saddle yourself with such a thing."

Benton had just washed his hands, but he felt compelled to pick the pup up again. Sure enough, the pup licked eagerly at his fingers with his rough, wet tongue. "You need a name," Benton told him, holding him up and staring into his brown eyes. The wolf hung from his hands and looked at him expectantly. "Diefenbaker," Benton said finally—and the pup barked sharply, making him smile again. "Diefenbaker," Benton repeated more firmly, and again the pup let out an answering bark. "Very good," Benton said, approvingly. "It's a wise wolf who knows his own name."

Robert Fraser looked at him curiously. "Odd name to choose."

"Is it?" Benton put Diefenbaker down; the pup scampered across the floor and settled down on the rug in front of the fire. "I suppose you're right. I'll start dinner now."

June 16, 1991

Benton froze in the act of arranging his bedroll. Diefenbaker was already nosing dangerously near the perimeter of the camp. "Diefenbaker!" Benton called. "Stay!"

The pup stopped, turned, and obligingly trotted back toward the fire.

"Stay here, all right? You don't know what's out there, and you're not half as big as you think you are." Diefenbaker came over to where he was crouched, licked his boot, and then sprawled on the ground in front of him. "I don't know where you developed such a spectacular self-image," Benton added wryly, hands dangling between his bent knees, "but can I assure you that at the moment you are surrounded by predators a great deal larger than yourself. So stay by the fire, if you please."

Diefenbaker rested his head on his paws and looked skeptical.

"I just don't want you to get hurt," Benton explained.

Diefenbaker rolled his eyes and barked, twice.

"Well, there are a great many things in life worse than sounding like one's grandmother," Benton replied irritably. "In fact, my grandmother happens to have been a wonderful woman. Clever, courageous, resourceful—and a veritable fountain of sage advice."

Diefenbaker cocked an ear at him.

"No, I did not run away from her. I ran for something, toward something—"

Diefenbaker rolled onto his back.

"No, that is not revisionist history." Benton shot the wolf a sharp glance. "What do you know about it, anyway? Really, your arrogance is simply—"

Benton bit off the rest and craned his neck to look up at the night sky. There was a field of stars above—billions and billions of them—glittering in the darkness for as far as the eye could see. As always, he wished his could see further, better, more clearly. If only he'd brought his telescope.

"All right," Benton said finally, looking down at Dief. "I won't give you a lecture on arrogance. I never enjoyed them much, myself. One can, I suppose, take sounding like one's grandmother—however admirable—a bit too far."

Diefenbaker stumbled to his feet, took a step closer, and then looked at him questioningly.

"Yes, that was an apology," Benton admitted.

Diefenbaker leapt at him, going up on his hind legs to paw his chest and lick his chin. Benton huffed and twisted his face away, then grabbed the pup by the scruff of the neck and pulled him down into his lap. The pup whimpered happily and began to scratch himself.

Benton grabbed the pup's face, rubbed it affectionately, and whispered: "Go, if you want. You're not a hostage, I don't want you to feel like a hostage. This is your world," Benton added, looking up over Dief's head at the darkness beyond their camp. "Go be in it if you want."

He shook Diefenbaker's face, roughly, nearly knocking him off his feet. Dief growled, thrilled at their mock fight, and thumped his tail wildly. Benton laughed and flipped the pup onto his back, holding him down with one hand. Diefenbaker barked and kicked his legs in the air, then squirmed away from him and attacked his hand with concentrated intensity, scratching it and giving it tiny mock-bites.

Suddenly Diefenbaker bolted away, hurtling toward the edge of the camp and beyond, abruptly disappearing into the darkness. Benton sat there, staring down at his scratched hands in the firelight, resisting the urge to call out for him. He'd come back or he wouldn't. You couldn't keep people hostage. You couldn't keep people period. They'd come back or they wouldn't. Mostly they didn't.

Benton sighed and slid back on his bedroll, then lay back in the darkness to stare up at the stars.

Five minutes later Diefenbaker leapt over his head in a blur of white, looking very much like the cow who jumped over the moon.

September 1, 1991

Benton skidded to a stop and turned around. Diefenbaker had stopped short about ten paces back and was now barking at him furiously.

"Come on! Hurry!" Benton made as if to leave, but Diefenbaker just held his ground and barked louder. "Are you sure?" he demanded. "Are you positively sure?"

Diefenbaker gave a final, definitive-sounding bark and then trotted off down a small side path to the left. Benton followed him for about a mile through the low hanging trees, ducking under some branches and pushing away others. When Diefenbaker stopped, Fraser dropped to his knees beside him.

Ahead of them was a clearing containing a small canvas tent and the remains of a campfire.

"All right," Benton murmured. "Well done. I'm sorry I doubted you." He listened intently for a moment. "Is he in there?"

Diefenbaker went into a crouch.

"All right," Benton said, drawing his gun. "Now, be very, very careful. I expect he's well armed—"

Diefenbaker growled softly. Benton sighed. "Yes, you're probably right; they all seem to have automatic weapons these days. All right, now: on the count of three—"

Diefenbaker shook his head wildly and ran back up the path, away from the clearing. Benton frowned and turned to look at him. "What on earth are you doing?"

Diefenbaker growled deep in his throat.

"Call him out?" Benton asked, surprised. "Why would I do that? If I surprise him in his tent, he won't have anywhere to run—"

Dief's look of exasperation stung him.

"It's a perfectly reasonable plan," Benton said defensively. "Hopefully, I'll catch him off guard and—"

Diefenbaker flopped down onto the ground and stared at him, and suddenly Benton understood.

"—and be framed in the tent flap, a perfect target," he said slowly. "Is that what you meant?" Diefenbaker just continued to stare him down. "All right. You win. I'll call him out and—"

Diefenbaker abruptly got to his feet and bolted off through the trees.

"Right," Benton sighed, staring after him. "We'll do it your way." He edged back down the path, camouflaged himself behind a large tree stump, and took a deep breath.

"Chadwick!" he called, holding his gun at the ready.

There was utter silence, and then Chadwick stepped out of his tent, aiming his machine gun in a wide circle. The speed of the move took Benton aback: Diefenbaker was right, Diefenbaker had been right, Chadwick had been lying in wait for them the whole time.

"Come out and show yourself, you Mountie bastard!" Chadwick was looking around nervously now, stabbing his gun there!—and there!—and there! Behind him, Benton saw a blur of white through the trees.

He stood up, aiming his gun.

"Drop it, Chadwick," Benton said—and suddenly he was ducking, running through the underbrush, trying to avoid the spray of gunfire. In the brief flashes of his glances he saw Diefenbaker bolt into the clearing—and Benton stopped and aimed his gun just as the wolf sank his teeth into Chadwick's ankle.

"Son of a bitch!" Chadwick yelled, accurately enough, shaking his foot wildly. Diefenbaker went flying and landed hard about six feet away—but by then Benton had squeezed off a shot, which hit Chadwick in the shoulder. Chadwick reeled and crashed to the ground—and in a flash, Benton was standing over him and aiming his gun down at Chadwick's chest.

"That sign said 'No Fishing,'" Benton told him. Diefenbaker was back at his feet, and tugging at the cloth strap of Chadwick's machine gun, trying to pull it away. "Good boy," he murmured.

Diefenbaker stopped and shot him a look that clearly said, "Who are you kidding?"

December 10, 1991

"Diefenbaker!" Benton stood at the door of the cabin and called out over the snowy plain. All was silent and perfectly still. "Dinner!" Still no answer, and Benton frowned and took a couple of steps out onto the porch. "Dinner!" he called again, cupping his hands into a makeshift megaphone. "Diefenbaker, food! Now!"—and still there was nothing, and still there was nothing, and then he heard a faint, foreign growl, carried to him on a gust of wind. He ran back into the cabin, pulled his holster off the peg near the door, and went bolting out into the snow without his jacket, following Dief's tracks into the trees.

And the growls grew louder, and the growls grew louder—and then there it was, a wolverine with its teeth in Diefenbaker's neck.

Benton skidded in the snow and raised his gun; to his surprise, it was shaking. "Get away from him, you—you—you stinking bastard !" The wolverine unclenched its jaws long enough to snarl at Benton—

—and Benton fired twice, sending the wolverine toppling onto its side into the snow. Diefenbaker lurched toward him, limping a little—and Benton dropped to his knees to inspect his injuries.

"Are you all right?" Benton quickly spread the thick fur at Diefenbaker's neck with his fingers—yes, there they were, teeth marks and drops of welling blood, though not too bad, no spinal damage. He reached out and steadied Diefenbaker with one hand while he carefully lifted Dief's leg with the other—the bite here was worse, much worse, the flesh torn and bleeding badly, though thankfully the bone wasn't broken. A quick examination showed no other wounds, and Benton picked Diefenbaker up and began to stumble with him back toward the cabin.

"It's all right," Benton murmured. "Everything's going to be all right," and he wasn't sure if he was reassuring Diefenbaker or himself.

February 15, 1992

Diefenbaker was stretched out in front of the door when Benton returned to the cabin. At his approach Diefenbaker lifted his head and quickly scrambled to his feet. There was a clump of brown fur on the ground between his legs.

Benton frowned and slowly climbed the porch steps. "What's that?" he asked, bending over. "A rabbit?"

He gingerly reached for what looked to be the animal's ears and lifted it up; blood dripped from the rabbit's torn throat. "Lovely. Is this for me?" Diefenbaker barked out an explanation. "Oh, I see. Dinner. Well," Benton said, considering it, "thank you kindly. I suppose I could roast it. I think I still have some dried rosemary."

Benton skinned and gutted the rabbit, then carried it into the kitchen. He filled a bowl with cold water, added a bit of salt, and then put the rabbit meat in to soak. Diefenbaker dogged his heels, following him from the kitchen to the bedroom. "Really, I do like it," Benton insisted as he unbuttoned his tunic. "I like it very much. It was a kind thought."

Diefenbaker curled himself around Benton's legs so tightly that Benton lost his balance and had to sit down hard on the side of the bed. "What's the matter with you? Is everything all right?"

Diefenbaker propped his paws on the edge of the bed and looked up at him inquiringly.

"Me?" Benton asked, surprised. "I'm fine. Just tired. I was on duty all night, as you know—"

Diefenbaker let out a low whine.

"I didn't mind." Benton leaned forward, took Diefenbaker's head in his hands, and rubbed his ears vigorously. "And I'm glad you left—there was no reason for both of us to sit there. It was a slow night, anyway. No calls." He smoothed the fur on Diefenbaker's head. "Did you have a good time?"

Diefenbaker began to bark and Benton quickly raised a hand. "No details, please. Yes or no will suffice." Diefenbaker barked again and Benton showed him a quick smile. "All right, then. So that's that." He tugged his suspenders off his shoulders, then bent down to unlace and tug off his boots. "I'm going to lie down for a while," he said, stretching out on the bed. "Try to get some—"

Dimly, he heard the front door bang shut, the thud of boots in the other room. "Oh no," Benton moaned, draping an arm over his eyes. "Not today, not now..." He heard the clatter of Diefenbaker's nails on the hardwood floor and then the low, dangerous-sounding growl. And then he heard the soft click—and in an instant, he was up, off the bed, and skidding into the living room on his stockinged feet. "No, Dad—don't!"

Robert Fraser already had the gun aimed at Diefenbaker, who was crouched protectively in the doorway. "Ben. What the hell...?"

"That's my wolf," Benton said quickly. "He lives here."

Slowly Robert Fraser lowered his gun, and then flicked on the safety. "Your wolf? Can't be...the pup from last year?"

"Yes," Benton said, feeling nearly weak with relief.

Robert looked at Diefenbaker assessingly, and then nodded. "He got big."

"He eats," Benton replied tersely. "There's an amazing correlation between size and caloric intake."

"There's no need for sarcasm, son." Robert Fraser reholstered his gun and removed his hat, placing it carefully on the table. "What was I supposed to think? Mangy thing leaps out of nowhere, looking like he wants to tear my throat out—"

"He was trying to protect me." Even now, in fact, Diefenbaker was tensed at his feet, giving Robert Fraser the wolf equivalent of the evil eye. "You interrupted my nap."

Robert shook his head. "I didn't realize that was a hanging offense in these parts. What's his name again—McDonald? Trudeau?"

"Diefenbaker." Benton went down on his haunches besides the wolf.

Robert nodded and went to hang up his coat. "Knew it was one of them. Odd name to choose—why not Mitch or Buster?"

Benton grabbed the wolf's head and smoothed the flattened ears back with his thumbs. "Diefenbaker. It's all right. That's my father."

Diefenbaker shot him a narrow look and growled softly.

"Never mind what I said," Benton murmured. "Just relax and—"

Diefenbaker's growls grew louder.

"What's this—a rabbit?" Robert Fraser called from the kitchen.

"Yes," Benton replied distractedly, still focused on Dief. "I mean it, all right? Just calm down. There's no threat here—"

"We could have stew." Robert Fraser sounded delighted at the prospect. "Rabbit stew—we Frasers are famous across the Territories for our rabbit stew. And for good reason. I'll use your grandmother's recipe—"

Benton glanced up. "I was going to—all right, yes, that's fine." His father was holding the dead animal over the sink, inspecting it with a practiced hand.

Diefenbaker shot forward—and Benton had to leap and grab him by the scruff of the neck. "Hey!" Benton yelled, roughly pulling the wolf back. Diefenbaker was barking furiously now, and the sound was almost deafening. "Diefenbaker! Stop! Stew is fine!"

"What the hell is the matter with him?" Robert Fraser asked irritably, plunking the rabbit back into the bowl. "He have a traumatic stew experience of some sort?"

"No." Benton gave Diefenbaker another hard yank backwards as the wolf tried another rush across the cabin. "Diefenbaker, stop it. I like stew, stew is fine. It doesn't matter."

Diefenbaker stopped struggling and turned to him with a look of pure fury.

"It doesn't matter," Benton repeated softly.

Diefenbaker stared at him for a long moment, and then tossed his head and trotted away, into the bedroom. Benton rose to his feet and let out a sigh.

"Well, I did tell you, son," his father said, shaking his head. "But you had to have him. Animal's clearly damaged—"

"Dad, please." Benton rubbed his eyes with his fingertips. "Not now. Just start the stew, all right?" He went into the bedroom and shut the door. Diefenbaker was sitting there, pointedly licking his balls.

"Don't start with me," Benton said in an angry whisper. "You think you're funny, but kindly keep your opinions to yourself. You're an expert in precisely two areas—tracking and rutting—and when I want your advice on those points, I'll consult you."

He moved to the closet, yanked a shirt and a pair of jeans off the hook, and began to change clothes. Diefenbaker let out a soft, inquiring bark.

"Well, no, there isn't going to be any nap," Benton said tersely, pushing the closet door shut again. "I'll sleep tonight, when he's gone. He won't be here long. He never is."

He felt Diefenbaker's nose at the back of his knees and turned around. Dief was looking up at him apologetically, and Benton leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes. "It's not your fault. It's just the way things are. You can't always do what you want—well, you can, but I can't. Sometimes you have to do the night shift. Sometimes you have to eat the stew. That's what being a grown-up means."

He opened his eyes; Diefenbaker was squinting at him narrowly. "It is," Benton insisted. "Really, it is. In a social world, we—well, what do you know about it? You only have to answer to me, and I let you get away with murder. You could be dealing with my grandmother—hah, you'd be singing a different tune then, my friend, believe you me." Benton crossed his arms and listened to Dief's rebuttal. "But what would be the point? I see him so rarely. No, I don't think I would feel better. There are things that can't be undone, Dief—there's no point making a fuss about them now. Besides, neurosis is arguably the hallmark of the human condition. Your own lack of it is admirable, but it does, however, blind you to some of the more complex aspects of human culture. For instance, it's just impossible to discuss the arts with you. You have no appreciation for literature or music, and I'm certainly never taking you to the cinema again—-"

"Son?" Robert Fraser called. "Are you talking to me?"

"I, uh—no, sir!" Benton called back. "Just—I'll be right there!"

June 3, 1992

"Why do you have to be so damn stubborn? You always think you're right about everything."

Diefenbaker barked at him.

"Precisely," Benton said, crossing his arms. "You make my point for me."

Diefenbaker barked at him.

"Oh, for God's sake...please don't bring that up again." Benton stared up at the ceiling and sighed wearily. "I don't think I can stand it."

Diefenbaker barked at him.

"It's not that I don't trust you," Benton corrected. "As you know, I've come to rely upon your judgment for a great many things. Your contribution to this partnership is substantial—I'm just not prepared to elevate you to primary decision-making capacity."

Diefenbaker barked at him.

"There's nothing discriminatory about it."

Diefenbaker barked at him.

"All right—fine, you're right, it's discrimination." Benton threw his arms up in the air. "File an appeal, why don't you—perhaps there's a bureau somewhere."

Diefenbaker barked at him.

"I'm not being sarcastic." Benton looked away. "I'm positively reeking with sincerity."

Diefenbaker barked at him.

"All right, I am," Benton conceded, "but really, you try my patience. Do I try to advise you about—"

Diefenbaker barked at him.

"But you never listen, do you? No, you do not. So I think you've forfeited the right to—"

Diefenbaker barked at him.

Benton frowned. "That's not fair. I don't say things like that to you. You don't have much intercourse with the wolf population—no, no, I take it back," he amended, "intercourse is precisely what you do have—but I don't see that you've formed any substantive relationships. So this is really the pot calling the kettle black, isn't it?"

Diefenbaker barked at him.

"Hardly," Benton harumphed. "I'm thirty-two. And unlike some wolves I could name, I don't have a misspent youth to look back upon—"

Diefenbaker barked at him.

"I did so have a youth. You think you know everything about me, don't you?" Benton narrowed his eyes. "Well, you don't."

Diefenbaker barked at him.

"Lots of things."

Diefenbaker barked at him.

"Well there was..." Benton fumbled. "There was the time that..."

Diefenbaker barked at him.

Benton sighed. "All right, hold on, I'm thinking."

Diefenbaker barked at him.

"I'm still thinking."

Diefenbaker barked at him.

"It's your fault—you've distressed me," Benton said, abruptly deciding to go on the offense. "My mind's a blank."

Diefenbaker barked at him.

"I am not."

Diefenbaker barked.

"Am not."

Diefenbaker barked.


December 8, 1992

The cold was beautiful, crystal white and ringing softly in his ears like a million tiny bells. The ice fractured the light down upon him—he felt holy, sanctified. Now that he was past the shock he could appreciate the staggering beauty of it. A cathedral of ice, vast and empty around him. The ecstasy of being held in the cold, cold hand of the Ultimate.

Slowly, he raised his own, numbed hand toward the light—he felt nothing, he felt everything acutely, he thought he would burst with joy. Already he was sinking, already the eternal moment was ending. One last glimpse of beauty before the darkness claimed him. He felt humbled by it, stabbed by it, pierced to the quick of his—

The world blurred around him; this was the end of everything, the final dissolution of clarity into chaos. Not in fire, but in ice, as he had always suspected. And then he was jerked hard by the back of his neck, and the water bubbled and swirled around him. God himself was plucking him up between thumb and forefinger—

Cold, heavy weight on his chest. Hot breath on his face. He held on tightly, digging his fingers into the wet fur.

When help came, they had to pry his arms from around the wolf.

December 13, 1992

Benton sat, wrapped in blankets, by the fire; he still couldn't manage to stay awake for very long. The doctors had warned him that he'd spend most of his recovery time asleep, and they'd prescribed a number of medications to ensure that this prediction became fact. And so he dozed through the days, waking only to move from the bed to the chair and back again, to bank up the fire, to eat handfuls of peanuts and pemmican, to drink water and take his next set of pills.

He'd been lucky. He had been so very lucky. Or rather luck, in the form of one Arctic white half-wolf, had been visited upon him. Even now, Diefenbaker was close to hand, watching him closely, as if he feared what would happen should he turn his back.

Benton slid his arm out from under the blanket and reached down. Diefenbaker's head was instantly under his palm. A moment later, Diefenbaker stretched up and looked at him.

"I'm all right," Benton said hoarsely. His throat still hurt terribly, like he'd swallowed acid.

Diefenbaker barked sharply and then bolted out of the cabin through the flap in the door. Benton sighed and shook his head slowly—the odds were good that Diefenbaker was going to drag yet another dead animal into the house. Dief didn't seem to be able to grasp the concept that, at the moment, he didn't really have the strength to prepare and cook anything, however freshly killed.

He dozed off again and was abruptly wakened by Diefenbaker's return. And yes, it was just as he'd suspected—Diefenbaker was struggling to pull something through the door flap, something big.

"Diefenbaker," Benton called. The wolf, intent on its kill, ignored him. "Diefenbaker! Leave it! Come here!" Still the wolf ignored him; he was dragging his bloody gift into the kitchen.

Benton sighed and pushed his blankets off his lap; if he threw the dead animal back into the snow, Diefenbaker would get the idea and eat it himself. "Diefenbaker," he said, bracing one hand on the chair arm and levering himself up. "It's a nice thought. But I'm too tired for anything fancy."

He experienced a flash of dizziness as he made his way into the kitchen. "In a few days, perhaps," Benton added muzzily. "When I'm a bit stronger."

Diefenbaker wasn't paying the slightest bit of attention, and Benton sighed. "Are you listening to me? I appreciate your concern for my nutrition, but—" He reached out to steady himself against the kitchen table, but his hand slipped and he knocked his water glass to the floor, where it shattered into pieces. "Damn," Benton muttered, looking down at the splintered glass. He'd have to clean that, exhausted or not. He couldn't have Diefenbaker cutting himself—

But Diefenbaker hadn't even looked up. The glass had crashed to the ground not two feet from his head—and Diefenbaker hadn't looked up, hadn't twitched, hadn't reacted at all.

"Dief?" Benton cleared his throat. "Diefenbaker? Diefenbaker!"

Finally the wolf looked up at him and barked, apparently pleased with his culinary offering. "Diefenbaker," Benton said, and the wolf instantly took two steps forward and barked. Gripping the edge of the table tightly for balance, Benton got down on his knees. Diefenbaker trotted over to him. "You can't hear me, can you?" Benton asked softly, reaching out to cup the wolf's head. "You can't hear anything."

Diefenbaker stared up at his face, and Benton mouthed, silently, "Diefenbaker."

Diefenbaker barked.

Benton moved his hands over the wolf's eyes. His heart was pounding with fear. "Diefenbaker!" he called, as loudly as he could.

Nothing. Nothing at all.

He removed his hands from the wolf's eyes. Dief looked up at him curiously. "Dief, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm so, so sorry..." and then he slung his arm around the wolf's neck and pulled him close, clutching him nearly as tightly as he had on the bank of the Prince Rupert Sound.

December 25, 1992

His father nudged the glass of amber whisky toward him. "It's Christmas, son—have a drink with me. One won't kill you."

Benton opened his mouth to explain about his dip in the Sound, about the medications he was still taking, and then abruptly closed it and reached for the glass. "Thank you, I will."

Robert Fraser raised his own glass, and Benton followed suit. "Make a toast."

Benton nodded slowly as he thought about what to say. "God grant us patience," he said finally. "Perseverance..." His eyes drifted toward Diefenbaker, who was snoring softly on the rug before the fire. "Penitence," he added quietly. "Peace."

"Peace," Robert Fraser repeated, and drank deeply. Benton wet his lips and put the glass down. Robert set his own glass down with a soft thunk. "What's wrong with the dog, son?"

Benton looked at him, surprised. "Nothing," he said instantly—and then he blinked quickly, surprised at himself. When had lying to his father become as automatic as breathing? "No, there is something. His eardrums have burst. He's gone deaf."

His father's face grew grave, and suddenly Benton wanted to reach out to him, wanted to reach across the table and grasp his weathered hand. He didn't, of course. "Was there some sort of explosion?" Robert asked, turning to study the sleeping wolf.

Benton shook his head. "No. A plunge into ice water. Some combination of pressure and the shock of the cold, the vet said."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Robert Fraser said quietly. "That's a real shame."

Benton looked away. "It's been hard." Because he was the only one who ever listened to me. The world blurred a bit, and he closed his eyes. And then, as if in answer to his Christmas wish, he felt the rough touch of his father's hand.

"Ray?" Fraser shook Ray gently, and Ray moaned a little. "Hang on. Diefenbaker's coming, I promise you. He'll be here soon."

Ray took a deep, wet-sounding breath; he was shivering uncontrollably now. "Okay, yeah, sure, pretzels are good..." Hypothermia, definitely, Fraser thought nervously—and the blood loss certainly wasn't helping. "Ray, you've got to keep talking..."

"...m'tired, Fraser..." Ray murmured. "Got nothing to say..."

Not good enough. "Ray, you have got to keep talking," Fraser begged. "Please keep talking..."

Ray just lay limply against his shoulder, eyes closed and saying nothing.

Fraser tightened his arms, squeezing Ray hard, deliberately putting pressure on the wound. Ray gasped, his eyes flying open. "What on earth did you think you were doing?" Fraser demanded. His voice sounded ice cold to his own ears. "You're not armed. This isn't your territory to police. We're not on duty here—"

"I—" Ray's face was agonized. "You—"

"And you're not wearing a vest." Fraser tried to keep his voice strong; he wanted it to sound like the voice of God's own judgment. "The last time you did something this stupid you at least had the brains to wear a vest—"

Ray was gulping down huge lungfuls of icy air. His face was drenched with sweat. "Garbo," he muttered.

"Yes, exactly," Fraser pressed. "Do you remember?"

"I...yeah." Ray nodded vaguely. "Remember fine."

Fraser watched Ray's pale face closely. "Tell me about it."

For a moment, it looked like Ray wasn't going to answer him—and then Ray's lips began to move. "I was...wearing...a vest. An' you...called me...Ray."

"Yes." Fraser felt nearly sick with relief. "Yes, Ray—go on."

"The vest...yeah, okay," Ray said slowly. "The vest was key, maybe."

"It certainly was," Fraser agreed, carefully wiping the sweat off Ray's brow with his sleeve.

"But I forgot." Ray licked at his dry lips and closed his eyes again. "I forgot that I wasn't...old habits, Fraser..."

It had been a ruse, just a way to provoke Ray into talking—but now Fraser felt, with the sudden sting of absolute certainty, that he'd stumbled upon something fairly important.

Ray was in pain, Ray didn't want to talk—and yet here he was, talking far too much about a nonexistent vest.

"You forgot?" Fraser asked.

Ray nodded. "Yeah."

"You forgot you weren't wearing a vest?" Fraser repeated.

Ray's eyes snapped open—blue and angry and dear God, Ray was lying to him. "What did I just say?"

Fraser just stared down at him, replaying the scene in his head. Holbrook raising the gun, Ray's arm coming up, Ray taking that one, careless, sideways step—

Careless? Ray was impulsive, but never careless.

Ray had deliberately stepped in front of him, taken the—

"It was a mistake, okay?..." Ray's voice was both angry and weak, he seemed to be using every ounce of his remaining energy to dredge up anger from somewhere deep within himself. "Stupid...wasn't don't fucking rub it in, Fraser..."

This was too much—he'd wanted Ray to talk, not to exhaust himself like this. "All right, Ray," Fraser said calmly, wanting to placate him. "All right. I'm sorry."

Ray instantly squeezed his eyes shut, and Fraser was suddenly certain that his partner was fighting back tears. "Goddammit..." Ray muttered between clenched teeth. "Does every...fucking thing...have to argument with you?"

"Yes." Fraser lifted his head and stared blindly across the snow. "Yes, Ray. I think it does."


October 4, 1997

Ray stabbed his finger at Martinez; his blue eyes were narrowed into slits. "You move, you speak, you so much as blink and I am going to put you through the fucking wall!"

Robert Fraser crossed his arms and shook his head disapprovingly. "The yank's losing it, son."

Fraser gingerly touched two fingers to his lower lip. His mouth was already starting to swell. "Ray..."

Martinez made the mistake of muttering something to himself—and instantly Ray was on him, grabbing him, smashing him face first into the wall.

"Ouch," Robert Fraser said, shaking his head and wincing.

"Did you just say something, Mr. Scumbag?" Ray yanked Martinez's arm up behind his back. "Because I didn't quite hear you—"

"Now he could use some of that Eastern stuff," Robert Fraser observed.

Fraser quickly moved behind Ray and dropped what he hoped was a comforting hand on his shoulder. "Ray..."

Ray shrugged him off; he was focused entirely on Martinez, his face contorted with anger. "—and I am just waiting for an excuse, you just give me an excuse! All I need is something to write down—"

"Meditation might calm him down," Robert Fraser explained.

Fraser ignored him. "Ray, please..."

"—in my little black book, so that when they ask me how it was that I came to break every bone in your fucking body—"

"Or medication," Robert Fraser added, reconsidering. "That would work, too."

"Ray," Fraser pleaded. "It's all right. I'm fine."

"—I got some kind of answer." Ray was rhythmically knocking Martinez's face into the wall, as if he were gearing up for the final, concrete-shattering blow. "Right. Fuckin'. Through." Ray's voice had dropped to a dangerous whisper. He leaned forward and spoke right into Martinez's ear, almost seductively. "Try me. Just try me. You wanna try me?"

Robert Fraser stepped closer and studied Ray's face. "I wouldn't try him."

Martinez went utterly still and said nothing.

"You wanna try me, asshole?!" Ray shouted. "Cause I am waiting here! Yes? Yes? Come on!"

"I don't think he's entirely stable," Robert Fraser told Martinez.

Martinez wisely continued to say nothing.

"All right!" Ray yanked his handcuffs off his belt and cuffed Martinez's hands behind his back. "Smart man!"

"Is he always like this?" Robert Fraser asked Fraser as Ray yanked Martinez back and threw him roughly against the hood of the GTO.

"Always?" Fraser repeated absently. "No."

Ray looked up at him. "What?"

"What?" Fraser repeated, blinking innocently.

Ray stared at him for a second and then he grabbed Martinez's arms again, hauled him vertical, and thrust him at Fraser. "You say you're sorry! You fucking apologize to the man!"

"I'm sorry," Martinez said instantly.

Fraser nodded. "Apology acc—"

"I'm sorry I hit the Mountie in the face!" Ray yelled.

"I'm sorry I hit the Mountie in the face," Martinez repeated.

"I will not hit any Mounties in the face ever again so help me God!"

"I will not hit any Mounties in the face so help me God," Martinez repeated nervously.

Ray threw him hard against the car, pulled out his cell phone, and called it in.

"I don't disagree with the message," Robert Fraser said, frowning, "but your friend's methods certainly strike me as questionable." He lowered his voice and stepped next to Fraser. "I don't think he's entirely there, son."

Fraser absently touched his swollen mouth again. "Perhaps."

Ray's head jerked up, phone still pressed to his ear. "Perhaps what?"

"Perhaps we ought to take Mr. Martinez to the station ourselves," Fraser said. "I could then file my statement at the same time."

Ray frowned, and then nodded slowly. "Yeah, okay, Fraser. Whatever you want."

November 10, 1997

Ray grabbed his arm and squeezed tightly; he had a wad of paper clenched in his fist. "I got the warrant, Fraser, let's go."

Fraser watched Ray grab his jacket off the back of his chair and slide into it. "You know, it's already half-past four."

Ray pulled his gun out of his holster, checked it, and shoved it back into place. "Why, you want to clock out early or something?"

Fraser blinked at him. "Of course not, Ray."

Ray showed him a lopsided smile. "Joke, Fraser."

"I simply meant," Fraser explained, following Ray down the hallway, "that if we wait another hour or so, we might intercept Mr. Harriman at his home—"

Ray looked back over his shoulder as he pushed the door open. The air outside was cold. "So okay—let's get moving."

"Sorry, I'm not explaining myself well," Fraser said, stopping next to the car. His breath was a puff of cold air in front of his face. "I mean to suggest that we should wait, that we should attempt to arrest him at home—"

Ray was already shaking his head. "Not at home, Fraser."

"He won't be expecting us there," Fraser pointed out. "He'll be off guard."

Ray moved to the driver's side of the GTO and yanked open the door. "Not at home, Fraser."

Fraser quickly got in on the passenger side. "We'll have surprise on our side—"

"He lives in a house." Ray jammed the key into the ignition. "By himself. No near neighbors."

"He'll be comfortable, relaxed, unprepared—"

"—and well armed," Ray finished angrily, switching the engine on. "Pick us off when we knock on the door: bang, pow, bye."

"He could have a gun at his office," Fraser countered. "And there are other people there who could be hurt, taken hostage—"

"Then he'll bury us in the backyard. Next year this time I'll have tomatoes growing out of my head, and I don't even like tomatoes."

"That's highly unlikely, Ray. Tomatoes don't grow in November."

"Fraser, if we take him alone, on his own turf, he might be tempted to kill us—"

"He'd never get away with it," Fraser said firmly.

Ray sighed and scrubbed at his face. "Yeah, well you know that, and I know that—but see, Fraser, one of the things about psychopaths is that they don't think as clearly as you and me."

"If he is a psychopath," Fraser insisted, "surely that's all the more reason to—"

Ray groaned and let his head fall against the seat back. "Does everything have to be an argument with you?"

"I could ask you the same question," Fraser replied irritably.

Ray rolled his head to the side and looked at him wearily. "Go ahead. Ask me."

Fraser stared at Ray's face for a moment, at the blue eyes, the shock of dirty-blond hair, the rough, dry, pink of his lips. "Does everything have to be an argument with you?"

"Yeah," Ray said softly. "Yeah, Fraser. I think it does."

December 23, 1997

Ray walked into his line of sight and held up a large, brown paper bag. He was wearing his winter coat, and had a long, woolen muffler wrapped around his throat. There was snow in his hair.

It was hard not to react, but Fraser managed to keep perfectly still.

Ray stared at him for a moment, head cocked, and then made a face. "She's still got you out here, huh?"

Fraser stared straight ahead. Only five more minutes. Four minutes and forty-two seconds, to be exact.

"Let me guess," Ray continued quietly, slipping into his peripheral vision as he moved close to Fraser's right side. "She thinks it's festive. She thinks it adds to the fucking Christmas season to have you standing out here like a dummy, freezing your nuts off."

Fraser blinked and tried to think of something—anything—to fill his mind. Do I dare to eat a peach? I shall wear white flannel trousers and walk along the beach. I have heard the mermaids singing, each to——and why did Ray have to say things like that? There was no point regretting what couldn't be changed. And this couldn't be changed.

Just endured.

Four minutes and ten seconds.

It was just the way things were—and it was wrong to say things like Ray was saying, especially so near to Christmas, when one was trying to keep one's thoughts bright, one's heart warm.

Christmas had always been so damn difficult for him as it was.

He heard a soft grunt as Ray sat down on the step beside him. "I brought dinner," he heard Ray say, and then he heard the soft hiss of Ray lighting a match, smelled the smoke as Ray lit a cigarette. "Couple roasted chickens from the deli. Mashed and broccoli for sides. Not exactly home cooked, but my home cooking's pretty much for shit, so count yourself lucky."

Fraser stared straight ahead. Three minutes and thirty-five seconds. He could smell the roasted chicken. Garlic. Lemon. Rosemary.

Behind him, the door opened, and he heard the click of Inspector Thatcher's heels on the hallway floor, followed by the louder clatter of Dief's nails. Something brushed his right boot—Ray's foot, he realized, a second later, though he didn't dare to look. But he could picture it in his mind: Ray had turned and was lounging insouciantly on the step, he just knew it.

God, Ray, please, don't say anything...

"Merry Christmas," Ray said.

"Merry Christmas to you, Detective," Inspector Thatcher replied.

"Nice and warm in there? Toes all toasty?"

Fraser stiffened, heart thumping in his chest.

"Yes, I—" Inspector Thatcher hesitated for a moment. "I don't see where the state of my toes is any of your business, Detective."

"Just wondering. Because it's pretty damn cold out here."

Indeed, the temperature seemed to have suddenly dropped by several degrees. "You're not supposed to be out here," Thatcher snapped at Ray. "In fact, you're loitering on Canadian property. I could have you arrested."

"Yeah," Ray shot back, "and maybe you could at that—if you weren't so busy using your top notch people for Christmas decorations. As it is, I think Fraser's kind of too busy doing nothing to arrest me right now, huh?"

Diefenbaker barked loudly, clearly in support of Ray's position.

"You even wonder what he's thinking?" Ray asked, as he heaved himself up off the step. "Or don't you give a shit?"

Fraser heard the scrape of her shoes as she stepped away from him. "You can not speak to me that way—"

"Oh, yeah, I can," Ray replied easily, and Fraser could smell the puff of smoke as Ray inhaled and exhaled, then waved his cigarette around. "I'm off duty at the minute—I am just a private fucking citizen, a member of the great unwashed public. I can say anything I want to any body I want."

Inspector Thatcher sounded on the verge of tears. "Constable, you're dismissed," she said, and Fraser froze; right now, the only defense he had against all this was his stillness. "I said," she repeated edgily, "you're dismissed, Constable." But Fraser simply couldn't move.

Two minutes, ten seconds. God, please help me...

"I think there's a fairy story like that," Ray said quietly. "Where somebody wished somebody else a statue and they stayed that way..."

Inspector Thatcher burst into his vision, hurrying angrily down the steps and out the gate. "Taxi," she cried, waving her arm.

Ray drifted a step or two down as well, watching her go, still clutching his paper bag of roast chicken. "Have Yourself A Merry Fucking Christmas!" he yelled as she got into the cab and slammed the door. "Peace On Earth, Good Will Toward Men!" Ray stabbed his cigarette viciously after the departing cab, and then turned back to look at Fraser.

Two seconds. One.


"Ray." Fraser let his shoulders slump; he felt pained and embarrassed. "Why?

Ray was staring at him blankly, like he didn't understand the question. And then, as Fraser watched, Ray's face hardened into something almost ugly, and he looked away.

"Why do you think, Fraser," Ray muttered, brushing past him as he climbed the steps to the still-open Consulate door. Fraser turned and watched his back. "Why the fuck do you think?"

Ray disappeared inside, and Diefenbaker stood there, on the threshold, for a long moment before following Ray—or perhaps the chicken—into the Consulate.

"I know he's your partner, son," Robert Fraser said, shaking his head, "but really, he can be a most unpleasant person. All that anger...and what the hell has he got to be angry about?"

Frowning, Fraser slowly followed Ray and Diefenbaker into the Consulate, then shut the door in his father's face.

January 20, 1998

"No!" Ray yelled; his arms were tightly wrapped around Fraser's midriff. "No way! Forget it!"

Fraser reached down and tried to pry Ray's fingers away. They were like iron. "Ray, for God's sake—"

"No. N-O. No. Nein! Nada. Niente. Nyet! Forget it! No fucking way!"

"It'll just take—" Fraser faked left, and then pulled hard to the right, but Ray just went with him, shoving him over onto the lawn and falling hard on top of him. Fraser oofed.

"Over my dead body," Ray said, savagely fighting to pin him down. "My dead, buried, wearing a powder-blue-suit body. In the ground. Dead. In a coffin—you getting me now?"

Fraser sucked in a deep breath; his lungs had been momentarily emptied of air by Ray's weight. "It'll just take—"

"—a second, a minute, don't care, shut up." Ray had one hand clenched tightly around Fraser's wrist now, and he was twisting hard—God, that hurt. "You do not move until the bomb squad arrives. You do not move, you do not move, you do not move. Say it with me."

"If there was a bomb," Fraser said, trying to sound reasonable, "surely it would have gone off by now."

"Like you know," Ray retorted. "Mr. Psychic Fucking Mountie Nut who knows everything." Fraser struggled again and Ray tightened his hand. "Quit it or I'll break your arm."

Ray did indeed seem serious. Fraser could feel the bones of his wrist grinding together. "Ray," he said between clenched teeth."

"What?" Ray face's was flushed with exertion.

Fraser took a deep breath; he was well and truly pinned. "It'll just take one second to ascertain—"

Ray exploded. "You are impossible," he shouted, "you are so fucking impossible, I cannot even believe someone could exist who is as impossible as—"

"You're so damn stubborn." Fraser wasn't sure where the words were coming from. They seemed to be forcing themselves up out of nowhere. "And you always think you're right about everything—"

"Pot," Ray interrupted. "Kettle—"

"You frustrate me, dammit!"

Ray stared down at him for a long moment. And then, to Fraser's surprise, Ray grinned. "Yeah. Yeah, I know. And you fuckin' love me for it."

Like a giant punctuation of the statement—"You fuckin' love me for it," exclamation mark—the building exploded behind them. Ray instantly dropped on top of Fraser, covering his own head with his hands as debris rained down all around them.

March 9, 1998

"Fraser," Ray said quietly, looking up from the fire, "do you ever get the feeling that you' know, lost?"

Fraser met Ray's eyes, then shrugged and smiled. "No. A quick look to the stars or the sun..." he explained, glancing up at the billions of stars above them, "and you can always find your location—"

Ray bit his lip and shook his head. "No. I don't mean where you are. I mean who you are."

"Oh." Fraser picked up a stick and poked at their campfire. "Well. When I first came to Chicago I felt as though I were from another planet—"

"Which you are," Ray interrupted, showing him a smile.

Fraser smiled back. "Which I have come to accept," he quickly agreed. "Everything was unknown and at times frightening. I felt as though I was an explorer—an urban explorer."

Ray seemed intrigued by this idea. "Urban explorer, huh?"

Fraser nodded at him, and then tilted his head back to look up at the stars. "I remember this one time...we were on a stakeout. I was trying to explain the sense of otherworldliness to the detectives—and so I told them the story of Sir John Franklin, who set out to discover the North West Passage. But I realized as I was telling the story that they had all fallen—"

Fraser glanced down at Ray, who had himself fallen soundly asleep. Fraser sighed and looked over at his father, who was staring at Ray and shaking his head.

"The yank won't survive this, son," Robert Fraser said quietly. "You might have to—you know." He coughed discreetly. "Leave him in the snow."

Fraser felt rage rising up in him, nearly choking him. Leave Ray in the snow...Ray was his partner, his friend, they went to the movies together, for Christ's sake! "Do you ever listen to yourself? To what you're actually saying?"

His father sighed and scratched at his thatch of gray hair. "I know. I can't help it. Muldoon is tearing at me—I can't sleep, I can't eat—"

"You can't sleep or eat because you're dead," Fraser snapped, though privately he thought that his father wasn't nearly dead enough. "You're also...very pale," he added, abruptly noticing this for the first time. The firelight seemed to be penetrating his father's skin, lighting up the snow behind him. "I can practically see through—"

Fraser stared down at Ray's face. Ray had fallen silent again, and his face was so pale that it was practically translucent. His skin had gone a sickly grayish color—from bloodloss, Fraser thought frantically, even as he tried not to think it. He's already lost far too much blood...

Fraser forced his eyes away and looked across the snowy plain. It was starting to get dark. Diefenbaker, please, he thought desperately. For God's sake! Hurry!

Ray was unnaturally still in his arms, barely moving, barely breathing, so different from his normal, live-wire self. Fraser took a deep breath and held it, then closed his eyes, trying to feel the thrum of his partner's life force. It was there, but so very faint.

He opened his eyes and looked down at Ray again. "Ray," he whispered.

Ray opened his eyes and showed him the ghost of a smile. His lips moved, and Fraser could see the word: Hey. But no sound came out of Ray's mouth.

Instead, the voice Fraser heard was his father's, echoing loud in his head. What do you want a mangy dog like that for?

Fraser dropped his mouth to Ray's and kissed him fervently. Ray's beard was soft against his lips, so much softer than the stubble he'd started out with. Fraser liked the beard a great deal; he wished he could grow one himself so that Ray could understand how pleasant it felt against his face and...elsewhere. But he didn't seem to be able to grow one, however hard he tried. He only ended up with patches of stubble even rougher than Ray's, though Ray never seemed to mind.

"It's okay," Ray had said, grinning and stroking his cheek as they lay together. "Give it another month, why don't you?" but Fraser'd been embarrassed and shaved it off the next morning with his straight razor.

He'd stayed clean-shaven ever since. He lifted his mouth off Ray's and looked down at him. Ray's lips were smiling, but his eyes were uncertain and frightened.

Fraser realized with a start that Ray thought that this was it, cue the flowers, cue the coffin, cue the powder-blue suit—and he clutched Ray tightly and shook his head. "No," he said vehemently. "Ray, you're going to be all right, I promise you..."

Ray's blue eyes flooded with doubt, and something that looked like hope...

"I swear to God," Fraser said, desperately wanting to convince. "Ray. Would I lie to you?"

Ray raised an eyebrow, apparently thinking over the question. Maybe, he mouthed finally.

Fraser shook his head reprovingly, wondering if this was what it felt like to be Diefenbaker. "I would not. I would never. I'm a strictly truthful person—"

Bullshit. Ray's lips curled into a smile.

Fraser stared down at him in mock shock. "It is not. You think you know everything about me, don't you?"

Ray nodded, eyes crinkling with suppressed laughter. Yeah.

"Well, you don't," Fraser said primly, pursing his lips. "You just think you do. There's lots of things you don't know..."

Like... Ray tongue darted out, swiped at his dry lips. ...what?

"Things," Fraser replied airily. "Lots of things."

Ray smiled again and shook his head, clearly unconvinced.

Fraser pressed his lips to Ray's forehead and dropped a kiss there. "I'm thinking," he murmured against Ray's fevered skin. "I'm still thinking," he added, and covered Ray's mouth with his own. of shit, Ray murmured against his mouth.

Fraser pulled away and looked down at him. "You think so, hm?"

Ray nodded, eyes narrowed. Yeah.

"You're right. Of course you're right—points for paying attention. But I'm not lying about this," Fraser said firmly, brushing his cheek against the top of Ray's head. "You're going to be fine, Ray. You're too damn stubborn to—"

Ray gasped out a laugh, and then winced in pain. And just then, Fraser heard the sound of dogs barking, and lifted his head—-and there was Diefenbaker, racing ahead of the pack, the empty sled lurching awkwardly behind them.

The End

← Back