Author's Website: http://trickster.org/res
Author's Notes: A million thanks to anne for quick and thorough beta, and to anne and Ces for solving major transition problems for me.
You told the man in the Broadway Hotel nothing was stranger than being yourself. -Al Stewart, "Broadway Hotel"
Fort Good Hope to Norman Wells in a plane the size of a Volkswagen. Norman Wells to Edmonton in a plane the size of a Buick. Edmonton to Chicago in a jet, and Ray still felt like he was packed in a box like groceries. He stripped down to his tanktop somewhere over northern Ontario, breathing through his mouth because of the funk of massed humanity and recirculated air.
Welcome back to civilization.
O'Hare International Airport, Concourse D, Gate 8B. Banners, posters, a gazillion people, color everywhere -- his eyes flinched away from it all. The view out the window was restful, though: gray sky, gray rain falling on gray snow in the gray-blue dusk of March in Chicago.
No baggage, thank god. He followed the crowd anyway, down the escalator and across the dingy floor. At the door he layered up again, T-shirt and sweatshirt and sweater and parka. Shouldered his bag and pushed out into the slush.
Thirty steps to the nearest hotel, every one of them on concrete. It was a pretty decent business hotel, which meant it had every luxury but personality. The desk clerk gave him a cautious look out of the corner of his eye -- not every day you see a guy who hasn't shaved or cut his hair in four months. But he didn't stink and his credit card was still good, so they had to give him a room.
First things first: He called down to room service to order a pizza. Second things second: He got in a hot shower and stayed there until some weirdly acute sense of smell told him the pizza was coming down the hall.
He ate the pizza in about seven minutes. Then he flopped down on top of the bedspread in his damp white hotel bathrobe and slept for fourteen hours.
Aw, shit. Listen to that scrape. It was too warm -- he should have listened -- the snow cover was too thin.
"Juno, whoa. Whoa, girl, hold up." Shit, that was gonna wreck the goddamned runners, that was --
He sat up, panting, on the squishy hotel bed. That's a 747, you moron.
Well. Eight o'clock, anyway. Time to get on with getting back to real life.
Instant, with all four of the packs of sugar that were in the little basket by the sink. It was a luxury to be able to stop there and not have to pile on half the day's calories first thing in the morning when no sane person wants to look at any form of dried meat.
You could go to the literal ends of the earth, but there was no getting away from laundry. Luckily the hotel was designed on the assumption that you wanted to visit Chicago without ever actually stepping foot outdoors, so there was a nice big laundry room on the third floor, between the fitness center and the computer room. Ray crammed everything he owned into one load, grimacing at the smell. Then he padded off barefoot, in shorts and a T-shirt, to see if they had a barbershop.
What they had was a styling salon, full of disturbing larger-than-life-size posters of teenagers with complicated hair. Pretty dead this time of morning -- no customers, just a magenta-haired girl reading Forbes and flicking her scissors restlessly. "You been stranded on a desert island all winter?" She sounded like Frannie.
"You could say that," he said. "It all goes. Short back and sides, spiky on top."
"Trim the beard, too?"
"Lose the beard. Wait a minute." He looked in the mirror at the poster behind him, a scowling guy stroking two fingers across the bare outline of a goatee. What the hell. "Gimme one of those."
It took nearly an hour and left enough dishwater hair on the floor to build a small dog out of, but he felt a little less like Yukon Cornelius, which he assumed was the first step back to feeling a little more like Ray Kowalski.
He threw his laundry in the dryer and called in another room service pizza. What the hell.
No way he was up to getting his stuff back from the Vecchios yet; that was an all-day errand. Which meant he needed to do some shopping to tide him over. Which meant he was gonna need a car, but the mechanics of getting hold of one defeated him for a couple of days. Finally it occurred to him to call down to the front desk, and the clerk took care of it and called him "sir" too.
He hadn't forgotten how to drive a car, but it took a lot more out of him than it used to. When he got to the mall, he had to sit on a bench for a couple of minutes before he was up to the rest of the errand.
He bought his old size of jeans even though they hung pretty loose on him. There was no sense in buying a smaller size that would only fit him for the couple of months it would take his body to go back to normal.
On the way out, the glitter of a jewelry stand caught his eye. So he bought a small gold hoop earring -- what the hell. The old piercing was surprisingly easy to reopen, and the girl behind the counter seemed to like the way he looked. As fashion statements go, "pirate ship" apparently beat "polar expedition" all to hell.
He smiled at her. Anyway, he showed some teeth.
For four days it seemed like he did nothing but eat, shop, and sleep. He needed to call his folks, call the station, call Ma Vecchio, find an apartment. But it seemed like just trying on a couple pairs of jeans was enough to wipe him out for the rest of the day. So much noise, so many people. He hoped he'd have more energy once he got acclimated.
Acclimated. Shit. Not a Ray Kowalski word.
He'd have to fucking get used to it, that's all.
On the fifth day, he finally stayed awake long enough to eat two meals instead of just one. So it was time to call some people up from before he was Vecchio, start talking to other humans like normal people did. Mike Stankoff was apparently still with the 18th, which meant he'd probably still be living over on Division. Ray found him after only one wrong number.
"Stinkoff! Hey, it's Kowalski." It felt like an alias in his mouth.
"Ski! My man!" Ray winced and held the phone away from his ear. "I thought for sure you bit it, man. Thought we'd have to get out the dress blues for you."
"Naw, I ain't been dead, I been in Canada. They tell me there's a difference." And now Ray remembered why he hadn't been too sad to lose touch with Stankoff when he left the one-eight. Because Stankoff, when you came right down to it, was pretty much a dickhead. "So how's Lisa and the kids?"
"You didn't hear? Splitsville. Not too long after you and Stella. Lotta that goin' around, Ski -- you call Bri yet? Him and Kathy are just working out the custody bullshit now."
"Shit. That sucks, Mike. I'm sorry."
"Hey, cop, you know? Normal." It was, that was the pathetic thing. Two little girls. "So, you going back to two-seven or what?"
"Dunno yet. I just got back in this week. Trying to get used to being back in civilization, you know?"
"Trying to suck up the beer supply for three counties, you mean, and the chick supply too, right?" Verbal elbow-to-the-ribs there. He was lucky it was just a phone call, because Stinkoff was none too gentle when he gave the physical version. "Hey, me and Bri were gonna go up Rush Street tonight, try and get lucky -- you wanna come with?"
Jesus, Rush Street. Rush Street with Bri and Stinkoff. Be less painful to gnaw his own arm off. "Not tonight, I don't think. Not feeling so hot. I'll give you my hotel number, but I'm not sure how long I'm gonna be here, so ..."
"Hey, no biggie. Just call me when you get settled in, OK, Ski? Take 'er easy, man!"
On the sixth morning, he couldn't think of any really compelling reason to get out of bed, so he didn't.
He was just finishing another pizza when the phone rang, and he nearly fell off the bed. For a minute he couldn't even remember where the damned thing was. So he was out of breath when he picked it up, and a female voice said hesitantly, "I was looking for Ray Kowalski?"
"You got him."
"Ray? I don't know if you remember me, but this is Lisa Eycke? Lisa Stankoff, I was?"
Curly blonde hair and little curvy body, baseball cap sticking out of the back pocket of her jeans at a department softball game long ago. "I remember you."
"Yeah. Hi." Smile in her voice. "Michael said you were back in town. How's Chicago seem to you?"
She laughed. "I'll bet. Michael said you were in Canada?"
"Yeah. I went on an Arctic adventure." Hadn't he mentioned that to Stankoff? Probably not.
"Wow," she breathed. "What was that like?"
"Impossible to describe it. Beautiful. Terrifying. You can really feel like you're in another world up there, you know?"
"I believe it. Were there a lot of you in your expedition?"
"Just two. My -- my old partner." He shrugged, like she could hear that on the phone. "Oh, hey. I know it's old news, but I was real sorry to hear you and Mike broke up."
"Thanks," she said. "It was for the best. Hard on the girls at first, but kids bounce back, don't they? And we tried really hard to stay civil for their sake. Abby's in school now, can you believe it? And Alison's in third grade already."
"Whoa." Time flies when you're somebody else. "So you got married again?"
"No -- oh. No. Eycke's my maiden name. No, I -- I dated some, but -- " A little pause, then: "I heard Stella got remarried."
"Yeah. I need to call her, see how she's doing down in Florida. I think -- I hope she's gonna be happy."
"Yeah." Smiling again. "Everything changing. And you? You seeing anyone?"
"Uh-uh, no. I, uh, it was tough, being undercover and all. I just kinda took a break from it, you know?"
"Probably everybody should. I wish I had. That first year is hell."
Stinkoff couldn't keep his mouth shut, so Ray knew all kinds of things about Lisa that he had no business knowing. Like how she liked to be on top, how she liked some teeth when things got wild. How it took some patience to make her come the first time, but after that she'd keep going off, bang bang bang, biting her pouty little lip. He'd thought about it sometimes.
"So I was just calling to see if, you know, if you need anything. If there's anything I can do."
"You're -- that's nice of you."
"Maybe you could come for dinner some night?" It came out in a rush. "The girls would love to see you again."
The last time he was there, he'd stomped all up and down the stairs with a shrieking kid clinging to each leg, while Lisa and Stella giggled in the kitchen and Stinkoff burned burgers on the deck. Afterwards, he and Stella had had a big fight over something he couldn't remember, and then they'd made it up in bed like they always did.
"Um, yeah, that sounds nice, Lisa." He rubbed his eyes. "Maybe -- maybe I could call you when I get a little more settled?"
"Yeah. I understand." She sounded tired. "Take care of yourself, Ray."
"Yeah, you too. Give the girls a hug from me."
He hung up the phone and looked at it. There was no sense in calling the Vecchios until he knew where he wanted them to send his mail to, and no sense calling his folks until he had some way to answer all their questions other than "Dunno yet." It was too late to catch Welsh at the station, and getting pretty late in Florida, assuming there was anybody in Florida he wanted to talk to anyway.
Might as well go to bed.
He woke up in the middle of the night humping the pillow, but it seemed like more trouble than it was worth to finish it. He couldn't remember who he'd been dreaming about.
On the eighth day, as he picked up the phone to call room service, he said aloud, "This is getting ridiculous." And he put on some shoes and went down to eat in the bar.
He ordered a beer and some ribs and ate them while he watched a Bulls game on a TV screen the size of a small car. The earring was bugging him -- it itched, and he hadn't bought anything to clean it with. He tried not to mess with it, but he couldn't stop putting his finger on it to see if it was still hot.
"New one?" He looked up to see a guy settling onto the next stool. Ah, shit, now he had to make conversation?
"Old one. Got closed up." Then he looked pointedly at the television.
"Rum and Coke," the guy said to the bartender, and Ray couldn't stop himself from responding. "Rum and Coke? What are you, eighth grade?"
The guy just grinned. "So I have a sweet tooth. Sue me." Bit of a Southern accent. Mocha skin, close-cropped dark hair, narrow wire-rimmed glasses, salesman's manner, self-mocking smile. Younger than Ray and with a whole hell of a lot less mileage.
"So what's your business?"
"Cop." Rum-and-Coke looked surprised. "On vacation now."
"Yeah? Where you headed?"
"Just got back. Arctic expedition."
"Whoa. Thrill-seeker, huh?" He swiveled the stool so he was partly facing Ray. "I've always wanted to see the northern lights."
"I'll bet." He held Ray's eyes for a second, then took a slow sip of his disgusting drink.
Holy shit. He was getting cruised. He'd almost forgotten what it was like.
For a second he actually considered it. He was unattached, with no cover to blow. The guy was cute, and he smelled clean, and he was obviously just passing through. There was nobody in his life now to disapprove. Why the hell not?
But somehow he just couldn't picture it. His room, this guy's room, men's room, locker room -- and then what? It just seemed ridiculous, like something on Wild Kingdom.
He gave him a you-know-how-it-is shrug instead, and went back upstairs alone.
There were about thirty channels of porn on the TV menu, and they'd all be exactly the same, unless he wanted to watch something in Spanish just for variety. They even had a chick channel for if you needed thirty minutes of menacing music and steamed-up shower doors before you could enjoy the banging.
He went back down to the bar, but Rum-and-Coke was long gone.
On the ninth day it occurred to him that he hadn't had an eye exam in a hell of a long time, and it was weird, but it actually sounded like fun to him, getting new glasses. Jeez, he really needed to get a life.
The doctor didn't say anything, but she obviously couldn't believe he was functioning out there with glasses this old.
They were making frames a lot smaller than last time, which took some getting used to, but on the other hand they had some new way of making the lenses thinner, which meant he had more frames to choose from. He ended up with two pairs of clears, black and brass, and some cool curved sunglasses that made him look like a bug.
The prescription was enough different that he kept stumbling because the ground wasn't where he expected it to be, but he had to admit it was good to be able to read the street signs.
Back at the hotel, he stared at himself in the bathroom mirror. If he let it go one more day, the goatee was going to disappear into generalized fuzz. He went through all his shopping bags until he found his trimmer so he could clean up his face.
He tried on all three pairs of glasses, looking hard at his reflection. "Ray Kowalski," he said to the mirror. "Raymond Kowalski. Ray Kowalski. Ray Kowalski."
On the eleventh day, he decided that this weird transparent feeling was loneliness. He said it out loud to the mirror: "Ray, you're lonesome. You're starved for human contact here."
He thought about calling Lisa, but -- no. The dinner, the girls, Stinkoff, Bri -- he wasn't ready to take on a whole shitload of new relationships yet. He wanted some connection, but he still wasn't done with his vacation from real life.
Maybe he'd go down Belmont and do some cruising of his own.
When he first stepped out of the car he almost got right back in it again, because fucking hell, everybody looked just like him. He was gonna have to lose the goatee when he was ready to get back to normal, that was for sure; it was like some kind of ID badge.
The first place he went turned out to be something like a gay general store. Posters, books, lamps, cards, clothes, sex toys, houseplants, coffee shop, hell, you could probably buy carpentry supplies and lawn fertilizer if you knew where to look.
The jewelry case had a black velvet box full of heavy gold rings, each with a triangle of some sort of red-purple stone. One of them was turned up to show a date engraved inside it. Oh, yeah, good idea. Or maybe you could just paint a target on your chest.
Back in the coffee shop he spotted a guy who looked a lot like his high school shop teacher, head to head with a tall balding bodybuilder type. It took a minute of eavesdropping to figure out that they were making a grocery list.
"Hang on," Shop said, "your sister's a vegan, isn't she?"
"Shit," Bald said. "Scratch the lasagna."
"Lentil dal," Shop suggested. "Tossed salad. Pineapple for dessert."
"No honey in the salad dressing, remember," Bald said, and Shop wrote it down.
There was a big rack of thong-and-bead necklaces by the front door. Eagle feather, deer antlers, jeez, looked like he could get some real mileage out of being an Arctic explorer. Tell them about sleeping on top of a glacier in a shelter made of your own clothes, and they'd be all over him.
He was checking out the price on a necklace with a wolf's pawprint when he caught himself. Shit, what was he thinking? This wasn't who he wanted to be in real life. He'd decided that a long time ago.
Because Shop had on an apron with the store logo on it, and Bald was probably a personal trainer or something. Not so easy if you were a cop.
He went back to the hotel twitchy and half turned on. And alone, because he kept wrecking pick-ups by trying to start conversations. He realized it had been nearly two weeks since he'd talked to anybody about anything that wasn't strictly practical. Maybe that's what he'd been missing.
The more he thought about it, the more plausible it seemed. He didn't want a buddy, or a girlfriend, or a fuck. He wanted a friend.
Oh, jesus, that was depressing. Because all those other things -- he could have those, he could get those with a phone call. But a friend -- he didn't know where he was going to find a friend.
Well, he knew where one was. But that was a hopeless stinking mess, and he wasn't going to risk it.
That night, for the first time, he saw Constable Benton Fraser in his dreams.
Fraser was kneeling on snow-covered ice, scruffy and grubby and grinning, with Dief beside him, and he was holding up a huge fish on a line and crying, "Breakfast, Ray!"
Jet noises woke him up, and he lay there thinking about what he'd been trying so hard not to think about.
They were about two months into the expedition when he first realized he was in love with Benton Fraser.
As screwed up as the idea was, his first reaction was relief. Yeah, it sucked, it sucked big jagged rocks, but it explained so much.
It didn't take long for reality to hit him, though, and as usual reality had a mean left hook. He didn't just want to go to bed with Benton Fraser, though that would be bad enough. He wanted them to be -- what? Lovers was too mild a word, and anyway it wasn't about sex, not really. More like mates or something. Which was absolutely fucking out of the question.
Ray had no objection at all to the occasional vacation on Planet Queer. But he was an American guy, and a cop at that, and there was no way he was going to spend his real life there. He might not be sure exactly who Ray Kowalski was these days, but he was pretty damned sure he wasn't permanently bent.
So naturally his first reaction was to try to stuff this insight back down and go back to friends-and-partners. But it was one of those stubborn kinds of knowledge that refuse to be unlearned. He made fires and spread out bedrolls, took down measurements and cleaned fish, and all the while his new knowledge was nudging him and prodding him, persistent as the wolf, saying, Damn it, go take this last leap and bind him up with you till death do you part.
One part of his brain served up dreams, night after night, hot ones and sweet ones and sad ones. And another part of his brain obligingly countered with the scary pictures: Telling his parents. Being hounded out of his job with no legal protection. Getting the shit kicked out of him by strangers. Saying to Stella, "Yes, it's true."
So he could not say, or god help him do, anything about this stupid whatever-it-was. He had to hold out until the end of the expedition.
Time was on his side. Weirdly, winter was the safest time to travel up here, shit-cold but consistent. Spring was treacherous, so they'd agreed they needed to get back to civilization before the thaw started.
If they could outrun spring, maybe they could outrun Ray's mouth, too.
It was close. If Ray had had to spend one more evening around a campfire with Fraser, he probably would have blurted out the whole thing. And saying goodbye at Fort Good Hope felt like it tore a strip out of his soul.
But he did what he had to do. Fraser might be tough enough to be a queer Mountie, but Ray did not have it in him to be a queer cop.
On the twelfth day Ray went to bed determined he was going to call Welsh first thing, first thing the next morning. Which made the fortification of a big breakfast an absolute necessity, and it would be a good idea to eat in a restaurant, since that way the maids would make up his room while he was gone instead of maybe banging on the door in the middle of the phone call.
At one he sat down by the phone, but quickly got up again because he didn't have any paper to write down notes, in case Welsh needed him to write down something. They had a good selection of notebooks in the office supply section of the gift shop, and he chose a small blue one and bought a blue pen, too, just for luck.
Back in his room, he felt wired and nervous. Maybe a shower would relax him? Or a nap?
Jesus christ, this was ridiculous. He'd done better than this with a knife at his throat. He punched in the number with such fury that the phone nearly slid off the table.
The girl that answered the phone sounded just like Frannie, but when he said, "Frannie?" she said, "Frannie Vecchio? No, this is Gina; Frannie's still on maternity leave." Which threw Ray into such a coughing fit that the girl was almost ready to patch him through to 911.
When he finally got himself together, he asked her to connect him to Welsh. As usual, the lieutenant answered the phone as though he figured IA, the Russians, and all the demons of hell were on the other end and he had five words to prove he was tougher than they were. Personally, Ray's money was on Welsh.
"Ray Kowalski?" Welsh repeated. "I knew a detective by that name once upon a time. But the last time I heard from him, he had taken a notion to go up to the North Pole and dig a corpse up out of the ice with the help of --"
"Yeah, well, now I'm back," Ray interrupted. "Hear you're down a detective, huh?"
"I'm down three," Welsh said disgustedly. "Seems I said, 'Dewey, is this a police station or a comedy club?' one time too often, and he and Huey took off to start a standup joint."
"Jeez. How are you handling the caseload?"
"Poorly," Welsh signed. "Got a couple of real detectives on loan from other districts, but mostly we're running with a bunch of kids from Patrol who are in over their heads to a terrifying degree -- Ross!" He was covering the phone with his hand, but it didn't help much. "Your arms! The holster goes over your arms! So anyway," he said, "if you're calling about coming back, you're late five minutes ago and your paperwork is two weeks overdue. And if the Mountie's with you, tell him Gina can make him a citizen in fifteen minutes."
"Um." He should have anticipated this part. "Well, no, he, uh, he stayed in Canada, sir."
"That's too bad." Welsh didn't sound disappointed; he sounded sympathetic, like the people Ray had talked to after he and Stella split up.
Ray chose to misunderstand his tone. "Yeah, sounds like you could use another brain."
"The word 'another' suggests an assumption that is not borne out by the facts -- Ross! Point the opening toward the front!"
"Listen," Ray said, because he was trying to see walking into this station and introducing himself to the hapless Ross and going out on a stakeout with a new partner, and he just couldn't put himself in the picture. "I, uh, I came back with a sort of -- I'm not really a hundred percent yet, you know? I'm gonna need to get back with you when I'm more myself."
Welsh gave a long-suffering sigh, but his voice wasn't without sympathy. "Yeah, I understand, Kowalski. But you think about it. If you can get back in here, I got a real good partner for you for as long as the sixth can spare her, and it would be good to have one team with a brain between them."
Ray hung up the phone and looked in the mirror. "Detective Ray Kowalski," he said. His reflection looked back at him impassively. "OK, smart guy," he told it, "if I'm not a detective, then what the fuck am I?"
Fort Good Hope looked enormous to Ray, but it was small enough and remote enough that the local RCMP detachment was perpetually understaffed. Corporal Bekkatla gave them the keys to a vacant staff bungalow and made arrangements for Ray to take a charter flight out the next day at three, all the while giving Fraser hopeful looks.
By now Ray's secret was making such a din in his brain that he was going hours at a stretch without saying anything at all. They saw to the dogs and the sled in near-silence.
They dropped the packs on the living room floor and looked at them. "Guess I oughta figure out what's mine and pack it up," Ray said scratchily.
Fraser turned a hollow-eyed face on him. "Ray," he said, and then he didn't say anything else, and a second later they were kissing, harsh open-mouthed kisses like if they pushed as hard as they could they'd be able to push right through the distance between them. Or like they knew they couldn't.
Ray's mouth felt battered when they separated. Fraser's face had a look of desperate hope that was like a knife in Ray's gut, so that he was already shaking his head when Fraser spoke.
"No, Fraser, I can't, I --"
"Then take me back with you."
"Fraser, I --"
"Ray, please, we can't --"
But even his shout didn't clear that look from Fraser's face, that look like he was waiting for good news even when it had to be pretty obvious that there was none coming.
"Fraser, I can't," he said softly. "I can't, I can't live like that."
"You can." Even more softly. "I know you can. You've had -- lovers --"
"I've had fucks," he said harshly, humiliated that Fraser knew. "And then I get up and put my clothes on and go home and the next day I'm normal, I'm a normal guy, you got it? I need that."
"Then we'll do it that way," and Fraser was gripping his shoulders hard, so hard he could feel each individual finger, "we'll do that, I don't mind that, you can be normal and I can --" and Ray knocked Fraser's hands loose and stepped out of reach before he could act on a sudden shocking desire to slap him across the face.
"You can't!" he shouted. "You can't be that. Anybody tried to make you be that and I'd kill them, swear to god, Fraser, anybody tried to make you something that wasn't honorable --"
Fraser held his challenging pose for a moment longer and then he just went limp, turned his face away. He said very softly, "So because I have honor, I get nothing, is that it?"
Ray laid his hands on Fraser's shoulders, pleading. "Fraser, I can't, you gotta understand, I can't. I can't do the one because I'm in love with you and I can't do the other because I'm a fucking coward, and don't you dare defend me because it's the goddamned truth!" because at the word 'coward' Fraser had actually straightened up, like he wouldn't take a step for himself but he was always ready to stand up for Ray Kowalski, and Ray felt forty kinds of shit for having that and not being man enough to deserve it.
And even so, when Fraser laid his hands over Ray's, Ray couldn't suppress a shiver of longing.
Fraser leaned forward, so close Ray could feel his breath. "This night," he said, low and intense. "You deny me everything else. Give me that. This night, and tomorrow you can walk away and do whatever you like with the rest of your life."
God, god, how could anyone -- "It's gonna kill me, Fraser," he said hoarsely.
In a perfectly conversational voice that sent an icy blade down his spine, Fraser answered, "It's going to kill you anyway, sooner or later."
The first time, they were rough. Ray pinned Fraser to the floor with one shoulder under the couch and ground and ground against him, biting and licking at what little skin he could reach while Fraser muttered, "Yes -- harder -- harder --" It took about four minutes of this before Ray came with a grunt, and the only way he knew Fraser had come too was that he stopped moving and his grip on Ray's parka loosened.
Ray lowered his forehead to the dusty carpet next to Fraser's face and breathed in their combined scent -- smoke and wool, tallow and dogs, fish and leather, old sweat and new sweat, and the shocking addition of semen -- and the knowledge of who and what this was hit him like a physical blow. Oh, god, it was beyond bearing that this was the goddamned only chance he was ever going to get.
He turned his head, but all he could see was the furry line of Fraser's throat -- Fraser had flung his head back, as though he couldn't get enough air. His hands lay limply on the floor.
Ray rolled to one side and slowly, slowly, untied the cord of Fraser's parka, loosened the toggles and pulled the zipper down and held the sides open for Fraser to pull his arms out of the sleeves. And then he started on the sweater.
When he had Fraser naked on the dingy rug, he went to the packs and shook out one of their blankets and carried it back to the bedroom.
As he was laying the blanket on the bed, he heard Fraser enter the room. "Won't be here long enough to wash the sheets," he explained without looking up.
"Ray," Fraser said, and Ray turned to see him, naked, with a tin of petroleum jelly in his hand. Fraser touched a fingertip to Ray's scraped and swollen mouth and then gave him a soft kiss that made his breath spasm like a sob.
Ray followed Fraser into bed, trying to look at his everything at once. Fraser was too thin, face triangular under the heavy beard, body whittled down by cold and hard work and hunger. Ray ran a hand down his arm and tried to remember how it had felt in Chicago, under the layers of red wool. "I wish I coulda gotten you outta the uniform, just once," he said.
Fraser shut his eyes. "Don't," he said, and Ray nodded dumbly and kissed him again.
Slow, slow, slow, like they had all the time in the world to kiss and never stop kissing. Ray tasted ash on Fraser's fingers and leather on his wrists, sweat on his ribs, semen on his belly. Whether he was indulging himself or torturing himself he couldn't say -- only that before this night was over he was going to know Fraser this way, know the breathless sounds he made and the hot muscular clasp of his body and the jut of his jaw when he came.
In the morning they slept a little. When they woke up, Fraser sat up and said, "We should eat something," and Ray climbed into his lap and said, "Kiss me first," and that was the last time they mentioned food.
Fraser was hard again. "Show-off," Ray whispered, and Fraser gave an unhappy-sounding laugh and pushed up against him.
Ray knelt up to position himself, and Fraser's eyes opened. "Aren't you sore?" he said.
"Don't care," Ray said. "It's the only --" and Fraser put a hand over Ray's mouth, eyes wide and mouth crumpled, then dropped his head back against the headboard as Ray settled down to take him in again.
Spent as he was, he could finally watch Fraser the way he wanted to, watch and memorize every catch of his breath, every expression on his face. Fraser held his gaze for as long as he could, but when he began moving faster Fraser's eyes fell shut, and Fraser braced his hip with one hand to hold him still and pumped up into him, over and over, dropping the other hand possessively over Ray's soft cock and whispering Ray's name as he came.
At 2:45, when the corporal phoned, Fraser was putting Ray's clothes back on him, kissing every inch of flesh as it disappeared. Kissing the strap of the pack as he slid it onto Ray's shoulder. Kissing the ticket as he folded Ray's fingers around it.
And then it was Fort Good Hope to Norman Wells, Norman Wells to Edmonton, Edmonton to Chicago with the smell of Fraser all over him. And the bleak cold expanse of a normal life flying up at him like Lake Michigan, gray and heaving in the icy March rain.
On the fourteenth day, he suddenly snapped his fingers and told his reflection, "I'll go undercover. I don't gotta get a life -- they can hand me one in a file."
God, it sounded wonderful. Maybe this morning he'd woken up sick with longing for Benton Fraser, for his smooth hot body and his weird sideways brain and the way his chapped knuckles looked when he wrapped his hands around a tin cup of bad coffee -- but day after tomorrow he could get out of bed and be Declan Mulroney, record store owner and back-room bookie, with three college buddies he occasionally got drunk with and two ex-girlfriends he occasionally went to bed with and a shaky relationship with his mother due to a broken engagement in 1993.
"Declan Mulroney," he said to the mirror. "John Harris. Hector Ramirez. Louie the Tooth Braco." Because Ray Kowalski, well, he was an OK guy, good cop and all, got nothing against him except that, well, no way you could be him because he --
loved Benton Fraser.
Ray sat down hard in the rolling chair.
He was ready to flush his whole life and be anybody at all, anybody but him, as long as he was somebody who didn't --
That was fucking sick.
He gave his reflection a long, challenging look. Hard corded body. Earring. Heavy black glasses. Way-too-self-conscious goatee. Insane hair.
"Ray Kowalski, goddamn it," he said. And he picked up the phone.
"Canadian Consulate of Chicago. Inspector Harper speaking." Jeez, did they all sound like that? Maybe they wouldn't let you out of Canada unless you sounded like that.
"Yeah, this is Detective, uh, Kowalski. Do you know how I could get hold of Constable Benton Fraser?"
"Certainly, Detective. Just a moment and let me get you his cell phone number."
"No," Ray said with a sinking feeling. "It's Fraser I'm looking for. Weird guy, licks things, deaf wolf, dogsled ...?"
"Yes, of course. He did say it was possible you would call, and requested that we tell you how to reach him by cell phone."
Ray wrote down the number numbly. Fraser? Cell phone?
He dialed four digits and stopped. What time was it? Four-fifteen here, but in the Northwest Whatevers -- oh, yeah. A million miles away, a whole other planet, but only a couple hours earlier. Weird. He dialed again.
And it was like that moment in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy walked out the door and all the black-and-white went to color. Fucking color everywhere.
"Ray." The warmth in that voice gave him goosebumps.
"Fraser." He swallowed. "Um, OK, uh. They gave me your -- at the Consulate they --"
"Yes. I hoped you would think to call there if you wanted to reach me."
"Yeah. So. Um -- where the hell are you?"
"Hm. Just a moment. I'm --" A brief pause. "Concourse D. Gate 8B."
"You're at O'Hare?"
"Do we have a bad connection? I can hear you quite clearly --"
"No, we just -- " Ray went to the window. Fraser was in America. Fraser was in Illinois. Fraser was across the goddamned street -- if it wasn't for the sleet he could probably look out the window and see Fraser --
Fraser said, "Did you -- what do you need, Ray?"
He felt all hollow, all hollow and windy inside like that first step out into thin air. "I need -- Fraser, you gotta rescue me here. Because I'm normal without you, I'm normal, all right, but I'm a fucking ghost."
"Ray." Fraser's voice was shaking, Fraser sounded like he was -- "Where are you? How far -- how soon can you -- "
And Ray was grinning, he was grinning and he couldn't stop. "Come to the window, Fraser, you can look out the window and fucking see me, I'm right across the fucking street --"
"All right. All right. You're -- which hotel? I'm -- I'll just go --"
"I'm -- you have bags? Come down to baggage claim -- I'll start down now -- if you come down the escalator and go to the, to the third belt thing on your right, the door's right behind you and I'm --"
They met in the middle of the crosswalk, and it was broad daylight and six taxis were honking and he didn't even fucking care, just hurled himself into Fraser's arms and held on, held on, and the ice was cracking and melting everywhere but Fraser was solid as stone.
And Fraser said, "Ray," and he was.
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