When Inspector Thatcher is finished with me, I return to the small campsite I share with Ray. He sits close to the fire, flames flickering in his hair and across his face, which is still haggard and worn from our journey across the tundra. His eyes are tired. He is dressed in mismatched parka, pants, gloves, and cupping a battered tin cup of coffee. The experiment of his hair seems to have fallen somewhat flat. He looks like a lunatic, a bum, a person one might find living on the streets of Chicago, spending all the money they can beg on drink, or drugs, or games. He looks nothing like the casually competent detective I knew in Chicago.
He is still so very beautiful to me.
He looks up and sees me, just outside the circle of light cast by the fire, and smiles. It is almost that same smile that greeted my first invitation to him: surprised, uncertain, wanting. I join him at the fire, sitting beside him so I can share in some of his warmth. I want us to be able to speak without being overheard.
More than ever, I crave his closeness tonight. I am raw and aching, desperately uncertain about what tomorrow might bring. I might die. I might kill a man. I might loose the only person whose life means anything to me. Everything is unwritten and I am afraid.
Ray watches me for a few long moments, clearly waiting for me to break the silence and return to our previous topic of conversation. When I do not do so, he sighs, and asks, "So what'd the Ice Queen have to say to you?"
I frown. "Goodbye."
Again, Ray waits. I know I should explain, but I cannot force the words past my lips.
Finally, he shakes his head. "So you're not going back to the consulate, then?" he asks, sounding resigned.
"No, it's not that," I struggle to reassure him. "Inspector Thatcher isn't returning to her position in Chicago. She has taken a transfer to Ottawa. She asked me if I would come with her, continue in my position as her 'right-hand-man'. . . but I don't think I will. So this was goodbye."
That seems to surprise him. I stare into the fire, feel Ray's eyes still on my face. Thatcher had asked me if I was going back to Chicago, and I had told her no. Ray asks the same question, and I give a different answer. Was I lying to the Inspector or am I lying to Ray? I feel as though I cannot even think about the future, with these questions from the past hanging over my head. But that is another lie. How can I not think of the future, with my past lying in ruins behind me?
Ray is watching me. I know my silence is uncharacteristic, but I have no amusing anecdotes, no Inuit stories, that could express my fear and trepidation in a way that Ray might understand. I don't truly know if he could understand, when I'm not even sure if I understand myself. So I sit, silently, staring at the fire while he stares at me, my outward calm betraying none of the storm of anxieties beneath the surface. As usual, Ray rescues me from my own thoughts.
"The Franklin song," he says suddenly. "The one you were singing in that crevic-- that crave-- that crack in the ice. You didn't finish it."
I start to object that I had failed to finish the song because we had been most fortuitously rescued from otherwise certain death. But there is a strange intensity to Ray's face, and he says, "I want to hear it now."
Puzzled, but compelled, I nod, clear my throat, and began to sing.
After days breathing air thirty degrees below zero my voice isn't as true as I would have liked. And there is a catch to it that I hadn't expected, a tremble that has nothing to do with the cold in the air. I do not try to repress the trembling, instead choosing to let my voice reveal my deep uncertainty. I cannot speak it directly, but perhaps Ray, creature of intuition that he is, will be able to understand.
Westward from the Davis Strait 'tis there 'twas said to lie
The sea route to the Orient for which so many died;
Seeking gold and glory, leaving weathered, broken bones
And a long-forgotten lonely cairn of stones.
The cairn of stones, my father's grave in the mountains. His sin was surely the sin of pride. He thought he could do it all alone-- arrest Muldoon, bring a former friend to justice,q and solve an important case. In the end, it cost him the life of his wife, the love of his son, and any chance he might have had for happiness. And yet, for pride's sake, he made the same mistake again thirty years later, with Gerard.
He died as he had lived: proud, independent and alone. Is that to be my destiny, as well? A lonely bullet on a cold mountainside and a shallow grave in the tundra?
Only Ray stands between me and that fate. Ray, who follows wherever I go, who forces me to eat my pride and will not allow me to stand alone. But tomorrow, after I have picked up the pieces of my father's failure, I must choose whether to stay or to go. And I cannot imagine that Ray will stay with me here, if I choose to remain in Canada.
So, the question that hangs before me is: will my own pride allow me to give up either of my loves-- Ray, or the north?
Three centuries thereafter, I take passage overland
In the footsteps of brave Kelso, where his "sea of flowers" began
Watching cities rise before me, then behind me sink again
This tardiest explorer, driving hard across the plain.
I have followed the footsteps of Henry Kelsey south to the great plains, and found there no sea of flowers. Chicago looms large in my mind, that huge filthy American city where I have lived now for nearly four years.
I came to Chicago on the trail of my father's killers, and I stayed. . . for many reasons. First, I stayed out of habit. An ingrained habit of obeying orders-- I did not even question the necessity that kept me in exile. After a lifetime of serving the RCMP, I simply could not believe that the organization in which I placed my loyalty had become something undeserving of it. Then, when my distress at life in an unfamiliar city eroded the grip of habit and complacency, I stayed for friendship.
That, of course, is another lie. I stayed for Ray Vecchio, but not for friendship. After so many months have passed, I am no longer certain how much of the intensity I experienced with him was real, was shared, and how much was merely the product of my own loneliness and repression. But whatever occurred or did not occur between us is unimportant now. What is important is that there was a moment, when I knew Ray Vecchio was lost to me, and I felt completely free. I stared at the picture of myself, in my serge, next to Ray, and I thought that, having lost the one, I would do well to rid myself of the other. I could finally go back where I belonged. Not as a Mountie, perhaps-- but two years of processing paperwork at the consulate had disabused me of any prior belief that my calling to the RCMP was noble or altruistic.
Ray Kowalski pulled me back from the brink of that moment. Pulled my attention away from all I had lost-- my faith, my center, my dearest friend-- and showed me a shining, unexpected vision of what might be in my future. What if? I found myself wondering, looking at him. What if he. . .?
So I asked him to dinner, and he accepted, and I stayed. And the last two years have been, by far, the happiest of my life.
But, but. Chicago. If every day in Ray's presence is a joy, then every moment in Chicago is a trial. I had thought it would grow easier with time-- it has not. I have become accustomed to the discomfort of living without privacy, my body and mind have acclimatized to the constant demands and impositions, but the pain has not diminished. I do not fit in Chicago, and I know now that I never will. I am worn down by the daily friction of my own sharp boundaries against the rough edges of that concrete city. If not for the balm of Ray's presence, I fear I would already have been eroded away to nothing. Eventually, inevitably, the city will win; even with Ray beside me, I cannot withstand it forever. And yet, for him, I would try.
And through the night, behind the wheel, the mileage clicking west,
I think upon Mackenzie, David Thompson and the rest
Who cracked the mountain ramparts and did show a path for me
To race the roaring Fraser to the sea.
Or would he follow me to the north, in the path of those explorers? Into this wild, still-uncharted territory?
No, that is too much to hope for, far too much to ask. Setting aside his jesting about an adventure to search for Franklin's hand, my homeland is as alien to him as Chicago is to me. Everything I have suffered there, he would suffer here. Ray loves Chicago. Loves its bustle and its anonymity, loves its complexity and convenience. He needs to be able to disappear into a crowd. He enjoys constantly bumping up against other people's lives, but truly touching no-one. Sometimes I wonder if I have even known the real Ray Kowalski at all, or it our apparent intimacy is an illusion arising from my failure to understand the intricacies of urban life, compounded by Ray's considerable gifts as an undercover operative.
But I do believe I know Ray well enough to know that he is as much a part of Chicago as I am a part of the north. I suppose it is some cowardice in me that, even loving him as I do, I cannot love his home. But to ask him to come with me would be to ask him to change, and I love him far too much for that.
I know that, if I am ever to return home, I will do so alone. I am afraid I have lost the knack of being alone.
How then am I so different from the first men through this way?
Like them, I led a settled life; I threw it all away
To seek a Northwest Passage and the hands of many men,
To find there but the road back home again.
How long have I been without a home? Since I came to Chicago, certainly. But, in truth it has been far longer than that: since Muldoon killed my mother, when I was six years old. Ever since, I have been passing through life, transient, never staying long enough to put down roots. My bohemian life in Chicago was merely the final acknowledgement of this. In exile, I had no need to bother with a cabin, an apartment, a bed. A bedroll and a battered trunk, the closest I would ever come to permanence. But now, Ray is watching me with an intensity that makes my heart quail, and I find myself questioning even the certainty of my own loneliness.
He stayed, when he could have gone. He followed, when he could have remained behind. His actions have said what words never could and my own actions, I realize, have responded in kind.
And so, I realize, there is no choice for me to make, after all. I cannot break the promise my heart has already made. If I am ever to find my own road home, it can only be with Ray.
Oh, for just one time, I would take the Northwest Passage
To find the Hand of Franklin, reaching for the Beaufort Sea
Drawing one warm line through a land so wide and savage
And make a Northwest Passage to the sea.
I finish the last chorus and open my eyes to find Ray staring at me with open hunger. "Yeah," he says. He is smiling, but he sounds just as lost and broken-open as I feel. The moment hangs between us and he words I struggled to find earlier now threaten to force themselves past my lips.
"Ray," I start, "When you go back to Chicago--"
But Ray doesn't let me finish. "Fraser, I'm not going back to Chicago." He almost looks angry, glaring at me, as if furious at my naivete.
I freeze, pinned under his sharp scrutiny. I can barely breathe for fear I will shatter this fragile hope. He continues: "I ain't got nothing to go back there for. You know that. Not with you up here."
I shake my head, denying. I cannot force him to do this thing for me. "Ray, you don't-- I would--"
"No, Fraser," Ray cuts me off, again. "You're gonna be up here." He sighs. "I saw your face Fraser. I saw your face when we landed in that damned snowbank. Shit, Fraser." He looks down, shaking his head, and wipes a gloved hand over his face. When he looks back up, his eyes are full of pain and regret, and his voice is hoarse. "I swear I didn't know you were so unhappy."
"I wasn't unhappy, per se," I say. "I was with you." And oh, my heart nearly stops. This is not the way, the place, the time I would have chosen to make my declaration. This. . . thing. . . that had grown between us in the two years of our partnership had gone largely unspoken. But now I have brought it into the open, to thrive or fail. With everything else hanging over me, I do not know that I can survive the death of my most deeply-held dreams. I lift my eyes to Ray's face, dreading what I might see there.
Ray is smiling at me. "Yeah, I know," he says, his voice as gentle as his smile. "But you shouldn't have to choose. And, besides," he tosses me a lopsided smile. "I like it up here. I want to stick around for a while. Go looking for Franklin, like I said before. Have myself a real adventure."
"Ray," I say, trying to still my leaping heart and regain my equilibrium. "I hope you're not harboring some sort of romantic misapprehensions about life in the north. It is a hard way of living, and even a brief adventure like the one you describe would be fraught with danger and privation."
"Yeah, I know, I know," Ray says again, raising one hand in a dismissive gesture. "I get it. I get that it's hard up here. But. . ." and here he falters, as if he, too, is having trouble putting his thoughts into words. "but, its like you, Fraser. Its not easy. But its good. Besides," He pauses, watching my face carefully. "I figure," he says, softly. "An adventure like that would give us time and space to work things out. 'Cause, haven't we waited long enough?"
He is watching me, vulnerable, as if he is uncertain of his welcome. But I nod, holding his gaze. His welcome is beyond question and we have certainly waited long enough. Ray ducks his head with a nervous chuckle, then looks back up to meet my eyes. "I really want to kiss you right now," he confesses.
I open my mouth to speak, then pause, hating the ingrained prudence that makes me hesitate. But Thatcher retreated to her tent in the wake of my rejection, the other mounties are asleep, and Frobisher is off with the dogs, baying at the moon. We are entirely safe. My breath catches in my throat and I ask: "Then, why don't you?" And, before either of us have time to consider too deeply, I lean in and kiss him first.
His lips are soft and rough, dry and cracked from exposure and his sharp inhale steals my breath. His mouth moves under mine, gently, and I feel his hands running through my hair. Too much, just this, is far too much. And then his lips open, and I feel his tongue and yes, yes, it is suddenly nothing like enough. His hands tighten in my hair and he makes a small noise into my mouth as my arms come around him, crush him to me. The taste of him, scent of him-- he is around me, within me, everywhere and everything and I want to stay here, with him, forever.
We break apart, gasping, and surge to our feet. Our hands are still clutching at one another; Ray's hands drift down from my hair to grasp my shoulders, my back, and lower. I raise my gloved hands to rub at his cheeks, kiss him again lightly. "Let's go to bed," I say, my voice strangely hoarse.
Ray's eyes go wide and he hmmms softly in the back of his throat. "Dunno. . ." he falters. "Dunno how much I'll be good for, Frase. I mean, I was a popsicle this morning. . ."
I stop his words with another kiss. As if I could even care about that, tonight. I am singing with arousal from his nearness, but sexual desire is such a small part of all that I feel for him. I need to hold him, feel the pulse of life in his skin, know his companionship and his affection, and believe that there can be a future for us. That there can be some future, after whatever will happen tomorrow.
So we walk to the tent Buck Frobisher has loaned us, and zip our sleeping bags together. In the frigid air behind canvas walls, we strip down to woolen underwear and climb together between layers of down and flannel. I pull Ray to me in the darkness and press kisses to his face and hair, running my hands over every scant inch of exposed skin. He wraps his arms around me and holds me close, hard against his wiry body. "I have you now," he says, fiercely. "I have you and I'm never gonna let you go."
And that is the last thing I remember before sleep.