It was Ray's fault. Not in the immediate sense: Ray hadn't suddenly decided that he'd like to start running around an ice field like a headless chicken; it wasn't like he'd gone and made the same old rookie mistakes he'd made his first day. But in the grand cosmic scheme of things, it was damn well Ray's fault for loving the reverberation of Fraser singing against his chest, and hating the idea of chancing a Chicago with no Stella and no badge that said 'Vecchio' and no bizarre Canadian partner. Chancing early spring in the middle of nowhere due north had seemed a lot less dangerous. So, yeah, this was Ray's fault.
"Sorry," Ray said, through clenched and chattering teeth. "'m sorry, Frase."
"Shh," Fraser returned, a warm puff of air against his frozen cheek. "Don't expend unnecessary energy, Ray."
Ray wanted to protest that. He wanted a lot of things, wanted a chance to explain himself, wanted most of all to have some rewind button to he'd-lost-track-of-how-many-hours-ago. Wanted to go back to the sliver of white sunrise, spilling out onto the glaring snow under a roil of heavy black clouds, when he'd poked his head out of the tent to see Fraser already harnessing the dogs with quick efficiency, blinked disoriented in the morning glare. "Wuh?" he said.
"Good morning, Ray," Fraser said, helping Diefenbaker into his lead. Dief looked kind of anxious, and Ray's stomach switched from early-morning-give-me-coffee knots to a sick worry that was far worse.
"Is it?" Ray asked, crawling out of the tent. He stumbled to his feet and squinted at the clouds. "That does not look good."
"No," Fraser agreed. "Help me with the tent, Ray; we'll eat on the move." Ray nodded and jammed his hat down firmer on his head, got to work helping Fraser dig the tent out of the snow. "It's a blizzard," Fraser added; the knot in Ray's stomach went a little icy in anticipation, but not too bad. They'd been snowed on a lot already, endless and freezing and muffling the world, enough that they'd had to dig down and wait it out. It sucked, but they could do it. He shook the snow off the tent on his side and looked up to meet Fraser's eyes, and he didn't know he was looking for reassurance but Fraser's face went very calm and he added, "A real blizzard, Ray. It won't be like the flurries we've had so far."
Ray kind of choked on a laugh as he helped Fraser pack in the tent onto the sled. "Flurries?"
"Yes, Ray," Fraser said, scary-calm.
And Ray got that, Ray got it. One of the things he liked best about this adventure thing they were doing was the way it seemed like, the more layers of cloth and fur and warm they bundled up in, the more got stripped away. For about a day Ray had been really scared of that, of the way he'd be able to just take a look at Fraser and tell if Fraser was tired or irritated or content, the way he could just know, without getting Fraser riled up or pushing at him, because if all the snow and empty space laid Fraser bare, Ray was probably fucking transparent. But after that first day it was okay, because there was something in all the trees and rocks and frozen land, vastly quiet, that called up an echoing quiet in them. Sometimes Ray bitched about the food and sometimes Fraser pointed out interesting landmarks, and they talked whenever Fraser needed to teach Ray how to do something with his skis or the sled or the tent, and both of them could be pretty loud fooling around with the dogs, but mostly they did this weird zen thing, talking-by-not-talking. A few weeks of the adventure and Ray'd probably learned as much again about Fraser as he had that whole first year.
So what it meant now, Fraser's stillness and efficiency and the calm way he was answering Ray, it meant Fraser was frightened, full of controlled steady fear. Ray took a breath and pulled on his skis, asked, "What's the plan?"
"The nearest town is roughly two days from here," Fraser said, waiting until Ray had straightened and handing him some pemmican. Ray made a face but bit off the end, made himself chew. "We should be able to set camp before the worst of the storm hits, and when it breaks we'll be close enough to Fortitude Junction to resupply quickly." Ray nodded, choking down the rest of the pemmican. A smile crinkled the corners of Fraser's eyes. "Coffee when we set camp, Ray, I promise."
"Yeah, you'd better," Ray agreed, accepting his poles, and began the shuffle-glide he'd learned how to use when Fraser wanted to put the dogs through their paces and they had somewhere to be before dark. Fraser called to the team and they all surged out eagerly.
For an hour or so it was good, if maybe a little more adrenaline-shot than Ray really liked to be on not enough food, because there was something pretty cool about this: two guys, six dogs, and a wolf outracing a late-March storm, nature's last grand fucking gesture before the thaw, and Ray felt a little bit like they were a grand gesture too, this sled and his best friend and a queer lightness in his heart.
For an hour, yeah, until the storm hit. They were halfway down a long shallow slope, just above the tree line in these hypnotic rolls of mountain, Dief and the dogs racing to stay ahead of the sled, Fraser with the brake touching the snow lightly to keep from skidding, and Ray half-crouched on his skis, which felt a little more downhill than cross-country right now, and all of a sudden wham at his back a solid wall of wind and stinging snow. Ray was a skinny guy, a month of getting wilderness-fit and living on Fraser's food notwithstanding, so he held his own for a moment and then the wind knocked him flat. He made an embarrassing cartoon noise as he fell over, an arcing little "Ahh!" in the tumble, and for a confused moment he saw Fraser's face turned towards him in the white, saw Fraser's mouth forming his name but couldn't hear it over the tearing shriek of the wind.
Then Ray was down, got a faceful of painful freezing snow, had time to sputter once before everything went really confused. He didn't stop falling; Ray was gravity's bitch, in a long sliding tumble. His skis tangled together and one of them wrenched hard at his ankle; he yelled and it tore away. There was ice here; Ray couldn't see because the world had gone cruelly white, and he couldn't tell which way was up, and it was like drowning, like being trapped on a sinking ship where there was no up, and for the first time in weeks Ray panicked. He flailed, thunked himself in the leg with his own ski poll, lost his grip on both of them, grasped wildly at the shifting ground, breathed in snow ...
Ray lay there, panting through his scarf, so at least he wasn't breathing in snow but the moisture from his mouth was going to ice the scarf up soon. The world was still shrieking and stinging and tearing. He could feel a snowdrift starting to build up against his side already. His heart wouldn't stop racing, his whole body still convinced that right now would be a really great time to panic.
Okay. Not drowning. Bloom, close. Fraser. Shelter.
Ray sat up, and was instantly knocked over again. He grit his teeth, levered himself to his knees, and remained there. He couldn't see a single damn inch in any direction, except there was kind of a darker patch to his left, which might be Fraser, or a tree, or something, so he stumble-crawled that way, through the driving snow. His mind wouldn't stop repeating, over and over, bloom-close-bloom-close, but at least it was a rhythm he could move to.
The dark thing turned out to be a sort of craggy outcrop, bare rock out of the snowdrift. Ray dragged himself into the lee and huddled there, starting to shake. Cold and spent shock. He knew it would be stupid and pointless to shout for Fraser. He knew he was probably going to die; less certain than when they'd been stuck in that ice crevasse, but worse too, better technical odds but alone. Ray cleared his throat, called "Fraser!" once into the white, but it sounded horrible. Take A Chance on Me didn't seem like the right thing either, given the circumstances. Ray squeezed his eyes shut and said, sort of a sing-song whisper, "Westward from the ... Hm-hm Strait, where ...shit." He shoved his hands under his arms and remembered that the next line was something about lots of people dying. Chorus. Yeah. One warm line through a land so wild and savage, he could do that, they could do that, they would.
Ray sank back into himself, the panic fading, exhaustion taking over. He blinked his eyes open -- awake, sleeping was bad, sleeping meant dead for real -- but his eyelids weren't working. Ray fought it and fought it and discovered with surprise that he'd gotten warm.
A blonde blue-eyed sled dog was watching him. She wanted to know if he could dance. Ray didn't feel so sure about that, but he got up off the snow and onto the dance floor, because it was important to keep the dogs happy. She had good moves for four paws, Ray discovered, and when he told her so she did a sort of ear-flick and tail-sweep, not flirty but pleased. I gotta go look for a hand now, Ray told her, and she didn't mind because she was late for a meeting at the DA's. He took off for the Chicago skyline and hung out for a while with Vecchio, who was wearing a red Mountie uniform and filling in time for Frannie. So how did you do it? Ray asked Vecchio, and Vecchio just shrugged, said: People like me and Benny, we already got the whole story. Ray thought this was pretty stupid, because people like Benny who lived out of one cardboard box in an office, those people were just as screwed up as Ray, but Vecchio gave him the finger and went to Florida with the sled dog, the jerk. This was whole thing was beginning to tick Ray off, and worse it was getting cold again, it fucking hurt, his lungs hurt and his fingers hurt and someone wouldn't stop slapping his face very gently, saying, "Ray. Ray. Ray."
Ray groaned inarticulately and forced aching eyelids open. Fraser's face filled his whole vision: Fraser, about an inch away, the fur of his parka snow-incrusted, his eyes bright and full of -- fear, naked fear, a solid punch to the gut that woke Ray up the rest of the way. "Ugh. Fraser. What happened?"
"You fell," Fraser said. "My fault. I should have -- I know how hard these storms can hit. You should have been in the sled."
"The sled!" Ray said, struggling to get upright, but he was kind of pinned. Huh. Fraser holding him down, a solid warm weight that he couldn't possibly get free of, so Ray stopped moving. "Where is it?"
Fraser's tongue flicked out for a second, moistening his cracked lips, and Ray's stomach decided to move house to his feet. The immediate fear was gone from Fraser's eyes, but obvious nervousness wasn't a big step up. "I -- the moment you went down, Ray, I --" Fraser's arms tightened a little. "I'm sure Diefenbaker will be able to find us, given sufficient time."
Ray ducked his head. "Fuck."
"Really, Ray, as long as we keep from freezing to death until the storm breaks, we should be able to recover the sled, warm ourselves, eat, and sufficiently recover to make it to Fortitude Junction as planned."
"Okay," Ray agreed, but he held Fraser's gaze until he was sure Fraser meant it. Then he nodded. "So how do we keep from freezing to death?"
In answer Fraser sat back on his heels and started pulling off his parka.
"Fraser -- what the hell, Fraser, that is not --"
"Ray," Fraser said, and Ray settled back against the rock with clenched teeth, watching as Fraser staked a lean-to with one of Ray's sad frozen ski poles and draped the parka across it. It didn't make any obvious difference in the temperature, but the howl of the storm went a little muffled.
"What about you?" Ray demanded.
"It's best to conserve warmth by sharing body heat," Fraser said, in a reminding sort of voice, which -- yeah, Ray knew this. There was a reason he usually woke up with his sleeping bag mashed snug against Fraser's in the tent. (A reason. Out of several. But liking the actual warmth was one of those reasons.) So Ray nodded, and tried not to shake too much when Fraser sort of wrapped around him, solid and warm and definitely too near to miss the crazy pounding of Ray's heart, although maybe still far enough away to misunderstand it.
"Good," Fraser said, "good," like he was calming the dogs, but Ray didn't mind, just sort of wrapped around Fraser right back, held him while the storm closed in around them like a blanket.
Wasn't warm enough, though. Ray had never really stopped shivering, and it started getting harder to stop the tremors; he finally noticed that the full-body ache wasn't from the cold, it was from his muscles, fatigued but still trying to move enough to stay warm. Ray spent a moment trying to stop the shaking, but that just made everything hurt worse, so he just buried his half-frozen face in the crook of Fraser's shoulder and shivered like he was gonna shatter apart any second. Fraser kept murmuring against his hat, words Ray couldn't even really hear, but he understood that Fraser was trying to keep him anchored, tethered to the cold and the pain because that meant living. Ray held on and held on and thought about how stupid he was, stupid enough to convince himself that it'd be easier to hack Canadian blizzards than life without Fraser. He had to make Fraser get that, understand that Ray was selfish and sorry and really wanted Fraser to live.
"Sorry," he managed. "'m sorry, Frase."
"Shh," Fraser returned, a warm puff of air against his frozen cheek. "Don't expend unnecessary energy, Ray." Ray made a protesting sort of noise, wanting to explain himself, wanting to rewind the day, and Fraser went on, hoarse and soothing, the sound going through Ray and easing the ache a little, "I chose this. I chose the path that led me here with you, and I could have kept you safe, Ray, I could have said no. I should be the one apologizing."
"No," Ray said insistently. "No."
A tremor ran through Fraser. "Then I'm not sorry," he said, low, the rumble of thaw under the sounds of the storm, and Ray was breaking, wanted to be a million pieces except that Fraser was holding on. Against Ray's hat Fraser began to sing, Westward from the Davis Strait 'tis there 'twas said to lie ... and Ray let the song carry him through verses and chorus and winding roads. At the end of it Fraser murmured, "Stay with me, Ray," and Ray said, "Uh-huh," and Fraser started telling a story about how crazy Sergeant Frobisher had rescued Fraser's dad from a blizzard thirty years ago. Ray listened, and Fraser talked, and talked, kept talking until Ray started to forget there'd ever been anything but this, their little huddle of guttering warmth in the lee-side of the mountain and Fraser's dying voice.
Eventually Fraser was talking in a hoarse whisper, then not talking at all. Ray'd long since stopped shivering, his tortured muscles soaking in every bit of warmth from Fraser and finally calm. The wind howled outside, Fraser's coat shuddering and flapping but staying put. Ray lifted his head carefully and looked down at Fraser's dark damp hair, Fraser's face pressed exhausted against Ray's shoulder. "Frase?"
"Fraser," Ray said again, but Fraser didn't move. He was still breathing, Ray could see he was still breathing, but somehow through the noise of the storm Ray could still hear Fraser's heartbeat, or feel it, something, and it was a faint thready thing. Ray got one arm free and tore off his mitten and glove with his teeth, hissing with the cold on his fingers. He pressed his fingertips to the pulse-point on Fraser's neck, and yeah, his pulse was weak, but worse Fraser's skin was icy against Ray's hand, which wasn't all that warm. "Fraser," Ray said, and his voice came out all fucked-up and wavering, "you cannot fucking die. You die, I die. And it's, uh, it's against regulations for the cold to kill you. It'd be, like, embarrassing. C'mon."
Fraser chuckled weakly.
"Good," Ray whispered. "That's what I like to hear."
Fraser turned his head a little. "Talk," he rasped.
"Yeah, okay," Ray said, and started talking about the GTO, a story about being sixteen and working on it with his dad, seriously grateful he had something to talk about his father with, seriously angry because parents weren't supposed to be fucking understanding when you're sixteen. Fraser laughed again, no stronger but still there; Ray talked about how he'd met Stella, age thirteen, his mum forcing him to take ballroom dancing lessons, God knew why. He told Fraser about being scared to death on his wedding day; he told Fraser about making detective, because even though Fraser already knew that one, it was one of his favorites; he started reciting One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish just because it'd come into his head.
"Ray," Fraser said.
"--old fish, new -- yeah, Frase?"
"Your hand," Fraser said.
"Huh?" Ray blinked and stared at it. Shit. Never remembered to put his glove and mitten back on, too worried about Fraser, and now he couldn't even feel the damn thing. It hadn't turned any bad colors, but really pale wasn't a great color either. "Oops," Ray said idiotically. "What do I do?"
"You need to thaw it," Fraser said, and maybe heard Ray drawing the breath to ask how, because he just turned his head a little, wrapped his hand around Ray's wrist, and slid all four of Ray's fingers into his mouth, which did pretty much answer the question.
Ray was way too fucking cold and exhausted to get turned on, but his brain still made a good effort to grind to a complete sizzling halt. He stared in distant shock at his half-disappeared fingers, at his thumb pressing the corner of Fraser's mouth, and thought, a little incoherently, I could die happy now but there's too much I wanna do. And just like that he had to squeeze his eyes shut, because they were trapped in a hollow in a storm and Fraser's mouth around his fingers was the most amazing thing he'd ever seen and he was sitting here trying to talk about fish or something. In the soft dark behind his eyelids everything was easier. "I got something else," he whispered, steady. "A poem, I mean. Uh, it starts -- let us go then, you and I. Uh. Evening spread out against the sky. And -- and a tedious argument of insidious intent." He grinned a little, didn't know if Fraser could see it, opened his eyes again and saw that Fraser was watching him. Fingers. Mouth. Ray said, with some effort, "That was what me and -- Hey, I never figured out what insidious means."
He hadn't expected a reply, but Fraser slid Ray's fingers carefully out of his mouth to answer. The noise of the storm was just making everything in their hollow louder, more immediate, more intimate, so Ray heard perfectly the noise his fingers made coming out of Fraser's mouth, this soft wet popping sound -- oh Jesus -- and Fraser said, "From the Latin. Insidiae, to ambush. A ... subtle ambush. Something with a gradual effect, something that develops so slowly as to be well established before becoming apparent."
"Huh," Ray whispered. He felt a different sort of frozen than he had before, felt shocked into complete stillness by the frightening honesty he'd been expecting weeks ago.
"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," Fraser added.
"Yeah. Yeah, that's it."
"I always ..." Fraser said, and his voice smoothed out to nothing for a moment. He cleared his throat. "Always found it somewhat disturbing. That a life should come to so ... little."
Ray found himself nodding, watching Fraser carefully chafe his fingers dry and fumblingly help his hand back into the cold mitten. He couldn't even remember where the hell he'd heard this poem, probably sometime in high school, and down through the years he still had weird fragments of it. The Prufrock guy wanted to know if he was allowed to do interesting things with his hair, or if he dared to eat a peach or something, Ray remembered that part. Ray dared to smush his experimental hair down in hats in Canada, dared to eat everything Fraser gave him including the freaky bark tea, dared ... dared to let Fraser turn his world inside out and meet his eyes afterward.
"'s what our adventure's for, right?" Ray asked, and he looked at Fraser, really looked at him, hollowed by the storm, transparent and okay with it.
"Right," Fraser echoed, and settled his head back against Ray's shoulder. For a moment Ray thought that would be it: shatter your life, make a new one out of these small warm things, pray that you'll make it through the storm. But Fraser started talking again, his voice still hoarse and wrecked, steady as anything. Ray couldn't make it all out, but it had a roll to it, rhythm a hell of a lot better than the fish poem, more even than the Prufrock thing, words here and there: daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn falcon and oh, air, pride, plume, here. Ray hummed a little and stroked Fraser's hair with his cold but working re-mittened hand. "I was here before," Fraser said.
"Rescuing dumb Americans from the great outdoors?" Ray tightened his arms briefly. "Big surprise, Frase."
"No," Fraser murmured. "A woman." He looked up at Ray again, and whoa, Ray had thought they'd already been stripped bare but this was something else, this was pure honesty and it almost hurt to look at, like snow on a bright day. "But you're not her," Fraser said, all slow and awed, like he'd just realized this.
"'m not," Ray agreed, squinting, and blinked. Snow on a bright day. "Fraser," he said, his voice shaking. "Frase, I think -- I think the sun's out."
Fraser lifted his head slowly, and they stared at the ski pole and Fraser's coat, at the light filtering through. For a second Ray was full of nothing but relief, and then for a second he was scared he was going nuts, because the sunlight changed, no less brilliant but going weirdly green, and then Fraser was laughing, raw and relieved, reaching out and feebly yanking his coat down.
It was bright, yeah, brilliantly bright after the dimness of the storm, but it was night out. The snow glowed ghostly like it did under the moon, everything in soft contours from the blizzard's wake. The sky was glittering with stars, more stars than black the way it always was up here, but right in front of them, taking up the whole sky, were shimmering arcing sheets of color, green mostly, white, a hint of orange and another of purple-blue. Ray's little exhale of astonishment clouded the air briefly, silver too, and even that was insanely beautiful.
"Holy --" Ray whispered, and didn't even try to swear.
Fraser was fumbling his parka back on and didn't answer. Ray wanted to help him into it, he really did, but he couldn't actually look away from the sky. It was possible his mouth was open permanently. Fraser was a self-sufficient guy, though, even half-frozen, and he got into his parka okay because without asking he was sliding an arm back around Ray, leaning against him in their little shelter of rock. Ray leaned back and thought, another slightly incoherent completely true thought, that this was worth it, this was what he was looking for: forget Egypt, forget every gorgeous supermodel in the whole world, forget Franklin and his reaching-out hand -- Ray'd done it.
"Thanks," Ray said.
Fraser seemed to understand. They sat there, quiet and cold, until further down the slope Diefenbaker set the dogs howling. Fraser winced; he and Ray helped each other to their feet, and they limped cold and stiff down to six shivery sled dogs and an anxious wolf and a half-overturned but pretty salvageable sled.
Ray calmed the dogs down and apologized a lot while Fraser made the fire; then all nine of them sat close together and wolfed (and dogged, and humaned, heh) most of the food. Fraser got everyone bedded down and Ray made the tent. By unspoken agreement they zipped their bags together before stripping down and changing into dry thermals, and then they got in and lay in each other's arms like they'd been doing it the whole time, still not speaking.
"How long?" Ray asked into the quiet, and realized how it sounded. "The storm."
"A day, and a night, and a day," Fraser replied. Ray wasn't even sure if that was the right answer; it had the rhythm of a story. But he nodded, accepting it, and snuggled a little closer. "Ray," Fraser said.
"It's easier to think you're in love than to think you're alone," Fraser whispered, like it was some lesson he'd been taught to repeat until he remembered it.
"Yeah," Ray said. "I know."
"And --" Fraser shifted a little, closer, explained earnestly, "It's easy to confuse love with high-speed particles from the sun bursting in the air, Ray."
He hadn't expected that one. "Uh." Guessing, Ray hazarded, "You mean the Northern Lights thing?"
"Yes." Fraser was close enough that Ray could feel him speaking. It was actually kind of funny. Ray was warm now, warm enough that all systems were go, and just because he'd had his revelation when he was watching high-speed particles do their thing, he'd started having it a lot sooner, started having it the day he clung to the wing of an airplane next to Fraser, maybe even before.
"I'm not confused," Ray said.
Fraser looked up then, his mouth maybe an inch from Ray's, and Ray knew this was the part where they kissed and made everything complicated for the rest of ever. Ray thought of the end of the poem about the Prufrock guy, something about waking up and drowning, and maybe since he wasn't remembering the rest he wasn't understanding it right, but he knew he had to do this right, didn't want to go back, didn't want to be nothing, and instead of kissing Fraser he said in a rush, more soft and intense than he'd maybe said anything ever, "Let me stay."
"Oh," Fraser said, in a voice that was shock bordering almost on anguish, and before Ray had a chance to ask or apologize or maybe panic, Fraser was kissing him, a hungry open-mouthed kiss that asked Ray if he was sure, demanded that he be sure, warned him that he'd better be fucking sure, and Ray kissed Fraser back, rubbing up against him nearly unconsciously, reveling in Fraser's warmth and solidity and the feel of his tongue and the Northern Lights blazing on unseen overhead and everything, more sure of this than he'd been of anything in his life.
They pulled apart, gasping quietly; Fraser cupped Ray's face in one hand, and Ray said, "Yeah I'm sure. I'm sure, Frase."
"I --" Fraser said, and ran his thumb along the line of Ray's jaw. He breathed out slowly. "You won't ask me to let you go?"
Ray made Fraser meet his eyes, didn't answer with words but made sure Fraser saw, saw all the transparency Ray wasn't scared of any longer, and all the shock slowly left Fraser's face. He smiled, the exhausted version of his brilliant Ray-I'm-back-home smile, and gently lifted Ray's hand to his mouth, kissing each of his fingers in turn. "I," Fraser whispered again, and Ray got it, and before either of them could finish the thought Ray was drifting off into warm real sleep.
In the morning the aurora was gone, the day was clear, and in the distance Ray could make out something that looked like a church steeple, probably the highest building in Fortitude Junction. He caught Fraser staring at it in the middle of harnessing the dogs, looking a million miles away.
"Frase?" Ray asked, and Fraser looked over at him, wet his lip, said with a strange measure of quiet delight, "I don't think it's an inner ear imbalance this time, Ray."
Ray stared at him. "You're a freak."
Fraser's face lit up with a smile. "Understood," he said, and for the first time or maybe the fiftieth Ray heard what they were really saying. He grinned back and climbed into the sled, and Fraser turned them to the horizon.