For reasons that don't need exploring at this juncture, Benton Fraser is in a caboose, playing table hockey and being soundly beaten by a twelve-year-old boy. The boy is Eric Johansson, wearing his uncle's Whalers jersey and a serious expression. "Don't worry," he tells Fraser. "It took me ages to get good at it." He writes down Fraser's dismal score and his own decent one, and flops down on the tatty couch the caboose has on offer. After a short consideration, Fraser sits down on the bench opposite, and looks up to see Eric giving him an encouraging smile. "I'm not any good at real hockey."
This seems to require an admission in return. "I used to play hockey when I was your age. I generally had better luck at the, ah, real kind."
Eric's face lights. "You should play some with Uncle Johnny!"
"I'd love to," Fraser tells him, with a perfect lack of honesty.
These are the things Benton Fraser likes about the small Manitoba town of Gimli: its newness. Fraser has never lived in Manitoba before. The lake-smell off Winnipeg when he arrived in autumn was a familiar touchstone; now in the winter the place is full of snow banks, three feet deep, powdery and bracingly cold, and that is familiar too. The comfort of those things he knows comes together with the assurance that this is a new place, offering new challenges, an environment completely alien to both his postings in the far north and his stint in Chicago. Gimli is of a size such that Fraser feels confident that in time he will come to know everyone, which he couldn't possibly have ever managed in Chicago. When he first arrived, he was greeted by the mayor herself, an exceptional woman whose air of no-nonsense intelligence reminded Fraser very much of his own grandmother.
These are the things Fraser does not like about Gimli: a much smaller list -- the unpleasant little dog unfortunately named Princess Theodora, who lives in the hotel down by the beach and took an instant, loud, most likely terrified dislike to Diefenbaker; the unfortunate lack of variety in the films at the Gimli theatre; Eric Johansson's uncle.
"Call me Auntie Auntie," Mayor Astrid Arnesson tells Fraser, perhaps five minutes into their acquaintance while giving him a tour of the main street, the large statue, the multitude of shops, the path down to the harbor.
Fraser tugs at his ear. "I'm not sure ..."
"Oh, everyone does." She gives him a smile, exaggerating the lines in her face, and Fraser feels a good deal of internal tension dissipate. Auntie Auntie pauses by her aptly named boat and bends down slightly to scratch Dief behind the ears. "An important thing you're going to learn about this town, Benton, is that sometimes we take on strays."
"Ah," Fraser says.
"Now," Auntie Auntie continues, straightening and giving Fraser a considering look, "my nephew Johannes has a boy who's been very excited about a real live Mountie coming to town, and they'd love to invite you to dinner."
"I'd like that very much," Fraser tells her, and watches Auntie Auntie's face. She believes him. Barely, but she believes him.
Fraser and Diefenbaker spend their afternoon searching out the strays. There is Jack, the German Shepherd in the junkyard, who tolerates Dief as a fellow wild creature but has no interest in him or in Fraser. There is a young girl hanging upside-down in a tree, all in black with a red beret clutched to her chest, who feigns a disinterest akin to Jack's but spends a full ten minutes questioning Fraser: how did he get here, what is he doing, are all Mounties as good and boring as they seem on TV, is Diefenbaker really a wolf? Her name is AJ. Fraser enjoys her company, somewhat despite himself.
He follows Auntie Auntie's directions to the Johansson residence for dinner. A frizzy-haired blonde woman in a shapeless knit sweater answers the door; Fraser has barely braced himself for the inevitable when she gives him a bright, friendly, wholly unexpected sort of smile and says, every inch the hostess, "You must be Corporal Fraser! I'm Zoë -- that's with the umlaut -- please, come in," and Fraser is swept into a warm house to be accosted at nearly the same time by a delicious dinner smell and an enthusiastic young boy. "Eric," Zoë says, laughing, catching the boy's shoulder, "this is -- I'm sorry, what would you like to be called? Auntie Auntie told us your name was Benton, but she calls Johnny 'Johannes' too, so I thought -- is it Ben?"
"That's fine," Fraser replies, overwhelmed and a little distracted by the promise of dinner.
Diefenbaker decides to acquaint himself with said dinner, and when Fraser prevents him from going into the kitchen and causing a scene, Dief compensates by smugly basking in Eric and Zoë's attentions. "Wow, a wolf!" seems to be Eric's general assessment. Dief wiggles happily and licks Eric's nose.
And Ray Kowalski walks into the room.
Both Zoë and Eric are sufficiently preoccupied with Diefenbaker that they don't register Fraser freezing beside them. The man in the doorway does, though, and his reaction breaks the illusion; he meets Fraser's stare and his eyes go almost comically wide, unconsciously mirroring Fraser's astonished look and asking a silent innocent question. Fraser knows better than to force himself to smile; he says, "And you must be, ah, Johnny."
"Yeah," the man who is not Ray says, his confusion melting into an open friendly smile. "Welcome to Gimli. Hey, dinner's ready, guys."
Fraser drifts into the kitchen with the others and does not stare. He eats the soup, salad, bread, fish that are placed in front of him. He answers Eric's questions about how he met Diefenbaker, Zoë's questions about tundra birds, Johnny's questions about whether he is liking Gimli so far. He learns that Johnny did most of the cooking for this meal, and adds it to the rapid little mental list he's already set up: Johnny cooks, and enjoys cooking. Johnny caught the fish himself. Johnny's face slides easily into an open unconcealed grin, and his hair goes every-which-way, and he is uncomplicatedly young.
Fraser takes Eric bird-watching. Or perhaps Eric takes Fraser bird-watching; Eric has binoculars and a book of birds, and the whole time they're out among the river reeds, Eric's talking excitedly and articulately about watersheds and migration patterns and the rare widgeon he saw just here, nearly a year ago.
Eric stops tramping along and squints out at the river. "I've been here a year," he says, matter-of-factly. "It's the longest time I've been anywhere."
This seems like as good a place as any. Fraser unrolls the blanket and starts unpacking their lunch. "Do you like staying in one place?"
"Yeah," Eric says, and sits down to contemplate the sandwiches. He hands Fraser the ham-and-cheese, keeping the peanut-butter-and-jelly for himself. "That way you get to make friends. You get to know people. It's good."
Fraser allows himself a smile. "It is."
Eric eats half his sandwich in roughly three bites, follows it with a swig from the thermos of cocoa Zoë packed for them, and asks, "Where's the place you've been longest?"
"I'm not sure," Fraser admits. "My grandparents were traveling librarians, but they had a circuit that ran through most of the north, depending on where the books were needed. I spent a few years in Inuvik, and another few in Tuktoyaktuk."
"Tuktoyaktuk," Eric mutters. "You don't know how long?"
"I measured it in friendships," Fraser tells him, and waits for the nod of understanding, and Eric's face on him, rapt and ready for a story. "In Tuk it was a boy named Inusiq and his sister June. We were in a scout troop. In Inuvik it was a boy named Mark; we'd play hockey together after school."
Eric is nodding, but he stops and gives Fraser a narrow look. "What about since you became a Mountie?"
"Chicago," Fraser says. "My most recent posting before this one. My friend was a policeman named Ray Vecchio."
"Cool," Eric says, grinning, and finishes his sandwich.
He doesn't ask the obvious question. Fraser drinks Zoë's cocoa and feels grateful for Eric's silence, thinks of the postcard from Florida tacked to the wall in the little place he's renting by the harbor, thinks of his silent phone, and misses Chicago with an ache that even a thousand snowfalls can't hope to muffle.
Eric's friends are AJ and a boy named Sam. They have a band called Caboose, and, appropriately, they play their handful of songs for Fraser in the caboose. AJ has a lovely singing voice. Fraser teaches Sam a few new chords and retreats to the house before Eric can become too enthusiastic with the old drum kit.
He accepts Zoë's offer of tea. The people here are forever offering him food, even Auntie Auntie and her free popcorn whenever he goes to see one of her films. It reminds him of Mrs. Vecchio's attempts to foist second and third helpings of lasagna on him. It reminds him of early mornings in cafés with Ray Vecchio and late nights over cartons of takeout with Ray Kowalski. He drinks Zoë's tea. "Zoë, is there any particular reason you have a caboose ...?"
"In the yard?" Zoë smiles and shrugs a little. "Johnny just brought it home one day. He does things like that, Johnny. He ..."
"He's spontaneous," Fraser suggests.
"That's it." Zoë hugs herself and looks out the window. "Most of the time I don't mind."
Johnny Johansson is spontaneous. If prompted, he'll talk about cars or hockey with boundless enthusiasm until Zoë changes the subject. He loves Eric like his own son, and his wife with a dedication Fraser's rarely seen elsewhere.
Perhaps the problem is that the dimpled crease in Johnny's cheek when he smiles hits Fraser like a blow to the chest. Perhaps the problem is that he likes to dance with Zoë when Fraser and Eric are playing cards in the next room. Perhaps it's that he can go for long stretches of time being no one but Johnny Johansson, autonomous being unto himself with attendant quirks and foibles, and then he'll tilt his head a certain way and Fraser is blindsided with longing for someone nearly fifteen hundred kilometers away. Perhaps it's simply that -- not for the first time, certainly, but it's never been so outside his control as it is now -- Fraser is feeling the acute loss of something he's never had.
Fraser runs into Eric one day while taking Dief for a walk. Eric's just been let out of school and seems to want to talk, so Fraser asks him about the caboose. "Oh," Eric says, "it's great. And it's a good thing we have it. This one time we had a blizzard and the power went out, so we went in there and stayed warm because of the wood-burning stove. And for a while Johnny slept in it."
He goes abruptly red.
"You don't have to --" Fraser says.
"No," Eric says. "I know. I, uh, it's okay. They're okay now. They just had a hard time talking about things, and I could never figure out how to make them talk. But eventually they did."
"That's good," Fraser murmurs.
"Yeah," Eric agrees. They walk in silence. Eric glances up at Fraser and says, in the cheerful and hearty tone of subject change, "So was Chicago the last place you were before here?"
"Not quite," Fraser says, smiling; he's grateful both for the change in topic and for the charming childish artlessness with which Eric changed it. "After Chicago I had a short vacation. A friend and I took a team of sled dogs and went across a large area of northern Canada before the spring thaw." He tries to imagine what else he can say, to make the story enjoyable for Eric. The scenery was beautiful. Ray told Fraser he liked it, and missed Chicago more with every passing day, and cheered the thought of returning to the United States. No more Canada for a while, Fraser! No. And his look of wide-eyed shock when Fraser watched him purchase his tickets and wished him well -- No more Chicago, Ray. That doesn't bear retelling. So Fraser simply says, "Then I was assigned my new posting."
"Here, right?" Eric grins at him.
"Here," Fraser agrees.
"And your friend?"
"He had to return to his own job."
Eric's eyes go wide. "In Chicago?"
"Yes," Fraser says. "Eric --"
"It's okay," Eric tells him quietly. "I probably wouldn't want to talk about it either."
Mid-November, the snow comes. Diefenbaker insists that Fraser make sure Jack is comfortable; Jack scorns all advances. "As you see," Fraser tells Dief, "even the domestic half of your ancestry is no excuse for getting soft." Diefenbaker snorts and goes out to play in the snow with AJ. Fraser does his paperwork, helps find a missing pet rabbit, checks both phone and email for messages, and attends a town council meeting.
Afterwards Auntie Auntie draws him aside. "Johannes tells me you haven't been by to see them lately," she says. "You should. The winter here still isn't easy for Eric."
"Are you doing this for Eric or for me, Auntie Auntie?" Fraser asks.
"I think a bit of both," she says without missing a beat, and sends him on his way. Which is how Fraser comes to be in the caboose with Eric, discussing hockey.
"You should play some with Uncle Johnny!" Eric tells him.
"I'd love to," Fraser says, hating the lie.
Mercifully, Eric sees it. He settles slowly back on the couch, crosses his arms. "Why don't you like him?"
"I do like him," Fraser returns mildly. Not a lie. God help him.
"Yeah, I avoid lots of people I like," Eric says. He's prone to occasional flashes of sarcasm, with increasing frequency. Fraser understands this is normal in teenagers. He can't think of anything to say to this, though, and after a moment Eric adds, in a reasonable sort of voice, "I'll figure it out." He leans forward. "So. Rematch?"
That appears to be the end of it. Gimli's school district lets out for the winter. AJ begins haunting the empty lot near Fraser's apartment, running around with Dief in the mornings, and on the third day Fraser insists that she come in for some lunch. AJ looks as though she wants to argue. "Of course, you could always have lunch at the hotel," Fraser says, and it brings her inside, as he'd known it would.
While he makes finishes making lunch, AJ wanders around his apartment, looking at his small accumulation of possessions, pausing over the postcards on the walls and a few odds and ends on a dresser. Fraser allows it.
"So Gimli must be pretty boring," AJ tells him, slouching in a kitchen chair.
"What makes you say that?" He pours her glass of milk.
"I do background checks and stuff of people," she explains. "On the internet. So I know about some of the cases you've done. Gimli's never had nuclear trains or nuclear submarines. Or pirates. Or hostages. Or anything." She thinks about this for a moment. "Everyone got smallpox once," she adds, a little hopefully.
"A quiet life isn't necessarily a bad thing," Fraser points out.
AJ snorts. "Yeah right."
Fraser makes a noncommittal noise, but he sees AJ smirking into her milk. She knows she's in the right on this one.
Ray Vecchio calls from Florida nearly every week -- making up for lost time, he says, and while Gimli has any number of enjoyable things on offer, Ray's phone calls are a definite highlight to any given week. So when the phone rings at Fraser's apartment one evening, he answers assuming a particular caller.
"Okay, I think I figured it out," Eric's voice says. That it's someone from the Johansson residence instead isn't very surprising. That Eric's opening bid for conversation is such a non sequitur is less so.
"Figured what out?" Fraser asks after a moment.
"Well, you didn't tell me there were two," Eric says. Perhaps he thinks they're in the middle of some conversation Fraser's unaware of. Perhaps winter in Gimli has made Fraser slightly unhinged. "So first of all," Eric goes on, "I was looking for the wrong guy. Then I made AJ look up some stuff for me, and even though all the records just listed one guy, it turns out there was this big undercover thing. AJ was kind of impressed with the news articles from Las Vegas."
Fraser's heartbeat picks up. He concentrates on slowing it back down, and makes a listening sort of noise so Eric will know he hasn't disconnected the line.
"Anyway," Eric says, "we figured out when the first Ray left, and then we narrowed down the cases until we could find the second Ray's real name." Eric clears his throat. "I didn't think I could find him, but ..."
"But?" Fraser prompts.
"Can you come over?" Eric asks. "Now? Please?"
"Eric --" Fraser tries.
"Please," Eric says. "Johnny lived in the caboose for months because they didn't know how to talk."
Fraser fights down the lump in his throat. "All right," he says, and hangs up.
He leaves Dief at his apartment. Dief might be an excuse or a distraction or any of a thousand things Fraser might want, and he cannot do that to the only friend he's had stick by him through every relocation.
It's evening; the lights are on in the Johanssons' house. Fraser knocks on the door and it's immediately answered by Zoë in her knit sweater, familiar, giving Fraser a tiny nervous smile. "It was Eric's idea," she tells him, "but ..." and instead of finishing the thought she lets him into the house.
Eric's hovering in the foyer, by the partition of wall that suggests separation from the living room. He gives Fraser a nervous little wave, and Fraser goes in slowly, unsure. He sees Johnny first, sitting on the couch and explaining something with the earnest enthusiasm he reserves for pucks and carburetors, and sitting there listening to him --
"Ray," Fraser says.
Johnny stops talking and looks over at him in a flash of wide eyes, a little guiltily, and Fraser knows that it might have been Eric's idea, but Johnny and Zoë were in complete agreement. Ray Kowalski looks up more slowly -- agonizingly slowly, moving through molasses, and when his eyes meet Fraser's they're tired, his whole face is tired and the smile he gives Fraser is slow and cautious, expecting nothing, lighting the whole room. Fraser can't even imagine why he thought Johnny, a younger faint facsimile and his own man, could ever be mistaken for Ray.
"Hey, Frase," Ray says.
"Okay," says Johnny, "uh, Zoë, Eric, we better see how dinner's coming along," and he springs up, heading for the kitchen. Zoë and Eric scramble to follow.
Ray's smile quirks into a faint grin. "He's pretty sneaky."
"What are you doing here?" Fraser asks faintly.
"Having dinner," Ray replies. "Which is good, because the layover in Toronto was bad enough, but then I had another one in Winnipeg, and Fraser? Winnipeg sucks."
"Oh," Fraser says, and somehow is across the room, hugging Ray tightly, because Ray's risen from the couch and is doing his best to squeeze all the breath from Fraser's body. "You dumbass," Ray's whispering, "you dumb Mountie, they wouldn't put me through at the office and you never gave me your number and I was thinking of coming up anyway when that kid called --"
"It's winter in Manitoba," Fraser tells him idiotically.
"Yeah, and you left Dief all alone in whatever poky place you're living, too." Ray pulls back a little, not actually letting go of Fraser, and shakes him gently. "Do you know what's worse than Winnipeg? Winter in Chicago with only a turtle for company."
"I like it here," Fraser says helplessly.
"Yeah, and there's stuff besides tundra for hundreds of miles," Ray tells him. "I didn't mean I'd sworn off Canada for eternity. What's here?"
Ray still has his arms wrapped around Fraser. Breathe. "A delightful cinema," Fraser says. "A hockey rink. Fishing. Beaches. Good people. The Johanssons have a caboose in the yard." All of it seems woefully inadequate. And a moment later he forgets it all anyway, because Ray's arms tighten and he's kissing Fraser softly, with Johnny and Zoë and Eric in the next room, with unshaved stubble from his flight on his face, with a thousand things unsaid, with such fervent tenderness that Fraser has to lock his knees and hold tight to Ray's shoulders.
"Good people?" Ray murmurs, pulling back a little. His eyes crinkle up at the corners. "I figured that one out."
"I'm glad," Fraser whispers.
"Hey," Johnny says, peering around the wall with such good timing that Fraser is immediately suspicious of it, but Ray doesn't let go of him and Johnny doesn't so much as blink, just says, "Dinner's ready."
"There in a moment," Ray promises, and turns back to Fraser. "What was after that?"
It takes Fraser a moment. "Ah. The caboose in the yard."
Ray grins. "Good enough for me."