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I cannot look upon these wooded hills
without seeing the bones beneath.
The inch-high trees of the Arctic
and the barren rock and stones
echo large down here beneath one-hundred-foot-tall
pines, and I become a midge
deep within the caribou moss
and willow catkins, pink among the rocks
beneath that lapis Arctic sky.
--Jim Flosdorf (from Poems from the Soper River)

 

Two kilometers outside of Inuvik, Northwest Territories, Canada.

Maggie's back porch overlooks some of the prettiest country in all of Canada. Maybe in all of anywhere. For one thing, there's like this sea of flowers. All colors. I know the names of a few: Fireweed, Arctic Poppy, Purple Saxifrage. Don't know all of 'em, though; for that you'd have to ask Fraser. He'll give you the English and the Latin names for each one and after that maybe he'll throw in some info about which ones taste good in a salad.

I'm sitting out on the porch swing Fraser and I built for Maggie as soon as it was warm enough to work outside. It's T-shirt weather even here at the top of the planet, so I'm in cutoffs and sandals and a T-shirt with the sleeves ripped off.

Maggie and Fraser both make sure there's iced tea around in summer, and I've poured myself a great big glass of it. They both must use the same recipe, I guess, because Fraser makes the best iced tea I've ever had and this tastes just like it.

It's pretty warm today. 26 degrees. That's around 80 in English. It'd be hot if there wasn't a breeze blowing. I take a long drink of my tea and lean my head back against the cool wood of the swing. I don't know how long I sit like that, vegging, maybe dozing a little.

It's been a weird couple of days. Good weird, but still weird. I mean, sure, I knew Stella and Vecchio were coming, on account of them calling two weeks ago and telling us. Translated, this means that Vecchio talked to Fraser and asked nicely if they could visit. Fraser can't say no to bums on the street, I can't imagine he'd turn Ray Vecchio down. And Vecchio knows it, he's gotta know it.

I have no clue why Stella wanted to come. Maybe just because Vecchio did, who knows? So two days ago they show up, and they're still here, and nobody's killed anyone. Yeah, there were a few hours of awkwardness when nobody knew where to look or what to say but everyone got over it pretty fast.

Vecchio treats Stel pretty good, so I don't have to hurt him, and she gives it right back. I noticed that, 'cause I was a detective for a long time, after all, and I also noticed that I wasn't jealous, and that was weird. Fraser kept looking at me like he expected me to be, but when I wasn't he finally stopped and actually loosened up a little. A lot, really. I think Vecchio being here helped with that. Fraser and Vecchio, they have this way around each other that's different from--well. It's just different. I'm not jealous of that, either, which is even weirder.

The whole thing is weird, like I said. It's like the Twilight Zone of the Tundra, but so far it hasn't sucked. Take last night, for instance. Fraser decided he was gonna teach us this crazy complicated card game he learned from some friend of a cousin of his Dad's. Someone from "Out East", he said. Whatever that meant. There's a whole lot of Canada that's east of where we are, after all. Then Vecchio brought out a couple of bottles of this amazing red wine. I'm not big into wine, but this stuff was rich and dry and tasted like someone took everything good about Italy and poured it into a bottle. I'll say one thing for him, Vecchio knows his vino. Everyone had some. Even Fraser had a glass, mostly because Vecchio acted like it would be some sin against the Pope if he didn't.

We played cards and drank bottled Italy for hours. Stella had the game figured out in five minutes flat and was kicking major ass while I was still reading my cheat sheet with all the trumps and runs and weird names for plays written on it. If we'd been betting real money she'd have made enough to cover the trip back to Florida right there.

After that, Frase pulled out his guitar and we all got into this half-drunken singalong thing. Well, except Fraser, on account of him only having the one glass. He sang anyway, though. Fraser's got a real nice voice. Me, I can't carry a tune in a bucket, but nobody seemed to care. Let me tell you, I never knew there were so many songs about trains. Canada. Go figure.

By the time we caved in to exhaustion it was the middle of the night, even though it still looked like late afternoon outside. The Vecchios--it's still feels bizarre to call them that--were staying in Maggie's second bedroom, so Frase and I just camped out on the floor. Camping's old hat for us, so it was all good. Didn't get more than four hours of sleep or so, what with the singing and the cards and all. Which is why I'm sitting here zoning out on Maggie's porch swing.

I guess I must have dropped off for real because I don't hear the back door open. Nothing registers at all until the swing moves and I and open my eyes. Cop Mode Lite, I call it, but it's gone pretty quick, 'cause it's just Fraser trying to ease himself onto the swing without disturbing me. He does a good job of it, too, considering there's six feet of Mountie connecting with less than five feet of wobbly surface. Someone else might not have noticed at all, but I still got the whole cop reflex thing going on.

"Hi," I say. I give him a lazy smile and lean back again. The sun's bright and my eyes won't stay open. "Where's everyone else?"

Fraser takes my half-empty glass and sets it on the deck next to him. Probably figures I might drop it or something. He's probably right.

"Maggie, Diefenbaker, and the Vecchios are off on what Ray calls 'The Grand Tour of Metro Inuvik'," he answers, making little quote signs with his fingers.

"I do believe that someone may have given him false information, as there is very little here that could be construed as 'metro' in any sense of the word. The same, of course, can be applied to the surrounding towns, which are entirely too distant to be considered part of any 'metropolitan' area that might include Inuvik."

He takes the tiniest of breaths and keeps going.

"This is especially true of in the case of Tuktoyaktuk, whose size and remoteness make it more of a village, or perhaps even a hamlet, than an actual town, the fact of which is quite obvious upon observation. Or, rather, it would be if one could actually travel to Tuk by road this time of year, which is clearly impossible. By the way, Ray, did I ever mention that 'Tuktoyaktuk' is an Invialuit word meaning 'resembling a caribou'? It's quite an interesting story, actually. You see, according to legend, there was a woman who..."

I've been smiling all through Fraser's little travelogue. I got my answer in the first sentence, but I don't have the energy or heart to interrupt him. Stopping Benton Fraser's train of thought is a lot like trying to catch the Orient Express in a butterfly net. It's not worth the effort and anyway, what would be the point? Besides, Fraser's voice is warm and clear like the weather, and I'm drifting along on the tide of it. "Mm," I say intelligently, then, bam, I'm all the way under.

I dream about Stella in furs and fancy mukluks, trying to negotiate the ice road to Tuktoyaktuk by dog sled. It's a funny dream, not a romantic one. I'm not even in it, just Stel and Frobisher's dogs, the same ones that we took on our Adventure. It goes on for quite a while; I guess my subconscious can conjure up a lot of amusing ways for Stella to fall off a sled. I wake myself up laughing, with the breeze cool on my face, and my head pressed against Fraser's shoulder.

I'm completely awake by the time Maggie's Land Rover pulls into the yard. Fraser's already at the door, as if the gang coming in couldn't figure out how to open it for themselves. Vecchio's already launching into a recap of the tour, going on and on about traffic lights and technology and neighborhood watches and how there really isn't much of any of those things. His voice is dripping with sarcasm, but Fraser doesn't notice, or pretends he doesn't. Vecchio's not misinformed, Frase, I tell him silently. He's just a transplanted ex-cop who's glad for a chance to flex the sarcastic gene all American cops are born with. Bet he doesn't get much chance to do it down in blue hair land. I cover my smirk with a yawn. Vecchio's ability to snow Fraser amazes me. I can't do it, never could. Damn mountie always sees right through me.

Dief pushes by everyone so he can hold vigil by his bowl until one of us decides to feed him. Stella's next, her face flushed and laughter in her eyes. Guess they had a good time. Maggie brings up the rear, and when she's inside, Fraser shuts the door behind them. Maybe spending time looking like a doorman makes a Mountie want to act like one. All I know is everyone looks happy, and I get that Twilight Zone feeling again. Fraser looks pretty happy, too. "Ray," he says. He calls us both Ray, me and Vecchio, so I couldn't tell you how I know he's talking to me. He is, though, and I can always tell.

"Ray," he says again, like I might not have heard him the first time. "Could you feed Diefenbaker while I get the salad ready?" That was the deal; Maggie does the tourist thing and we do dinner.

It goes on like that, nice and easy and really strange. Fraser makes his usual freak salad with all the wild plants on it that I don't even want to know what are. I throw together garlic bread and spaghetti with Ma Vecchio's marinara recipe and some leftover wine. Vecchio's standing over my shoulder the whole time giving me all kinds of advice about how I should leave the garlic sitting in the olive oil while I cut up the onions so the flavor will soak in and that a good Italian pasta sauce should never be allowed to come to a boil under pain of death. All sorts of things like that, and it's not bothering me and isn't that strange.

Stella and Maggie have their heads together at the table yakking about God knows what. You'd think they'd known each other for years instead of a couple of days. I wonder what it is they're talking about.

Fraser's over at the counter mixing up the salad dressing and telling Dief no, he may not have a piece of garlic bread while the pasta's cooking. He sees me looking and gives me one of his patended "isn't this nice?" grins. Damned if I don't give one right back. Fraser smiles a lot more than he used to. I guess I do, too. It's easier when you don't have to worry about someone shooting at you every day.

Stella looks up at us just then. She's got this curious look on her face, and I just know she's gonna ask me something, but she doesn't. She just looks from Fraser to me and back to Fraser again and goes back to her conversation like she never stopped. Huh.

Dinner's good, if I do say so myself. Everyone eats a little of everything, except Vecchio won't touch the salad.

"If I don't know what it is, I'm not putting it in my mouth. Not like some people who will remain nameless."

"Ray, I'll be glad to give you a list of the ingredients. All of the wild plants are clearly documented in--"

Vecchio puts up a hand. "Never mind, Benny. Eat your pasta."

"Understood," Fraser says, and digs in.

A year ago I might've been all over Vecchio for not at least trying the salad, figuring he was being rude on purpose. After two days with both of them, I'm starting to see that it's not like that. This is just how Fraser and Vecchio are, how they've always been. They bicker sometimes, sure, but they like it. Which means, duh, Kowalski, they really are friends. That particular bulletin doesn't freak me out as much as the fact that I'm still not jealous. Why should I be? Fraser's allowed to have more than one friend, right?

Besides, he didn't ask Vecchio to rearrange his whole life for him. That kind of asking takes a lot of trust. Fraser's full of trust, if it's a politician or a salesman or some perp who swears up and down that he doesn't have a gun. He doesn't trust as easy with people he cares about. Can't say as I blame him. He's been fucked over enough to know better.

But he asked me to stay without a second thought. I can tell when Fraser has second thoughts, and that wasn't one of those times. He just flat out asked me, even after he'd been shit on all those times. Even when he knew I had a job and a departure date and a plane ticket back. No hesitation, and I said yes just as quick, and it's taken me over a year to finally figure out how big that is.

I look over at him. He turns his head and gives me that 100-watt smile again. I shoot one back at him, and I'm shaking a little with trying not to let on that the world's just shifted a little.

After dinner everyone helps clean up, especially the wolf. Fraser turns him down.

"I appreciate your offer to clean the plates, Diefenbaker, but I'm afraid others may have some objections to it."

Dief whines at him, and Fraser says, "Yes, I know that Ray lets you do it at home. But this is Maggie's home, and there are guests to consider."

Dief, of course, looks as offended as hell.

"Oh, please," Fraser says to him. "I did say I appreciated your offer, Diefenbaker. To be quite honest, I'm not quite sure that there aren't ulterior motives to your altruism. I'll be sure you get a plate of leftover spaghetti for your midnight snack, but I'm afraid that's all I can do for you."

Dief turns away in a huff and goes to sit by his bowl again.

Fraser gives a heavy sigh and says to nobody in particular, "I had thought that moving back to some semblance of wilderness would return him somewhat to the wild animal he professes to be, but apparently I was mistaken."

And just like that, I'm trying not to laugh and the world rights itself again. For a while, anyway.

I can tell it's gonna be an early night. Stella's been yawning since dinner ended, and everyone is looking a little like the walking dead. Well, except Fraser, who looks like he could do a hundred push ups and then run the Mountie Marathon. I don't know how he does it. Maybe he's not kidding about those minute-long power naps he says he takes.

We're all still sitting around the kitchen table, drinking tea and making small talk. It feels homey, somehow, and ain't that a kick in the head. Stella and I haven't felt homey in the same room since the eighties. Maggie gets up to bring us more tea. It's the real kind, without bags, same as Fraser makes. It must be a sibling thing or maybe a Mountie thing, 'cause I know there's tea bags in Inuvik, I've seen 'em for sale down at the North Mart.

"Ray, you and Benton are more than welcome to spend another night here, if you'd like," says Maggie as she pours my tea.

"Thanks, Maggie, but I think we're gonna call it an early night tonight." Fraser might not look tired, but he's got work in the morning. He's taken a few days off, but he didn't ask for tomorrow off. He wanted to show Vecchio around Mountie Central, he told me, and insists he could do it better while he was on duty. I don't get it, but Fraser does. I've stopped trying to figure out Fraser's leaps of logic, especially since he's usually right when it comes to anything Canadian.

"I agree, Ray. Morning comes early, after all." Fraser has a way of making an obvious statement seem like news. Morning comes early. If I'd said that, people would have stared at me like I had a concussion.

He thanks Maggie (kindly) anyway for the offer, then gets up to rinse out Dief's bowl. The wolf's still lying next to it. He's looking around the room, at me, at Maggie, anywhere but at Fraser. "You pay and you pay and you pay," Fraser mutters, picking up the bowl.

"Fraser, the wolf's gonna need to go out before we leave," I tell him. It's not a long ride home, but the SUV is RCMP-issue, and I don't think they'd be too thrilled about wolf pee on the seats.

"Would you mind taking him, Ray? Apparently he's still not speaking to me. At the least, he's likely to refuse, and at the worst," he stops and looks over at Dief. "At the worst, there could be shouting. I wouldn't want to have things turn ugly after such a pleasant couple of days."

"Fraser, you know what? You're just as big a freak in Canada as you were in Chicago."

Fraser doesn't react, he just stands there smiling hopefully with Dief's bowl in his hands.

Vecchio shakes his head and I can tell he's trying not to laugh at the both of us. Stella's got that weird look on her face again. She doesn't say anything, she just looks over at Maggie, then at Fraser and me. I used to think I knew all of Stella's expressions. I guess not. Maggie isn't talking, either, she's just sitting there drinking her tea. She looks pretty normal, at least.

I go over and tap the wolf on the back. "C'mon, Dief, let's go stretch our legs." He's up and ready to follow me right away, just like I figured he would. What can I say, the wolf likes me.

"Oh, and Ray?"

"Yeah?" The furrow between Fraser's eyebrows is more furrowy than usual, which means something's bothering him. Good thing I know all of Fraser's expressions.

"I wonder if you could attempt to talk some sense into him while you're outside. He seems to be able to listen to reason better out of doors, and you do have a way with him." Poor guy, he really seems upset about it. Stupid wolf doesn't know how good he's got it.

"I'm on it, buddy," I tell him. I grab my sweatshirt from a peg by the door and throw it on. It's gotten a lot colder since afternoon. I push the door open and Dief rushes out in front of me. I bet he's glad not to have to use a leash anymore. He always hated that thing.

We're outside for almost an hour. Dief does his business and runs around in the grass for a while. I really do try to talk some sense into him. It's not like I think he understands what I'm saying like Fraser does, but what can it hurt, and I don't want to lie to Fraser, y'know? So I talk about what a cushy life he has and how he doesn't have to worry about where his next meal is coming from, and that if I were him, I'd be pretty damn happy to have someone like Fraser. He looks at me with a blank expression, and I have no clue about whether any of it sunk in. I should feel ridiculous even talking to a wolf like that, but I don't.

When I get back, the kitchen is dark, and for a second I think they've all gone somewhere. Then I hear Vecchio's voice from the spare bedroom. I go over to the door and I see he's on the phone.

"Frannie, I don't understand why you're so upset. We just saw you last month and you're gonna be down with us for Thanksgiving." He stops, and he's holding the phone about five inches from his head, so she must be giving him an earful. Frannie'll never change.

"Look, did Ma make you call? Listen, you tell her that we'll see her at Thanksgiving, and I'm sorry I couldn't do Chicago and Canada all at once, but I've got a business to run, okay? On second thought, put her on. Put her on, Frannie."

Another long pause, and then he starts up again, only this time louder and in Italian. I close the door so he can talk as loud as he wants without bothering anyone. I don't think he even notices.

I don't have to look far for Maggie. She's stretched out on the living room couch, dead to the world. I turn out the light in the living room and go to look for Fraser and Stel. They've gotta be on the back porch, there isn't anywhere else they could go. Maggie's place is pretty small.

The sliding door's shut, but there's one window open. They're out there all right, I can hear both of their voices, low and intense. Must be some conversation. I hope they're not fighting, 'cause I was just starting to think that maybe they can get along okay.

I'm not the kind of guy who goes around eavesdropping on people, but if Fraser and Stella are in some kind of argument, I'm probably gonna have to be the referee, so I need to know what they're saying, first. So I stand next to the open window and listen.

"Fraser, I've known Ray a lot longer than you have."

Uh-oh. They're talking about me.

"I don't mean to be obtuse, Stella, but I don't see how the length of your acquaintance with Ray has anything to do with the subject."

"What I mean, Fraser, is I know Ray. I've lived with Ray. I know that look."

Look? What look? When did I look? Stella's the one who's been giving off all the looks recently.

"Ah," says Fraser. "And just what look would that be?"

This is not good. Fraser's using evasive maneuvers, which means Stel's got him cornered but good. And she's not buying the wide-eyed innocent face that I just know is on Fraser's giving her right now.

"I think you know exactly what I'm talking about, but in case you don't, I'll be more specific. It's the way he looks at you, Fraser. I know that expression very well, because he used to look at me like that. As if I lit the moon every night and the sun every morning."

I'm starting to feel that world-shifting thing again. Did my ex-wife just tell my best friend that I'm in love with him? That's just. I don't know what that's just. I mean, sure, I look at Fraser, he's my friend. It'd be pretty stupid to not look at him.

I should go out there right now and stop all this baloney. Except I can't, because for some reason I can't make myself move from this spot, and now I'm thinking about times when I've looked at Fraser or at Stella and comparing them. It's not the same. It can't be the same. And why the hell isn't Fraser saying anything?

"You're trying to tell me that Ray Kowalski is in love with me."

Well, duh, Frase.

"I'd bet on it, Fraser, although I'm a little surprised that it's news to you."

Fraser doesn't say anything for a minute. He sounds a little shaky when he finally answers.

"I can assure you that it is indeed 'news' to me."

"Let me tell you something else, and if you say it's not true I probably won't believe you."

I should really, really go out there, now. Whatever Stella is about to say, I do not want to hear it. I'm still not moving, so maybe I'm going nuts and having one of those cataphonic states shrinks always talk about.

Or maybe I do want to hear what she's gonna say. Maybe I think I know what it is already.

The world shifts a little more.

"Fraser, the only reason I'm telling you any of this is that I care about Ray. I want him to be as happy as I am. I wouldn't mention it at all if I didn't. I'm telling you what I see in Ray's eyes, because I see the same thing in yours. And I'm not the only one, your sister feels the same way I do."

She stops, takes a breath, and adds, "If what I'm saying is news, then I hope it's welcome news, Fraser."

Fraser's voice is real quiet. "Yes. Yes, it is."

And okay, now I'm moving, right through the door. I'm positive that both of them can see right through the plastic smile on my face, but I really don't care. I don't know what I'm gonna say to Fraser, but I know it can't be here.

"Hi, Stel, Hi, Frase," I say. "Look, um, I'm really tired and morning comes early and all that, so I think me and Fraser oughta be going now. Tell Maggie thanks and tell Vecchio we'll see him tomorrow, okay?" And with that I'm grabbing Fraser by the arm and tugging him towards the door. He doesn't gripe, just lets me lead him, which tells me how freaked out he is right now. Stella doesn't say anything at all, she just lets us go. She knows me, so she probably has it figured out that I overheard everything.

Fraser's still not talking when we get to the jeep. He gets in like he's on automatic pilot. I don't remember the wolf running after us, but he jumps into the back seat just as I'm closing the door. He leans his face on Fraser's shoulder. I guess my talking to him did some good, or maybe he's just being protective, because Fraser's looking pretty freaked out about now.

We manage to spend the entire twenty-minute ride without saying anything, without looking at each other. Fraser must know I heard what he said, because otherwise he'd be complaining about being dragged out and how rude it was to leave without saying goodbye.

I pull into the driveway, and get out and open the door for Fraser and Dief. Fraser's still following, still quiet. I'm getting a little pissed about it now. As soon as we're inside, I drag Fraser over to the couch. "Sit," I tell him. He does.

I sit down next to him. I want to yell at him, and I don't really know why. I want to ask him how the hell could he have kept such a big thing from me and when was he going to learn that sometimes he could talk about what's bothering him. Especially to me. Jesus, God, Fraser, especially to me.

I don't yell at him. Not even close. I just sit there looking at him, and after a while he starts to look back. And yeah, maybe Stel is right. And so I give him a quick smile, and I ask him.

"Why, Frase? Why didn't you say something?"

He doesn't ask me how I know. He doesn't have to. "Things were good the way they were," he says. He doesn't look away. "I didn't want to do anything to change that, Ray. I still don't."

And then suddenly, just like that, the earthquake's over. The world's shifted, damn if it hasn't, but it's settling into place.

"I can see that. I can understand that, Fraser. But what if I do?" I reach over and grab his hand, because I can see he's shaking and I don't want him to be.

"You do?" He still looks like he might keel over any second, but the shaking's slowed a little. I take his other hand to help it along.

"Fraser, you asked me to stay here when you knew I had a plane ticket home. I said yes. This house we're living in, we picked it out together, we added the extra room together. I lecture Dief when he's being an ass to you, I chop wood with you and shovel snow for you and fix all our friend's cars even when they don't have any money to pay me. I've got a couple of years before I'm a Canadian citizen, but I'm headed in that direction. Lemme ask you, Fraser. What do you think?"

And right then I know I'm telling the truth. And maybe I do look at Fraser like he lights the moon. Maybe he does, anyway. He does for me, and I guess I knew that. I just never connected it with all that other stuff. Wouldn't you know it'd take Stella to get me on the clue bus. She wants me to be happy, she says. I gotta give her credit for figuring out that what makes me happy is shacking up in the north of beyond with a Mountie. It's not the Gold Coast ideal, let me tell you. But then, neither was I.

Fraser doesn't say anything right away. He looks at me some more, then at our hands. "I think, Ray, that I--that is I think I--"

Great, now he's speechless. I've broken the Mountie. I haven't got any words left to fix him, so I lean over and kiss him instead. I guess it works, or maybe it's just his words that are broken. Everything else seems to be in fine shape, because now he's sliding his arms around my waist and they're not shaking at all when he leans back and pulls me down with him. Fraser kisses like Fraser. He's got that easy confidence thing going on, like he knows what he's doing and he doesn't have to try too hard, but he's gonna give it everything he's got because it's just the right thing to do. He does everything like that, so I'm really not surprised about the kissing. And I'm caught up in all that Fraserish intensity. I keep waiting to freak out, because I should be, right? A couple of hours ago I wasn't even thinking about kissing Fraser, and now, right now I've got him under me and his hands are warm and rough underneath my two shirts. His mouth is amazing, and every bit as soft as I never knew I expected it to be.

I press closer and so does he, and God, I've never been kissed like this. I've never been, I don't know what, everything like this. Fraser's good, so good, and all that intense focus is directed at me and I know if we keep going like this we'll end up having sex right here. Don't get me wrong, I'm okay with the sex part, hell, yeah, but not the rest of it. Fraser deserves more than quick sex on the couch. He's been waiting a long time, after all. The problem is, I've got that cataphonic thing again, or maybe it's just the little noises Fraser's making that are keeping me from getting up and moving us. Most of me wants to stay right here and kiss Fraser and let him kiss me back and run his fingers through my hair.

In the end, it's Fraser who pulls back, as much as he can with me planted on top of him. "Ray," he says. He sounds breathless and beautiful.

"Mm," I say back, and try to catch his mouth again.

"Ray," he says. Didn't he say that already? I think he did.

"Yeah, Fraser?"

"We should get up." Another long kiss, and then he adds, "Just for a minute."

I smile, and yeah, I'm giving him that look again, and he's giving back the same one. Stella, you're a genius.

"Okay," I say. I stand up, and he holds out his hands. I grab them and help him up, too. We stop just outside his bedroom. He kisses me then like I'm what keeps him breathing, or maybe like I light the sun. I'm just fine with that, everything's just great.

"We'd better get a move on, Frase. I heard someone say once that morning comes early."

"Ray, that is the most obvious statement I've ever heard you make."

I will not laugh at that, not now, he's not gonna make me. Instead I kiss him again, really quick, and then I pull him into the bedroom and shut the door behind us.