"Isn't it supposed to be spring?" Every shift in the wind gives Ray's body a cold, snowy grope; he can't stop shivering. He'll never stop shivering. Warmth is like Santa Claus--he quit believing in it a long time ago.
"Arctic weather is unpredictable," Fraser says calmly. If there was a World Understatement Federation, Fraser would be the heavyweight champ. Unpredictable weather is a little rain on your picnic, or one of those wet April snowfalls that can happen in Chicago. Not a day that flips from warmish sun to howling blizzard so quick that you get caught halfway down a nasty hill and spend five hours feeling your way to level ground.
Ray picks up another tent peg and tries to hammer it in. The blowing snow makes the ground a fuzzy blur, and Ray's fingers are numb and stiff, like half-thawed chicken wings.
Thunk, thunk, thunk. Get the peg in deep. Thunk thunk. Ouch.
Don't hit your hand while you're doing it.
Thunk thunk thunk thunk.
As soon as this is done, he can sleep. Fraser promised him he could sleep. But the tent's got to be secure. This wind could probably blow it all the way back to Chicago with them inside. Which doesn't sound so bad, come to think of it.
"Ray. Ray. Ray." Why can't he move his arm? Oh. Fraser's hand is on it. "The peg's in, Ray."
"Okay." Ray pats around for another one.
"They're all in. The tent's ready."
Ray can't figure out when that happened, but he brushes at the snow coating his clothes and follows Fraser inside.
Inside. Inside should mean warm, but it's not warm in the tent. That can't be fair. Ray always loved the snow as a kid, but the whole point was that after you got the crap pelted out of you with snowballs, you came inside and drank Swiss Miss with marshmallows while you sat by the radiator.
"Here." Fraser hands him crackers and jerky and chocolate, and they eat while Fraser explains that they'll just have to wait out the storm and he think they'll be okay. Those are his exact words: I think. But Fraser's supposed to be sure. Fraser's always sure. Even when he's completely, mind-blowingly, Canadianly wrong (like the time he called the GTO "impractical"), he's sure.
Dief puts his head on Ray's knee, eyeing the last bit of jerky in his hand. His tail thumps when Ray gives it to him, and Ray warms his hands on Dief's furry back, thinking about how adventure is really just a word for almost dying. He figured that being with Fraser, the "almost" part was guaranteed, but now he's got to wonder.
If he'd gone back to Chicago after the Muldoon bust, he could be sitting on his warm couch in his warm apartment, watching hoops on TV.
Of course, he'd be watching it by himself and wishing like a dumbass that he'd stayed. He'd be missing Fraser, for sure. Hell, Ray started to miss him the minute Vecchio gave him a big hug and called him "Benny." He didn't want to try missing Fraser from a distance; that's why he's here.
"Huh?" Ray pushes up his eyelids, lifts his head from Dief's neck, and wishes time would stop fast-forwarding.
Fraser's crouched next to him. "Here's your sleeping bag," he says, stuffing a green, slithery heap into Ray's arms. Unpacking the gear is supposed to be one of Ray's jobs, since he's no use driving the dogsled. Fraser lets him try, but it reminds Ray of being six years old, sitting on his dad's lap in the car and pretending to steer. So Ray busts his ass doing the other stuff right.
Except on those nights--not too many now, not like the first couple weeks--when he's so tired that his body's like a machine he can't figure out how to run. Then Fraser takes over, takes care of him, and doesn't turn it into a big deal.
"Oh," Ray says. "Thanks." Not that he can climb right in like he wants to. Nothing's that easy here. First he has to strip off everything, lay it out so it doesn't stay damp, and change into dry longjohns and socks. Wet clothes pull heat away, Fraser says. Tonight, Fraser helps him hang stuff up, watching him with a little frown. Ray wonders how tired he'd have to be before Fraser would just undress him like a baby.
He's trying to step into his bag without untucking his frozen fingers from his armpits when Fraser stops him. "Ray . . . we'd stay warmer if . . ." He makes a half-gesture, sort of nodding and sort of just looking aside, at his own sleeping bag. It's completely unzipped and spread flat.
Ray figures it out, finally, from the embarrassment in Fraser's voice. They could zip the bags into one and double their body heat. Curl up together the way the dogs do, in a big tangle.
Something Ray never knew about cold, before he came here, is that it's lonely. Ray's never been so lonely in his life as he is right now, and he'd feel a lot better with Fraser next to him like a warm, lumpy security blanket. But when he tries to say so, he can't, because how do you tell another guy you want to sleep with him, want him to put his arms around you so you won't be scared? It's bad enough that he can't keep his hands off Fraser the rest of the time, that he's always finding a reason to hug him or pat him on the shoulder. That touching him feels good.
Ray knows he's starting to blush, a cold red glow like the northern lights. There's a long, long, long pause, and at first Fraser looks at him with that frown digging itself in, and then he turns his face away.
"Go on, get in your bag, Ray," Fraser says in a flat voice, so quiet that Ray can hardly hear him over the wind, and starts to zip his own bag up again. Diefenbaker whines at him, low and almost growly, and they start one of their conversations. "Don't be ridiculous," Fraser says, and "I don't see how that's any of your business," and "My judgment is perfectly all right," and "If you want to sulk outside, fine, I won't stop you."
Ray's not sure when the sight of a grown man arguing with a wolf started being normal. "Be nice," he whispers when Dief comes over and licks his face. Either Dief really doesn't hear him or just doesn't care, because he barks at Fraser to be let out and stalks through the tent entrance like a woman in a huff. "What's-"
Okay. It's not going to be one of the nights when they talk about old cases or Shackleton's Antarctic expedition or how people figured out the world was round. "Night, Frase."
It's a little warmer in the sleeping bag, like moving from the freezer to the refrigerator, but that doesn't touch the loneliness icing up Ray's gut. He turns on his side and wriggles closer to Fraser, until he hears the whik of their sleeping bags brushing together. Better.
In the dim, blizzardy, tent-filtered light, Ray can see the back of Fraser's head and the square set of his shoulders. He keeps his eyes open for as long as he can, looking.
The first thing he notices is the silence. Then the gray. Gray snow on every side, miles and miles of it, fading into gray sky. There's light, thick and gray, but it seems to come from nowhere. The tent is gone. The hills are gone. The dogsled's gone.
Stumbling in circles, scanning the ground like Fraser's a dropped penny or a lost contact lens, Ray tries to take a breath to shout for him. And can't. His chest doesn't budge, and his body seems to have forgotten that it should breathe. There's no oxygen hunger. Nothing.
Ray spins around, trips over his own joy and lands painfully on crusty snow, but when he looks up, it's not Fraser. It's someone small, stout in a furry parka, with a plump brown face and black eyes under his hood. A shower of ice crystals drops from the parka when Ray grabs him. "Where is he?"
"Your friend? He'll be along soon."
Coming back, he's coming back, he's not gone. "So where am I? What the fuck's going on?" Maybe he's been drugged, kidnapped. Hard to believe that the Eskimo guy (Inuit, Fraser's voice says in his head) would be some partner-in-crime of Muldoon's, though. And that wouldn't explain-
"What?" Ray almost laughs, but it freezes halfway up his throat. His body feels like a beef carcass in a meat locker, solid and lifeless. "Okay, let's stop with the ghost story shit. That's gotta be the stupidest thing I ever heard, and I'm a cop, I've heard stupid way beyond normal parameters." Thing is, he's still not breathing. The words come out, but no air, no frozen cloud of steam.
The man makes an annoyed little huffing sound, and suddenly Ray's standing over his own body in its sleeping bag. He's lying awfully still, his face the color of the skim milk Stella used to put in her coffee, and there's a black, sinking moment when Ray thinks it might be true. Then the sleeping bag rises a little bit, falls again. "Hey, I'm breathing!" One of him is, anyway, and jeez it's creepy to look at himself doubled. "I am not dead!"
"Give it a couple hours. Hypothermia's slow," the guy says. Then he points at the sleeping-bag-wrapped Fraser who just blinked into existence next to the other Ray. "Him, your friend, he'll take longer. Tomorrow he's gonna find you dead, and he just won't bother to get up."
And he shrugs.
That's when Ray hits him. Well, tries to. He swings, connects with nothing even though the guy's standing right there, and ends up on his ass in the snow again. He stands up and crowds the guy, bending down to get in his face. "Listen, you-"
"Ray?" A voice from just behind Ray's shoulder, Fraser's voice. "Ray, what's-"
Fraser oofs when Ray turns and hugs him like a tackling linebacker, getting an armful of cold coat and good, solid Fraser underneath. And better yet, getting squeezed tight in return. When Ray lets go he keeps ahold of Fraser's elbow, just in case. Whatever's happening, they're in this together.
"You're dead," the little Eskimo guy says, nodding at the sleeping Fraser and Ray on the ground.
"Oh. Oh dear." Like it's a parking ticket or something. Like he parked on a yellow line and knew this might happen.
"Fraser, this guy's a fucking liar. We're breathing, look at us!"
Fraser drops to his knees and pokes around the sleeping bodies, cupping his palm half an inch above their mouths, taking off his gloves to check for heartbeat. Ray half expects him to start licking the way he does at crime scenes. As it is, the sight of Fraser with his fingers on Ray's face and neck makes Ray feel funny, sort of squirmy and fascinated, and he looks off at the gray not-really-a-horizon for a minute.
"Your respiration and pulse are slow, Ray, but you're certainly not dead. And I appear to be fine." Fraser takes Ray's arm again as soon as he's on his feet, and Ray can't help leaning sideways into him, just a little. "Perhaps there's been some sort of mistake, sir," Fraser says to the Eskimo. "I believe this is premature at best."
The Eskimo shrugs again. Ray never knew somebody could be so annoying without even talking. "You think death's just a matter of breathing and heartbeat?"
"Yeah," Ray says, ignoring the nudge of Fraser's elbow. This kind of thing's right up Fraser's alley--he could probably argue twenty-five different philosophies with whoever this guy is and never get tired of it. But Ray doesn't like how his other body's not moving around in its sleep. He doesn't like how he's starting to feel heavy and insubstantial at the same time. "That's what the law says. You pop a cap in somebody who's breathing, it's murder. You pop a cap in somebody who's not, you just got a weird hobby."
The Eskimo frowns at him. Ray suddenly remembers Mrs. Gabella from eighth-grade geometry, and how her stare said he might as well have RETARD written on his forehead.
"Sir," Fraser says again, in the formal voice that he uses on Welsh and Thatcher and lost tourists and pizza delivery guys but never on Ray, not anymore, "Why are we here?"
The Eskimo nods. Go to the head of the class, Benton Fraser. "This is the place for suicides. The place with nothing, with no life. Here, you get away from what you didn't want."
"Now hold the fuck on." Before Ray can move, Fraser's gripping both his arms, so he can't take another shot at the only kind of argument that really works. "First of all, not dead, unless in your world dead means walking and talking and really goddamn pissed off. And not a suicide, no way, no how."
"Looks like suicide to me," the Eskimo says, pointing at the Ray who's sleeping, as still and pale as anything that's ever lain on Mort's chilly metal tables. "How cold do you figure it is in that storm? Twenty below? Thirty?"
That's when Ray stops wanting to hit the guy. Well, he still wants to hit him, but not as much as he wants to grab Fraser by the shoulders and take a good long look at his face and say he's sorry. He's never exactly been good at making the right decisions, and sometimes being around Fraser confuses him, spins him dizzy, and he's sorry. He should've let Fraser zip the damn bags together. Should've had more guts, not just then but a long time ago. Shouldn't have conned himself until he was shit-scared to touch Fraser because it might blow his cover.
"I don't want to die," he says. His legs have gone weak, and he'd fall down in the snow except that Fraser is holding him up. The sleeping Ray and Fraser have disappeared, and somehow Ray doesn't think that's a good sign.
"Nor do I, Ray," Fraser says, whispers, just to him. Ray's not the suicide type (thought about it once or twice, maybe, after Stella, but he never loaded his gun) but Fraser . . . Ray can't even imagine it. The Eskimo, though, he said Fraser's going to lie there next to Ray's dumb dead body until he dies too. They'll both be there forever, buried in snow and then in glacier, two separate icicles. And they'll be here forever in the gray nothing. And here, Ray thinks, being together won't help at all.
Fraser looks a little bit worried, and that's worse, scarier, than seeing anybody else screaming and shitting themselves. Ray puts him arm around Fraser's waist, the first time he's ever done that, and says, "I want a do-over."
The Eskimo, watching them wide-eyed like they're the ninth inning of the World Series--score tied, two outs and bases loaded--says, "Huh?"
"Do-over. Take two. Erase and try again."
"No can do. Just because you're dead doesn't mean I'm a god."
"We're not dead," Fraser says. When he says it, it sounds logical, not crazy like every time Ray said it. "We don't have to die. Let us out of here, sir, and we'll do our best to live."
For a while the Eskimo just stands there, his sharp, narrow eyes on them. Ray starts making a list of everything he's going to do if he doesn't die, and pretty much all of it involves Fraser. "I can't let you go. Not in my power. But . . . " The guy sucks his teeth for a minute. "You could prove you don't belong here. Do something living people do."
How do you prove you're alive? They're already talking, moving, and when Ray tries again to breathe it still doesn't work. They could eat something, maybe, but there's nothing but snow. That and some furs and leather they'd break their teeth on. "Great," he mutters. "A logic puzzle. Just what I wanted."
"I know what to do." There's something weird about Fraser's face; he looks shiny but brittle, like glass. "Ray, this is your do-over. Ours, rather. We . . ." Hesitantly, he touches Ray's cheek with one cold finger.
Ray closes his eyes while things shake and flip-flop inside him, then opens them again. He's not about to fuck up this time. Not going to choose cold, choose death, because he's embarrassed. Anyway, it's like a head start on the list. "Yeah, I get it," he says, raising leaden hands to Fraser's shoulders and kissing him.
Chapped lips and scratchy beard and Fraser. Still hesitant, and Ray sweet-talks him silently, kissing deeper and wetter, licking his way in.
Maybe it's his imagination, but his lips feel warm now, and so do the spots on his back where Fraser's hands are rubbing. He leans a little closer, chest and belly to Fraser's, and it's like stepping into a hot bath. There have to be six, seven layers of clothes between them, but this heat burns right through.
A squeaky sound of disturbed snow makes Ray look over Fraser's shoulder. The Eskimo's sitting a few feet away, cross-legged and attentive. "Hey," Ray says. "What the -- you're not gonna watch, all right?" Fraser shifts to see, but just barely, keeping close.
Grinning, the Eskimo says, "You have any idea how boring this place gets after a while?"
"This is personal stuff here! Alone stuff! You want porn, order pay-per-view like everybody else."
With a sigh and an eyeroll, the Eskimo slowly pushes himself to his feet and starts walking away. Even though he's going at about the pace of an old lady on a hot day, it's just a moment before he's a small figure in the distance. Since there's nothing in the way, he can probably still see from there, but Ray figures he won't see much.
Fraser makes a strange sound, like choking, and his body starts to tremble. Panic icicles through Ray's chest, and then he realizes that Fraser's laughing. Shaking with it, biting his lip to keep quiet and pressing his face into Ray's shoulder. "And to think," Fraser says finally, "that I kept waiting for just the right moment. To . . . to tell you. Ask you."
"Yeah?" That's not ordinary waiting, that's Olympic-class waiting. All those times they sat in front of the Consulate in Ray's car, talking about nothing, putting off saying goodnight. All the nights they've spent in a two-man tent not much bigger than a double bed. Fraser's idea of the right moment must be pretty damn specific. Of course, on the subject of delays Ray doesn't have a leg to stand on, let alone climb up the moral high ground with.
"Yes. Although on further reflection I think it's possible that I let several right moments go by."
Ray tilts his head back and smiles. Fraser's looking at him the way he looks at the land when they're travelling--like he knows it and he's happy there. "'This is a pretty good moment," Ray says. "The one where we're not dying."
Softly, like he's testing uncertain ice, Fraser settles his palm on Ray's hair. Then he slides his fingers in, until he's cupping Ray's skull and holding him and kissing him hard. A clumsy kiss, but full of concentration. When Ray was learning to dance he used to count the rhythm to himself, and he can almost feel Fraser counting now. Getting it right.
Heat flows down Ray's body in thick sheets, like caramel on an apple, and he'd like to tell Fraser that he's doing fine, that this is good. But Fraser can find trails buried under snow and smell wood smoke from thirty miles away, so he can probably read something into the way Ray's pawing at his coat and sucking on his tongue.
All Fraser's little noises sound like surprise. Like amazement, and Ray decides he likes being amazing. And he likes how Fraser's getting less polite by the second, how Fraser grabs his ass and hauls him closer, so close their hard-ons rub together and Ray can only lean on him and pant.
Maybe the perfect moment would've been in a bed, would've been naked, but the snow's soft when Ray pushes Fraser down. It doesn't even feel cold anymore, just as light and crisp as the feathers in an expensive pillow. "Come on," he says into Fraser's ear, pulling off his gloves, yanking Fraser's zipper, grunting through his teeth when Fraser's hand moves to his crotch. "Waited so long, come on."
And then he's got Fraser's dick hot and solid in his hand and it's all happening. Eyes closed, face buried in Fraser's collar, Ray jerks slow at first, easing into the back and forth of Fraser's thrusts, keeping time with Fraser's big fingers around Ray's dick. Fraser shakes like he's terrified, whimpers like it too, but if there's one thing Ray knows, it's movement. He holds it all together, good steady rhythms speeding and speeding while he grinds his teeth into plaid wool.
"Oh," Fraser says, a long stuttery moan. "Oh god," and there's a sudden blood-hot spatter on Ray's hand. Fraser's fingers tighten around him, yanking fast and rough, and Ray bites down hard and comes as snow fills his vision, as the world goes white.
Ray wakes shivering, groggy, numb everywhere except for the warm wet patch on his belly. He tries to reach for Fraser but can't, blocked by the sleeping bag. Outside, the wind is as loud as ever, slapping the sides of the tent.
And Ray is breathing.
It's take two, and if he can just keep from turning completely to ice, they'll be okay. "Fraser!"
There's a gasp in the darkness beside Ray, then the rustle of movement. "Ray? Ray, you're all right, thank heavens . . . of course you're all right. I'm sorry. I - I was dreaming, I believe." He sounds dazed and embarrassed. He sounds like he's got a wet spot of his own.
Dreaming. Yeah, right. Ray's body remembers Fraser's weight, the size of his dick and the smell of his come. "Fraser, I'm really cold." He has to grit his chattering teeth and talk through them. "C'mere, okay? Let's zip the bags together."
"Yes," Fraser says, and it sounds like he runs out of air halfway through. "Yes, I think that would be a good idea."
Even with the flashlight it takes forever, and Ray goes past shivering into what feels like convulsions, or maybe earthquakes. Once, the world slides sideways and he almost passes out. Fraser keeps talking, giving him encouraging little it's-all-rights and not-much-longers, and once they're back in the sleeping bag he puts his arms around Ray. "You'll warm up faster like this."
While Ray shakes, Fraser tells him a long story about tracking One-Eyed Pat McTiernan through the hottest summer in Canadian history, with no clue but the smell of McTiernan's badly cured bearskin boots. Never a day cooler than 33 degrees--"that's 91.4 degrees Fahrenheit, Ray"--and the heat pressing down like a weight, and soon Fraser's uniform was so sweaty that he stank like McTiernan's boots, but fortunately McTiernan was travelling upwind and had a poor sense of smell anyway . . . Little by little, Ray relearns warmth, feels it in sharp flashes through the pins-and-needles pain in his hands and feet, imagines the sun, imagines Fraser gone red and sweaty.
As his story winds down, Fraser's voice gets gradually slower and sleepier, and he starts stroking Ray's hair. With his cheek resting on Fraser's neck, Ray can feel his voicebox vibrate and hear his heart beat, slow and sure. If he tried, he thinks he could hear the blood pulsing in Fraser's arteries and veins.
"Hey, Fraser," Ray says when he's almost warm and he's stopped shaking like a jonesing addict. Fraser jumps and his hand quits moving, then drops to Ray's shoulder. "Can I kiss you some more?"
A quick, surprised breath, and then a long slow one. "So it wasn't a dream."
"I dunno." Carefully, Ray reaches up and finds Fraser's rough cheek, the curve of his ear, his unwashed, slept-on hair. "We were both there, anyhow."
"I see." It's the I see that Ray knows means I'm confused, not the I see where Fraser's really got it all figured out. Which is kind of a relief.
"So can I?" Ray slips his hand up the back of Fraser's shirt. He's not horny, exactly, but he wants to get to know Fraser's skin for real. "'Let me, you know, make sure you're alive."
"We're both alive," Fraser says. His breath warms Ray's lips, and even in the dark Ray can tell he's smiling. "But it never hurts to double-check."
"Nope." Fraser loves to be thorough, and for once, kissing him in slow exploration, Ray agrees.