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Perfection in the Work

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When Ray decided to stay with Fraser up here in Northwest Nowhere, he figured he was waving goodbye to a lot of the better things in life. Like indoor plumbing and radiators and TV and ever having a tan again and sinking his teeth into an extra-cheese-and-pineapple pizza that had been delivered to his door at two in the morning.

So of course it didn't happen like that at all. Fraser kept saying, "It'll be fine, Ray," but considering Fraser's definition of fine stretched to igloos, it wasn't all that reassuring. When they got to Inuvik, though, Fraser gave Ray a tour where he pointed out the Chinese restaurant, the internet-and-cable-TV company, and the recreation center (open twenty-four hours a day), and he grinned whenever he thought Ray's back was turned. Fraser gave him Inuvik like one of those surprise presents that comes in a shoebox, except you open it up and it's two tickets to Aruba and a pair of old sneakers for weight.

Ray hadn't really expected an igloo--he's listened to enough of Fraser's stories to know better--but he was picturing a cabin with no toilet and lichen insulation stuffed into the chinks between the logs. What they've got is a house just outside of town, with central heat from a fuel oil furnace and baseball on ESPN. Eddie's Pizza closes at ten-thirty and doesn't deliver, but Eddie makes his own sausage with caribou meat and it tastes great. And there are days now, in August, when the weather's pretty warm.

The weirdest thing about Inuvik is how normal it is, like somebody took a little town from anywhere and stuck it up here a snowball's throw from the North Pole. A lot of the people here are from someplace else, so maybe they bring the normal with them, hold onto it, the way Ray's grandma still has her Polish accent. Maybe all that normal soaks in, too, and you end up with a lot more of it than you ever meant.

That would explain why Ray has started gardening. Because God knows nothing else will.

It's not like he ever grew stuff in Chicago, unless you count the time he was fifteen and Lenny Nasradin sold him what he said were marijuana seeds. The lying little bastard. They turned out to be geraniums. Nice ones, though--Ray's mom drove herself nuts trying to figure out how they sprang up by the back fence. And that was it for Ray and plants. In his old apartment he had a cactus, but that's more like owning a pet rock.

Thing is, he had a job then. Now he's just got time. All day to kill when Fraser's working regular hours, and even more when he's patrolling out in the sticks. So back in June, when Esther Lisle's arthritis was flaring up and she asked Ray to help out with her spinach, he said yes. He goes to the community greenhouse most afternoons, now. He's done a little on almost everybody's plot, and if there's no transplanting or thinning or watering needed, he hauls bags of soil and turns compost.

It's harder work than he would've thought, and in the evenings he's sore and tired. But it's a good, solid tiredness. His dad used to say that there was work that ground you down and work that built you up. On Friday nights Dad would come home dragging, complaining about his feet and how his clothes smelled like blood, and then on Saturday he'd tinker with the GTO for hours, getting filthy with grease, whistling the whole time. As a kid Ray thought it was just something about cars, but then he learned to dance, and now he's learning to garden, and it all gives him that same feeling.

At the moment, he's helping Rosemary Something-Unpronounceable from the hardware store pick tomatoes. Not that she needs help, but he's here, and Rosemary's basically a human hurricane--you get caught up in her, pushed in whatever direction she's blowing. "Now look at that," she says, holding up a deep-red globe as big as a softball. "That's a real tomato. Not like those tasteless lumps of nothing they charge seven dollars a pound for at-" And she's off. Ray's heard this one so often he knows the rhythm of it. He can add in his nods while not actually paying attention, just like with Fraser's favorite learn-an-important-lesson stories about musk ox.

When all the ripe tomatoes are picked, Rosemary gives him half a sackful despite his saying, at least three times, that Fraser and him won't eat them all before they rot. "You've got to learn how to can, Ray," she insists. "Otherwise come January you'll want tomatoes and green beans so bad you'll pay whatever the North Mart asks for mushy factory-canned ones." Ray thinks he'll start craving Hamburger Helper a lot sooner than green beans (it's like a scavenger hunt trying to find the stuff here), but she'd never believe him. "You come by my house one of these days and I'll teach you how."

Ray's got this whole speech in his head, a speech he's thought about and shined up and practiced to himself, a speech that would win Russell Crowe an Oscar if Ray's life was a movie, and the speech is all about how he's not Fraser's wife. He's a cop, or he was for sixteen years, and to prove it he's got high blood pressure and a callus where his shoulder holster used to rub, and yeah he does the laundry but Fraser irons his own damn undershorts thanks very much, plus he does most of the cooking because Ray's crap at it, and Ray is not Fraser's wife. Just because they're sleeping together, just because Ray gave up his job and his apartment and his city that he grew up in to live here with Fraser, just because he loves the guy so fucking much that he'd have done the same thing if there really had been a cold cabin and an outhouse, that does not make him the girl. Does not make him whatever the queer version of pussywhipped is, either.

"Thanks," is what he says. "That'd be nice." However many itches it would scratch to give that speech, he's never going to. It would hurt the wrong people. The people who treat him like Fraser's wife are the ones who're on their side, the ones who don't mind all that much that Inuvik's newest cop has a boyfriend instead of a real Mrs. Fraser. It's the people who won't talk to them, or who talk about them, that deserve some big dramatic speech. He's heard that the week after he and Fraser arrived, there was a sermon at the Baptist church about Sodom and Gom-something. The other place that got Hiroshima-ed for fucking.

"I dunno how much time I'll have, though," he adds as he carries Rosemary's box of tomatoes to her car. "My job could start any day." Extra security at the airport's not exactly the career move he dreamed of, but it's something.

She unlocks the trunk for him. "So you're still waiting on the paperwork?"

"Yeah." He settles the box in so the tomatoes won't get shook around and wipes the cooling sweat off his forehead. Sweating is something else he didn't expect to do here. He'll miss it this winter. "Merle offered to let me start early, sort of unofficial, but Fraser'd skin me alive." Fraser would arrest him, anyway, at least if what he said this morning is anything to go by.

"Ben was never the sort of person to break a rule. Always responsible." Ray's mouth must drop open or something, because she adds, "I knew him when he lived here as a boy. He used to deliver my library books because I was always at work." Of course Ray knows Fraser used to live here, but he forgets. Almost all Fraser's stories are about being in the ass end of nowhere, about igloos and walruses or woods and caribou, and it's hard to picture him in a town with people.

Chances are that Fraser hates Inuvik, and living here is something he puts up with for Ray's sake. Which is funny, because Ray mostly feels the same way. Pizza or not, this isn't a city. It's a wide spot at the end of the road. It's limbo, not really his world and not really Fraser's, and so they can meet here in the middle and be together.

After Rosemary drives away, Ray goes back to the greenhouse. He spends the rest of the afternoon watering people's plots (funny how all the old ladies come down with lumbago whenever he's around) and picking stuff. Tomatoes, beans, peas, cucumbers, some over-sunned and wilting bok choy for Mrs. Wu, and the latest ton of zucchini for Butch Lascelles, Inuvik's living proof that the name does not make the man. Back in Chicago, Ray would've laughed at a guy like that, which he feels bad about now. Now, it's nice that him and Fraser aren't the only queers in town, even if the locals seem to think Butch is just an eccentric old bachelor who likes silk shirts.

"It's so helpful to have a strong young man around," Butch says, watching Ray wipe his dirty hands on his jeans. "But look at how sweaty you are. Here, you can borrow my handkerchief." Ray mops his face, gives the baby-blue cotton square back, and doesn't think about what Butch might be planning for it later. It can't be much of a life, being Butch, and resenting how he gets his jollies doesn't seem fair.

Butch's clothes are still spotless after an hour of gardening--probably because Ray did all the work--so naturally Ray ends up carrying his veggies out to the parking lot. At least he gets three loaves of zucchini bread for his trouble. "Since your Ben liked the last batch so much," Butch says. "And how is he? Are you two settling in all right?" He asks every time he sees Ray, but he means it every time, too.

"We're good," Ray says. "Great." And then wishes he hadn't added the last part, because Butch is no fool, and he can smell a bent truth the way Dief smells pastry, no matter how well it's hidden. He gives Ray a look that reminds him of Father Pete, the priest at St. Casimir's when Ray was a kid, who always knew when you held something back in confession. "Nah, honest, we really are good." This morning's little go-round about Canadian employment law wasn't one of the best times he's ever had with Fraser, but it's like dealing with the loonies in the bullpen or planes overhead when you're on the phone. You put your mind past it and concentrate on what you're doing.

"Glad to hear it," Butch says, and he smiles and pats Ray on the shoulder before he goes. It makes Ray smile too. There's at least one guy in Inuvik who's rooting for them, and plenty of people who wouldn't wish them any trouble. And that's good.

At five o'clock, as the greenhouse starts filling up with younger people getting off work, Ray heads home in the sturdy old truck they bought cheap from Bill Nuligak before he moved to Vancouver. It drives like an asthmatic cow, but for some reason Bill installed a good CD player. Ray likes to roll the windows down, crank up the tunes, and let the energy build up until he's good and buzzing. Some days he takes the truck out on the Dempster and drives twenty, thirty miles, over the speed limit the whole time, before he turns back. It's like paying a visit to his old self.

Fraser's car--a big RCMP-issue utility vehicle that Ray's sure Fraser wishes he could trade in for a dogsled--is in the drive when Ray gets there. Fraser must have left the station right on time for once.

"Hey," Ray says when he opens the screendoor. Fraser's at the kitchen table, reading something, and he gets up and comes over. Only he stops just out of reach, standing with his hands clenched behind his back and looking at some spot about a foot past Ray's head. It's how he used to look at Welsh or Thatcher in full snarl. "Hey there, guy," Ray says, softly, and reaches out. Maybe Fraser was expecting the silent treatment or something, because the knot he's tied in comes loose and he pulls Ray close, rubbing his face to Ray's cheek and taking deep breaths through his nose, which is his politer version of sniffing.

It feels really good. It feels like another world from their tight-lipped goodbye peck this morning. They were both mad, and it only happened because Ray believes in goodbye kisses. When a cop goes off to work, he might not come home again. Ray always kissed Stella goodbye, and he'll always kiss Fraser.

"I'm sorry, Ray," Fraser whispers. He's got a hand up Ray's shirt and the other twisting through Ray's hair, and it's like sunshine and dancing and some kind of really good drug. Ray's been aching all day, hurting from his skin on down, and until now he thought he'd just pulled a muscle.

"Yeah, me too." He wants to show Fraser how sorry, but it's not easy getting at him through the uniform, even the simpler brown one he mostly wears these days. So Ray just holds him tight around the neck and waist and kisses a worry-line by his eye.

"It's really extremely disconcerting when we quarrel." Jesus. When anybody else would swear, Fraser pulls out the thesaurus. "I hate it," Fraser adds, sharply, and that's more than just being upset. That means he's already crossed the far border of upset and headed into miserable.

"Fraser, we always fight." Against Ray's shoulder, Fraser's head jerks sideways in denial. "Yeah, we do. I'm like the Picasso of bickering, buddy. And you're . . . maybe not Picasso, but some guy who can move a brush around pretty good."

Fraser pushes against him like he's trying to find a way to crawl inside. "It's different now. It means more."

"No, it doesn't." Ray leans against the back of the couch so he can let Fraser in closer, between his legs. "It's just noise. Just letting off steam. It cools off in a second and then it's just air."

Any fight that comes out in words is nothing. The real battles are fought with rolled eyes and resentful looks and long silences when you know the other person wants you to talk. That's like trench warfare, dug in deeper every day. But Fraser's got no way to know that, because Fraser's never been with anybody, not for serious. And, okay, a failed marriage doesn't make Ray an expert on how to keep things right, but he had some good years with Stella before it all went to shit. He's got practice. He knows his way around the territory.

If love was a place, Fraser would be the confused guy just off the plane, the one with a really bad map and a phrasebook full of stuff he can't pronounce. He'd be the Japanese tourist who stopped Ray once, back when he was in uniform, and asked where he could find Al Capone. Fraser's from somewhere else and he expects all the wrong things.

What Fraser expected, Ray realizes, was that this would be easy. He's like a kid about ordinary people-type stuff, about anything but wilderness and the Mounties, so of course in his head love is all picnics and tickling and singing in the shower. He hasn't figured out yet that love's hard work and you have to sweat for it.

Ray would tell him, if he knew how not to make it sound bad. If he could explain about gardening and dancing, about things that build you up, about how they feel good because they're not easy. "Tell you what," Ray says, sliding a hand across Fraser's back and down to his hip, "How 'bout right now we concentrate on the making up?" Even without telling, Fraser'll catch on about the work thing before long. He's good at learning stuff. And it'll probably make him happy--after all, he likes snowshoeing and reading books in foreign languages. Workaholic freak. "I wanna kiss and make up."

Fraser answers by closing his mouth on Ray's earlobe and sucking, and Ray steers him towards the bedroom. Later on he'll try and make something decent to eat, something with tomatoes, and they'll talk some more. Do the rest of work. The rest of this good, hard work.