The cold has become a part of Ray. It's everywhere inside, everything he is. Heat no longer exists except as a hallucination: a concept he doesn't understand anymore. He can't feel his arms or legs. He doesn't know how long it's been like this, just that it happened during the whiteout.
He's lost track of time since then. Since it happened.
The sun shines on, through day and night and day and night. Ray is tired. He rests his sore eyes against the midnight sun. He thinks he hears Dief whine, but blackness pulls him down.
Scraps of memory whip through him. It started with white and ended with white, snow and sky and ground until there was no way to tell which way was up or down. They fell, up and up until they crashed down into a dry cave.
He tried to recite a poem for Fraser. He remembers the stilted, half-remembered words and the way his voice broke into pleading when it didn't work. Did he cry then, or did he wait until it was over? He remembers the taste of salt and copper on his lips.
He wakes to find his dream is reality. The cold takes over his chest in a vice-like grip as his eyes settle on the outline of the sled. He doesn't even realize he's walked over to it before his hands grip the drive bow and he looks down into the basket.
The body is wrapped tightly in blankets, safe from the elements. Packed up like the rest of the cargo, ready for the long ride back to civilization. Ray looks away from the still form, throat suddenly thick again.
The sun moves across the sky but it never goes down. Early on, Fraser tried to teach him wayfinding by the sun and absent stars. Ray prefers to use less difficult methods. A battered compass and Diefenbaker's instincts are pointing him in one direction, but Ray isn't ready to set off again yet.
The cave is at his back, and he turns toward its darkness. His boots make no noise as he walks closer. Winds slice at his cheeks before cutting off abruptly once he's inside the shelter. He doesn't look down at the mess of rocks where he and Fraser broke through the snow and ice. He doesn't need to. He knows what he'll see.
His steps are soft. Soundless. He doesn't know what's pulling him deeper into the cave. He should be back on the trail, headed to the closest way out of this territory. He has a duty to see Fraser to his final resting place.
Ray doesn't remember leaving the lamp that welcomes him back to the chamber. It's burning low, a yellow-orange beacon that illuminates a patch of flat, stone floor. There had been a blanket there when it happened, a roughly woven patterned thing that greedily absorbed Fraser's blood. It's gone now, and Ray forgets what he did with it.
He's staring at the lamp. His eyes water and burn from the light. It's the first thing he's felt in days, unless numbness can be classified as a sensation. But no, that's not entirely true. He's felt pain. Loss. It's overwhelming; he can't feel the waves of it crashing over him because he's so thoroughly submerged inside it.
He closes his eyes and lets the negative image of the flame beat against his eyelids. He wishes he could cry and shed some of the cold. Outside, Dief howls and the rest of the team joins in. The sound carries through the cave like a mournful wind, and Ray envies the dogs, that they can express their grief so easily.
And then there is a shift in the air, and a sound: a scrape of boot leather on stone to Ray's left. Before he can turn, before he can see, there is another sound. This time, it's a word.
Spoken softly, brokenly, in a voice that cracks through Ray's freezing core.
The word is his name.
“Ray,” says Fraser, and Ray is sure it is Fraser before he sees him, knows that solid presence like he knows his own mind.
Ray turns on his heel and faces his partner. His eyes burn. He blinks, shakes his head, and lets the cold keep him steady. Just because he's lost his sanity out here in the wilderness doesn't mean he has to act like a raving lunatic. Just because he wants to throw his arms around this vision doesn't mean he should do anything but stand here, waiting for the other shoe to drop, watching a spirit.
Fraser looks the part, ghostly pale with eyes that are bloodshot and shiny. He's unnaturally still for long moments. Then he sways forward, catches himself, and then brings himself back up into an upright and locked position.
“No razors in the afterlife?” Ray croaks out, not knowing what he's saying until it's out there and it's too late to take it back. Then, because it's too random, he explains. “You're looking a little scruffy there, Frase.”
Fraser brings a dirty-gray hand up to the whiskers on his jaw. “I hadn't noticed.” He doesn't look away. Neither does Ray; he's afraid Fraser will disappear if he doesn't keep watching him.
He's never believed in ghosts before, never put much stock in the supernatural. Now, he's either a firm believer in the dead coming back to haunt the living or he's as cuckoo as a clock. He's going with the ghost theory for the sake of his ego.
“Funny situation,” Ray says, then feels as if his legs are going to fold under him so he sits down quickly. The lamplight looks eerie now, and as the flame dances, so do the shadows on the cave wall.
Fraser's throat moves up and down, his adam's apple bobbing. “Ray,” he says again. Earnest and full of some emotion Ray's not used to seeing in him. Fraser's feelings are usually locked up tight, only coming out under extreme pressure.
But Ray figures death is pretty stressful, so he understands.
He remembers the body out in the sled and thinks of wakes and sitting with the dead, superstitions and customs, and his head goes round and round until he's dizzy. “I'm sorry,” he says, hands open and helpless. Fraser told him many different stories, diagrammed so much custom, taught him religious rites that Ray never cared to learn, but Fraser never set down his own beliefs or wishes. Now, Ray says, “I'm sorry I left you.”
Fraser sets his jaw like he's angry and looks away.
Ghost stories buzz in Ray's mind. “Is that why you're still here?” Maybe he was wrong to want to carry the body out of the snow and ice. Maybe Fraser wants to be buried here, in his wild, untamed home. “Do you want me to leave you?”
Fraser is angry. His eyes nearly burn with fury as they turn back to Ray. “No.”
“Then what is it? What do you want?” Ray asks.
“I thought I knew.” Fraser looks drawn and defeated, his anger leaving him as quickly as it appeared. “Now I only know what I don't want.”
Ray understands losing sight of what you thought you knew, of what you thought you wanted. Once, he only wanted an adventure. A change of pace.
Fraser doesn't wait for Ray to ask what he means. His quiet words make Ray hide his face in his hands, not wanting to look at what he's lost.
“I don't want to be alone.”
The days blur together like dreams, and Ray barely notices the terrain as they cut through with the sled and dogs. Fraser doesn't talk much until they stop at the end of the day, and then it's like he's so embarrassed to be dead that he's going to fill up all the silence with stories about moose.
Not that Ray is complaining. He'll take a story told by a ghost over silence from the dead any day. But sometimes, in the middle of some outrageous tale about an Inuit and a talking polar bear, Fraser just trails off and leaves a sentence half-finished, and when Ray looks up he meets Fraser's eyes. For a long moment the ice inside is gone and Ray is warm again, captured and held in Fraser's gaze as surely as if he were held by strong arms.
For a moment, he wonders what it would be like to kiss Fraser,
saltyslick, rubies and copper, a moment of epiphany followed by an eternity of blackness...
what it would be like to be held in his arms, pulled tight against his chest, would it be tender or desperate or desperately tender-
“I'm sorry,” Fraser says. “I … For a moment, I forgot.”
Reality crashes back into Ray so hard it's like being run through, an ice cold knife to the belly. He can barely breathe when he says, “Me too.”
Fraser is dead. Untouchable. Lost forever, along with any opportunity for more than a partnership. The grief is not just over what he's lost, but also over what could have been. Maybe he's just dreaming, maybe there's no way it ever could've happened. But now there is no more standing on the edge and looking down. No more fighting with himself over whether or not he should take a step off and see if Fraser will catch him.
Ray watches Fraser move away from him and thinks, I could have loved you.
The words in his head are flat and dull, though. Overused, overthought. There are newer truths hiding behind them, but it's too late to say them, even if it's only in his mind. There's no point. He's used up every opportunity; they're all gone. There could have been something there between them, but now in its place was Death and regret.
The enormity of it takes time to sink in. The understanding is hampered by Fraser's continued presence. He's there, so he's not lost, Ray tells himself. He's trying again to teach Ray how to find true north. He's annoyingly patient and extraordinarily smart, just like always. He chides Diefenbaker, sniffs at the snow, and ties knots better than a seasoned sailor. He's Fraser, a constant.
Except he's not quite himself.
His eyes stay bloodshot. Ray doesn't know if ghosts need to get their forty winks, but Fraser isn't sleeping when they make camp and his skin is so pale it's nearly translucent, like he's going to fade away right in front of Ray.
And he's not quite as buttoned as usual. He gets angry; he glares at the white sky with a set jaw and clenched fists. Or sadness overtakes him, like now, when he's supposed to be sleeping.
Ray rolls over on his side and faces Fraser. It's dim in the tent, but the sun is still shining outside and Ray can make out Fraser's features.
“Hey,” Ray says quietly. Like he used to talk to Stella after they'd had a big fight and he knew this one, at least, was all his fault. Guilt washes over him. If he'd been smarter, if he'd known how to take care of Fraser, he wouldn't have died. Maybe if Ray had said the right thing, maybe then Fraser would have hung on. But he hadn't, and he didn't, and now Fraser is slowly losing control of what had once been his life. Ray doesn't know exactly why Fraser's cheeks are wet right now, but he's pretty sure Fraser wouldn't be crying if he wasn't dead.
An audible swallow sounds and Fraser nods. “Hello,” he says thickly.
“I'm sorry,” Ray says.
“Not your fault, Ray,” Fraser says.
Ray wants to confess something, to pour out his heart. He longs to share Fraser's pain and uncover his own. I don't know what I'm going to do without you, he would admit, if only he could. He's standing on the edge of another cliff and he's not brave enough to step off.
And why not? Why was he always doing this with Fraser, even after he's dead?
“Ray?” Fraser asks. There's the whole 'penny for your thoughts' in the undercurrent, but Ray just shakes his head.
“Thinking,” Ray says. A few citations for bravery don't mean much when you're completely chickenshit.
“Ah,” Fraser says.
Ray props himself up on his hand and tries to think of how to change the subject, or at least how to get his train of thought on another set of tracks. Fraser watches him closely.
That's another thing. Ray doesn't ever remember Fraser looking at him like this. He does it all the time now, his eyes warm yet searching, like Ray's going to come up with the answers to the big questions if Fraser just looks hard enough.
It makes Ray want to squirm, makes him forget what he was going to say.
“We forget how fragile life can be, and in our arrogance overlook that which should be most important to us,” Fraser says quietly.
“Not just overlook,” Ray says, rolling onto his back and staring up at the ceiling of the tent. “We put shit off, think we have plenty of time...”
“What did you put off?” Fraser asks. His voice sounds strained now.
Ray shakes his head. “Doesn't matter now.” He wants to ask what Fraser thinks he overlooked, find out if it's the reason Fraser hasn't moved on.
“It matters,” Fraser says, that same tension in his words. He sounds like he believes what he's saying.
But Ray's not about to get rejected by a ghost, so he keeps his opinions and frustrations to himself. “Go to sleep. You look terrible. Like something Dief dragged into camp.”
“Understood,” Fraser says with the barest hint of a smile.
The snow begins as they set out in the morning. Fraser looks up and smiles, but when the wind picks up and they see the halo around the sun, they start building a snow shelter.
By time the blizzard hits in full force, Ray and Fraser are crammed together in the shelter with the dogs and the body – Fraser's body, all wrapped up on the sled – is left to be covered in blankets and blankets of snow.
“I've braved worse,” Fraser says, still as confident as he was when he was alive.
“Tell me,” Ray says.
Fraser is silent except for his breath, and for long moments Ray thinks he's not going to answer. But then he starts speaking softly, too soft to hear at first, but slowly gathering volume so that Ray can make out the words.
“...I tracked her up into a place called Fortitude Pass,” Fraser is saying. Dief shifts restlessly, whining, but Fraser acts as if he's all alone. As if he's reciting a prayer to himself, one he memorized a long time ago. “The storm had been blowing for days. The whole world was white...”
Ray knew the bare bones story, gossip around the precinct, but hearing the specifics like this, straight out of Fraser's mouth, was a different thing entirely. He let Fraser tell it all, amazed that his voice never wavered.
Fraser didn't stop until the entire story was through. Until he was lying in the snow, bullet in his back.
And then all is silent except for their breath and the sound of the wind howling all around them. It's completely dark in the shelter, and even though they're scant inches away from each other, Ray can't see Fraser's face.
“Thanks,” Ray says. “For telling me.”
“There's so much I never told you, Ray.”
Ray takes a slow breath in, holds it, then lets it out softly. “Same.”
“I never told you how much I care... cared for you,” Fraser says.
Past tense. Because Fraser is gone, or at least leaving soon. And this could be Ray's last chance to step off the cliff.
“Yeah, well, I never told you either,” Ray says. “There was always time. Another time. I was gonna tell you one day.”
“You could tell me now,” Fraser says.
A thick smear of tension covers them as Ray moves his feet closer to the edge. “Sometimes I thought maybe we could be more than partners.”
“We are. Were.”
“Yeah,” Ray says. “But it's too late now.”
Death and regret.
“How long do you think this storm's gonna blow?”
“When does the sun go down, anyway?” Ray asks once the blizzard has passed and the angry clouds are gone. They're digging for the sled and it's hard work. Even Dief is digging. Ray's determination is as cold and hard as his heart now. He will do this last thing for Fraser, take his body home and give him a proper burial. He'll have a grand Mountie funeral, full regimental... whatever is his due. He'll get it.
And Ray will give the eulogy. He'll give the best fucking eulogy anyone ever heard. There won't be a dry eye in the house.
Fraser is explaining that the sun has gone down into twilight several times, and that it would go down for real eventually. Ray's not really listening now. He's thinking about Fraser's funeral and wishing he could let his grief out into the open.
“What is it, Ray?”
Ray shakes his head and nods towards the now uncovered sled. He doesn't like the thought of the body being frozen like this, but he feels frozen himself, like he's the one who's been covered in a winter storm.
Fraser bows his head for a moment, pain on his face. Maybe seeing his shell has reminded him he's dead after all. Ray wishes he knew how to comfort ghosts.
But then again, Ray wishes for a lot of things.
Ray never knew you could wrap dough around a stick, hold it over the fire, and make bread. It's one of the millions of things Fraser has taught him and continues to teach him. Fraser makes the bread – bannock, he calls it – by pulling it out, then wrapping it around the stick in a spiral. He explains what kind of stick needed and how long bannock has been made here in the territories. Ray wonders again if the body should be left here, Fraser's true home its final resting place.
And if not here, then where?
“Fraser...” Ray says, rubbing at the back of his neck. He wishes he could feel the heat from the fire, but since he lost Fraser he's nothing but cold.
“Where should the funeral be?” Ray asks. “And the. You know. The grave.”
Fraser looks up. “I believe that's up to you.”
“Well yeah, technically,” Ray says.
“I assumed we were going back to Chicago,” Fraser says, and it doesn't make any sense. Except...
Fraser has so many friends there, so many lives he's touched in some way. Maggie can travel, and so can anyone else who wants to attend.
“Not here?” Ray asks, just to be sure. “You really want to go back?”
“Chicago holds many memories...” Fraser says, and trails off, looking into the fire. Like he can see them there in the flames.
Ray looks at the fire and feels a chill deep in his bones. He wraps his arms further around himself. “I fucking hate this, Fraser. Hate.”
“Death?” Fraser asks.
“Yeah.” Ray rocks closer to the fire and watches as Fraser pulls the stick with the bread out. There's a lump of cold in his stomach where hunger should be.
Ray has lost track of time and distance. He's stopped looking at the compass. They aren't headed in the same direction as they were at the start of the trip, when this was an adventure, when they were on even footing in the alive category.
“Where are we going?” Ray asks. He's seeing less shrubs and more trees now. He remembers the transition from before; they're moving from tundra to forest.
“Bearpaw,” Fraser said.
It's odd that he's still navigating even though he's doing a Casper impression, but Ray trusts him, no matter what.
The snow is packed into drifts here and there, and it's harder to navigate. The dogs try their best, but the sled goes up on a bank and flips onto its side.
The body falls out into the snow, the blanket covering it opens. Ray glances at it and glances away. Looks into Fraser's pained eyes.
The body looks smaller than it should be. Not Fraser's usual solid frame, but something-
Ray runs a hand through his hair and walks over to the body.
They go together, Fraser and Ray. Side by side. And then Ray looks down at the body, at the pale, pale face with blue lips and just the barest hint of stubble.
The world seems to tip on its side.
“That's me,” Ray whispers. “Frase, Fraser, that's me...”
He's not sure if he feels relieved that it's not Fraser, that Fraser isn't really dead. A world without Benton Fraser is just wrong.
But Ray's looking down at his own dead self, eyes closed – Fraser must've done that – hair flat, snow drifting against his cheek.
Fraser moves past him and puts the sled back to rights. He picks up the body and positions it back on top of the sled, then wraps the blanket around it again.
“I could almost forget you were gone,” Fraser says.
Ray continues to stare at the still form of his own body. His own mortality, laid out in a brown blanket. Being pulled through the wilderness by a team of dogs.
So where does that leave him? Why did ghosts linger on earth instead of fading away to – Jesus, is there an afterlife? Or is he just an echo that will fade completely from existence?
“I don't want to leave,” Ray says, panic rising inside him. “I don't want to be dead, Frase. I can't be fucking dead.”
Fraser looks up at the sky and takes a deep breath. He lets it out slowly, keeping his eyes away from Ray, it seems.
“My father didn't move on until my mother's killer was brought to justice,” Fraser says, still not looking Ray's way.
So, Fraser's father was a ghost and no one ever thought to tell Ray. Or rather, Fraser never mentioned it. “Shouldn't you have mentioned sometime that your father came to you as a ghost? You didn't think that was pertinent information?”
But then, Fraser hadn't cleared up the fact that Ray was a ghost.
Fraser swallowed. “Some things you keep to yourself.”
He always kept a lot of things to himself.
“So to move on, to go on to whatever happens next, I need to take care of something?” Ray asks. But he doesn't want to move on. He doesn't know what's in store for him in the afterlife, and he doesn't want to leave Fraser.
“Is there anything you feel you need to resolve, Ray?” Fraser asks.
Ray looks at Fraser and it's like suddenly he's allowed to feel again. The cold leaves his body. And he's standing on the cliff, feet right up to the ledge, and he knows. He knows what will set him free.
Fraser says, “If there's something you need to say to me, something on your mind-”
Ray cuts him off. “Yeah. Yeah, there's something.” He reaches out to touch Fraser's shoulder and stops. His hand will go right through him. Fraser's just as sturdy and solid as ever, but Ray isn't. He draws his hand back and looks into Fraser's eyes. “I've been standing on this cliff for so long now, waiting for the right time to just step off.”
“I'm afraid I don't understand, Ray,” Fraser says, looking straight ahead, past Ray.
“No, I think you do understand,” Ray says. “I think we understand each other. We're right on the ledge and if I step off, it's gonna change everything.” He's pretty sure it'll send him on to wherever it is dead detectives go.
Fraser looks at him, eyes red-rimmed but dry. Ray's eyes are burning. Fraser reaches up to touch his cheek and asks,“Are you going to step off?”
If he really, really wants it enough, maybe Ray can make himself as solid as Fraser. He closes his eyes and wishes himself there, and feels the warmth of Fraser's fingertips here on his face. At least, he thinks he does. He could be imagining it.
“Ray,” Fraser says softly. “Are you going to say-”
“No,” Ray says, opening his eyes and giving him a significant look. It would be so easy now to let go, to tell Fraser he loves him, to let the great white light guide his way into heaven or wherever. But he doesn't say the words. “I'm not afraid anymore, Fraser. It's not the jump that scares me...” Because he knows, deep inside, that Fraser feels the same way and would catch him if he stepped off that cliff.
“Then why?” Fraser asks.
Ray takes a breath – unneeded, really – and says lightly, “I've gotten pretty used to haunting you now, and I'd hate to go.”
“You...” Fraser says, confusion on his face.
“Want to stay a ghost,” Ray says. “With you? Yeah.”
“Oh, Ray.” His eyes are softer now, not like lately when he looked like any moment his grim facade would shatter.
“But you know, that doesn't stop you from saying what I can't,” Ray says with a sidelong smile.
Fraser places hands on either side of Ray's face. Not touching, because there is no more touching. But there. He looks into Ray's eyes, deep and honest. “I love you, Ray.”
There are words on Ray's tongue now, just wanting to slip off and join Fraser's. But he can't. He won't. He says, “You should know how I feel now.”
For one long moment they both hold their breath, afraid that this is enough to constitute an admission.
Then, when it's clear Ray isn't going anywhere, Fraser nods. “I do.”