It only takes a second to be courteous. But if you're lucky, being courteous can take three or four hours. Myself, I'm really working the courtesy angle. I am nearly the most courteous guy on the planet.
You have to be, because he will not ask for it—or maybe he can't. So you've got to watch him, because the body language is there, it's just not obvious. When he curls toward me and slides his arm across my waist—he's beat, he wants to sleep. Typically that means a hard day in the field, like maybe a running-jumping-chasing type of thing. When he takes off like that, generally I get left behind. I can survive out there, and I'm pretty good on the sleds, but I still got two left feet in the snow. So if he's gone and done the running-jumping-chasing thing, he'll be half-dead by the time we get home—and then we get the curling-sliding-sleeping thing, which is all right by me. I like that just fine.
But. Okay, some days he sort of fakes me out—and I think he's going for the curling-sliding-sleeping thing but he's not. He might do, say, a halfway curl but then stop and lay right back down again, on his back. Now if you're not giving the matter proper consideration, you might think—right, okay, he just wants to sleep on his back: 'cause hey, people do. Except, see, now I know better—I know that when he pulls back and does that vague-sleepy-stretching thing—and watch as the leg falls open just there—he wants me to blow him. He is thinking about it, maybe he's dreaming about it, and unconsciously, see, he's moving into position for it.
But he doesn't ask.
Not yet anyway, so a guy has got to be courteous. I give it a minute and then I roll toward him, let my hand skate over his stomach. This is, like, an extra courtesy on my part, something like asking permission. Usually he takes a nice deep breath right about then and sort of hmmmmms it out—and yeah, that's my sign, all systems go and down I go. It's pretty much just a courtesy because once he's on his back like that he hasn't ever said no—though a couple of times he's covered my hand with his and moved it down. An' yeah, okay, I'm happy to do that too—happy to feel him hot and thick in my hand, stroke him till he's slick, then jerk the orgasm out of him.
He likes it slow. He likes it reeeeaal slow.
But whatever—nine times out of ten he wants my mouth on him, and so my mouth he gets. I love to do this to him; I love to do this for him. There was part of me, you know, that thought for a minute there, right at the beginning, that he was—I dunno. Plastic, starched—too perfect, I guess. Dumb as it might seem now, I couldn't really see him as a guy under that suit—not a guy like me, anyway. That changed pretty damn quick when we started closing cases and I saw him all beat up and bleeding—and then plus he gets all snippy and superior-acting when he's pushed too hard. By then, I knew I was dealing with a real guy—but just for a minute there, right at the start, I thought that if you pulled off his uniform he'd be plastic, smooth, maybe cold to the touch.
But that ain't so. If there's one thing I learned looking for the Hand of Franklin it's that Benton Fraser is a male animal just like me. A good body, tough and real; a bit of hair on the chest, thick and soft at the pits, black and wiry thatch of it down below. Beautiful cock—soft and small in my hand when we're out in the cold, then extending long and luscious and curving up over his belly when there's heat—or when we make our own heat. I can spend ages sucking him off, loving all the contrasts down there: thick skin, thin skin, smooth skin, hairy skin, hard and soft and hot and hot. Christ, the sounds he makes when I do it for him—they fuckin' slay me, all the more because I can tell how hard he's trying not to make them. Maybe he thinks, you know, that they're not—what?—dignified or something, but dignity and sex just do not have a lot in common, which is a fact that I think he's starting to learn. But for now, every noise he makes is half-choked off, like he wants to keep shut but can't—half gasps and stifled moans and the strangled sound of my name: Ray. Ray.
Him being him, he won't talk about his sexual past, but I honestly don't believe he's got much of one. He's too unused to it all, too unfamiliar with pleasure, even with orgasms, I think. I'd bet my last American dollar nobody's ever blown him before; part of me thinks that he doesn't even jerk off much. It's like—he's brilliant but he's got these huge blind spots, like maybe he couldn't allow himself to think much about sex, not wanting to build up an appetite for something he didn't think he could have.
And that is Fraser all over. If you can't have it, make yourself not want it. Close your eyes, look away, think about—whatever: the Queen, or how many different species of wolf there are, or the ingredients for Mandarin chicken. Make your dick as remote to you as China—except it's not remote and he does want it and now he can have it—he can have it every day, he can have it every hour on the hour if he wants it.
I know for a fact that no one's ever fucked him before, he did tell me that much. Being a properly courteous guy, I can see just when he wants that too. It's sort of the same as the suck-me thing—except after lying on his back for a moment he'll roll over a little, turn away from me. You might think that he just wants to sleep on his stomach—'cause hey, people do—except Fraser just doesn't sleep on his stomach, he sleeps on his back or on his side with his arm around me. So if he does his vague stretching thing and then the rolling 'I'm going to sleep on my stomach' thing, the properly courteous response is to fuck him as hard as possible, which I do because I am such a fucking courteous guy, like I said. I hold him tight and fuck him the best that I can—sometimes from behind, sometimes face to face, sometimes flat, sometimes upright, however I think he wants it.
He always says my name when we fuck—it's always "Ray, Ray, Ray," or sometimes "Yes, Ray," or "Oh yes, Ray," or "Please, Ray,"—though he never says exactly please what. Please harder? or please faster? or please slower? or please higher?—see, he just doesn't say, and so being the courteous guy I am I take the extra second and focus my pleasure-stupid brain and try to figure out where he's moving and what he wants.
Sometimes, when it's over, when I'm lying there panting and sweating and high on the rush of it, I reach out and stroke his hair and say, "Fraser, you got to tell me what you want." Except he just looks at me and says things like:
"I want you to kiss me," or
"Tell me you love me," and see, then I've got to do that and the moment for schooling him in the art of partner-type communication is well and truly lost.
There's other ways of teaching, though—so mainly I try to teach by example. "I want" or "I need"—I'm a fucking mass of wants and needs. So it's easy for me to say:
"Fraser, fuck me," or
"Fraser, suck me," or
"Ben, I need your hand right— yeah, there. Tighter, tighter—oh yeah, God, yeah..."
Fraser maybe doesn't speak the language but he understands it just fine: "kiss me," "do me," "harder," "faster," "now". Fraser's particularly good with "now"—he gets "now" but good, which I really appreciate. He's great in bed, boatloads of stamina—Fraser's the master of courtesy, and he usually leaves me a damp rag, completely limp and spent and feeling good, good, so good. Just—it's the nicest thing in the world, ever ever, to be lying there, completely weak with the wholesome chunky goodness of it, and feel his lips brush your face or your neck or your shoulder.
"I love you," Fraser says, and I have to give him this—he got that out before I did. "I love you," he says, like that's easy to say, like it's the easiest thing in the world. That was harder for me than anything else, it's always hard as hell the first time, like you might choke on it. But, still, hey, I learned, right? So now when he says, "Tell me you love me," I can say it: "Fraser, I love you, I love you so fucking much, I love you to death." But when I ask him to tell me what he wants, he still says "You," or "I want you to kiss me," or "Tell me you love me."
Unless that really is what he wants, and maybe I'm lost in the details, which is possible, been known to happen. Or maybe, you know, what he wants is the courtesy—maybe what he wants is for me to know him, to know just what he wants just the way that I do.
And if that is the case, then that is really okay. Because I'm really into this whole courtesy thing.
Ray can hear Ben in the kitchen, moving around, making coffee, and he feels a momentary flash of guilt: Ben's making him coffee, and he's about to tell Ben a lie. He rolls away, still feigning sleep, and pulls the heavy quilt tight around his neck even though the cabin is plenty warm. It won't hurt to sweat it up, or to look a little glassy-eyed when Ben finally comes to wake him up.
Ray's been an undercover guy; now he's an under covers guy.
"Ray," Ben says, and Ray can hear the clink of the teaspoon as Ben stirs sugar into his coffee. "It's time to get up. Coffee's ready."
"Mmmrph," Ray mutters, and puts the pillow on top of his head.
Ben laughs and then crosses the cabin, heavy boots making the floorboards creak. Ray can smell the strong coffee, even from under the pillow, and the smell grows nearer and nearer.
"Ray," Ben repeats. The bed dips, and he feels Ben's hand on his shoulder blade, gently shaking him. "Time to get up."
Ray's good and sweaty now; he pulls the pillow off his head, turns and rolls, looks up at Ben. Ben's smiling down at him, holding the steaming mug. Ray is careful not to let his own face echo that smile too much.
"Hey," Ray says—and cool, his voice comes out like a croak. He coughs to clear it, maybe a little harder than he needs to. "Sorry. I'm just—really beat this morning."
Ben's face is already clouding over; his eyes are flicking over Ray's sweaty face and limp muscles. "You're not sick, are you? Do you feel all right?"
"Oh yeah," Ray says quickly, his voice still hoarse. "I'm fine. Just gimme a sec."
Ben's frowning now. "You seem to be sweating."
"Hey, it's hot under here," Ray protests, and of course that's the truth, but saying it makes it seem like it's not. For further proof of his general rightness, Ray sits up in bed, taking care to wooze a little, to blink a little more rapidly then normal, to put a hand out to steady himself against their soft white sheets.
"You're sick," Ben says firmly; he's put the coffee down on the rough wooden nightstand and he's reaching for Ray's sweaty head. Ben's hands are cool on his face, touching his forehead, dropping down to brush over his neck, feeling for swollen glands.
"I am not." Ray twists his head away a little, even though Ben's hands feel real good.
"Hm," Ben muses. "You're sweating, but I don't think you have a temperature."
"Course I don't have a temperature," Ray snorts. He pulls the blankets off and feigns a shiver as he puts his legs over the side. "I'm fine, I'm just a little—"
"Beat. So you said." Ben is looking at him speculatively, blue eyes gone deep with concern.
Ray reaches inside himself for irritation, which he needs right here right now. "I told you, I'm fine, I'll be okay in a minute." He reaches for the coffee on the nightstand—it's fantastic, dark and rich and sweet, like he likes it.
"Why don't you stay in today?" Ben suggests quietly. "Sleep in, get rested up. You might be on the verge of coming down with something—and there's something to be said for an ounce of prevention."
Ray shakes his head. "Really, I'm fine. I can go out."
"I know you can," Ben says patiently, "but why should you? If there's even a chance that you're sick, you should rest."
Ray sips his coffee and pretends to think about this. "I could—maybe go to town, get the groceries," he says finally, and he knows that's an admission he's making. He'd rather stay home, not go into the field.
"You could do that," Ben says tentatively. "Sleep in for a while, and then go to town. Or not." Just the gentlest of suggestions, but Ben knows that to tell him not to go to town is to insure that he goes. Ben knows him that well.
"What about you, though?" Ray asks with a frown. "You need me today?"
"I'll be all right. Today should be routine." Ben slides an arm around his shoulders, squeezes a little. Ray leans toward him and kisses him, tasting dark, sweet coffee. He's gotten Ben drinking coffee now, and he loves tasting it in his mouth.
"Okay, I'll be a bum today," Ray says with a shrug and a grin. "Why the hell not?"
"Why the hell not indeed," Ben agrees, and kisses his mouth again.
Fifteen minutes after Ben leaves Ray is up and on the move. He washes, shaves, combs his hair flat and respectable looking, then searches through the closet for the best clothes that he has. He hasn't really got any decent slacks, but he does have a single sportcoat, which will just have to do. Jeans and a jacket and tie, hair nice and neat, glasses on—it's the best he can manage, he hopes it will be enough.
He puts on his boots and his parka, grabs the snowmobile keys. He's nearly out the door when he remembers the newspaper—he's hidden the thing in the pocket of his suitcase, folded over to the right page with the ad circled. MECHANIC WANTED, APPLY NORTHERN ECOLOGICAL NETWORK. He hitches up the parka and shoves the folded sheet of newspaper into his back jeans pocket.
He drives the snowmobile into town and parks it near the market so he won't forget to get the groceries—that's his cover story, so he'd better damn well remember. He walks from there to the address in the ad. It's actually a fairly modern office building, low to the ground but new and impressive. A tasteful brass sign to the right of the door says "Northern Ecological Network," but Ray doesn't go in right away. Instead, he wanders around the building and finds the garage out in back. Two guys are there, bent over a snowmobile and arguing about something. There are an assortment of vehicles back here—snowmobiles and motorcycles and jeeps and trucks and snow tanks—and Ray hangs back and takes it all in. He wants to be ready for questions. He wants this job.
One of the guys lifts his head from the snowmobile's engine and spots him. "Hey, can I help you with something?"
Ray waves him away. "Nah, just looking around, thanks." That seems like his cue to go, so he tromps through the snow back around to the front of the building, and this time he climbs the two steps to the door, careful to knock as much snow as he can off his boots before he steps into the lobby.
He looks around the small reception area: there's a woman at a desk and five or six chairs. Two of those chairs are already occupied—the guys look at Ray as he comes in, and he looks at them, and he can tell by their hands that they are pro mechanics, they're the competition. He steels himself and walks over to the desk. The receptionist looks up at him with a smile.
"Hi," Ray says. "I've come about the job."
She nods and smiles and takes his name. "It'll be a few minutes," she tells him, pushing a clipboard toward him, "and then our managing partner will see you. Hang up your coat and take a seat."
He hangs up his coat and takes a seat, bringing the clipboard with him. They want pretty basic information here: name, address, education, last job, languages other than English, of which he's got none. But the real drag of a question here is citizenship. Reluctantly, Ray scrawls "USA" and sighs.
He brings the clipboard back to the desk and picks up a newspaper, trying to stay cool as one guy gets called in, and then the other. He tries not to think about the fact that they're probably both Canadians. He tries not to think about the fact that there's no chance in hell they're gonna hire him over anybody local. He knows the rules; he's studied the immigration code backwards and forwards. If they're local guys and they're halfway good—they've got it, bye-bye Kowalski.
But you never know till you try—and who knows? maybe blue parka guy is a drug addict, maybe green parka guy is a convicted felon. A guy can dream, anyway.
"Mr. Kowalski?" a voice says, and there's a tall, really-professional-looking woman standing in the doorway. Long blonde hair, green eyes, pantsuit, sensible shoes—she looks like Stella, if Stella was maybe a mountaineer. Ray gets up quick and drops the newspaper down on the coffee table. She smiles at him. "I'm Natalie Badeaux."
Ray extends his hand to her. "Nice to meet you, Ms. Badeaux," he says, trying to get the French accent right.
She shakes his hand, then gestures him through the doorway and down a carpeted corridor to her office. She sits down at her desk, gesturing for him to sit down in the chair on the other side. "I don't know how much you know about NEN," Ms. Badeaux begins, "but we're essentially a research group. We research and compile reports about environmental and resource concerns in the Territories and the Yukon, and then our reports are used to aid commercial and governmental decision-making vis a vis project initiatives, development strategies, wildlife management, land use—that sort of thing."
Ray finds himself nodding respectfully, even as he translates the language in his head. Sheesh, "resource concerns," "commercial decision-making," "project initiatives"—you could cut the fucking jargon in here with a knife.
"So for instance," Ms. Badeaux continues, obviously happy to give him the entire company brochure, "one of our recent projects was a structural report on the distribution of wolves in the Northwest Territories and Nunavit—"
"Which wolves?" Ray asks, just for the hell of it. "Tundra, boreal—what?"
She stops and re-considers him. "Both. Tundra and boreal—also high arctic. You know wolves, Mr. Kowalski?"
"I know something about wolves, yeah," Ray says, trying his best to be charming. "You know the old saying. Some of my best friends..."
Ms. Badeaux laughs; she looks charmed. "I see. A man with interesting friends."
"You don't know the half of it." Ray grins at her. "So what about this report of yours?"
"Well, based on our study of lupine density and distribution we were able to secure injunctions on development in all of the areas where the population has taken the worst hits."
"That's great," Ray says, feeling oddly pleased and surprised. "So are you the guys who stopped whatever that project that was north of Great Bear Lake?"
Ms. Badeaux's smile grows radiant. "Yes, but that wasn't for the wolves—that was for the caribou. You've been out that way?"
"Yeah. I didn't know what the project was, though—we just saw the markers."
"They were considering a road," Ms. Badeaux says, rolling her eyes. "Which would have been a disaster—"
Ray finds himself leaning forward, clenched hands between his knees. "Fuck yeah. Talk about fucking with the migratory patterns—"
"Exactly," Ms. Badeaux instantly agrees. "Right from the McKenzie to the gulf, northeast."
"Oh—perfect," Ray snorts, shaking his head. "You'd nail both the barren-land and the woodland guys—it's like a two-for one. Whaddya they need a road there for, anyway?"
"Oh, they've got some idea about increased fish farming in the gulf," Ms. Badeaux sighs. "Which isn't the problem. The problem is—"
"The transportation issues, I got you," Ray muses. "Still, that's a damn dumb place for a road."
"Yes, it is. Have you done a lot of fieldwork, Ray?"
Ray's brought up short, both at the sudden use of his first name and at the question. "Me? No. But, uh...you know...some of my best friends do fieldwork. Mainly I just tag along."
Natalie Badeaux nods and sits back in her chair, seeming to study him. "But you know the Territories."
"Getting there, yeah," Ray says, and at least this is true.
"So you wouldn't be averse to going out now and then?"
Ray's not sure what she means, but he isn't gonna bring any negative vibes to this conversation. "Uh—sure," he says cautiously.
"Because firsthand knowledge is useful," Ms. Badeaux says and stands up.
Ray stands up too, trying to look like he knows what's going on, which really he doesn't at all.
"When can you start?" she asks him.
Ray blinks at her for a few seconds, and then just decides to go with it, what the hell. "Today. Now. Whenever you want."
Ms. Badeaux smiles at him and then gestures for him to follow her. Ray follows her out of her office and down the corridor to another office. This one is messier; there's a computer on the desk and an inbox full of files. "Uh," Ray says, raising a finger.
"Take a look around," Ms. Badeaux says with a wave of her hand. "See what you make of it. I'm going to go see about getting your paperwork together."
"But, um," Ray says as she turns to go. "Ms. Badeaux—"
"Call me Natalie," Natalie says with a smile. "I'll be right back, Ray—just make yourself at home."
Ray sits down at the desk and blows out a long breath. He hasn't the faintest fucking idea what's going on. It appears that he's gotten the job, except he doesn't know what job he's got. This ain't fixing snowmobiles, that's for sure—but what it is, he don't know.
Then again, he's been confronted with other people's desks before—hell, Vecchio's desk was a total fucking nightmare when he got there. Ray decides to approach this like any other undercover job—he's basically got to figure out who he is and what he's supposed to be doing. How hard can it be?
First thing he does is flip through the desk drawers: okay, here we go, there's some old stationery. Shelley Renton, Junior Research Executive, Northern Ecological Network—Junior Research Executive? He shakes his head, boots up the computer, sorts Shelley Renton's recent work by date. Okay, fine—list of files, seem to be project names. Ray gets up, searches through the file cabinets lining the opposite wall, finds the files that match the list of projects on Shelley's computer. He pulls one out, flips it open, and compares it to the report on the computer.
Okay, right, he gets it. For "Junior Research Executive" read "Bullshit Expert Extraordinaire"—what you do, it seems, is take the ecological reports in the project file and write them up in such a way as to skew the data toward NEN's own environmental biases.
Really, it ain't all that different from regular paperwork, he thinks—every good cop knows that you write your reports to convict, let the jury sort out the guy's innocence later. Here, you're writing the other way—you wanna get the caribou off on a technicality. Ray reads a few more reports, smiling at Shelley Renton's prose style—she really manages, he thinks, to get that, "Now you don't really want to destroy these natural wonders and bring the entire world as we know it to an end, do you?" tone into every sentence without being heavy-handed about it. Way to go, Shelley.
Ray grins and pulls the top folder out of Shelley's inbox—it's a series of reports about the snowshoe hare. Ray puts his elbows on the desk and starts reading. He's deeply engrossed and doesn't notice that Natalie's returned until she coughs.
Ray looks up at her. "Oh. Hey."
"Here you go," Natalie says. She's carrying a manila folder, which she offers to him. He takes it from her hand, flips it open, takes a look. Standard employment type documents, a bunch of them. Contract on the top—and the salary makes him sort of flip out.
He's got to come clean, at least a little. He stands up. "Ms. Badeaux—"
"Natalie," she corrects.
"Natalie. Look. You know I'm American, right? I mean, I wrote that down on the thing out there."
To his relief, she nods. "Yes. I saw."
"Then you saw that my degree's in Political Science."
Natalie's smiling now. "Yes."
"I didn't do all that great," Ray says, and inside he's kicking himself: is he trying to queer this deal or what? "I mean, don't get me wrong," he amends, "I was interested, I passed, I did okay—but whatever, it was night school, I was young, I was doing it just to get the degree so I could get promoted—"
"Ray," Natalie interrupts, "let me ask you a few questions, all right?"
"All right," Ray says, frowning. "Shoot."
Natalie cocks her head at him. "Do you think you can do this job?"
Ray looks down at the desk, thinks for a moment, then raises his head and says: "Yeah."
"What's would you say is your greatest weakness as an employee?" Natalie asks.
That one's easy. "Boredom," Ray says, real quick. "I get bored fast. Plus I fidget. The desk thing," he adds, waving his hand down at it, "sometimes I can't keep my ass at the desk."
Natalie smiles faintly at this. "So why do you want this job?"
And that would be the million dollar question right there. Ray looks hard at her, thinking furiously—does he tell, does he not tell? How much does he tell? "I want to stay in the country," he confesses finally, nervously shoving a hand up through his hair. "So I need a job. Plus I wouldn't mind having some money either."
Natalie nods at this and leans against the doorway to the office. "Well, we might as well try each other out. You see if you like it, we'll see if we like you. The normal trial period is three months. If all goes well, NEN can sponsor your application for citizenship."
Ray wants to jump over the desk; he wants to grab her, he wants to kiss her and whirl her around, maybe do the polka. Instead, he makes himself stand still, though he can feel his face cracking into a smile. "Natalie, I will work so hard, I will work so fucking hard, you will not be sorry, I swear." He realizes what he's just said and adds quickly, "Pardon my French," and then realizes that Natalie's French and adds, "No disrespect to the French."
Natalie's laughing at him—but hey, that's okay, let her laugh all she wants. "Ray, it's all right. Fill out the paperwork. And then later this morning I'll take you around to meet the others—Ed Franklin's your immediate supervisor, and then there are four other in-house JREs."
JREs. JREs. Oh right—Junior Research Executives. Christ Almighty. "Okay," Ray says gratefully. "Okay, right." He plops down into the chair and reaches for a pen. Natalie smiles at him and turns to go—but Ray's just glanced down at the snowshoe hare file, and that reminds him of something. "Hey, wait—Natalie?" She turns around and raises her eyebrows. He picks up the file and waves it at her. "Whose research is this?"
"We have a number of different fieldwork consultants—mostly environmental biologists from the university. Why?"
"Cause, like—this rabbit research is wrong." Ray drops the file on the desk, realizing that he sounds harsher than he means to. This is not the bullpen, boyo. Fucking find yourself a little tact somewhere.
Natalie takes a few steps toward his desk, her hand reaching for the file in question. "How so?"
"Two things I noticed straight off," Ray says, handing it to her. "One, your reproductive rates are off—snowshoe hares reproduce less up here, cause it's so freakin' cold." He's about to say, "Pardon my French," again, but he bites it back and pushes on. "Your numbers here, these are the numbers for further south." Ray can remember Fraser kneeling in the snow, red-faced with the cold, pointing out runway tracks and telling him about snow rabbits. Ray remembers runway, because he thought it was a funny word for rabbit tracks, like it was an airport, like there were flying rabbits coming in for a landing.
Fraser being Fraser talked a half an hour on the subject, and Ray was sure he'd tuned most of it out, except maybe he didn't.
Natalie is frowning down at the report and nodding slowly. "Go on?"
"Just—it might change your recommendation some," Ray says. "Don't get me wrong—this country's got rabbits, just they're mainly further south to here. I don't know what the reproduction rates are up here but I can find out."
"Oh?" Natalie asks, looking at him.
"Benton Fraser," Ray says simply. "He's my partner. He's a sergeant with the RCMP—he knows this shit cold." Pardon my French, he thinks to himself, and winces. This is not the bullpen, boyo, okay?! Get a grip—speak English to the nice lady.
"I see," Natalie says; her green eyes are locked on him now. "All right—what's the second thing?"
Ray stands up, takes the file from her hand, pulls out the NWT map, and picks up a pen. "Here, see, the rabbit runways are supposed to be marked, except there's ones missing. I know, cause I've seen two of them—big ones. I spent seven months out there," Ray explains, almost embarrassed, "and I saw two major runways here," Ray draws an X on the map, "and here—this is Parker Cove, do you know Parker Cove?"
"No," Natalie says, and her pale blond eyebrow is arched to a near-perfect point.
"Yeah, well, it's the rabbit turnpike, believe me," Ray tells her. "Rabbits up to here," he adds, drawing an imaginary line under his chin with the pen. "More rabbits than you can shake a stick at, should you want to shake a stick at a rabbit, which I don't know why you would. So you know, I'd have someone double-check this map if I were you."
Natalie looks at him for a moment longer, then starts to back away out of the office, laughing. "Hey, Ray," she says, raising her palms in surrender, "there's your desk, there's your phone—you figure it out."
Ray stands there, grinning stupidly, as Natalie Badeaux backs out of the office and pulls the door shut behind her.
"There's your desk, there's your phone"—geez, and you think you know what you're doing, where you're headed.
And then everything changes and you find you don't know shit.
I can see the snowmobile tracks miles from the cabin; Ray's been to town after all. It shouldn't surprise me, Ray is far too restless to spend an entire day cooped up inside, even if it would be best for him, even if his health is at stake. I'm quite worried about him, actually. Not physically; he's in wonderful shape physically; the life up here suits him admirably. No, it's the state of his nerves that concerns me—I'm fairly sure, in fact, that nerves are responsible for the two or three spurious illnesses he's had during the last four months or so. These odd, twenty-four-hour flus—largely psychosomatic, I suspect, but real enough to him, it seems. Either that, or he simply wants some time away from me. I can understand that, really I can, but I wish he'd just come out and ask.
Instead, he seems to work himself into some sort of state, waking up with pale skin and dark circles under his eyes. We'll spend the day apart, and when I return home I usually find him with healthier color and in lower spirits. I would ask him about it except I know that he won't tell me—my darling Ray, so open about so many things, plays certain cards remarkably close to the vest.
He thinks I don't know about the letter, but I do. I only saw the envelope for a moment, but I've seen enough like it to recognize the imprimatur of Customs and Immigration. I think Ray fears being deported, and certainly deportation is possible. Conceivably some agent might venture up here; more probably, the deportation orders, if ever issued, would be sent to the local office of the RCMP.
Which is of course to say: me.
While I find this scenario exceedingly unlikely—I simply cannot believe that Customs and Immigration would seriously concern themselves over one renegade Chicago detective living in a lonely cabin bordering the Yukon—it's one to which I've certainly devoted a lot of thought. Initially, the possibility struck me as nothing less that nightmarish—the idea of having Ray's deportation orders in my hands, mine to execute. But upon continued reflection, the imagined situation began to strike me as a near-perfect test. Of my commitment, of my fealty, of my loyalty—but not to the RCMP. A test of my loyalty to Ray. And then the weight on my shoulders lifted, because that choice is now perfectly clear: it's Ray contra mundum.
I'll resign my post before I act against him. If they want him, they can bloody well come out here and get him. I'm not doing their dirty work.
Or as Ray might say: they can bite me.
However, I'm not sure how to offer assurances vis a vis a problem that he hasn't decided to share with me. I've thought about phrasing the matter in hypotheticals: "You know, Ray, should you be worried about deportation, which is, of course, not to say that you are, then please don't be." But even conceptualizing the syntax of such a conversation gives me a headache. And I don't want him to think I'm invading his privacy—living in such close quarters, as we do, requires the utmost respect for the few private spaces each of us has. I know perfectly well that he keeps his most secret things in the pocket of his suitcase. If I broached the issue of deportation, might he not draw the wrong conclusion?
It isn't worth the risk. I clearly can't broach the subject until he does. But if I can't offer him verbal assurances...well, verbal assurances are not the only kind. On the nights after Ray's odd, twenty-four-hour flus, I'm always sure to make love to him—it's the best way to bring color to his cheeks and raise his spirits. Ray's wonderfully physical; it's one of the things I love best about him. It also makes him easy to read: if Ray's body is happy, Ray is happy, QED. It's how I know he likes Canada, likes the Territories, likes our life here together—because physically, Ray Kowalski is singing. His body has grown stronger and even more beautiful in the past year—the everyday challenges of life here suit him: chopping wood, feeding the dogs, hunting and sledding and digging through endless mounds of winter snow. And when he touches me with his tough, callused hands—dear God, how I want him, how the lust rises up in me.
So if I can comfort him physically, I can comfort him. If I can ease his body, I can ease his mind. I can take him to our bed and love him as best I can, love him till he's weak, till his tension eases. I confess that it's not an entirely unselfish gesture on my part, but really, it does seem to do the trick.
I kennel and feed the dogs before making my way to the door of our cabin, Diefenbaker at my heels. Very odd...I can tell from the snowmobile tracks that Ray's been out for nearly the entire day. This morning's tracks are faint; the tracks of his return are still sharply engraved on the snow. Surely it doesn't take all day to fetch groceries? and suddenly my mind is flooded with fearful, uncharitable thoughts. He's bored, he's having an affair, he's drinking, he's leaving. Except that's ridiculous; that's paranoid, completely unwarranted. Ray's body is happy, Ray is happy, QED, I remind myself. Except Ray's body wasn't happy today, Ray's body was sick today. And then another, more frightening thought: Dear God, I'm wrong, I've got it wrong—he really is ill, he spent the day at the clinic, or worse yet in hospital. There's something wrong with him, something I can't see, haven't noticed, something insidious, invidious—
Stop. These are just fevered imaginings. This has happened before; you know what to expect. Ray gets the psychosomatic flu, you spend the day apart, Ray goes to town (but not for hours, never for hours, never before), Ray's home when you get there, Ray will seem better but he'll be quietly out of sorts. (And if he were ill, that would explain it, perhaps he sees doctors, gets treatments—treatments but no news, no hope...)
Just stop it, I think, smacking myself down. But still, my hand is shaking as I reach for the knob, open our door—
—and am overwhelmed by the smell of...roast beef? In a flash Dief has bolted past me, into the house, barking in a frenzy of olfactory joy. Ray is in the kitchen, standing over a saucepan, whipping whatever's in it with a wooden spoon and humming tunelessly under his breath. He looks up at me and his face breaks into a brilliant smile.
"Hey!" Ray calls out in greeting, and then he bangs the spoon hard against the side of the pot and waves it around in the air. "I went to town and then I went to town—we got a roast in the woodstove, we got mashed potatoes in the pot which are reconstituted but don't give me grief, and we got vegetables because you make me eat vegetables. String beans because that's all they had at the market except for some spinach which you do not even want to know about, it was just that gruesome. Take off your coat, wash up, sit down—dinner in ten."
Surprised, I hang up my hat and coat near the door and wander toward him. "Have I...forgotten some occasion?" I ask, stopping to peer into the pot of reconstituted mashed potatoes, which look just fine to me. "Birthday? Anniversary? Christmas?"
Ray grins at me and then shows me a surprisingly teasing wink. "Yeah, it's National Canadian Amnesia Day—the holiday nobody can remember." He laughs to himself, cuts a huge slab of butter off the stick on the ceramic dish, and throws it on top of the potatoes. Next thing I know he's dropped the spoon onto the counter and his wiry, muscular arms are tight around me, pinning my own arms to my sides. "Actually," Ray adds, grinning into my face, "it's National Fuck You Through The Floor Day." He leans in and kisses me hotly—I let him do it; I open my mouth for his tongue; I bask in the heat of him.
After a long moment Ray pulls away from me, cheerily picks up a fork and the oven mitt, and goes over to the woodstove. "What's the date?" I ask breathlessly, steadying myself against the counter. "I should mark it on the calendar..."
Ray's crouching by the stove, forehead creased, poking gingerly at the roast with the fork. "Hm?" he asks, not really paying attention. He considers the roast a moment longer, then reaches out and pushes the heavy cast iron door shut. "It's every day," he answers absently, straightening up. "It's every single fucking day around here." He takes a step toward me and nearly trips over Dief, who is literally dogging his heels in anticipation. "You!" Ray yells, stabbing the fork at him, "will just have to freakin' wait until the human beings around here have eaten. And then—if you are good and very lucky—and I am in still a good mood and getting laid as I fully expect to be—I will allow you to eat all the leftovers."
Dief barks once at that and cocks his head.
"No, I am not shitting you," Ray tells him firmly, "though to qualify for this one-time special offer you need to be sitting down and shutting up for about the next hour. Okay? Capisce?" Dief barks again, indicating full and unconditional acceptance of the deal, and instantly bounds over to his bed near the fireplace.
Ray shakes his head. "Geez, that wolf has a suspicious mind..."
I wait until he's put the fork down and shucked off the oven mitt before leaning in for another kiss. This kiss has more warmth than heat in it; it's gentle and soothing and lasts a long time. After a while I move my lips to his ear and murmur, "So is this an elaborate attempt at seduction?"
Ray laughs against my cheek, but shakes his head no. "Not really." He raises his arms, squeezes me briefly, tightly, and then drops them again. "Actually," Ray adds, pulling back to look at my face, "this is more of a love thing."
"Oh?" I say with all the seriousness I can muster. "So not a seduction."
Ray wags a finger at me. "I did not say that, Fraser. It is a love thing and a sex thing. Also a food thing. A cow thing. A beef thing." He reaches into the cabinet, pulls out a clean tablecloth, and thrusts it at me. I nod and move to set our small table for dinner as Ray flicks off the stove. I set out two plates, two glasses, two knives, two forks. Ray picks up the oven mitt again, goes back to the oven, and returns with the roast. "Sex with love is the best thing," he muses, putting the pan down. "It's what everybody wants." Ray pulls off the mitt and regards the roast thoughtfully, scratching his head. "Okay, maybe not everybody," he adds after a moment, reaching into the drawer and pulling out a large knife. "There's people, I guess, who want to be tied up, hung from meat hooks, and whipped while somebody reads Dickens to them." Ray quirks a smile, shakes his head, and begins to carve the roast into thin slices. "'Pip had returned from the docklands'—Shh-whack! 'He found there was tea and cakes.'—Shh-whack!'" Ray stops, frowns, and then looks hard at me, face gone suddenly serious. "Though, you know—maybe that's love of a sort. Finding someone who loves you enough to do that."
"Well, yes," I say with a smile. "Someone who loves you enough—or loves Dickens enough."
Ray laughs as he loads the sliced beef onto a platter. "Oh, yeah, right. Like reading Playboy for the articles—I just do it for the Dickens." He brings the platter to the table, surveys it critically, and then mutters, "Okay, looks good." He turns, presumably to fetch the potatoes and vegetables from the top of the stove—but I can't wait any longer. I reach out and take his arm, stopping him.
"Ray," I ask quietly, "please tell me what we're celebrating. I really want to know."
He looks at me for what seems like a long time, impassive and utterly silent—-but I just wait, holding his arm, rooting him in place beside me. Then all of a sudden a spasm of emotion crosses his face, and he looks away from me, trains his blue eyes away from me. "I got a job, I think I got a job," he says all in a rush, and his voice is husky, hardly more than a whisper, "though I don't know, I could get fired, I could fuck up, I don't wanna jinx it—"
"Ray!" My eyebrows fly up in surprise. I've been both right and wrong: spurious, yes;. nerves, yes; deportation, yes;—but not illness. Interviews.
In a flash Ray's eyes meet mine—and now it's like ice cracking, a dam breaking, it's all coming out in a rush: everything he's wanted to say, but couldn't say, or wouldn't say, my damn stupid stubborn Ray. "Fraser, you don't know, you just don't know, I've been so fucking freaked out here—no job, no skills, no languages and with a fucking six month deadline hanging over my head like a death sentence—Christ, I never thought I'd make it, I thought it was hopeless—"
And suddenly he's hugging me tightly, and I am holding him close, and I am muttering, "You're an idiot, you're a complete idiot, Ray, I would never—"
"—I thought I was doomed, fucking doomed, and even now—"
"—let it happen, how could you think I would let it—"
"—I can't believe it, like it's some kind of mistake, which it was—it was a mistake, Ben, it was like—"
"—happen? You have my loyalty, Ray, completely and utterly: it's contra mundum, Ray contra mundum, you must—"
"—a miracle, a fucking miracle, and even now I'm afraid to jinx it, like it'll all go away—"
"—know that, or I would have told you that, if you'd only talked to me, told me what you were thinking—"
"—even though they're nice, they seem nice, Natalie and Ed, and I have this office and they got me on rabbits—"
"Rabbits?" I repeat, thinking I must have heard that wrong. "Did you say—?"
But Ray's clutching me tightly and nodding rapidly. "Rabbits, yeah—that's what I do, so you gotta tell me how rabbits fuck above the Arctic Circle, okay?"
"I—uh," I manage before Ray grabs me and kisses me and— Well.
Ben was planning to make love to Ray in order to raise his spirits; now he finds himself making love to Ray in order to calm him down. Ray is flying, wired, bursting with energy. All that built-up tension needs to be released—and while Ray's released it verbally, in a torrent of words, he hasn't yet released it physically, and the physical is all that matters where Ray's concerned. Ben knows this; he knows that to ease Ray's body is to ease Ray's mind, to bring Ray's body to release is to release him from everything.
So Ben applies himself. He attends closely to Ray's voice, obeys the endless litany of whispered instructions: "kiss me", "do me," "harder," "faster," "now." It's always now for Ray, he needs it now, wants it now—as if he'd explode in another moment, or die of wanting. And perhaps he would, Ben thinks as he tightens his hands on Ray's pale, smooth hips. He watches the way Ray's eyes close, the way Ray's body strains and wants to surge up toward him, all muscles and sinew and strength. The frenzied motion of Ray's slim hips, the thrum of his cock is saying now, now, now, now—and Ben smiles to himself and thinks, "All right, Ray. Now," as he gives Ray his mouth.
His own preference is for languor, for sweetness. Ben wants to savor the experience, make each orgasm last forever. But Ray can come three times during the same interval—and Ray seems to need to have three orgasms in order to be truly sated, to be relaxed and sleepy and fine. And Ben loves Ray when he's relaxed and sleepy—he thinks it's the nicest thing in the world to hold a sated Ray Kowalski in his arms and kiss his face, kiss his neck, brush his lips across the pale, slightly freckled skin of his shoulder.
So Ben holds onto Ray's hips and lets Ray make fists in his hair, lets Ray use his mouth, lets Ray thrust between his lips, slide hard and hot against his tongue. He closes his eyes and listens to Ray's need-filled cries; Ray needs this so much it sounds almost like pain. It won't take long, this first orgasm—Ray's too desperate for it, and he won't even soften. But it will take the edge off Ray's energy. It will let them make love for longer, take the rest at a more reasonable pace.
Ben likes it slow, so Ray tries to slow down for him. Ray has become very good at reading his cues—and after Ray shudders his way through his orgasm, moaning and filling Ben's mouth with his seed, Ray will take a deep breath, Ray will open his eyes, Ray will become a more responsive lover. Ben lifts his head, drops a kiss on Ray's stomach, drops a kiss on his chest, and by the time Ben reaches his mouth—Ray's eyes are open and he's breathing deep.
Ray strokes a callused hand up Ben's side, making him shiver. "Tell me what you want. Tell me what I can do for you." Ray always asks this, and Ben nearly always demands kisses—but today Ben grabs Ray's wrists and pins his arms above his head. Today, Ben drops his mouth to Ray's neck and licks a long, slow line up the curve of a tendon. Today, Ben murmurs against Ray's beard-stubbled jaw, "Pip had returned from the docklands..." and beneath him Ray laughs and struggles and yells in mock outrage, "No way! That's cheating! Unfair!"
Ben lifts his head and looks down at Ray innocently. "But I like Dickens, Ray."
"You do not, you do not, cheater—liar—" Ben smothers the protest with kisses—long, sloppy, heartfelt kisses that go on forever, that are taken at Ben's preferred pace. Ben feels himself trembling with excitement. Ray's mouth enchants him, Ray's hard body arouses him; he loves a man, he loves this man, and part of him still can't believe that he has him.
Ray's tongue strokes against his own, Ray's mouth moves against his own—and abruptly Ben realizes that Ray's body has gone still, that Ray is just lying beneath him, returning long sloppy kiss for long sloppy kiss. This is surprising, so surprising that Ben lifts his head to look at Ray.
Ray's thin, wiry arms are still stretched over his head, revealing light brown hair in his armpits. Ray's eyes are closed, his face is cloudy with arousal, and even as Ben watches, Ray tries to stretch up, tries to recapture his mouth. Ben pulls back a little, denying him.
Ray opens his eyes; they've gone dark with wanting. "I take it back. I take it back. I sort of like this."
Ben finds he can barely speak. "You like...what?"
"You holding me down," Ray says breathlessly, "I like you holding me down, it's turning me on—tie me up and fuck me..."
It hurts, it feels almost like pain, and Ben dimly wonders if this is how Ray feels all the time, black and blue with desire, beaten to within an inch of your life. "Ray...I want..." The words are being ripped out of him, torn out of his guts. "I want...I want to...."
Ray draws in a long, shuddering breath and closes his eyes.