"I'm terribly sorry, Ray," Fraser said over his shoulder, kicking his boots against the doorjamb to knock away the worst of the snow. "I know this isn't how you intended our adventure to go."
Ray stared at him, plainly convinced Fraser had finally lost his grip on sanity. Snow sparkled in his hat and the shock of hair across his forehead; he held the bundle in his arms with all the care its preciousness demanded. "Oh yeah, Fraser," he said. "Finding that hand is way more important than what we got here."
"Ah," Fraser said. Sarcasm; Ray often vented frustrations and concerns in that manner, and the situation certainly warranted concern. "I understand perfectly," he offered, and shut the door behind Ray, cutting off the wind but making little difference to the ambient temperature in the cabin. Ray's boots were tracking snow, but that was a small concern next to the question of warmth. He left Ray in the doorway and went forward to the stove; last year's firewood was stowed near it, still useable. He heard Ray moving about behind him, but ignored the noise as incidental for the few moments it took to strip his gloves and start the fire. This done, warmth beginning to curl out and fill the hollows of the cabin, he straightened and turned back.
Ray had, to all appearances, been getting the layout of the place and had decided to sit with his bundle on the serviceable but ludicrously unnecessary couch by the bedroom, well out of the way of the door or any draft from it, and reasonably near the heat of the stove. Fraser nodded approval and came to sit next to him. Now came the difficult part.
"Ray," he said, and hesitated. Ray's hands, still encased in their gloves, were nevertheless wrapped tightly around the mass of blankets in his arms. Fraser was reminded, perhaps not irrationally, of a mother grizzly at bay. Still ... "Ray, I need you to go care for the dogs," he said. "Feed them, water them, get them bedded down in the shed. Diefenbaker also."
"I need you to," Fraser repeated. "This is something you know, Ray. Do you know all the signs of hypothermia? Do you know how to save someone from the cold?"
It was blunter than he'd meant to be, but Ray didn't flinch, merely bowed his head. "Okay," he whispered, "okay," and very carefully handed the welter of blankets over to Fraser. The whole mass was surprisingly, alarmingly light, less heavy than Diefenbaker alone. Fraser took it carefully and smiled his thanks up at Ray, a small smile if a sincere one, which Ray returned before rising and going to the door.
Once Ray had shut it, leaving the warmth sealed tight, Fraser set the blankets aside -- only for a moment, long enough to rid himself of his outer layers and come to the clothes that retained enough body heat to be of some use. This done, he turned back to the bundle and carefully unwrapped it.
Still breathing. Of course; Ray would not have allowed her to stop.
Her face was very small and pale, pale enough that Fraser knew by now all the warmth had drained from her extremities and was guttering in her chest. Fraser quickly unwrapped her from the cold blankets and lifted her out, wrapping her in layers of shirts and holding her close to his body; shocking warmth into her system with a hot bath would have been preferable, but despite Ray Vecchio's insistence upon the luxury of indoor plumbing some years before when they'd come here to rebuild the cabin, Fraser had perhaps foolishly drawn the line at hot running water. In any case, the cabin was well above freezing now, climbing steadily into the twenties Celsius, and Fraser was perfectly warm even if the small fingers he was holding close between his palms were still near icy. The little girl had hardly moved during the entire ordeal of shifting her about, but now her dark eyelashes flickered momentarily, and a few heart-stopping seconds later she began to shake.
Fraser simply held her, unwilling as of yet to feel relief. She was very young -- perhaps three, by generous estimation -- and very likely to bounce back, but still -- still ...
Then she began to cry.
It was probably in large part astonishment at the rebellion of her own muscles as her body tried to warm itself, although Fraser knew well that the process could also be a genuinely painful one. The child could hardly be expected to stay silent and bear it without complaint. So Fraser continued to hold her as the little girl's face screwed up and she began to wail, hot tears tracking down her pinking cheeks. Fraser rubbed her back -- her extremities were warm enough now, and the motion was meant to soothe rather than encourage blood flow -- and rocked her gently, a calming motion that had little to do with conscious thought but came rather out of some dim memory that held the pattern of his mother's favorite summer dress. "It's all right," he murmured to the little girl; "It will be better soon," and he excused the staggering untruth to himself by pretending he was only talking about her shivering.
Her body relaxed into warmth before she stopped crying, although by then it had been reduced to sniffles, her face pressed hot to Fraser's undershirt, clearly seeking comfort. The tears ceased entirely upon Ray's return; evidently some new noise and the brief rush of cold that was Ray entering the cabin were sufficient to divert her attention. The little girl squirmed around in Fraser's arms and stared curiously at Ray.
Ray didn't notice right away; he was more properly knocking the snow from his boots this time, and shrugging off his outer layers with all due haste, saying to the floor, "Jesus, Fraser, it's been, what, ten minutes, and it's like Chicago in June here --"
"Ray," Fraser said, and Ray looked up, an inner jacket hanging half off his shoulder. His eyes met Fraser's for a single moment before he was looking instead at the little girl, who was staring back, fascinated.
"She's okay," Ray said, and grinned brilliantly, shrugging his jacket the rest of the way off without looking. "I knew you could do it," and Fraser wasn't sure if this remark was directed at him or the little girl; the pride and relief in Ray's voice warmed him regardless. Ray made his way to the couch, still absently dropping articles of clothing behind him as he went, and ended up sitting next to Fraser wearing only his long johns and that grin. "Hey," Ray said gently. "How you doing, kid?"
A direct address, however, was apparently more stimulation than the little girl could handle at this moment; she turned and buried her face against Fraser's chest again. Ray's grin softened down into a smile, but he didn't look disheartened by the rebuff.
"I think she's tired," Fraser murmured.
"I'd be too, after something like that," Ray said, with a sharp little tilt of his head indicating the white-out beyond the cabin walls. His face twisted oddly. "Frase -- her folks --"
"When it clears up we should try to find them," Fraser said, as matter-of-factly as he could. He knew how Ray could be about corpses. "I estimate at least a sixty percent chance of finding the place again."
"Huh. Only sixty." But Ray said it distractedly, without censure, reaching out and touching the little girl's wispy dark hair with careful fingers. "How the hell did it happen, anyway? Even if something -- if we got separated, I could probably hack it out there."
This was true, and Fraser had to suppress a momentary glow of pride at the thought. "Perhaps they were ill-equipped," he suggested. "And accidents do happen. What's important is they kept her alive as long as they could."
"Yeah," Ray agreed, and, a little guiltily, "Shit, she's probably old enough to understand what we're saying. We shouldn't --"
"She's sleeping," Fraser said, and smiled at Ray. "Even if she wasn't, I think she's more likely to understand love than death." He stood carefully, holding the little girl in his arms; she seemed heavier now, sleep and warmth adding weight to her. "You shouldn't have taken off all those layers; we still need to bring in the supplies."
"Oh. Whoops," Ray said, and began collecting his scattered clothing from the floor. One arm through his inner jacket, he paused and gave Fraser a searching look. "You're not gonna help with that."
"No," Fraser agreed, even though he hadn't known it before that moment. "Someone needs to stay with her."
For a moment Ray looked like he wanted to argue. Then he shrugged his jacket the rest of the way on, a sharp tense movement that eloquently expressed a multitude of things he wasn't telling Fraser aloud. "Yeah, okay."
She was still sleeping soundly, her cheeks a little too flushed for Fraser's liking but her breathing deep and even. Her eyelids twitched and flickered in REM sleep: more than likely this signaled healthy brain function, reassuring in a toddler so recently exposed to subzero temperatures.
The fifth time Fraser felt compelled to abandon his card game to check on the child's wellbeing, Ray snapped. "Fraser!"
Oh dear. Fraser lowered himself back onto the floor from his position levered to rise, moving slowly so as not to further aggravate Ray. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'll endeavor to give my full attention --"
"Forget the card game," Ray interjected, fidgeting, and set his cards aside to bear his full attention upon Fraser. "I don't know if the kid's sick or just tired, but either way, this jack-in-a-box thing you're doing isn't gonna help and, uh, you get yourself sick worrying, we might be in trouble."
Fraser sighed and settled back on the rug; as usual, Ray's pragmatism was right on the mark, and Fraser's worry was unproductive. Ray was still watching him closely, waiting for some sign of assent, so Fraser nodded. "Quite right," he said, moving to recover his cards from where he'd set them, but Ray's scrutiny was if anything growing in intensity. Fraser stopped and shifted uncomfortably. "Ray?"
"Wait here," Ray said in that abrupt way of his, scrambling to his feet and going to the door, leaving Fraser bewildered. A wash of cold air hit him as Ray briefly leaned outside, calling something that sounded suspiciously like Diefenbaker; after a moment the half-wolf in question came trotting in, scattering melting snow across the floorboards. Ray shut the door, the heat generated by the stove already restoring the warmth of the room, and crouched in front of Diefenbaker, holding the wolf's muzzle in his hand. "Dief," Ray said, starting deep into Diefenbaker's eyes, "watch the kid. It's the only way Fraser will not go nuts, and if we ever get back to civilization I promise lots of doughnuts."
Diefenbaker did not even take the obligatory moment for consideration; he simply barked his assent and took off for the bedroom to stand guard. Fraser felt a glow of warmth that had very little to do with the ambient temperature. However much Dief might make a foolish spectacle of himself for treats, and however much Ray might fidget and idly threaten violence, both of them clearly cared for the little girl's well-being, in their own ways, just as much as he did.
"Thank you," Fraser said quietly over the retreating clack of Diefenbaker's claws.
Ray fixed him once more with that considering look. "This is really getting to you," he said, a statement with just the edge of a question.
Fraser stared after Diefenbaker a moment longer; turning back to Ray, he confessed in the exhale, "Yes."
"Huh," Ray said, and retrieved his cards from the floor, studying them. He seemed fully immersed in contemplating his next move.
"I'm not sure we can find her parents again, Ray," Fraser said, and Ray's eyes immediately flicked up to focus on him. "Establishing next-of-kin is important. They need to be notified. We'll need to make arrangements. Actually, as soon as the storm clears we should get her to Whitehorse for medical evaluation. Or, well, I'll try to find her parents again, and hopefully some identifying information; you should stay here with her and make sure that her core temperature remains stable. Then we'll go to Whitehorse. I'm terribly sorry for bringing us so out of the way."
But Ray just bent his cards, flipping them against one another, shuffling them absently between his hands. "If this is about the quest, I know we were doing a sledding tour of Benton Fraser's Greatest Hits in the middle of nowhere," he said. "And anyway the hand's symbolic, right? It's just about -- reaching out, new things. This is a new thing. When the storm stops, I'll stay here, I'll be all over that core temperature thing. Okay?"
"Okay," Fraser agreed. He went to study his cards unseeingly.
"She can probably tell us her name and her parents' names, anyway," Ray added. "If you can't find 'em. We'll --"
"Shhh," Fraser hissed. It was undeniably rude, but, kind as Ray's reassurances were, he'd just heard something more important: the rustle of bedclothes, and a soft welcoming whuffle from Diefenbaker. "She's awake."
"I'll put on soup," Ray said, springing to his feet. Fraser nodded and collected the cards as quickly as he was able, packing them away so they wouldn't be underfoot. He could hear Diefenbaker's claws clacking against the rough wooden floorboards, coming nearer; he looked up to see his wolf gently herding the little girl into the main room. So she could walk on her own. Good.
Still sitting on the floor, Fraser's eyes were about level with hers. They were big in her face, now that she wasn't squeezing them tight with cold and fear; a bright clear gray, curious and a little wary. Intelligent. She was clinging tightly to Diefenbaker's ruff.
"Hello," Fraser said quietly.
She half ducked away against Dief, turning just enough to give him a shy wave.
"You're safe here," Fraser went on. "Would you like something to eat?"
A fervent nod.
"Soup's up!" Ray announced, coming over with a carefully-balanced wooden bowl, steam curling up from it. He knelt by Fraser. "Here you go. You want seconds, you just say the word."
The little girl nodded again and shuffled forward to take the bowl.
"Ray," Fraser murmured.
Dief sniffed at the soup, but for once he displayed a rare moment of selflessness and settled down by the stove with a grunt. The little girl settled down next to him, using his furry side as a backrest, and started in on the soup with single-minded happiness.
"No seconds?" Ray guessed, watching her. "Like, it might make her stomach explode or something?"
"What?" Ray demanded, finally looking at Fraser.
"I'm -- I hope I'm wrong," Fraser said, his gaze drawn back to the little girl, still diligently eating her soup. "But if she wants seconds, I don't know if she can just say the word."
An hour later, the little girl was dozing again, her face pressed flush to Fraser's side. She was making the sort of small snuffling noise Dief had used to make as a puppy. Fraser was sitting as still as he could. Ray, on the girl's other side, was half-sprawled on the couch, squinting out the window at the relentless snow that was slowly vanishing into the gray of evening.
The little girl had played with Diefenbaker. Whenever they addressed her, she'd smiled, a shy smile, nevertheless happy with the attention. A rising howl of the wind outside had sent her diving at the couch and shivering against Fraser's side, and only a renewed application of the small soothing circles over her back had calmed her down, eventually lulling her into sleep.
She hadn't said a word.
"She seems smart," Ray said, half in a whisper. "Cold didn't damage her, Frase. Not her brain."
"But it damaged her," Fraser murmured.
"Yeah." Ray slouched further. They sat in silence. Ray took a deep unsteady breath. "How old were you --?"
"Six," Fraser said at once.
Ray nodded up at the ceiling. "I can't ..."
He didn't finish, but Fraser could hear the end of it. I can't imagine what that must have been like. It was a helpless offer of condolences and an invitation to talk at once, and Fraser took it. "My father ... He was absent for days, I think. I remember him sitting there, every morning. He had a beard. It got longer and longer. He got thinner. He didn't cry. He didn't talk about her."
Ray made a sudden small violent movement. The little girl twitched, turned, and kept sleeping. Ray made a vague go on gesture.
"One day I woke, and he'd shaved. He was crying. I imagine he must have gone after Muldoon. After that ... I went to live with my grandparents. He'd made what peace with it that he could."
A log popped in the fire. Ray shifted again. "Usually I can figure out the point of your stories," he said. "I mean, sometimes, anyway. But that one -- that one is a bunch of stories you've got all living in the same space, isn't it?"
Fraser looked down and stroked the top of the little girl's head. "Yes."
"You ever, uh. You ever want kids?"
"I don't know," Fraser admitted. "Maybe once, a long time ago. But it's better this way. My father was the sort of man who put duty before all else, and my mother ... I still suspect I knew her better than he ever did. I wouldn't want to do that to someone else."
"Yeah, well, you wouldn't," Ray said, with surprising vehemence. When Fraser looked up at him, startled, Ray glared at him as though -- ah. As though someone had insulted his friend. Fraser felt strangely touched. After a moment, Ray seemed to realize the absurdity of the situation, and deflated. "I guess that was probably my thing too," he said. "I mean, there ain't many cops with kids. Stella always said it wasn't the right time yet, and I figured she meant for her career, but maybe she meant for mine too. I begged her," he added, and tilted his head back, addressing this to the ceiling. There was something odd in his tone; something new. The strange half-wistfulness, half-anger that habitually colored his reminiscences was gone; he was reciting this as though remembering an old story. "I told her I had everything all worked out. Childproofing the apartment, no problem, figuring out the crib and the toys and everything, can do. Even had a name picked out. But she didn't want to hear it."
"What was the name?" Fraser found himself asking.
Ray startled, as though he'd forgotten anyone was there. He turned and pointed two fingers at Fraser. "Don't laugh."
"I wouldn't dream of it."
"Dawn," Ray said. "Y'know, to ... It was a theme, kinda. Stella, Ray. Dawn."
"That's ... really terrible, Ray," Fraser said, fighting a smile. But Ray gave him an answering grin, so it had to be all right.
"It's better than Blanche, anyway," Ray pointed out.
"But her surname wasn't even Kowalski," Fraser protested, still smiling.
Ray jabbed his fingers at Fraser again, emphatically. "Don't. Not the point."
"Right. Yes. Of course not."
"So." Ray slid down on the couch again. Soon he'd be sliding right off. Fraser instinctively tightened his arm around the little girl, so that in case of sudden accidents she'd be secure. "What about you?"
"What about me what?" Fraser asked.
"I hadn't really thought about it," Fraser confessed. "I could think of some if you'd like."
"Yeah," Ray said. "You do that," and his grin was back, brilliant and surprisingly content. Silence descended around them again, and for a long aching moment Fraser almost blurted out something about happiness and gratitude and the wonder that was this last journey Ray had elected to take with him. But it sounded terrible put into words; and then he realized that, in any case, he didn't need to say it. It was written in Ray's face, just as it had been nearly a year ago on an improbable wooden ship, and even after all that time, the knowledge that they were thinking the same thing at this moment was overwhelming enough that they both had to look away.
No place I'd rather be.
The little girl ate again in the evening, with equal enthusiasm but less desperation than she had her previous meal. Fraser, Ray, and Dief ate too; Fraser had tried to persuade Diefenbaker to eat his supper outside with the other dogs, but Dief told him in no uncertain terms that he was staying inside with the pup, and when Ray had somewhat unexpectedly taken Dief's side, Fraser admitted defeat.
When her plate was clean, the little girl looked between Fraser and Ray, took a deep breath, and whispered, "Thank 'ou," or something very like it.
"So you can talk!" Ray hunkered down, shoving the plates in Fraser's direction. Fraser would have approached the matter rather differently, but he sighed and rose to clear the plates. When he returned, Ray hadn't made any progress, as the girl was still sitting wide-eyed and mute, but Ray didn't appear to mind. On the contrary, he -- Fraser blinked -- pulled off the little girl's left sock, grabbed one of her toes, and began reciting a peculiar rhyme about a family of piglets. The little girl dissolved into delighted laughter.
This was an approach Fraser hadn't even considered. He left Ray to it, and went outside to tend to the dogs.
They seemed adequately warm, though pleased to see him again. Outside their shed, in the scarce feet between that building and the main cabin, the world was dark, icy, and more overtly dangerous than Fraser was quite comfortable with. Crouching among the dogs, petting ruffs and murmuring soft encouragements, he examined the feeling of uneasiness carefully, from all angles. He was impatient with the storm, with its severity and with its refusal to give any indication of ending soon. He was impatient with it because he wanted answers, either in the form of some identification of the girl's parents or, more likely, whatever records might be traced once they'd brought the little girl to Whitehorse. And he wanted answers quickly because he was positively eager to get the little girl off their hands.
He'd been idly tracking his thoughts while he'd made sure the dogs were well bedded-down, but this unexpected conclusion brought Fraser up short. Was it selfishness? Dear lord, he hoped it wasn't that. He was willing to concede that his thoughts had been occasionally less than exemplary in the past where Ray was concerned; he knew he tended toward unfairness in his private thoughts regarding Stella Kowalski, and he'd once made a gravely inaccurate leap of judgment about a suspect in an investigation simply because Ray had appeared interested in her. He'd even been stretching this last adventure with Ray somewhat past where in good conscience they should have stopped: he was sure he kept a more careful tally of Ray's sick days than Ray did, and this late spring storm was a last gift, the only way he could reasonably keep Ray here any longer. So, really, the whole thing was a mess. Fraser should have been grateful for the storm. At the very least, he shouldn't have been envious of a small child for taking Ray's attentions.
"But that can't possibly be it," Fraser told the nearest dog, in some frustration. She gave him a sympathetic whimper and tucked her nose under her tail.
It couldn't be selfishness. Fraser hadn't left Ray alone with the little girl because he was angry that Ray was putting her care first. On the contrary, pride and affection rose in his chest at the very thought -- and were crushed back down, reflexively, with more force than he'd meant. Fraser paused, his gloved hand on the outside door, blindsided by his own reaction for the second time in as many minutes. He'd long given up more than a cursory struggle to tamp down his affection for Ray. So the defense had to be ... against the little girl.
Maybe it was Ray's talk of children. Maybe it was the isolation and the near-hopelessness of the little girl's circumstances. But all the careful walls Fraser drew between his empathy and his actions seemed very fragile just now. He needed to stop being shut into a cabin with Ray, and he needed to get the little girl to Whitehorse and thus on to her appropriate guardians as quickly as possible, because otherwise he wouldn't be able to give up these things at all.
"Oh dear," Fraser murmured, and pushed back out into the cold.
"She's definitely this many," Ray reported, holding up three long fingers, then curling them back against his palm with a heaving sigh. "She likes the doggie. My hair's hilarious. And that's all I got."
"Nothing about her parents?" Fraser asked.
Ray gave him a look of such incredulity that Fraser had to look away, at the hypnotizing crackle of the fire in the potbellied stove. Diefenbaker and the little girl were back in the small bedroom; he and Ray sat together on the couch, in a small pool of warm yellow light surrounded by darkness. The question of sleeping arrangements hovered above them like an invisible malevolent storm cloud.
"I did not ask about her parents," Ray said, "because I didn't want her to turn into some kind of traumatized clam. I did ask her name. Figured she knew what I was talking about, but I thought maybe trying for a full name would be best. Couldn't get anything, though." He sighed and slouched down, his stocking feet creeping into Fraser's field of vision. "I probably confused her. Almost introduced myself as Vecchio, and had to start over. I should say it every morning. Get up, feed dogs, make coffee, say 'Kowalski'. Good routine."
"I don't think it confused her," Fraser offered, and when he chanced a look, Ray's face was twisted into wry, rueful understanding. Fraser breathed in and out again, calm and measured, cataloguing their surroundings: dimming firelight, throwing the shadow of Diefenbaker's fur into strange shadows against the floorboards, turning Ray's disorderly hair and stubbly week's worth of beard into an improbable halo. Pine boards, musty couch, damp wolf, burning logs, unwashed but not unpleasant Ray, all of it already familiar. The fire was crackling steadily; snow was pattering insistently against the windowpane; and Fraser could almost imagine the sound of the little girl's steady breathing in the next room. Ray was still watching him, with rare stillness. Fraser said, "I'll take the couch."
"No way," Ray said. "I was already about to give you a medal or something for not jumping up and checking on her."
"Really, Ray," Fraser said firmly, "she's already much more used to you. In any case, if we were here alone I'd insist you take the bed. I'm likely to get up before you do, so it's only logical --"
Ray's eyes narrowed, and Fraser realized belatedly that, however they'd managed to sort their various differences of the past year, logical was still a fighting word. So he wasn't terribly surprised when Ray said, "Take the goddamn bed, Frase," but he was still taken aback when Ray added, "Anyway, there's more space on the bed than there is in the tent, and if we wanna make sure she stays warm ..."
Fraser's throat stuck. "Very logical," he managed.
"Okay," said Ray. "Good."
But there was still, Fraser reflected as they stripped and changed into fresh long underwear with just as much swift efficiency as they'd done outside at subzero, the fundamental problem at hand: two sleeping bags in a tent meant something entirely different than one bed, no matter the similarity of space. The occasional insinuation of Diefenbaker into the tent, too, was entirely different from the fact of a tiny child lying between them.
Once they'd settled themselves as quietly as possible, the little girl shifted between them, investigating her environment without waking: she made a soft contented sound and snuggled back against Ray, pressing her face into the crook of Fraser's elbow, and settled back down into regular sleep. Fraser, shocked with unexpected tenderness and fear, glanced over at Ray, who was staring back at him in the half-light, his face caught somewhere between awe and terror. After a moment his mouth quirked into a smile.
Yes, well. At least they were in this together. Fraser managed a smile back, and forced himself to close his eyes, regulate his breathing, and drift to sleep.
He woke briefly in the middle of the night. The fire in the next room was banked low enough that it was almost completely dark. Ray was snoring gently in a way that had long since become familiar and soothing. The little girl was sprawled across Fraser's chest, as Dief had sometimes used to do as a puppy; the shortness of breath was what had woken him. Fraser settled the girl carefully back onto the bed between him and Ray. Ray half-woke at the movement, rolled, and caught both of them in an embrace that had the easiness of muscle memory, or perhaps simply long imagining, behind it.
Fraser thought, with the strange over-clarity that came of being awake at entirely the wrong time: We're in very deep trouble.
There seemed to be nothing to do about it, so he fell asleep again, and dreamed vague confused dreams of his mother and Ray and a shaky child's drawing of a Mountie. When he woke again, it was light out and the little girl was bouncing on the bed, piping, "Food time! Food time!" If he and Ray were lying in a confusion of warm entwined limbs -- if with a glance Ray conveyed I get the dogs this morning and you get the tiny hell-beast -- if they pulled each other up and herded the girl out to the next room together -- if Fraser put Ray's hat on for him, and they grinned at each other before Ray ducked out into the snow --
They were already in trouble, so there was no harm in a little more.
The snow didn't stop falling. It did, however, become progressively lighter.
Ray was the one to suggest that the little girl should go outside again, if only to keep her from being terrified of cold weather for the rest of her life. This proved to be a good suggestion: the little girl was only coaxed out of doors with the promise of more doggies, and this only after some twenty minutes of frightened tears. Fifteen minutes into the ordeal, Ray looked nearly as scared as the girl, and said, "Frase, maybe it's too soon --" but Fraser interrupted, firmly, "She needs to do it now or she never will."
"You're stubborn," Ray said a short while later, while they stood together and watched the bundled-up girl toddle around the shed, making friends with the friendly, eager, and somewhat concerned sled dogs, Dief showing her off proudly. "Jesus, she was crying."
"It's better that she works out her fear," Fraser said. "And I suspect that if she can get over that, in time she might be able to tell us her name."
"I never thought I'd be doing the good cop side of the good cop-bad cop routine, is all," Ray said, and glanced sidelong at Fraser. "You're probably right. It's good. You're kinda smart about this whole parenting deal."
Fraser tried a laugh, but it came out false and shaky. "Not really."
Ray kept looking at him for a long moment, but he dropped the subject. A short while later, after they'd taught the little girl how to feed the dogs, Fraser retreated to the cabin to make human food, and Ray somehow convinced the girl to build a snowman with him. Preparing lunch took longer than Fraser expected; he continually found himself glancing out the window, watching Ray bend to help the little girl roll a snowball for the snowman's head, watching the little girl pink-cheeked and laughing and astonishingly, completely at ease, watching all the fighting tension leave Ray's body, making him almost unrecognizable. "You're kind of smart about this whole parenting deal," Fraser whispered to the window, but of course Ray couldn't hear.
After lunch the little girl promptly curled up on the couch and slept. Ray, smiling fondly and still moving much more loosely than was his wont, fetched the deck of cards and settled down on the floor with Fraser. "I wish we could get her name," he said. "Not even her last name, just something to call her. I can't just keep calling her 'the kid' in my head, and I start calling her Dawn, I'm sunk."
Fraser shuffled the cards. "Roberta," he said.
Ray's head came up. "Huh?"
"I always thought -- when I took the time to think about it -- Charles for a boy, and Roberta for a girl. After my parents."
"I thought you said you hadn't thought about it," Ray said, but he said it with more puzzlement than accusation. "Roberta's an awful name, Fraser."
"It's better than Blanche," Fraser said reflexively.
Ray grinned. "Robbie would be okay," he offered. He glanced over at the couch. "She looks more like a Robbie than a Dawn anyway."
"Ray," Fraser said, and Ray must have known what Fraser was going to say, because he didn't look back over. "Ray. Ray."
"What?" Ray snapped, glaring at him.
"She has a name," Fraser said. "She has a past. We can't keep her."
"Why not?" Ray demanded, and there was the Ray that Fraser knew: all the lines of wary fighting tension were back, and Ray's face said he knew that at any moment everything he'd ever hoped for was likely to be dashed to bits. Fraser had, over the course of their friendship, done everything he could to erase that look to the best of his abilities. But it wasn't enough. "Why not?" Ray said. "You said you're not gonna find her parents again, and if we can't get her last name we're never gonna know unless her folks were the kind of people who made sure she went to the baby dentist or whatever. What the hell kinda thing is that to do to a kid, anyway? Her parents die and her whole world's destroyed and just when she gets used to us, we ship her off to someone else? I'm not doing it."
"Well, you can hardly take her back to the United States with you," Fraser said sharply, unconsciously taking refuge in hostility to mimic Ray's. Ray's face instantly went very tight and pale, and Fraser wanted to snatch the words back.
"Fucking forget it," Ray snapped. "I know that. Think I'm stupid? Think I could do this on my own? But I'd be doing it on my own anyway because you're always running off to do stupid crazy stuff, so it was a dumb idea, and just -- forget it." He stumbled to his feet, pulling on layers and boots with shaking hands, slamming out the door into the snow before Fraser had time to do anything more than stare.
Fraser was left alone with a sleeping small child -- She does look more like a Robbie than a Dawn, his brain supplied with numb helplessness -- a reproachful half-wolf, and a great deal of blank astonishment. Ray hadn't lashed out with this much violence in a very long time. And he still had no real idea what he'd done.
Ray returned some time later; Ro -- the little girl had woken up, and was sitting in Fraser's lap, listening with rapt joy to the story of how Fraser and Diefenbaker had first met. Fraser broke off mid-word, and he and Ray stared at one another across the length of the cabin. Ray knocked the snow from his boots absently.
"Ray --" Fraser started.
"It's okay," Ray said quickly. "It was, uh, it's -- Really, forget it. It looks like the snow's letting up."
"Good," Fraser said. He couldn't quite bring himself to smile at Ray, so he turned back to the little girl and resumed his story. Ray seemed to accept this, and Fraser breathed a little easier. Perhaps they wouldn't have to talk about it after all.
That evening he said, unthinkingly, "Robbie, it's time for bed."
"Okay," the little girl said, looking up from petting Diefenbaker.
"Don't forget to say goodnight to Dief, Robbie," Ray said, in a strange voice.
"Night, doggie," the little girl said solemnly, giving Diefenbaker a tight hug, which he tolerated. She got up and headed for the bedroom. Fraser, watching her, felt Ray staring at him, and turned.
"So she's got a name now," Ray said.
"Oh God," Fraser said in horror. "I didn't think --"
"No kidding," Ray said, getting up. "Just start, okay?"
"I'll need to go out looking for her parents tomorrow," Fraser said.
"I know." Ray scrubbed a hand through his hair, making it stand up crazily despite the fact that he'd given it a trim in the time since they'd arrived at the cabin. "I'm probably remembering this wrong, but, uh, my mom's folks used to say, don't name the Thanksgiving turkey. It's hard to kill something you've named." And he followed the little girl before Fraser could reply.
Fraser slept on the couch that night, and left at first light, before Ray or the little girl had woken.
He could find no trace of the girl's parents. But the snow was deep and even, ideal for travel, so when he returned to the cabin, empty-handed, they all set off for Whitehorse together.
The situation was strange enough without Ray adding to it, but the entire time Fraser was explaining to the hospital nurse the circumstances under which they'd found the little girl, Ray simply stood there, arms folded, hunched into himself, like a sort of reluctant bodyguard. The nurse, whose nametag said Katharine, seemed to find nothing out of the ordinary about any of it; she simply nodded and, when Fraser reached the end of his story, said, "This kind of thing isn't unheard of. Finding kids alone in the snow, I mean. They're hearty little critters." She smiled at the little girl, who smiled back; since they'd come into Whitehorse, she'd been staring around wide-eyed and curious, leading Fraser to suspect that she was either from a very small town in the Yukon or that she'd somehow entirely forgotten what even a city of two thousand souls looked like. He wasn't sure which explanation he preferred.
"She is," he agreed. "I'm mostly concerned because she's completely refused to tell us her name. She'll respond to any other sort of interaction, but that question ..."
"It links her back to a traumatic event," Katharine finished, looking unsurprised. "Does she respond to any particular name?"
Fraser hesitated, and Ray said unexpectedly from behind him, "Robbie."
"Robbie," Katharine repeated, and hunkered down a little to be level with the little girl's face where she was sitting on the exam table. "Robbie, these guys have been taking really good care of you, but we have to make sure everything's working okay. You understand?" The little girl nodded, and Katharine looked back up at Fraser and Ray. "She really does seem okay, but we'd better keep her for overnight observation. She's basically a Jane Doe, and you're her de facto guardians right now, so if you want to stay the night ..."
"We'll get a hotel," Ray said. Both Katharine and Fraser turned to him. He was still hunched against the wall, and when he explained, "We got a few things to figure out," he said it directly to Fraser, very like a challenge.
"Okay," Katharine said, a little uncertainly, apparently only now noticing the tension radiating from Ray.
"We'll be back quite early tomorrow morning," Fraser assured her, and, to the little girl, "Ray and I need to show Diefenbaker around the city. Will you be all right with Katharine for the night? We'll be back first thing."
The little girl nodded, wide-eyed, so Fraser leant down to press a kiss to her small soft-skinned forehead, and straightened, clearing his throat. He turned to Ray; Ray gave him a twitchy grimace that was trying very hard to be a smile, dodged around Fraser to the little girl, gave her a swift fierce hug, and turned to Fraser. "Okay, let's beat it."
"Until tomorrow," Fraser said, tipping his hat to Katharine, and followed Ray out.
Ray was walking rather faster than normal, and Fraser only caught up with him on the dimming street corner in front of the hospital, where Ray had stopped abruptly still, his hands jammed into his pockets and his shoulders angled with tension. Fraser hesitated a foot or so behind him, unsure. The sled dogs, and an indignant Dief with them, were properly housed at an accommodating kennel. The little girl almost certainly had no lasting damage done to her by the cold. And Ray was angry. Fraser felt helpless in the face of it, and wanted to defend against the helplessness by being angry too, but even the idea was unproductive.
"I believe there's a hotel about two blocks west," he ventured.
Ray nodded jerkily and set off in the appropriate direction. Fraser followed a few steps behind, feeling a gulf as large as a country opening between them. The feeling persisted the entire way through the growing spring dark to the hotel, which was nearly as large as the hospital had been, if somewhat less appealing, a large architectural block to the hospital's multilevels. It persisted while Ray paid for and received the key to their single room, persisted up the stairs (there was an elevator, which Ray unexpectedly bypassed), persisted all the way into their neat impersonal room.
It was only when Ray shut the door and turned on Fraser with a look of nearly frightening determination that Fraser began to feel trapped.
"So," Ray said. "I want to keep the kid."
Fraser stared. "Ray --"
"No," Ray said. "Shut up. Listen." He shuffled in front of the door, glaring at his feet. Fraser sat down carefully on one of the room's two beds, and at the faint squeak of springs, Ray's head snapped back up. "You listening?" Fraser nodded. Ray took a breath. "Okay. Back when I was young and stupid and my life was all gonna work out, I thought up dumb puns to name my little girl, and how I was gonna teach her baseball even though I've never hit the damn thing except that one time, and we'd go to the movies and I'd buy her ice cream every summer and make sure nothing but nothing bad ever, ever happened to her. I was so mad at Stella. I mean, I know why she didn't want to, and she was probably right, and I never, I swear, I never tried to get her pregnant or anything because I didn't want a kid she didn't want. But I hated that she got to decide. I hated it." The fight unexpectedly went out of Ray's stance. He slumped again, his gesturing hands now back in his pockets, but he didn't look angry, merely resigned.
He went on, more quietly, "That's only supposed to happen once. That particular kinda hell, I mean. But Robbie's Canadian, and I'm not, and I don't know about international adoption laws but I bet they're not gonna grant custody to a washed-out Chicago cop on leave just out from undercover. If there's a list of people who're supposed to get kids they don't make themselves, I'm at the bottom." He finally looked up again, and met Fraser's eyes. "You heard that nurse. Katharine. We're the de facto guardians right now. But I bet you're a lot more facto than I am, and if you don't want to keep her, I'm sunk."
"Ray," Fraser said, completely gobsmacked.
"I know it's weird," Ray said in an unhappy rush. "And I know you didn't even sign on for this partners thing, I mean, I know it's me that came with you here, not any other Ray, but maybe that doesn't mean, uh, you definitely didn't sign on for sixteen years of kid-raising, and maybe you don't even want her, so --"
"I do," Fraser said.
Ray stared at him.
"I do," Fraser said, wracked by sudden terror, "only my mother died when I was very young, and my father was never around, and my grandparents loved me, I'm sure, but they'd already raised my father and I doubt they were eager to go through all the motions a full second time, and whenever I try to care for someone it tends to backfire spectacularly, so I don't think I'm qualified in the least, and in any case, Ray, where would we live?"
Ray blinked. He opened and closed his mouth a few times. "Wherever," he said. "I don't know. Canada."
"Oh," Fraser said. "You'd stay?"
"Absolutely," Ray said instantly.
They kept staring at one another, Fraser frozen on the bed, Ray frozen by the door. Facts began slotting into place in Fraser's mind, slowly at first, then with increasing speed: Ray wanted to be here. Ray wanted to be here, raising this little girl, with him.
"With me," Fraser said.
"Yeah," Ray whispered, and he looked frightened now, and dear God, Fraser understood that; but, he realized a fraction of a moment later, the things Ray was afraid of were not the things Fraser was afraid of. Ray was only afraid of being turned away.
He rose from the bed, a little unsteadily. "I'd like that," he said.
"Oh," said Ray, and blinked, and started grinning. "With you. In Canada. With the kid."
"With me, and Robbie, here," Fraser confirmed. He clenched his hands into fists to stop them from shaking. But of course Ray noticed; his grin faded, and, frowning a little, he went to Fraser.
"You sure you're okay?" he asked carefully.
"I think so," Fraser said, but he didn't protest when Ray touched his shoulder, a reassuring point of contact. "Ray, I think ..." But in any case it didn't matter, because they'd both leaned in at the same time and were kissing gently. Ah, Fraser thought, with a singing in his veins that refused to be fear or even shock, of course. Any second now Ray's stubble was going to become irritating, but in the meantime both Ray's hands were holding hard to his upper arms, and Fraser's hands in turn had come up to grip Ray's spiky, soft, ridiculous hair, and when Ray tilted his head and pushed forward a little, Fraser opened his mouth, relaxing into the kiss. Ray's hair against his palms was a blessing. Ray kissing him, all gentle fervor, was like coming home.
They pulled apart a little, breathing shakily, foreheads pressed together. "I think we'll be all right," Fraser murmured.
Ray gave a soft snort of laughter. "I think I'm gonna freak out. A guy asks you to move to Canada and raise a kid with him, then he kisses you, I think I got a right to freak out."
Fraser thought about this. "I suppose you do," he said. But despite the threat, Ray seemed content to simply lean on Fraser, and, a short while later, kiss him again. So that was all right after all.
In the morning, they rose early and asked the hotel employee at the desk where they might find a good breakfast café suitable to a small child; Fraser also made sure to ask for the local library, as well as directions to the RCMP depot. "We do, after all, have a good deal of legal legwork ahead of us," Fraser pointed out.
"I'll settle for pancakes," Ray retorted.
First, however, they stopped by the hospital. The night nurse, Laura, on the end of her shift, reported that Robbie was a perfectly normal healthy three-year-old, apart from the complete reticence in divulging her birth name. "You might want to bring her in for psych evaluations when she's older," Laura said. "Obviously we've got some kind of lasting trauma going on here, but I'm definitely not equipped to give that kind of diagnosis to a three-year-old. In the meantime, she's got a clean bill of health."
"Thank you kindly," Fraser told Laura. She smiled and ushered them into Robbie's room.
Robbie was sitting up in bed, bright-eyed and a little bored-looking. When she saw them, she lit up.
"Hey, kiddo," Ray said, sitting down at her bedside. "Sleep well?" She nodded. "Okay, great. How do you feel about pancakes?"
How Robbie felt about pancakes could, apparently, only be conveyed in a delighted shriek while launching herself into Ray's arms. Ray looked up at Fraser with a grin, which Fraser returned with interest. "Pancakes it is," Ray said. Together they swung her out of the bed, to her squealing happiness.
It was difficult to be frightened in the face of that much joy, so Fraser didn't even try.