When Fraser tried to explain how winter was up here, Ray didn't pay much attention. It wasn't for lack of trying, or because he wasn't interested; it was more that "Ray, the winters this far north tend to be long and difficult," blended together with "The transition from an urban to rural environment is liable to result in at least mild culture shock, as I experienced myself upon coming to Chicago," and "There's no guarantee that you'll be able to find lasting or satisfying work," and about a dozen other caveats and concerns. Ray had a total of one answer to every point Fraser made, just repeated I can hack it again and again, making damn sure those words never stopped meaning exactly as much as they were supposed to, and eventually Fraser ran out of warnings.
"I can hack it," Ray said, one last time for good measure, and if there was a little lift at the end, like a question, it wasn't uncertainty. He knew it; he just had to make sure that Fraser did. They sat together on the front porch of the little bed-and-breakfast that was the last stop on Fraser's arbitrary itinerary of their quest; Ray watched his breath puff out, a different white than the white of the snow and the white of the sky and the white of Diefenbaker sprawled contentedly on the pine boards. Out of the corner of his eye, Ray saw Fraser nod, once, firmly, as though Ray had passed a test and now Fraser could keep on being rock-solid about his belief in Ray.
What Fraser didn't say was Why?
And that was good, because Ray didn't have an answer for that one. Or he had a million, none of them safe enough to say aloud: he'd never had much to get back to, not after Stella; if he stayed in Chicago he'd eventually reach a burnout that even Fraser wouldn't be able to save him from; Fraser was probably -- definitely -- the best partner he'd ever have. Over the month or so of their quest, Ray'd gotten to kind of liking the vast unsilent alien landscape that was Fraser's home, the endless trees and endless snow that were entirely different from the creepy polite cleanliness of big Canadian cities. Wilderness, it turned out, was something Ray could hack.
The least safe reason was also the real one, and the reason Fraser didn't ask. The cold and the alone and the constant working together stripped away almost everything, Fraser's sarcasm and Ray's twitchiness and all the defenses that didn't work in the middle of nowhere. What was left was -- was such naked affection in Fraser's face that Ray couldn't fucking breathe, was kissing Fraser tentatively in the cool-not-cold dark of the tent and feeling Fraser smile against his mouth, was Ray making up his own weird campfire stories because up here he was starting to understand the art of talking around things and getting to them slow. It just was.
So when Fraser turned to Ray in their cozy room at the bed-and-breakfast their first night back in civilization, with this expression of incongruous misery on his face, and took a deep unsteady breath like he was waiting for a blow, Ray said in a rush, "Forget it, Frase, I'm staying." He knew better than to ask it like a damn question, made Fraser handle all the uncertainty, the Ray, are you sure? and the winters this far north tend to be long and difficult, and Ray weathered it.
So that was that.
Over the summer Ray went through all the motions that would make a move to Canada official. Papers; a home for the turtle; some cursory excuses to his parents; more papers. A Chicago cop liaising with a Mountie in Canada was hard to pitch, even with the weight of the Russian sub behind them, but once Ray convinced Fraser he was staying, Fraser put all of his Fraserness on it, and by August everything was official.
It was probably the best autumn Ray'd ever had in his life. Or second best, discounting maybe the autumn of '88, when he and Stella were still good, and both their jobs seemed shiny and new, and Ray could feel the future stretching out in front of him like a promise. His first autumn in Canada, he was finally remembering that feeling again. There was a kind of magic in waking up and shuffling out to find that Fraser had already made him coffee (with funny chocolate Smarties, which Ray knew for a fact cost way too much out in the middle of nowhere). Stella had sometimes left Ray coffee when she brewed it for herself, but no one had made it actually for him before -- except that Fraser had done it all the time when they had early-morning cases in Chicago, freakish Canadian M&Ms and all. Fraser in the GTO first thing in the morning to Fraser in a cabin first thing in the morning was only a tiny change, only one small step closer to the thing they still weren't talking about: their hands brushing when Fraser handed Ray the mug, the look on Fraser's face, half-hopeful, half-frightened.
Ray had Fraser's mouth memorized. He knew how soft Fraser's lips were, what he tasted like after his morning twig-tea, that Fraser shaved diligently every morning and that his cheeks rasped a little under Ray's thumbs if he caught Fraser late enough in the day. He knew the little sounds Fraser made, soft and quick-stifled like he didn't want to scare Ray off. They mostly stuck to kissing. Ray wasn't scared.
He spent some time patrolling with Fraser; he spent some time helping Fraser get their cabin winter-ready; he spent some time in the town, about fifteen minutes out, getting to know everyone there, because one of the dozen things Fraser had said about winters here was that some cold night your life might depend on the kindness of a stranger. Ray remembered that one because he'd heard that goddamn Streetcar quote a million times already, thanks, but he knew Fraser wasn't joking or being cruel; he was just saying it in a way that Ray would remember.
But now, with winter coming on, Ray was remembering everything Fraser had said. He had the lasting and satisfying work covered, except in winter it all shut down for the driving, piled-up blizzards that never ended. The fifteen minutes to town became two hours, but they went every week, because they needed to resupply their food and because they needed people. Or at least Ray needed people -- there was that culture shock thing Fraser had mentioned -- and it killed him a little. Back in March, with the dogs to talk to, the exhaustion at the end of each long exhilarating day, and above all the knowing that the quest was finite, all the mixed fear and relief that knowing brought, had kept Ray from needing anyone around. Him and Fraser and Dief in a cabin, that was different.
For some reason Ray had thought it wouldn't be -- for some reason he'd thought that their quest, during March and April and the slow melt to a northern Canadian summer, was as dark and cold as it would get up here -- but he was wrong, wrong, wrong to the power of infinity. It was dark for twenty-two fucking hours every day. Stepping outside made Ray fear for the hypothetical future children he wasn't going to have, plus more practically fear for his toes.
And then there was the problem of Fraser.
Ray understood that Fraser needed some time. Ray needed some time. Aside from the whole international immigration thing, and the balls-freezing cold, and the twenty-two hours of darkness, Ray was still adjusting to the post-Stella world. And it wasn't like he was that good at talking at the best of times, or at least he was only good at talking when he got really worked up or something threatened their lives in a really improbable way, but action was in seriously limited supply in the Northwest Territories in December. No talking for Ray. No talking for Fraser, either, he of the complicated Inuit stories and badly-disguised longing looks. But the dark and the cold and the Fraser treading really carefully like he was afraid Ray might hightail it at any moment were ...
Were making Ray want to get out, actually.
He went to town, to this diner that did the Great White Nowhere equivalent of a roaring trade during spring snowmelt when planes of hunters and occasional ecotourists started arriving. Ray liked the diner. The same three guys with wooly beards and plaid hunting caps sat at the same table every time Ray came in; they shared funny caribou stories and funny moose stories (which, Ray'd found somewhat to his bewilderment, were actually funny) and flirted with Marie, the middle generation of the three woman who ran the diner. When he could, Ray brought a few leftover Smarties for her eleven-year-old daughter Annie, who seemed to get a kick out of Ray bringing them.
On this particular morning neither Annie nor Marie was around, just Marie's mother, who everyone called Mrs. Lennox even though she probably had a first name. She brought Ray a stack of pancakes, a wild luxury he wouldn't have thought twice about in Chicago, and left him to it at a table by a little window looking out onto white-swirling dark. At least the diner had electricity, Ray thought, staring at his glass-blurred reflection. His reflection glared back. Well? Why don't you get the hell out?
And usually the answer was Because I promised Fraser I could hack it, but that wasn't working so good anymore, so Ray held his reflection's gaze and imagined going back to Chicago, imagined it all the way through.
He'd get on a plane, and another, and another, and if he was lucky he wouldn't get grounded, would instead go through bigger and bigger airports, around crowds, around people whose names and faces he didn't know, the world slowly getting lighter. He'd touch down in Chicago a day later, with its snow in dirty drifts and its wide lanes of traffic and its thousands of amenities that its thousands of inhabitants took for granted. He'd stay in some hotel with wall-to-wall beige carpeting for a week while he'd try to find an apartment that wouldn't cost too much and wouldn't feel too big and echoingly empty. He'd beg Welsh to take him back, and he'd work at the 27 with a bunch of people he barely knew, but who all knew Fraser, or thought they did, and wouldn't be surprised to hear that Ray hadn't stayed in Canada because no one was really crazy enough to live with the crazy Mountie. Ray would laugh like it was actually funny, and he'd work alone because no one would ever even begin to measure up to what Fraser had been, and one day -- one day he'd just -- and Fraser would be up here, all understanding and probably blaming himself if Ray got killed all alone --
Which brought Ray back to the diner, staring at his wide-eyed reflection, shaky. His pancakes were mostly gone, and the guys in their plaid hunting caps had left; in a corner the radiator ticked away pleasantly. Ray shut his eyes and just breathed, but that made it worse.
He was supposed to meet Fraser here when Fraser was done running some errands ("which are hardly important and will only take a few minutes; get some breakfast, Dief and I will be back before you know it") but Ray couldn't take four walls right now, the cozy diner pressing in on him from all sides, so he wrapped himself in a half-dozen haphazard layers and stumbled out into the street.
The snow squeaked under his boots. It was that strange ghostly white that made Ray think it must be near sunrise, but really just meant the reflection of a setting moon. Ray squinted up into the dark bowl of the sky, and there was the wheel of the Milky Way, stars behind stars behind stars, Ray's breath stuttering out warm into the frozen world, and what the hell made him think he could leave this? He turned and trudged over to the corner shed where they'd quartered the winter team while Ray was eating and Fraser was doing his errands. It was mostly the same team they'd had in the spring, except Mashka, who'd had puppies in the fall. Ray missed her. Ray'd missed the whole team over the summer, and he added that to the list of reasons he wished he didn't need, crouching down among the dogs, mumbling hellos and dodging any slobbery affection that was likely to freeze his nose off.
Fraser and Dief turned up a few minutes later, Fraser laden with food, a box that was probably cartridges, and a ... tree. A little tree, more like a bush, but made of pine and unmistakable. Ray, halfway through standing up to say hello, blurted, "What day is it?"
"The twenty-fourth," Fraser said, and added, fast, "But I certainly don't expect any sort of present, and I only got the tree because I thought something festive might --"
"It's perfect," Ray interrupted, before Fraser could say something really dumb. "Load 'em up," and he took the cartridge box and about half the food from Fraser's arms before Fraser could protest, packing it onto his sled. He'd made Fraser teach him how to sled back in the spring, so when they'd gone to hire out the team for the winter Ray'd convinced Fraser to get two smaller sleds instead of one larger one. He'd never mastered the art of being towed on skis, plus he'd suspected that Dief was laughing at him whenever he fell over. He could direct a team from the back of a sled, though, especially when it was only five of them, and there was almost nothing better than the way Fraser had lit up when he'd suggested the two sleds idea.
They took off for home, the world almost completely black now the moon had set; even the whole vast band of the galaxy across the sky couldn't light the snow much, and there wasn't much chance of an aurora this time of year. Fraser went first, Ray's team following after, but by now Ray knew the whole route between the town and their cabin, even in the dark: all the trees, which hollows in the snow were frozen rivulets or tussocks of grass and which were drifts from the latest storm.
Forty minutes out, the sun rose.
Ray squinted out over the blinding white, hanging on hard to the sled and trusting the dogs for this part, until his eyesight adjusted. Here was another thing he'd lose if he left, the glory of the sun briefly searing up over the horizon. In Chicago, the sun was just the sun. Here it was some kind of miracle, turning the world surreal restless gold in the summer, making Ray's chest ache with wonder when it came up and vanished again in winter, a promise half-fulfilled.
It was creeping back under the mountains when Ray and Fraser got home; by the time they'd finished unloading and feeding the dogs in their shed, the world was purpling back down into perpetual night and Ray could count the stars. He ducked inside instead, shedding layers, ready for an endless evening wishing for incident reports to fill out and bothering Fraser into playing cards with him by the light of a solitary flickering lamp and the glow from the stove.
Except that tonight Fraser had that little tree, because it was the twenty-fourth of December. Back in Chicago the station would be having its Christmas party, Secret Santa exchanges and eggnog and the latest civilian aide probably not putting mistletoe up all over the place, now Fraser wasn't there. Fraser was here instead, in a cabin with Ray, which was the first reason of all the reasons Ray wished he didn't need, was all the reasons, was setting up the three-foot tree in the corner by the couch. Ray went to help him. Dief got in the way. The whole cabin started smelling like fresh-cut pine.
"Where'd you get it?" Ray asked, once they'd got it satisfactorily propped up.
"MacPhearson grows them specially every year," Fraser said. They started unpacking the food: loaves of bread from the bakery, some festive-looking cookies, salted meat, the ever-present pemmican. "I reserved one a few months ago. Do you ...?"
"It's great," Ray assured him, and eyed the cookies skeptically. They could thaw and toast the bread over the pot-bellied stove that did double service as heater and oven, but he wasn't sure how to unfreeze the cookies. "Only thing is, it looks like we just kidnapped a sapling and brought it inside. It's a tree, yeah, but it's not a -- a ..."
"Christmas tree?" Fraser gave Ray one of the little smiles that just about killed him, and said, "I took the liberty of buying a quantity of red ribbons -- not exactly the same as Christmas ornaments, I grant you, but they'll make the tree more festive -- and I also got these." He offered out the cartridge case. Ray blinked, and opened it curiously, to find not bullets but candles, forty sturdy white candles, nestled together in neat rows.
"Isn't that a fire hazard?" Ray asked, trying not to sound astonished.
"I suppose it is," Fraser replied, and for a moment in the light of the lone lamp he looked very distant, like somewhere there was a part of him that couldn't be touched. Then he shook himself and brought out a candle, held it out to Ray. It was a strangely solemn gesture. Dief, lying on the rug by the fire, whuffled softly, but besides that and the occasional pop of the fire they stood in a perfect silence that went on for miles in the dark, and Ray felt a funny sort of lump in his throat. He fumbled with still-cold fingers for the lighter in his pocket, got it out and flicked up a flame for the half-waxy wick of the candle Fraser held.
It caught and stood flickering, throwing Fraser's face into relief.
They set candles up all around the cabin, using the first candle and another off it to light up all the rest. Ray was only nervous about the potential fire hazard for a minute or two, because Diefenbaker kept lying around with an air of complete unconcern, so it had to be okay. At the end they stood together in the middle of the cabin's main room, forty points of light surrounding them like some kind of grounded constellation. It was strangely beautiful, and it reminded Ray of something, but he couldn't think what.
"Yeah," he said, and leaned hard on Fraser. "Yeah, okay. Tree?"
"Tree," Fraser agreed, but rather than moving he turned Ray, tilted his head in the way he often did when he was politely not-asking for a kiss. So Ray kissed him, tasting snow, and pine, and Fraser, Fraser's soft thick hair in his hands, a million reasons to weather the dark and the cold. They broke apart reluctantly -- tree -- for Fraser to find scissors and the long roll of red ribbon.
Fraser was a lot better at tree-decorating than Ray was. All of his bows were perfectly tied, but Ray's came out funny and lopsided. "They have personality," Fraser said, and kissed the side of Ray's neck. Ray shivered a little and tied off a bow, one of the tail-ribbons much longer than the other. But the tree didn't look stupid: it looked red and green, surrounded by white candles, and Ray almost had it, that thing it was reminding him of. They sat back to admire their decorations; Ray worked a hand into Dief's soft ruff and leaned against Fraser. The cableknit rug was warm and slightly scratchy against his skin through a hole in one sock.
"The festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti," Fraser said, a soft murmur against Ray's ear, in his unprompted storytelling voice, "is the birthday of the unconquered sun." Ray blinked and turned his head from the dozen points of light that were the candles around the tree to stare into the hypnotizing flicker of flames in the potbellied stove. He paid attention. Fraser's storytelling voice meant something. "It became a widespread Roman holiday sometime in the second century, although historians disagree as to whether its eventual conflation with Christmas was a deliberate act of the early Christians or a happy accident of the calendar." Fraser shifted, pulling Ray back against his chest. Ray was probably just imagining that he could feel Fraser's heartbeat. "This festival was placed on the date of the solstice because it was on this day that the sun reversed its southward retreat and proved itself to be unconquered."
That seemed to be it. Encyclopedia Fraser strikes again. Ray stared into the fire for a while longer, and thought about midnight mass as a kid, holding a flickering white candle and singing Silent Night -- but that wasn't what he was thinking of. Outside, in the moon-reflected snow and the vast quiet, all was calm and bright, but hymns and masses weren't anything against the candles throwing the cabin around them into a soft glow, like an echo of the sun clearing the horizon in brilliance.
And Ray had it.
"When I was a kid," he said, because he could play Obscure Inuit Stories with the best of them by now, "Thanksgiving was the best holiday. Better than Christmas. I loved the presents, what kid doesn't love presents, but there were all those relatives around and then I had to write them thank you notes even though they'd been there when I opened stuff, and my mom always made me wear a tie to the midnight mass, which I hated. And then there was nothing until spring. But Thanksgiving -- You ever been down the Magnificent Mile?"
"Yes." Fraser was too close for Ray to look at properly, but somehow he could still feel Fraser focusing on him. "Rather frequently."
"In late November?"
"Occasionally," Fraser acknowledged. "I take it you're referring to the Lights Festival."
"You got it." Ray let go of Dief's soft fur and settled a bit closer against Fraser. It probably counted as snuggling. "I loved it. I mean, the parade was okay, but I liked the parts around it. The part when all the lights are up, all the way up from the River. It made me feel like winter wouldn't last forever. It made it like winter was a good place to be, too, it was pretty, it was the sort of thing you couldn't have without the dark, and I loved it."
Fraser murmured something affirmative and pressed another soft kiss to the side of Ray's neck. The shiver Ray felt was sharper this time, the frisson of a promise, but he wasn't done. He disentangled enough to look Fraser full in the face. Fraser looked hopeful, and happy, but still wary, too, and yeah, Ray had never actually wiped the wariness off his face. Hadn't because, Jesus, earlier today he'd actually thought about getting the hell out. If he was Fraser he'd be hanging on tighter than a limpet and scared out of his mind.
"When it's dark," Ray said, "and cold, and the sun is never, ever coming back, we light candles. We light candles and we, we huddle up, we create warmth, and I do this every day, Fraser. Every day I gotta do it over again, but I do, because there's things you can't have without the dark, and this is -- this is worth more than fast food or sun every day or anything in Chicago will ever, ever be. You got it?"
"I," Fraser said, looking like sunrise, and kissed Ray.
Apparently Ray had been missing out on something. He thought he had Fraser's mouth memorized, but he'd never even met this Fraser before, the one who cupped Ray's face in his hands like a gift and kissed Ray like he needed it to breathe, kissed Ray like he'd been dying, kissed Ray until Ray was dizzy and more than half-convinced he'd die too if they stopped.
The Fraser who unbuttoned Ray's sweater without breaking the kiss was new too, and the one who slid his hands up under Ray's t-shirt, each of his fingers bright-hot and electric, pressed them against Ray's ribs in a way that didn't tickle at all and set Ray shaking again. It was all new, all a revelation; Fraser kissed down Ray's chest, wet sucking kisses that made Ray arch up and yell loud enough that it woke Diefenbaker, who took one look at the proceedings and beat it to the next room, which made Ray laugh until Fraser started undoing his pants and he forgot about it entirely. He hardly had time to reciprocate, couldn't even really get at Fraser's shirt, because Fraser seemed pretty damn intent on unwrapping him or something, and Ray was too smart to complain.
Ray ended up mostly naked, with the warm soft-scratchy rug itching his shoulders not enough to be irritating and Fraser sprawled warm atop him. Ray'd managed to unbutton Fraser's shirt and pants, but hadn't managed to get him out of them, leaving Fraser in complete disarray; that was something else Ray wanted to see a lot more. He realized, hanging on hard to Fraser's back, Fraser making hot soft noises against his collarbone, a hand between them, working them both so good that Ray's spine was melting, that the old list of reasons was gone. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that Fraser was completely amazing and Ray could barely think, but that wasn't all of it.
"I -- I'm not gonna," he said, unsteady and breathless, meaning leave, meaning everything, and Fraser whispered, "I know, I know, Ray --" and Ray came, shaking, utterly wrecked, a million bright lights behind his eyes.
For a long time he just lay there. The rug under his bare back was getting itchier. The fire in the stove was burning low. Fraser, lying beside him and still half on top of him, was breathing deep and nearly steady, one arm wrapped around Ray as though now that Ray wasn't trying to get away, it was safe to hang on as tight as he could.
Ray thought, Huh.
A little while later, Ray thought, I think I just promised forever.
This thought didn't bother him, so he closed his eyes and drifted, Michigan Avenue hovering there like a mirage of Christmas lights and window lights and taillights. When he opened his eyes again, the white candles were lower than they'd been and Fraser was kneeling by him, shirtless, cleaning Ray up in a precise no-nonsense way that made Ray give a sleepy snort of laughter.
Fraser looked up at his face and smiled. "Hey."
"Hey," Ray said, stretching happily. "Merry Christmas."