Ray stared out the hospital window and ignored the discussion taking place around him. It had been almost a month since he'd woken from the coma and in that time, all anyone seemed to be able to do was argue. His parents, Stella and her new husband Ray Vecchio, and even Frannie and Ma Vecchio all seemed to have an opinion about his life and his recovery. And not one of them was willing to listen to a word Ray said. Ray snorted in self-deprecation. Not that they could understand half of what he said these days.
The only person who didn't have an opinion to share was Benton Fraser, and that was because he simply wasn't there. Part of Ray wanted to call his post in Canada find out why he hadn't shown up, but another part of him was afraid. And anytime he'd tried to ask anyone, they had either not understood his question or pretended they didn't understand because they didn't want to tell him anything. He wasn't sure which was worse.
For weeks, Ray had been working with speech therapists and physical therapists and doctors. He'd had more tests and had more blood taken than he'd had in his entire life. The doctors all said the same thing. He was brain damaged. Well, they were a little nicer in how they put it, but it came down to the same thing. Traumatic Brain Injury was just the PC way to say he was brain damaged. And the therapists all told him that he could relearn how to talk and write and do all the things that he used to do. But he'd never be as good as he was before. He'd always have to deal with the changes in his body and mind.
Ray hated having to work hard just to get back to what passed for semi-normal, but he was willing to do it if it meant he could get the hell away from the people who loved him. He knew that they were all just concerned about him. He knew that they wanted him to get better, but didn't believe he ever would. They saw him as damaged. And though he saw himself the same way, he hated that they did. He hated the pity and grief he saw in their eyes every time he struggled to find a word only to have it slurred so bad as to be unrecognizable. He hated the way they acted like he was a child who needed them to make his decisions.
After almost a month of therapy, the doctors were finally willing to set a date for his release. He was walking again, though he still needed the help of a cane at times. In fact, other than a bit of trembling when he was really tired, even his fine motor skills were back almost as good as new. Almost.
The one area that he still had the most trouble with was speech. The neurologist said he had aphasia and apraxia. Aphasia meant he sometimes had trouble finding words, slurring when he spoke or understanding what others said to him. The doctor said his was a fairly mild case and he should be grateful that he didn't have trouble reading words or writing them. He admitted that would be worse, but he didn't feel particularly lucky.
The Apraxia meant that even when he knew what he wanted to say, his mouth sometimes couldn't remember how to make the sounds come out. There result was a pretty bad stutter, especially with certain letters. The doctor believed he could retrain his brain to get past both the aphasia and apraxia, but it would take a long time and a lot of work. In the meantime, he'd taken to carrying a notebook with him all the time just in case he couldn't force the words to come out or people couldn't understand him.
Ray had dealt with the pity, the tears and even the arguments since waking, but it was with barely concealed resentment. Now that he was being released, however, everyone was getting even worse and his patience was at an all-time low. His parents were insisting that he come live with them. Ma Vecchio and Frannie wanted him to stay with them. Stella didn't want him, and neither did Vecchio, but she felt obligated to insist he come home with them. Guilt was a very powerful motivator. The doctor said he would be okay on his own as long as he continued the exercises proscribed by his various therapists, but no one would consider that.
Ray just wanted to be left alone. And he had a plan to ensure that he got just that. When the doctor finally released him, he would be ready and he would do what he knew was right for him.
Ray had three days notice before his release, and he used that time judiciously. He worked with Glenda, his speech therapist, and Jerry, his physical therapist, in order to make the arrangements. He also enlisted Lt. Welsh in his plan. That man had not only worked with the union rep to get Ray every benefit he could and ensure his early pension, but he was one of the only people who didn't treat him like he was mentally defective. He was happy to get Ray's bags packed and agreed to pick him up from the hospital. And if the timing was right, he could get away without the huge scene he expected from friends and family.
The day arrived and the doctor, who had agreed with Ray's desire to get away from the smothering group that was constantly crowding Ray's hospital room, signed his release papers a full two hours earlier than he informed the family he would. Lt. Welsh was there, Ray's bags packed in the trunk of his car, and he wheeled Ray out as per hospital regulations. Ray settled into the passenger seat of the car and they pulled away just as he saw his parents drive up.
"They're not going to be happy," Welsh predicted. He had obviously seen them too.
Ray shrugged. "I tr-tried t-to t-tell th-them. Wouldn't li-listen."
Welsh nodded. He had been witness to the way the Kowalski's and Vecchios had pretty much ignored everything Ray said. "I'll call everyone after your plane leaves. You gonna be alright getting there?"
Ray knew Welsh wasn't talking about getting through the airport. The trip to Glacier Point was a long one. It was a relatively large town for the Yukon, but there were definitely no direct flights and no one was expecting him. Ray had left a message with the RCMP post there, but had learned that Fraser was out on a training search and rescue mission and wasn't expected back for a week at the earliest. He was checking in daily by satellite phone, but they couldn't relay personal information unless it was a dire emergency. That mean Ray would beat him there, and Fraser wouldn't know until he arrived home.
Ray would have to take a flight into Vancouver and from there, he'd fly to Whitehorse. He had arranged to take a charter up from there to Glacier Point. He'd spend the night in Whitehorse, though, since he wasn't sure he could take that last leg without his strength giving out first.
To Welsh, he just smiled. "G-got ev-everyth-thing I need. P-paper, p-pen, p-pills…"
They pulled up to the drop-off lane and Welsh put the car in park. "You call me from Whitehorse. And you call me when you get to Glacier Point."
"I w-will," Ray promised.
With a nod, Welsh climbed from the car and set about getting Ray's bags from the trunk while Ray flagged down one of the skycaps. Soon, his gear was checked and he was in one of those golf carts—Welsh had insisted that he didn't walk through the airport—on his way to the gate. Ray had been more than a little surprised when instead of taking Ray's offered hand, Welsh had pulled him into a bear hug.
Ray had thought that he was prepared for the odd looks he would receive from people when they heard him struggle to speak, but he wasn't really. He did his best to ignore the looks and concentrate on doing what needed to be done. He was glad that the slurring was pretty much gone, but the stutter was still pretty bad. And when all else failed, he pulled out his pad and pen and wrote. When it was said and done, however, he was glad to settle back into his seat on the plane and watch as Chicago disappeared from view.
The flight took about five hours and then he was being escorted from one plane to the next. He suspected that Lt. Welsh had arranged for his cart trip this time too, but was grateful nonetheless. He was already tired from the trip and he still had to get to Whitehorse and to a hotel. Of course, the second plane was much smaller than the first and there was hardly any room to move around, not that Ray's balance was such that he wanted to attempt that. By the time he reached Whitehorse, Ray was ready to fall over from exhaustion. He was once again grateful for the arrangements made by the airline for his transport through the small airport from the gate to the luggage pick up.
Once his bags were loaded onto a cart by the airline employee, Ray used that cart to help him balance as he headed for the taxi stand. Whitehorse wasn't a huge city by any means, but there were a couple taxis waiting for fares, and it was a simple matter to ask for the closest hotel. At the hotel, the cabbie helped him get his luggage into the lobby and Ray was never so grateful for the politeness of Canadians.
Fifteen minutes later, he was in his room and the arrangements for his return to the airport in the morning had been made. Though the hotel didn't offer room service, the man at the front desk had offered to have something delivered over from the diner down the road. When Ray saw his reflection in the bathroom mirror, and saw just how awful he looked, he understood why the guy was being so solicitous. He looked like he could keel over at any minute and the trembling from overexertion was pretty bad.
Ray cleaned up and by the time he was finished and changed into sweat pants and sweat shirt, the food had arrived. He paid for it and sat down at the small table to eat with the television for company. It was only once the food was gone that he recalled his promise to call Lt. Welsh, so he dug his prepaid calling card out of his pack and started dialing.
"I-I m-made it," Ray said once Welsh had answered.
"At least to Whitehorse," Welsh said. "Still have another leg to go."
"Lot shorter," Ray said. He'd learned to keep his sentences short and use the smallest words he could. "T-tired."
"I expect so," Welsh said brusquely. "I know why you didn't hang around to get your strength up more, but it doesn't change the fact that this would have been easier if you were stronger."
"Y-es mom," Ray teased.
Welsh grunted. "Speaking of your mother." Ray groaned. "Yeah. It went about how you'd expect. I had every one of them swearing at me and calling me the devil incarnate. Well, your dad was quiet. I think he might have understood."
"Th-thanks," Ray said quietly.
"Hey, I take care of my men," Welsh said gruffly. "Now, you get some sleep and take care of yourself. I still expect you to call tomorrow after you get in."
"P-promise," Ray said. "'Night."
"Goodnight Kowalski," Welsh said.
Ray hung up the phone and lay down. His pills were sitting on the bedside table in one of those pill organizers. He hated the damned thing, but his nurse Freda had insisted that it was the best way to ensure that he didn't miss a dosage. He had to take five pills every morning and three every night and one with lunch every day. He also had pain meds, but those he only took when things got bad. He opened the slot for Sunday night and let the three pills drop into his hand. Then he grabbed the bottle with the pain meds and shook out one. His head and leg were both killing him, and it wouldn't hurt to let the drugs help him sleep.
Soon after, despite the early hour, he shut off the TV and the lights and let sleep claim him.
This may well be the stupidest thing Ray had ever done in his life. He had run away from home at the ripe old age of forty. Not only had he run away from home, he wasn't even entirely sure of his welcome at his intended destination. As the pilot, Cliff, droned on about the town and the people in it, Ray considered again why Fraser hadn't come or even called while he was in the hospital.
When they had returned from their quest for the Hand of Franklin, Ray and Fraser had talked long and hard about what would happen next. It was obvious that Fraser was a hundred times happier up here than he had ever been in Chicago. It wasn't that he didn't care about all the people he worked with, it was just that the life there was stifling for a man who lived and breathed wilderness.
Ray had loved the harsh life he had discovered on the trail, but knew that he was expected to return to Chicago. Everyone, including Fraser, had made it clear that they thought he would go back. He was city born and bred, and no matter how much he loved their adventure, everyone knew that he would get tired of that before long. Everyone knew that except Ray. But Ray hadn't thought to argue the point. Fraser thought he belonged in the city and Fraser was always right. Besides, Fraser hadn't asked him to stay, so he had returned to Chicago and to the life that was familiar there.
For more than a year, he had worked at the 27th precinct with the people who had become his friends, but it wasn't the same. Nothing was the same. After a while, Ray realized that it wasn't the job or the city or his friends and family that had changed, but him. Almost two years being partners with Fraser, training for their adventure for six months, and being alone out on the ice for more than four months with the same man had irrevocably changed him. He didn't see people the same way. He didn't see life the same way, but he hadn't known then what he could do about it.
And then the shooting and the coma and weeks in the hospital had given him a new perspective on his situation. Ray shook his head. He wasn't running away, he reminded himself. He was running towards a life that he wanted desperately. He no longer had anything to hold him back from taking what he wanted. Hopefully that life would include Fraser, but even if he wanted nothing to do with Ray, Ray knew that he didn't belong in the city anymore. And it had nothing to do with the shooting. Ray had fallen in love with the life he had glimpsed for the few months he'd been in Canada with Fraser. It was a simple life, if harsh at times, and it was a life that he wanted for himself.
"So, you planning on staying for a while?" Cliff asked once he had run out of gossip.
Ray smirked. He'd be the talk of the town for months to come. "Hope s-so."
Cliff didn't ask more. It wasn't the way people from small towns like Glacier Point operated. They would ask a few polite questions and then respectfully observe a person's behavior until they were able to form an opinion. Ray was grateful for that. It meant that most people wouldn't just assume he was retarded or something. And they wouldn't expect him to tell his life story for their entertainment.
Ray had never been to Glacier Point, but it looked much like the other small northern towns he'd seen while on the quest with Fraser. The biggest difference was the fact that this town was far enough south to have trees—and not just pine, fir and spruce trees, there were birch and cottonwoods and poplars. There were also more buildings in the town than most Ray had seen, and he knew that the population fluctuated with the seasons. Glacier Point was on the road to Alaska and there were a number of American tourists who came through every summer. The busiest time, however, were the winter months; the town had a few ski lodges that did a good trade when snow covered the ground. The permanent population was about 1,200, but could explode up to 5,000 at the height of the ski season.
Fraser had taken the position of post commander a few months back when the previous commander had retired. He was now Sergeant Fraser. He'd spent less than a year as Corporal, but considering the length of time he was a mere constable, Ray felt it was a promotion long overdue.
Because of the size of the town during tourist season, there were five Mounties stationed at the post under Fraser and a couple civilian aids. They weren't the largest detachment in the Yukon Territory, but they were up in the top five. Ray was proud of the fact that Fraser was finally being recognized for the skilled Mountie and leader he was.
Since leaving for Chicago, Ray had made a point of making sure he wrote to Fraser at least twice a month. The letters back from Fraser were a little more sporadic but he always wrote long letters telling Ray about the post and the people of the town. Ray had learned a lot about Glacier Point from those letters. He'd learned less about Fraser, but he was getting better about reading between the lines with his friend. He knew that Fraser was often lonely, despite the numerous invitations to dinner he received from the townsfolk. Fraser kept himself at a friendly distance from people and most people were too well-mannered to break through that wall of courtesy, leaving Fraser in his self-inflicted loneliness.
Ray hoped that Fraser would let him do something about that. Well, let wasn't exactly the right word. Fraser had never let Ray in back in Chicago; Ray had simply stormed the fortress around Fraser's heart and forced his way in. Now, he hoped he would be able to do the same again. He hoped that Fraser would let him stay with him, at least. Even if their relationship never became everything that Ray hoped it could be, he wanted to stay. He wanted to be a part of Fraser's life. He wanted to make the man laugh and smile and be happy, the way he had been on their quest.
"Brace yourself," Cliff told him. "Landing can be tricky in the winter like this. But I've been doing this three times a week for more than ten years. Just hang on and I'll get us down safe."
Ray smiled nervously at the guy and watched as the icy runway got closer.