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Isolation, Near Perfect

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Someone rapped on the front flap of Robert's tent, as though the flap were an actual oak door and not just canvas pulled taut. The strangeness of that was enough to snap Robert out of a sound sleep and jolt him halfway upright, and he scrubbed at his eyes with both hands, trying to assess the situation. Something had awoken him. An animal? No, that didn't sound right. A storm? No, too quiet for a storm--

There was another knock at the front flap, louder, more insistent. The whole frame of the tent shook a little under the impact of each knock, giving the general impression of an earthquake.

Robert was nearly certain that the criminal he was pursuing wouldn't be so considerate as to knock, but he picked up his rifle, anyway. "Who is it?"

"It's me," Frobisher said. "The corporal."

Robert clicked on his lantern, and sighed. An entire year had passed since they'd been promoted; if Frobisher didn't stop referring to himself as the corporal soon, Robert was going to kill him and bury him in the ice fields, where no one would ever find the body.

Still, he had to smile a little when Frobisher finally peeled back the tent flap, tipped his hat, and said, "Corporal," his tone almost requesting that Robert willingly participate in the entirely ridiculous exercise.

"Corporal," Robert said back, trying to make his tone a little more serious than Frobisher's; their ranks weren't really a laughing matter, after all. "I was unaware that you were going to join me on this particular--"

"I'm thinking of growing a mustache." Frobisher ducked into the tent and gave Robert's bedroll an impatient shove toward the western wall of the tent. Robert scooted over a bit further, giving Frobisher enough room to spread out his bedroll along the eastern wall. "Do you think I would look handsome with a mustache?"

"I think mustaches are probably against the uniform code," Robert said, despite having seen numerous officers with mustaches over the years; it was a more tactful response than the one that had immediately come to mind.

"You think I'd look like a fool," Frobisher said, expertly reading between the lines. "Fair enough; I remember what you looked like with a beard."

Robert couldn't repress the urge to roll his eyes skyward. "We'd lost our razors--"

"You woke up one morning, and there it was--"

"We'd been in the ice fields for days--"

"Plastered to your face, like some kind of rare disease--"

"You know my facial hair comes in fast--"

"The memory haunts me still," Frobisher concluded, and flopped down onto his bedroll, probably for dramatic effect. "I, however, would look dashing with a mustache."

"The only dashing involved would be in the verb form." Robert finally returned his rifle to its usual position and stretched back out on his bedroll, folding his arms under his head. "How did you know where to find me?"

"I didn't." Frobisher wrestled his boots off and sprawled out on his side, plucking off his Stetson and stashing it in the narrow space between his bedroll and the canvas wall. "I've been pursuing a poacher, who diverted in this direction two days ago--"

"I believe you're referring to my poacher," Robert interrupted, "a most seriously deranged criminal, who I intend to apprehend at first light tomorrow--"

"I see, I see." Frobisher turned off the lantern, returning the tent to total darkness. "If you've become attached to this particular criminal, you're more than welcome to act as a witness when I arrest him."

"If anyone will be doing any arresting tomorrow, Frobisher, it's going to be me." Robert slid his bedroll back toward Frobisher, just far enough so that they were shoulder-to-shoulder. Frobisher didn't question the need for contact; he just bumped his knee against Robert's in a friendly, familiar way that was almost a greeting. This was the stuff of old habit: shoulder-to-shoulder, knee-to-knee, so isolated they might as well have been the only people in the entire universe. Buck's mother - God rest her soul - used to say, the Rapture could come and the two of you would never know it, and it was only when they were out here that Robert really understood what she'd meant.

Of course, his universe was a little bigger than it'd been back then. Even out here, in near-perfect isolation, he couldn't quite tune out the quietly demanding voice of his son; the boy was like a broken record in the back of his mind.

Frobisher bumped Robert's knee again. "I'd almost think you were sleeping, if it weren't for all the grumbling and sighing."

Robert cleared his throat. "I most certainly am not."

"Like a moose," Frobisher insisted, and demonstrated with exaggeratedly loud huffs of breath. "And I don't know about you--" He wriggled around a bit, presumably getting inside his bedroll. "But I intend to get some rest, so that I can be refreshed and ready to administer some justice at daybreak."

"Quite right," Robert said, and closed his eyes, willing himself to sleep.

Frobisher coughed. "Bob - I'm sorry."

Robert craned his neck, trying to get a look at Frobisher in the darkness. "For what?"

Before Frobisher could begin to explain, one of the foulest odors Robert had ever had the displeasure to encounter filled the tent, explaining for him.

Frobisher sounded entirely contrite. "Lately, I--"

Robert groaned, flattening a hand over his nose and mouth. "Buck," he said, his voice muffled by his fingers, "you've become a flatulent old man well before your time."

"I don't think there is a proper time to be a flatulent old man," Frobisher said, his voice similarly muffled. "But as it happens, I'm thirty-seven, and while that might not make me an old man, it at least qualifies me to be flatulent."

"Not in my tent." Robert elbowed Frobisher through the twin walls of their bedding. "Get yourself under control, man. That's disgraceful."

After a moment, Frobisher cleared his throat. "It's safe now, Bob."

"Well, thank God for that." Robert reluctantly lowered his hand. "Are you done, Buck? Can we sleep now?"

"Be my guest," Frobisher said, and made a rather large production of shifting around to get comfortable. "Goodnight, Bob."

"Goodnight, Buck," Robert muttered, tucking his face under the end of his bedding, just to be safe.

Just as Robert was drifting off to sleep, Frobisher whispered, "Bob?"

Robert opened one eye, willing himself not to kill Frobisher. "Yes?"

"I am definitely arresting that poacher in the morning." Frobisher sounded half-awake, at best. "Single-handedly, in an amazing feat of bravery and valor, just Corporal Frobisher, and maybe - possibly - his sidekick, Corporal Fraser--"

"Goodnight, Buck," Robert said again, and this time it seemed to take; this time, the silence stretched out until the only sounds in the tent were the soft point and counterpoint of their breathing, Frobisher's slower and deeper than Robert's. He was already asleep.

Robert closed his eyes again, and let the familiar white noise of Frobisher's breathing lull him back to sleep.