Ray’s soulmark lines ran all the way up to his elbow, twisted around and around his left arm. The outline was heavy, thick black lines. Sign of a strong soulbond, everyone said. Shame it reached his elbow; he wouldn’t meet his soulmate until well into adulthood, maybe even middle age. Far too late and far too early at the same time.
Hollywood ruined everything, obsessed with two very different soulmate ideals: meet your soulmate young, grow together like saplings, trunks and branches entwined. Meet your soulmate old, near death, bittersweet miracle. Either way, audiences cheered and cried and left the theater satisfied with the world being just and right.
Soulmates in their twenties, thirties, forties, fifties? That was neither sweet nor sad. No one wanted to tell their stories.
Ray didn’t mind. He wore long sleeves, threw himself into his work. He didn’t want a soulmark, didn’t care about a soulmate. He wanted to leave his own mark on the world, one that made him struggle and fight, one he’d given his all to, not something left to fate.
Ray took a job at Bear Creek Reservation because there’d been a lot of pressure on the FBI to do something out there, and it was a chance for him to impress the higher ups. They wanted him there. They wanted him there for shit reasons, it’s not like his heritage was going to get him anywhere on a reservation, but it was still a good chance to prove himself. Again, and again, and again.
Ray took a job at Bear Creek Reservation because it got him the hell away from a relationship gone sour. They’d met at bar, neither of them were out, not really, they weren’t looking for anything serious, and neither of them were interested in fated partnerships.
Or that’s what Billy had said at the time. Then he started hinting around that maybe they should think about living together. His lease was up, and they already spent a lot of time together. That wasn’t true. Ray spent a lot of time at work. A lot of time alone. What little time was left, some of that he spent with Billy.
Ray tried to be gentle with him. Tried to let him down easy.
Billy’d blown up, made out like Ray really was waiting for color to spread through his mark, fill it up, said nasty things about there being a woman out there, probably, and Ray would never be happy.
Joke was on him. Ray didn’t like soulmates, but he sure did like women, too.
Sometimes, in the movies, you felt the color flow into your mark, like warm water running along your skin or tiny electrical shocks or being petted by the softest fur imaginable.
When Ray met his soulmate, he didn’t feel a goddamn thing.
It wasn’t until late that night, back in his temporary room, that he noticed the color. He took off his shirt, careful. Hung it up, careful. Sprayed it with some vodka mixed with water, careful. That took any sweat smell out of it until he could get it to a good cleaner. Probably he wouldn’t find one until he was back in D.C.
Nearly walked into the wall when he caught color out of the corner of his eye. Red-orange that stood out sharp against the thick black lines.
He’d talked to five new people that day and walked past at least ten more. The movies made it easy. You met your soulmate. You talked. You felt the color flood into your mark, just like your soulmate brought meaning to your life.
Ray gave his life meaning on his own.
He sat on the edge of the dumpy bed, still wearing his suit pants, his dress shoes, and his white undershirt. Held his arm out in front of him. Didn’t feel like his anymore. Didn’t look like his, either.
Few options here. Go back around, sleeves rolled up, looking to see if he could find all the people he’d talked to or run into the same person in the background of his day, and find the person whose newly-colored mark matched. Wait and see if that person came looking for him. Maybe they’d felt something at the time. Maybe they’d seen it right after and put two and two together. Maybe they’d been just as shocked as him, but immediately started looking.
Or, and the one he was leaning toward, Ray could just ignore it.
Yeah. That sounded pretty good.
After everything was done, not tied up neat, not happy justice, but done, Crow Horse came up to him.
“You want to come to dinner?” he asked. “I’m grilling up burgers. We can pick you up something besides beer on the way. Jimmy’s welcome, too.”
Ray shrugged, then nodded. He was hot and tired and sore. His plan had been to return to D.C. just as soon as the work was done. Time for it came, but now he wasn’t so sure he wanted to go. He’d seen too much. He could put off that decision one night. Maybe two.
“Beer’s fine,” he said. He left the dog’s name alone. Long as he was out here, he wasn’t going to live that down. If he took the dog back with him, maybe he’d change the name. Or maybe he wouldn’t care enough to. Maybe he’d let it remind him of all this. The space. The people.
The bullshit things he learned.
Crow Horse’s house was small and neat. Ray didn’t get to see much of it. Crow Horse grabbed two cans of beer and some hamburger patties already seasoned and formed, and led him out back. Two old metal chairs, paint chipped, angled toward each other, an ancient plastic table in the middle. The grill was farther back from the house.
Crow Horse went straight to the grill.
“Go on, sit,” he told Ray, not looking back at him. “Drink yourself a beer.”
Ray laughed. It felt rusty in his throat. “You trying to get me drunk already?” he asked.
Crow Horse’s laugh was loud. “Don’t think I’d have to try too hard,” he said. Ray flipped him off, but popped open the can. Held it, cold against his palm. Stretched out his legs. The setting sun was warm through the denim, bright on his face.
He closed his eyes. Took a drink, bitter on his tongue.
Crow Horse didn’t talk. Ray didn’t either. Didn’t feel pressured to fill the silence. It was comfortable between them, and easy. Silence, beer that tasted even worse with each drink, the sound of meat on the grill.
“Falling asleep on me?” Crow Horse asked. Ray opened his eyes, squinted against the sun. It hit at just the right angle to half-blind him. He blinked the brightness from his vision. When he could make out Crow Horse again, the man had his sleeves rolled up. Heavy black lines ran up his left arm, disappearing up under his sleeves.
The soulmark was filled with color. Red-orange. Bright enough to be new.
Ray took a deep breath. Crow Horse didn’t look at him.
“Were you going to say anything or just wait and see if I noticed?” Ray asked at last. This time, the silence wasn’t at easy. Or maybe it was for Crow Horse, but Ray wasn’t comfortable with it.
“Wouldn’t be much of an agent if you didn’t.” Crow Horse started moving the hamburger patties from the grill to the plate, one slow, precise motion at a time.
Ray looked down at his own arm, bared by the t-shirt. No one had said anything about it. He’d worn his suit enough, long sleeves even without the jacket, that maybe no one knew the color hadn’t been there forever, that he’d been blank until this barren land, and Bear Creek, and Walter Crow Horse.
He took a big drink of beer. Drained the can. It still wasn’t any good. Jimmy sat at the side of the chair, then fell sideways, his weight pushing at Ray’s leg. Ray reached down, scratched around the base of his ears.
Crow Horse didn’t say anything else as he finished grilling. Ray didn’t, either. Pet the dog absentmindedly. Squeezed the empty beer can. Let himself watch Crow Horse move at the grill, the good way he wore his jeans.
The silence remained until they both had burgers and fresh cans of beer. Ray left his unopened. Crow Horse drank half of his before he set it aside and turned to his burger. There wasn’t much on it, no lettuce or tomatoes. Some pickles, hot mustard.
The burger didn’t need anything else. The meat was good, rich, and the seasoning a warm, bright burst of flavor. He had to set it down on the thin paper plate after the first bite, take the time to savor it.
“That’s good,” he said. Took another bite.
Crow Horse nodded slow. “Don’t cook much, but I can grill.”
More silence, easier this time. Jimmy flopped between them, belly in the dirt, head swiveling from one of them to the other.
“Definition of puppy dog eyes,” Ray said just to have something to say.
Crow Horse wasn’t going to make anything easy. Ray should have known better than that. “What’s it mean?” he asked.
“You called him that,” Crow Horse said. His smile was crooked. Ray liked it.
“Yeah.” Ray deserved that, he guessed. “And our marks?”
Crow Horse set down his plate. Rested his forearms on his thighs. His hands settled together between his knees, blunt fingers, skin rough from work.
“Guess they mean we’re soulmates.”
“You work hard to be this annoying or is it just a gift?” Ray asked. He meant to grumble, but there was a wry lift to his words that gave away his amusement.
“Natural born gift,” Crow Horse said, smile widening, “that I honed with practice.”
Ray took another bite of hamburger. Chewed while he considered what to say next.
“You ever thought about what you’d want from a soulmate?” he asked.
Crow Horse looked out into the desert, the sky colored from the setting sun. The heat hadn’t broken yet, not even this late in the day. “Yup.” At first, Ray thought he wouldn’t say anything else, but then he added, “Bet we all do.”
It was like pulling splinters out of shaking hands. Ray was good at interrogations, even better at getting the information he needed from casual conversation, but he sure did suck at this.
“What’d you want from yours?”
“From the imaginary soulmate I might or might not meet?” Crow Horse asked, then looked at him. “Or from you?”
It was hard to meet his gaze, but harder still to look away. “Either,” he said, but that was a lie. “Me.”
“Don’t know. I like you, kola. But I don’t know you.”
Ray grunted a laugh. “You know me better’n most.”
“That says more about you than me.” Crow Horse picked up his plate again, but didn’t take another bite. “I want to know you more. But you got a home back east. I know that. And I got a home here. You know that. I’d like it if you stuck around awhile. I’ll live if you don’t, and so will you.”
He would. They both would. Ray liked that. Liked even more that Crow Horse not only knew it but understood it enough to say.
“I’ve got this dog now,” he said. Broke a piece off his burger and tossed it to Jimmy even though the meat was too good to share. “Probably should stick around awhile, find him a home.”
Crow Horse laughed. It was a good sound. “Leave him here,” he said. “He’ll fit right in.”
Ray nodded. “And if I still stick around?”
There was silence. Crow Horse looked at him. Ray looked back. “Maybe you too,” he said at last.
Ray smiled. Picked up his burger. Finished it off in just a few bites. Cracked open his beer after. Sat with Crow Horse, and Jimmy, and the smell of hot meat. Watched the sun set and all that big sky fill up with stars. It was nice.
Crow Horse put his hand on Ray’s arm. His fingers were warm. That was nice too.
Ray kissed Walter for the first time three days later, standing in Walter’s kitchen, pasta burnt on the stove. Walter tasted like beer and mint, which was kind of terrible, but the kiss itself was good. Better than good.
Jimmy barked to be let in. They left him in the kitchen. Turned off the stove.
Ray took Walter to bed that day, too, stripped him slow, laid him out in his own bed. Walter’s hair was loose. His skinned scarred. Walter’s mark ran halfway up his bicep. Long wait for his soulmate, that one.
He cupped Ray’s jaw. Kissed him soft. Drew him down onto the bed.
Ray went back to DC just long enough to get his things. Most of it, he left behind. He didn’t need it out in the desert. The local FBI office was happy to take him. Happy to have someone maybe the rez cops would trust.
Ray moved in with Walter. Jimmy came with him.
It wasn’t easy, not always. Not like the movies. They didn’t do everything right just because they were soulmates. They didn’t get along every moment and never fight. They didn’t know each other without talking. They were assholes, still, and often to each other.
Their soulmarks faded slow into a warm, worn brick color. The black lines stayed thick and dark. Ray never did feel Walter’s pain through the mark or anything like that.
The movies got it all wrong.
Ray liked the real thing much better.