Back in Boulder, that first night they’d made love, Gray had asked Fritz who he told his stories to. It was such a light question, asked with fondness, but for him it was weighted with all his failures, personal and professional. That she’d thought it a tragedy when he said he kept them to himself seemed almost amusing at the time, but he’d been hiding, still. Before he’d left his heart out in the open where it could be easily stepped on.
Beside him in the bed, Gray shifted, lifting his hand and settling it on her silky hip. She traced patterns over his heart, and he could feel her holding back from asking him something, so after waiting a while, he chuckled and said, “Okay, out with it.”
Gray pressed her face into his chest, laughing. They weren’t awkward anymore, really, but there was a tentativeness—maybe the kind that came with trying something for real, instead of a grief-fueled solace-seeking. Moving from past tense to present.
Eventually, she looked up at him. “Why didn’t you tell me?” Gray asked, soft, tender. “That you were the one to pull him out? That you saw it.”
Who do you tell your stories to? His usual responses to top-heavy questions were glib or changing the subject. There were reasons he was still alone. But everything about Gray was different, and he was different, too, so time to change those stripes. “It was hard enough, calling his mom. None of us wanted to be the one who called you, and then there was the funeral, and Maureen, and... We figured it was a detail you didn’t need to know.”
The answer seemed to satisfy her, but then she said, “You risked your own life to try to save his.”
“Well. That’s not what you think about, at the time.” He’d never truly understood Grady’s obsession with fishing, that whole outdoorsy lifestyle crap. Just because they’d grown up in Boulder didn’t mean it was their foretold destiny to spend their lives on rivers being damp or eaten by mosquitoes. But that was the life that had led Grady to Gray. And Gray, strangely, to Fritz.
“Still. I wish you’d said.” She wasn’t annoyed, there was none of that brittleness in her voice. He knew the regret that was itching under her skin, but it wouldn’t have mattered: she’d still have said all the things she said, believed all the things about him she’d believed. And he’d still have fallen in love even as she said the words.
He traced the backs of his fingers along the warm skin of her shoulder, wrinkled his nose and shook his head. “There was the investigation, too, and at that point, when we weren’t just shell-shocked, we wanted to spare everyone as much as possible.”
The thing he’d been most worried about was that he knew she’d never liked him, and just by virtue of him being there at the end of her lover’s life, she’d have more reasons than ever for her anger. Stupid, maybe, since she wouldn’t hate Sammie or Dennis or any of the other guys who’d come along, but none of them had been thinking all that clearly then. Her dislike was localized, just for him.
Fritz’s usual reluctance to explain himself wasn’t going to work, not if he wanted her to stay. “I was always the serious one, back then. Not that I didn’t drink or get stoned with them, but none of those guys really had a talent for thinking ahead.”
Gray favored him with one of those brilliant smiles that left him a little weak. “I always wondered what you guys were like, before I knew you. I thought maybe you were the Three Musketeers, all for one and one for all.”
Leaning in, Fritz kissed her nose. “Maybe them. They were the Three Musketeers, so I guess that’d make me D’Artagnan—I came in later and tried too hard. I was a huge A/V nerd back then, what with the picture-taking and all. The video.”
“You were the person he trusted most.”
There was an ache that ran between them shaped like that river. He wondered if it would always be there, or if someday it would dry up, leaving nothing but the rocks worn smooth by its passing. He didn’t want to forget Grady, and he didn’t want Gray to, either, but maybe something could be left for them, beautiful and meaningful in its history.
“I used to always think I’d be shit in a crisis—Grady’d always done that wilderness first aid thing, Dennis wanted to be an EMT back in the day, before they decided to try the fishing business, so I thought they were the ones who were always on top of things. But then I remembered that I was the serious one, back in school. The guy those idiots called when one of them passed out on the bus in hypoglycemic shock after partying all New Year’s Eve, or stepped in before an outbreak of testosterone got them pulverized in a fight.” He loved Sam and Dennis, but there were times Fritz had wondered if they were really that good for Grady, especially Dennis. When Grady had started coming out to arrange river tours in LA, it seemed that Dennis was often shooting for trips that could be wildly dangerous if the conditions weren’t perfect. But Fritz didn’t know much about the business, and he’d kept his mouth shut.
If he’d just said something when there was time.
“Those seem like pretty specific memories.”
The hot shame crept up behind his eyes, stung his throat. “Should have spoken up more instead of just going along. Done that when it counted.”
Gray scooted up the bed, pulled his head onto her shoulder and stroked his hair. It was so wrong to have her comfort him, but he couldn’t deny he needed it. “You know, I read a lot of stuff about grief, those first months. I kept seeing certain things, over and over—the five stages, stuff like that. There’s this accepted wisdom which says you’re angry at the person for leaving you, leaving you alone. You’re supposed to acknowledge your anger towards them.” She sighed. “But I never felt that. I was angry about some of the things that happened, but I was never angry at him. Only myself, for all the things I didn’t say or do.”
“Yeah.” Fritz swallowed hard. “He loved his life. He loved you. Going out on the river…he loved that, too. I keep trying to tell myself that he went out doing something he loved to do, right before he was marrying someone he loved.”
“That’s all any of us can ask for, I guess, to go out in a way we’d choose instead of having it chosen for us.” Gray was quiet for a bit and Fritz sat up, pulled the sheet over her and smiled. She didn’t look sad, only wistful. “That all of our clumsy, blind stumbling around leads us somewhere we want to go.”
Fritz kissed her for a long time, pressed her soft curves to his sharp lines and angles. “I never finished my story that night,” he said against her neck. “It starts with a guy going to a funeral. There’s some stuff in the middle, the clumsy blind stumbley part, we can get to that later. It ends with him falling in love.”