His first passion was for a boy named Sean Maxwell.
As Ben's grandfather told him, there had been Maxwells in and around Tuktoyaktuk for oh, over a hundred and thirty years, now—ever since Ian John Maxwell, Sean's great-great-grandfather and a damned brave man, had captained the Annabella from the tip of the Kintyre peninsula all the way to Goose Bay. George Fraser had been friends with Sean's grandfather, "and your father was friendly with Tommy Maxwell—you just ask him about that, the next time you see him."
"Sure," Ben said; he would put that on the list of Things To Ask His Father The Next Time He Saw Him.
The important thing was that his grandfather approved of the Maxwells, which meant that Ben had neither to plead for the friendship nor justify spending all his free time with Sean. His grandmother did his grandfather one better, approving not only of the boy but of Ben's passion for him, which she seemed instinctively to sense. "You know, when I was twelve," she told Ben one afternoon as she was painting a long scrape on his arm with Mercurochrome, "I had a pash for a girl named Florence Blakeley. She was just—oh, I thought she was the sun and the moon and the stars. I thought that if I stood close enough, some of that light would shine on me." His grandmother peered closely at the scrape, then nodded to herself and reached for a piece of gauze. Ben stared at her rough, scarred hands; they always looked to him like the road map of some unknown country. "Of course, that was before I met your grandfather," she mused, tying the ends of the bandage together neatly, "and I was young and lonely. It's good to have friends," she concluded, and briskly waved him off.
Ben was grateful for her terminology, understanding now that he must actually have a pash for Sean Maxwell, if a pash was this kind of nervous, sick feeling. There weren't many other children in the village, and there were hardly any boys his own age, but Sean Maxwell was his own age exactly, and sunny and careless beyond imagination. Sean seemed to have gotten his bright temperament from his mother, who seemed ridiculously young to Ben, considering that she'd already given birth to four children, of which Sean was the youngest. Mrs. Maxwell was slim and blonde and chic, and she wore cosmetics and perfume even in the house. A farther cry from his sturdy, solid grandmother with her drab gray clothes and bowl-cut white hair could hardly be imagined. Everything in the Maxwell house seemed to be touched by Mrs. Maxwell's influence; the whole place was preposterously feminine. The effect was enhanced by Sean's fourteen year old twin sisters, Catherine and Colleen, who tended to lounge around the sitting room reading glossy magazines full of pictures of people from those foreign planets, France and New York. Ben never knew what to say to them, so he tried to keep the greatest possible distance. This wasn't difficult, as the sisters had already sized him up and concluded that, at twelve, he was completely and utterly beneath their notice.
That was fine by him; it was Sean he had a passion for. Sean's fine blond hair always looked outgrown, as if he hadn't had a haircut in a while, and that perfectly suited his expansive, cheery nature. Sean always had great ideas for how to spend the afternoon—it was Sean who suggested that they play American soldier and Nazi spy (Ben got to be the Nazi spy), who invented the First Annual Tuktoyaktuk Triathlon (in which he and Ben competed and which, after much analysis and debate, was adjudged a tie), and who decided, after a matinee showing of The Maltese Falcon, that they should open their own private detective agency, Maxwell & Fraser. (Alas, business never took off.)
Sean also showed Ben his first pornographic magazine—an old, and in hindsight, rather tame collection of arty photographs in which sultry women wearing black lace pouted for the camera. Sometimes these women were bare breasted, their rouged nipples and their pursed red lips forming a triangle. Sometimes they wore surprising garments that covered their arms, legs, and bellies but left their tangled pubic hair visible. Sean had filched the magazine from his brother Edward, who, at seventeen, was a sophisticated man of the world. Edward even had a girlfriend and (Sean assured him in a hushed, excited whisper) was "getting some regularly." This statement was accompanied by an elaborate and baffling hand gesture in which Sean poked his index finger into the curved circle of his palm.
Ben wasn't sure exactly what Edward was getting, but didn't want to reveal his ignorance by asking. He also felt shocked and a little bit afraid when he looked at the women in the photographs, but he decided not to mention this to Sean, who was clearly enthusiastic.
However, Sean must have suspected his ambivalence, because one afternoon Sean looked up from the now-tattered magazine and decided, in the sudden, impetuous way that Sean decided everything, that they needed to practice for girls.
"Practice what?" Ben asked, giving Sean his best, coolest, "duh" look to cover for his nervousness.
Sean wasn't fazed. "Things," he insisted, scratching his neck as he considered the matter. "Girl things, kissing. I think girls will expect us to be good at kissing."
Ben felt a sudden, deep stab of resentment. Great. Something else to be good at. He decided to take a stand this time, dig his heels in, assert himself. He would tell Sean that he didn't care, wasn't interested, that he'd much rather go outside and play American soldier and—
Sean grabbed Ben by the shoulder and gave him a rough, wet smooch that mashed Ben's lips into his teeth.
Ben stumbled backward. "Ow!" he accused.
"See, I told you. We're terrible kissers," Sean said triumphantly, as if this settled everything.
In fact, it did settle everything; it was obvious that they needed practice, and badly. Much to Ben's surprise, this turned out to be yet another of Sean's great ideas. Day after day they sat on the floor in front of Sean's bed, on the sofa in the den, in the cab of Mr. Maxwell's snowmobile, and practiced their kissing.
It was Ben who discovered that the key to great kissing was to vary depth and speed, alternating slow, deep kisses with shallow, teasing ones. This discovery had an electrical effect on Sean, who began to grope and hump him awkwardly. Ben grabbed Sean's outgrown hair and pinned him to the floor until they were half-kissing, half-wrestling, both of them breathing hard.
After that, they sensed the potential rewards, and redoubled their practice.
That was what they called it, and other than asking each other if they felt like doing it, ("Do you want to practice?" "Yeah, okay,") it wasn't something they talked about. They certainly didn't talk about how they got erections when they were practicing—and Ben was now getting them at other, less convenient times, too.
For instance, he'd be sitting down to Sunday dinner with his grandparents and daydreaming about Sean and then his grandmother would ask him to go and get a new jar of marmalade from the pantry. And Ben would jolt back into his body, realize that he was visibly hard, and stall for time—I'm sorry, Grandma, could you repeat that? Ah. Well, what kind of marmalade? Which shelf of the pantry?
Worse yet, he started waking up regularly from sensual, half-remembered dreams of Sean with sticky thighs and sticky sheets. Nocturnal emissions, they were called—this according to the great, heavy biological encyclopedia that his grandmother had left on his nightstand two years ago. (A bookmark from the Tuktoyaktuk Public Library had conveniently marked the entry for "Puberty," though he'd found some of the scientific jargon difficult and had had to resort to a dictionary.) Despite his grandmother's apparent understanding, Ben was mortified by the phenomenon's escalating frequency—was it supposed to happen quite this often and be quite this much?—and he took to sleeping with a small towel, which he washed and hung out to dry every morning.
Still, some part of his mind refused to connect these events together, to draw them into a narrative that made sense. Unwelcome erections and nocturnal emissions were a normal part of puberty, said the encyclopedia. Kissing, that was just girl practice, said Sean, the same as kissing your pillow or the inside of your elbow. Wrestling was just fooling around, all boys did it.
And it was good to have friends. His grandmother had said so.
But then one cold April day they were kissing and wrestling and he was achingly hard and Sean wriggled underneath him in some strange, perfectly-right way and Ben felt something give way inside him. His heart pounded and his throat closed and he choked and felt a weird, embarrassing wetness soaking his pants and God, wait, hang on a second.
Whimpering, he rolled to one side, hands instinctively moving to cup himself, clutch himself, touch himself. He felt simultaneously shocked with pleasure and utterly humiliated.
Sean, still breathing hard, mouth swollen with kisses, pushed up on his elbows and stared at him uncomprehendingly. Then his eyes widened with outrage. "Hey!" Sean hollered. "That's not fair!" and a moment later, Sean's fingers closed around his wrist.
Ben felt the rough fabric of Sean's corduroy pants one second before he registered the hard lump of Sean's erection thrusting against his palm. He tightened his hand and watched Sean's eyes close in a flutter of pale blond lashes. He let Sean use his hand until it burned with the scrape of the corduroy, until the pale skin of Sean's face had turned pink and the fabric under his fingers had gone cold and wet in one spot. Then Sean sank back against the bedroom's carpeting, his fine features going slack.
Ben lay there on his side and watched Sean breathe, his mind awash with an exhilaration that verged almost on hysteria. You could do it on purpose!—and Sean knew that, Sean clearly knew that. Was he the only one who didn't know that? Ben had carefully read what he thought were all the pertinent parts of Whitstone's Biological Encyclopedia, and could identify the prostate and the seminal vesicles and Cowper's gland in the diagram and he knew what they did, and he understood that pregnancy occurred when a man inserted his erect penis into a woman's vagina and ejaculated sperm, which then fertilized an egg, and an egg made a baby, and he further knew that this very same sperm was what was leaking out of him during his nocturnal emissions and that this was all perfectly healthy and normal.
What he had somehow failed to grasp was that you could do it on purpose, with a friend, for fun, and this was an utterly staggering series of concepts, because up until this second it had all seemed like something that just happened to you.
Sometimes his father happened to him. Sometimes his father arrived at the house unexpectedly, and his grandparents would tactfully busy themselves at chores so that he and his father could sit down by the fire and talk. Except he never had anything to say—or rather, he had too much to say, which amounted to exactly the same thing. He hadn't seen his father in seven months, in nearly two years, since last Christmas. He hadn't the faintest idea where to start. "So, how are you, Son?" his father would ask heartily, clapping him manfully on the shoulder, and Ben would just stare at him for long minutes, mind gone utterly blank. "Fine," Ben would say finally, externally calm but inwardly furious at himself, all churned up inside; it had been seven months, two years, since last Christmas for God's sake!—why couldn't he think of anything to say? "Good, good," his father would say, nodding at him approvingly. "I must say, you're looking very well. Taller each time I see you. Growing like a beanstalk." "Yeah," Ben would say, nodding back stupidly. "Must be your grandmother's cooking," his father confided. "She makes a fine rabbit stew. Meaty." "She sure does," Ben agreed, and really, with conversational skills like these, he was surprised that his father turned up as often as he did. Ben could have wept with frustration, and sometimes did.
So Ben was well prepared to handle the idea that things just happened to you. Puberty seemed to fall into that category—after all, erections happened inexplicably and mostly inconveniently. Nocturnal emissions happened while you were sleeping, and left behind a humiliating mess. But suddenly, with a distinct feeling of eureka, Ben understood that you could choose to have orgasms recreationally with other boys for no procreative purpose whatsoever. Because Sean had just done it—Ben had had his orgasm by accident, but Sean had done it deliberately, unashamedly, with intent, using Ben's own hand.
At that moment, on that April afternoon, Ben thought Sean Maxwell was a genius.
Later, Benton Fraser would think back on 1973 as a golden year, a year made all the more special by the abruptness of its ending. It was his fault it had ended; he'd run away from home and shot a caribou, which was a stupid and pointless thing to do. Quinn had tried to tell him so, multiple times and in different ways, but Ben hadn't understood until he'd seen the animal fall heavily to the ground. The forest had been so quiet after. Ben had been wrenched apart and had only been stopped from screaming out his grief by the desperate need not to embarrass himself any further in front of Quinn.
Three weeks afterward, he'd come home to find his grandmother bent over his grandfather, her scarred hands criss-crossed over his chest and pumping furiously. He'd had a heart attack. He was dead.
When she stopped pumping at the lifeless chest and looked up at him, Ben saw resignation in her eyes, but no tears. "Well," his grandmother said, sitting back tiredly on her haunches and bracing her hands on her thighs, "we'd better get on with it," and suddenly, abruptly, Ben was the man of the house. His grandmother was depending on him. His father came home for the funeral but departed again almost immediately, leaving Ben and his grandmother to struggle on by themselves.
Ben had read enough fables that he understood the moral of the story: be careful what you wish for. He'd shot the caribou because he'd wanted his manhood, and he had gotten them both, but he'd never considered the cost. In hindsight, he could see how true the fables were, how sex and death and ritual sacrifice were all mingled up together. He'd hated his own helplessness, but now he longed for his innocence, and his childhood, and his grandfather. He hadn't had time to say goodbye to any of them.
Things had never been easy, but now they were truly hard. He took on most of his grandfather's responsibilities—chop the wood, feed the dogs, light the fires, cure the meat, salt the roads—and moved blindly from one task to the next, falling into a black, dreamless sleep each night.
Sean moved on to high school that year, but Ben's grandmother said, with some regret, that she couldn't spare him. Ben said he understood and he did; homeschooling would allow him to schedule his studying around work, and he had work to do: he was the man of the house, now. Still, his grandmother, former teacher and current librarian, insisted he study for five hours a day, "because you don't want to fall behind the other boys, Ben, do you?" and no, he most certainly did not. Sometimes he tried to imagine what it was like in the high school. He pictured boys doing experiments with test tubes. He pictured boys sitting in neat rows, hands raised to answer questions about literature or history. And then he'd look down at the yellowing pages of the book his grandmother had selected for him—volume four of Gibbons, or Thucydides—and know that he was living in an entirely separate, more ancient world.
Still, he continued to be surprised by small kindnesses. For instance, Mrs. Norton always smiled at him when he went to pick up his grandmother's groceries. "Something special in there for you, Ben," and there always would be something special for him at the bottom of the box—a chocolate bar, a frosted cupcake, a donut—which he would fish out and eat, greedily, on the way home.
He didn't want his grandmother to know he had a weakness for sweets. It would seem—well, weak of him.
When he saw Sean now, it was mainly in glimpses. Sean sitting with the Maxwell family in a pew on Sunday. Sean and two friends in hockey jerseys skating furiously across town, late for practice. Once, he had just finished running an errand for his grandmother when something thudded into his back, nearly knocking him over—it was Sean, pounding his shoulder and grinning like a maniac.
"Ben, man! How're you doin'?"
Same old Sean, cheery and pleased to see him. "Fine," Ben said, unable to think of anything else to say; it felt just like talking to his father. "Fine!" he repeated, with an enthusiasm he didn't quite feel. "Great!"
Sean grinned broadly at him and pounded his shoulder again before launching into a long and dirty story about the hockey team and how it wasn't the length of your stick, it's how you use it, and—Ben tuned out the words.
Instead, he stared at Sean's mouth, watched his animated expression, admired his glinting green eyes.
—were always pretty good, why don't you try out for the team? We need good players, and—
"Yeah. Sure," Ben said, already knowing that it was impossible, that he and Sean would never live in the same world again.
His grandmother was so powerful and so utterly central to his universe that Ben found the telegram more surprising than upsetting.
YOUR GRANDMOTHER IS DYING STOP DOCTOR SAYS CANCER STOP COME BACK IF POSSIBLE STOP.
Dying? Cancer? Impossible; his grandmother had never been sick a day in her life. And yet there were the words, right in front of him.
He packed everything he owned into his dufflebag before going to ask his superior officer for leave. He suspected that Sergeant Campbell would use the opportunity to suggest that he take a posting closer to home, or, in other words, as far away from Fort Simpson as possible. Ben was only a year out of Regina and Fort Simpson was already his third posting; while his performance reviews were exceptional, he was not well liked and he knew it. His world was now full of Sean Maxwells—hale and cheery men with whom he simply could not communicate. Even the simplest social interactions seemed beyond him, left him feeling clumsy and stupid. So he sought refuge in work, where he was always competent and sometimes graceful.
His request for leave was immediately granted, and he pretended not to see the relief in Sergeant Campbell's eyes. Two hours later he was bundled in the back of a supply plane bound for Tuktoyaktuk. He wrapped a blanket around his shoulders, leaned back against his dufflebag, and dozed for much of the ride.
When he arrived at the Tuktoyaktuk air strip, he hitched a ride in the back of the mail van. He hopped out once they reached town; his grandmother had not been able to maintain the family cabin once he'd gone to Regina, and so she'd taken an apartment within easy walking distance of the library. He was walking up Beaufort Street towards his grandmother's flat when he heard a loud and frantic banging. He looked up and saw Mrs. Furguson framed in a window, gnarled fist knocking against the glass.
Ben instantly climbed the steps to her front door, taking them two at a time, his dufflebag slung over his shoulder. She was waiting for him in the foyer, and he bent down so that she could kiss his cheek with her dry, cracked lips.
"Don't you look smart," she said in greeting, and Ben flushed at the compliment. "Now you listen to me, Ben," she said, Mrs. Furguson never being one to waste time, "and listen good." Ben put on his most attentive expression. "Your grandmother needs you now, maybe more than she ever has. She's dying, there's no doubt about it—but some damn fool of a doctor wants her to die all hooked up to a bunch of tubes and wires. These doctors," Mrs. Furguson added savagely, "they ain't happy unless they've got you connected to some damn machine or other, and stubborn ol' Martha Fraser wants to die in the comfort of her own bed."
This was real. Some part of him didn't want to believe this was really happening. DYING STOP. CANCER STOP.
Mrs. Furguson clutched his sleeve tightly with her long, bony fingers and shook him, trying to get his attention. "Now this doctor is trying to get your grandmother declared non compos mentis—do you know what that means?"
"Yes, ma'am," Ben said, and it sounded like his voice was being scraped out of his chest. "Yes, I do."
"And we both know that's a crock. My God—Martha Fraser's the sanest woman I know! That young doctor just thinks that her next of kin'll be easier to deal with." Mrs. Furguson cocked her head at him. "But you won't be, will you, boy?"
Ben shook his head. "No, ma'am," he said emphatically.
"Good," Mrs. Furguson said, and patted his arm reassuringly. "Good. Now you just tell your grandmother I'll be by at the usual time."
"Yes, ma'am," Benton said. "I'll be sure to give her the message."
He walked the rest of the way deep in thought, wondering how he would handle the confrontation with his grandmother's doctor. He was in the middle of a bold and totally imaginary conversation when he opened the door to his grandmother's first-floor apartment and found a man sitting in her living room.
The man quickly stood up; he was dark-haired, bespectacled, and quite young—not very much older than Ben was himself. He was also overdressed for the weather in thermal pants and a quilted shirt. Not from around here, Ben surmised.
"Hi," the man said awkwardly.
"Hello," Ben replied cautiously, letting his dufflebag slide off his shoulder.
"I'm Charlie Anderson," the man explained. "Mrs. Fraser's doctor." Ben blinked. This was "the damn fool of a doctor" Mrs. Furguson had warned him about? His surprise must have shown on his face because Dr. Anderson immediately added, somewhat defensively, "I know I'm young, but I'm fully qualified—"
Ben hastened to interrupt. "I'm sure you are. Benton Fraser," he said, and offered Dr. Anderson his hand. "I'm her grandson."
Dr. Anderson nodded. "They said you'd be coming. That's why I waited. Mr. Fraser," and Ben braced himself for it, "I want your grandmother to come with me to Inuvik Regional Hospital—"
Ben immediately shook his head. "She doesn't want to go."
"I know she doesn't want to go," Dr. Anderson said patiently. "That's why I'm talking to you. You've got to help me persuade her."
"I'll talk to her," Ben said politely, "but I'm fairly sure she's made up her mind."
Dr. Anderson took his glasses off and nervously cleaned the lenses with the tail of his shirt. "I can't take proper care of her here. I don't have the right drugs at my disposal, I can't keep tabs on her condition. We should at least attempt an aggressive course of chemotherapy. Without it, she'll die—and soon."
Ben felt an unexpected surge of hope. "And with it? What are her odds for recovery?"
"Well, not very good," Dr. Anderson admitted, fumbling his glasses back on. "But at least there will be odds. Right now, there aren't."
"I see." Ben managed to keep his voice calm.
"And she'll be more comfortable in a hospital."
"I can make her comfortable here," Ben said quietly.
Dr. Anderson frowned and glanced at Ben's dufflebag. "Will you be staying, then?"
"Believe me," Dr. Anderson said, dropping his voice to a bare whisper, "you'll want to put your grandmother in hospital. It isn't easy taking care of a critically ill patient, and when that patient is an elderly woman—"
Ben couldn't stand to hear any more. He put out his hand again and said, "Thank you very much, Doctor, for your advice. I'll be in touch," before shepherding Dr. Charlie Anderson out the door.
He took off his jacket, washed his face, and combed his hair neatly before going to knock on his grandmother's door. "Grandma," he said softly, between knocks. "It's me. Ben."
"Ben! Come in," she called, and she sounded so much like herself that Ben was shocked when he saw her in her chair by the window. She was perhaps half her normal size—no longer the sturdy countrywoman he had grown up with, but a thin, frail looking creature bundled up in a quilt. Still she was smiling at him, and when he went over and bent down to kiss her, she put her thin arms round his neck and yanked him nearly on top of her. Ben felt the clutch of her arms and the warm press of her kiss on his face and his eyes filled with tears.
"I'm so glad to see you," his grandmother said, and at least she sounded just the same. "I knew you'd come. You've always been such a good boy, such a help to me," and something about this last hit him sideways and suddenly the tears spilled out of his eyes and ran down his cheeks and he was sobbing—like a child, like a God damned idiot, in fact! "Ben!" his grandmother said, sounding a little bit reproving and more than a little bit shocked. "Don't upset yourself for nothing!" and Ben's sobs suddenly turned to hiccupping giggles.
If his grandmother had said those words once, she'd said them to him a thousand times; they were her response to every skinned knee, every nightmare, every sullen fit he'd had as a teenager. Don't upset yourself for nothing. She'd even murmured those words after he'd shot the caribou, though she hadn't known what he'd done: he'd been unable to tell her. It was her catch-all phrase of consolation, and she was apparently prepared to use it even on the occasion of her own death.
He wiped his eyes with his sleeve and raised his head to look at her; her dark blue eyes, so like his, were regarding him curiously. "Got yourself under control now?" she asked.
Ben felt his lips twitching. "Yes," he replied.
"Would you like to make me some tea?"
He nodded solemnly. "I would love to make you some tea."
Martha Fraser patted his arm with her scarred hand. "Make two cups, Ben. It'll calm your nerves."
He ended up making three cups, because Mrs. Furguson arrived before the kettle whistled, her usual time apparently being eight o'clock. She disappeared into his grandmother's bedroom and shut the door, and when Ben knocked gently to announce that tea was ready, he found that Mrs. Furguson had helped his grandmother move from the chair to the bed.
This was, he learned, part of their nightly ritual; Mrs. Furguson would come to the flat every morning and every evening to help his grandmother wash and change into fresh nightclothes, and then she'd stay for an hour and chat and have tea. Now that Ben was here, he took charge of the tea-making and otherwise left them to gossip and eat biscuits.
It didn't take him very long to pick up on the rest of the routine; he'd lived alone with his grandmother for years, and her habits were as familiar as his own. He spent the days much as he had when he was twelve, except now he had to do his grandmother's tasks as well as his grandfather's—not only fetch the groceries, but cook meals and do the washing up afterwards. Later, as her condition worsened, he had actually to feed her, and later still, when she'd lost all appetite, he had to coax and cajole her into eating.
He played cards with her late into the night, and when she was too tired to hold the cards, he read her long passages from her favorite novels, trying to do the different voices as best he could. She lay back against her pillows, closed her eyes, and smiled, apparently enjoying his pathetic attempts at acting. Later, when he was fairly sure that she was too disoriented to make sense of the words, he believed that she was reassured by the familiar sound of his voice.
Dr. Anderson came by twice a week, usually in the evenings before Mrs. Furguson visited. He examined Martha Fraser carefully, then sighed and shook his head. Ben found it very difficult to control himself at those moments: he was well aware of his grandmother's condition, and didn't need Dr. Anderson's little head-shakes to tell him she was dying.
One evening, he had trouble holding his tongue. "You're not from around here, are you?"
Dr. Anderson looked suddenly nervous. "No, I—I'm from Toronto."
"Toronto," Ben repeated, with feigned surprise. "Really. For some reason I thought you were American."
Dr. Anderson looked away, but not before Ben saw the hurt look on his face. "No. I—no. Good night, Mr. Fraser," he said, and quickly let himself out.
That night, as Mrs. Furguson sat with his grandmother, daubing her forehead with a cool cloth (they were long past the point of gossip and biscuits now), Ben did the washing up and told himself that he wasn't the slightest bit sorry for having been rude. Except that wasn't true, and when Dr. Anderson came again later that week, he attempted to make more convivial conversation.
"Did you go to medical school in Toronto?" he asked, as Dr. Anderson was putting on his brand new, space-age thermal parka.
"Yes," Dr. Anderson said. "Yes, I did."
"So what brings you to Tuktoyaktuk?" Ben asked.
Dr. Anderson didn't immediately answer the question; he was studiously trying to thread his parka's large plastic zipper. Ben realized a moment later that Anderson was trying to decide how sincerely Ben intended his question, and felt very ashamed.
"Would you like to stay for tea?" Ben asked, and Dr. Anderson's head jerked up, his hand falling away from the zipper. "We usually have a cup of tea around this time." He saw indecision on the doctor's face and made a final attempt at displaying sincerity. "It's cold out tonight. A hot drink will do you good."
"I." Dr. Anderson seemed to come to a decision. "Yes, thank you. I'd like that," he said, and pulled his parka off his shoulders.
When Mrs. Furguson was comfortably ensconced with his grandmother, Ben invited Dr. Anderson to sit down with him at the kitchen table. Dr. Anderson took only a single sip of tea, and then let it grow cold. A coffee drinker, Ben suspected.
"So what brings you to the Territories?" Ben asked again, and this time Dr. Anderson smiled shyly, seeming almost embarrassed.
"A promise," Dr. Anderson replied. "To my mentor at medical school who—well, you'll think it's silly."
"No, I won't," Ben said.
"Patronizing, then," Dr. Anderson said more definitely, and his eyes behind his glasses were dark and aware. "I suppose it can't be very much fun being someone else's charity project, can it."
"Under the circumstances," Ben said with a sigh, "I'll take all the charity I can get. I know it's hard to get doctors to come to the Territories."
"Yes, well, exactly," Dr. Anderson said, and he explained that one Dr. Arthur Willis of the University of Toronto Medical School believed very strongly that all doctors should spend at least a year in public service, and Dr. Arthur Willis' opinion carried a lot of weight with Dr. Charles Anderson. "I had a vision of myself in the Peace Corps," Dr. Anderson said, fiddling with his mug, "immunizing babies in deepest Africa, or treating lepers in Nepal. Turns out they need doctors up here nearly as badly, right in my own country. I'm one of eight doctors responsible for an area that covers 118,000 square miles, can you believe it?"
Ben smiled into his tea. "Yes. I believe it." As one of the few RCMP officers assigned to the area, he knew all about it.
"I've got four separate communities on my rounds, and—" Dr. Anderson forced a laugh. "And I think you're the first person to even offer me tea. Hard nut to crack, these small towns," he said, and while his voice was jocular, Ben could hear the loneliness underneath. "Of course, it doesn't help that I have all the tact of a rock," he added glumly. "Doctors aren't a particularly tactful bunch to begin with, and I'm a below-average specimen, I know that."
"No, no," Ben protested, exercising his own tact. "It's just folks up here have known each other for generations. And the kind of people who came to the Territories and stayed—well, we're a stubborn lot," Ben said with a smile. "We tend to have our own ideas about things."
"Yeah, so I've discovered," Dr. Anderson said wryly. "No drugs, no therapy, no hospitals—nobody seems to believe in them."
Ben licked his lip thoughtfully and then decided to offer the doctor a small insight into his grandmother's character. "When my grandmother was 19, she was teaching in a small Inuit village not far from here," he explained. "A fire swept through the village, burning it to the ground and trapping everyone between the flames and a particularly rough offshoot of the Arctic Red River. Most of the adults died because they were too afraid to brave the water. But my grandmother crossed that river—she waded through rapids with children clinging to every limb, through heat so intense that it melted most of her hair and left second degree burns on her body." Ben looked up at Dr. Anderson, who looked gratifyingly wide-eyed. "My grandmother," Ben finished quietly, "is not going to die in Inuvik Regional Hospital."
Anderson swallowed hard, then nodded slowly. "I understand, Mr. Fraser."
"Ben," Ben said, offering his hand.
"Charlie," Charlie Anderson said, and took it.
He invited Charlie to tea again the following Tuesday, and the Friday after that, Charlie arrived carrying his medical bag in one hand and a sixpack of beer in the other. "Here," he said, nervously handing the beer to Ben.
"Very thoughtful," Ben said, turning his face to hide his grin.
He hadn't realized how hard it had been having no one to talk to, but now he could see his own loneliness mirrored in Charlie Anderson's eyes. Charlie Anderson had been here for eight months and was desperately lonely. Ben had never lived anywhere else, and so his loneliness only felt natural.
They drank beer and swapped stories, though Ben found himself instinctively editing—he would tell Charlie about his father's life but not his mother's death; about his work in the RCMP but not his isolation within it; about Quinn but not about Sean. In return, Charlie told him about his childhood in Toronto, about his mother the psychiatrist and his father the real estate attorney, about prep school and medical school and the promise he'd made to his mentor about public service.
"I mean, it's an adventure, no question about it," Charlie mused, "though I have to admit I can't wait for it to be over. What about you, Ben—where do you go after this? Once your grandmother," he began, and then stopped, rephrased. "As a member of the RCMP, you could go anywhere, couldn't you? You could transfer down south, to Toronto or Ottawa—"
Ben laughed and shook his head. "I don't think I'd make it in Toronto or Ottawa."
"Why not?" Charlie asked, grinning. "I'm telling you, Ben—underneath that countrified exterior, you're a city boy, I can smell it. Believe me, if I can do a year up here, you can do a year in Toronto. Look me up when you come down. I'll take you to the best restaurants in the city—"
Ben waved this away.
"—to eat exotic cuisines, Chinese, Mexican, sushi—"
"Raw fish?" Ben inquired with an arched eyebrow. "I've had plenty, thank you. I've fought bears for it."
"Okay, so forget the sushi," Charlie said and thought hard. "I bet you've never had doro wot with injera."
"Indeed not," Ben agreed firmly; the beer was coursing through his system, and he felt warm and relaxed and fine. "I don't even believe that's food. It sounds like a cleanser."
"It's African," Charlie said.
"An African cleanser, then," and later that night, when his grandmother's passion began, he remembered sitting in the kitchen with Charlie and laughing. It seemed like years ago, though it had only been hours.
It started so slowly that Ben didn't even realize it had started. He was nearly asleep on the living room sofa when he heard his grandmother moan into the darkness. This brought him awake, and he took a deep breath before pushing his blankets aside and lighting the lamp. Lately his grandmother had been having difficult nights; Ben suspected she woke up, couldn't remember where she was, and grew frightened. So he would go in to her. He would rub her cold, dry hands and encourage her to take a few sips of water. Then he would read to her by the dim, flickering light of the lantern until she fell asleep.
Not tonight. Tonight was different, he saw it the moment he raised the lantern in his grandmother's room. Martha Fraser was writhing in her bedclothes and moaning—not in childlike fear, a little girl waking from a nightmare, but in real physical agony. Ben sat on the edge of her bed and carefully set the lantern down on the nightstand. He soaked the washcloth in the basin of cool water by the side of the bed and was just squeezing it out when Martha Fraser opened her eyes and cried out.
His heart jackhammered in his chest as she brought up one thin arm and smashed him in the face. There wasn't much force behind the blow, but she'd managed to hit the vulnerable part of his face—his nose and the soft cavity just underneath his eye. He caught her arm back, reminding himself to be careful—despite the adrenaline flowing through her veins, her bones were brittle and he could easily hurt her. She stared up at him in abject terror, eyes huge in her shrunken face. "John!" she shrieked. "John, what are you doing?"
His nose was throbbing with sharp pain, and in the back of his mind, he wondered if she'd actually broken it. "Ben," he said softly, trying to reassure her. "It's Ben." He hadn't the faintest idea who John was. His grandfather was George, his father was Robert, his uncle was—
"The children," his grandmother moaned. "John, where are the children?"
Ben gently tucked her thin arm back under the bedclothes, then reached for the damp washcloth and mopped the beads of sweat from her brow. "The children are safe," he said quietly; it was all he could think to say, but it felt like a lie. "All the children are safe, and you're safe, too," and this was an even bigger lie, wasn't it? What the hell right did he have to say that? She was dying, and he was the only one left to take care of her, and he was twenty-three and stupid. She deserved better than this.
He felt a sudden, deep stab of resentment against his father—where the hell was his father? Did telegrams never reach Sergeant Robert Fraser of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police? YOUR MOTHER IS DYING STOP YOUR WIFE IS DYING STOP ITS A BOY STOP. Really, it was almost a superpower: Sergeant Robert Fraser, impenetrable to all communication! His father put on his impenetrability cloak, and disappeared into the wild blue—
Not helpful. Not helpful. Ben pushed his father out of his mind and tried to focus: his grandmother wasn't breathing properly. One moment she was contorted, her breathing anguished and shallow; the next moment she was feverish and raving and screaming hoarsely for John ("John! Where are the children?") He tried to wake her and couldn't; he tried to calm her and couldn't; he tried to feed her and couldn't, and so had to settle for dribbling tablespoons of water into her open mouth. Her distress was now constant, and she broadcast her suffering with low, agonized wails. He spent the night bundled in a chair beside the bed—tortured, shivering, and awake.
He dozed for perhaps thirty-five minutes at most, and Mrs. Furguson looked startled when he opened the door for her the next morning. He supposed he looked like hell. "She's taken a turn for the worse," he said simply. "I need you to help me change the bed," and Mrs. Furguson nodded her head in quick understanding, sparing him the need to say more.
Wordlessly, she followed him into the bedroom. He took his grandmother into his arms (she weighed nothing, it was practically like lifting empty blankets) and carried her to the window, so that he could hold her in a ray of morning sunlight. Behind him, he heard the soft shush-shushing of Mrs. Furguson stripping the bed and remaking it with clean sheets.
"Set her down," Mrs Furguson said finally; he turned and saw that she was carrying a basin full of clean water. "I'll clean her up." He obeyed, gently setting his grandmother back onto the bed and backing away. "Meanwhile, you just clean yourself up," Mrs. Furguson chided, but he could hear the kindness underneath. "You look a mess. And make yourself a cup of coffee."
Ben took a very quick, very hot shower and made a pot of strong coffee. Five minutes later, he was washed and dressed and nervously sipping coffee in the kitchen. When Mrs. Furguson came out of the bedroom, Ben silently poured another cup of coffee and offered it to her. His grandmother's pain-wracked moans were clearly audible through the open bedroom door.
"You might want to call Father Connolly," Mrs. Furguson said.
"It won't be much longer."
But as the agonized hours passed, Ben began to think he'd been wrong about that. Father Connolly came and held his grandmother's hand for a while, murmuring prayers ("Almighty God, look on this your servant, lying in great weakness, and comfort her with the promise of life everlasting,") underneath his grandmother's stream of confused babble. When the priest departed, Ben took his place at the bedside and helplessly read long stretches of The Rainbow aloud while his grandmother groaned and tossed in pain; it was all he could think to do. By evening he was huddled in the armchair by the window, nerves in shreds, listening to his grandmother's labored breathing,
The sudden knock on the door scared him witless, and Ben leapt up, heart jackhammering in his chest. He glanced at his watch—eight o'clock—Mrs. Furguson, of course, back for her evening visit. He went to the door and let her in, and she shot him a sharp look before giving him her coat and going into the bedroom. Ben stood there, holding her coat in his arms; he felt entirely blank, bone-deep exhausted. Tea, he thought. Tea for Mrs. Furguson. Put up the kettle, but as he moved to the stove, he realized he was still holding Mrs. Furguson's coat.
He reached the closet just as the bedroom door opened again, and Mrs. Furguson came out. Her face was grave. "She's passed beyond my ability to do anything for her," Mrs. Furguson said, taking the coat from him. "Her body's shutting down."
"Yes, I—" Ben raised a hand and rubbed his aching forehead. "Yes, I know."
Mrs. Furguson paused in the act of buttoning her coat and regarded him narrowly. "You, on the other hand, aren't dead yet. Put up the kettle, Ben. I'll be right back." He was still trying to formulate a reply as she banged out the door.
She was back in fifteen minutes, carrying a small iron kettle by the handle, a large black string bag hooked around one wrist. Five minutes later, she had the kettle heating on the stove and a loaf of bread on the table, and the room filled with the warm, hearty smell of soup. "Mrs. Furguson," Ben began, feeling unaccountably moved.
She cut him off with a wave of her gnarled hand. "Did you eat dinner? Did you even eat breakfast?"
"I—no, I—" and suddenly there was more knocking at the door. Ben just stared stupidly at it until Mrs. Furguson said, with some exasperation, "Answer it, would you? I sent for the doctor," and Ben moved to open the door.
"What the hell is the matter with you people?" Charlie said to Ben, apparently in greeting, and then he stalked into the bedroom, still wearing his parka.
Ben followed him in some confusion. "What do you mean? What are you doing?"
Charlie was sitting on the edge of his grandmother's bed; he'd pulled a stethoscope and a small flashlight from his medical bag. "Cachexia," he muttered, shining the light in his grandmother's dilated eyes. "Dyspnea. Jesus Christ, Ben," he said, dropping the flashlight into his bag and pulling out a plastic-wrapped needle, "we have an entire field called 'Pain Management' now—and don't tell me that you people don't believe in pain management or I'm gonna reach down your throat and rip your lungs out."
Ben just stared as Charlie ripped the plastic open with his teeth. "That would be very un-doctor-like of you," he said finally.
Charlie inserted the tip of the needle into a small jar of fluid. "Yeah, whatever," he said, and held the needle up to the light.
"What is that?" Ben asked.
"Morphine," Charlie replied. "You got a problem with that?"
Ben looked at his grandmother's bony, agonized face. "No," he said.
Charlie slipped the needle gently into his grandmother's thin arm, then withdrew it and pressed a small piece of gauze over the spot with his thumb. Carefully, Charlie bent his grandmother's arm upwards, at the elbow—and under Ben's eyes, his grandmother's face cleared and grew smooth. The thrashing stopped.
"There," Charlie said in a soft voice, brushing one thumb against the wisps of his grandmother's hair at the hairline. "She'll sleep easy for a while." He stood up, shrugged off his parka, and tossed it onto his grandmother's chair. "And you," Charlie said, stepping forward—and suddenly, inexplicably, Charlie Anderson's hands were on his face, soft fingertips touching his jaw, tracing his cheekbone, "what did you do, get into a barfight?"
Barfight? Ben's heart was pounding in his chest again, but not from fear. This was... This was... He suddenly remembered the blow he'd taken from his grandmother's frail arm that morning. "My grandmother hit me."
Charlie grinned into his face, and that only made Ben's heart beat faster. "Oh yeah? Whatcha'd do to deserve it?"
"I—" What had he done to deserve it? "It was an accident. I think—"
The grin melted off Charlie's face. "You're in a bad way, aren't you? Come on," and then he was tugging a reluctant Ben into the kitchen, where Mrs. Furguson was standing over the stove and stirring soup. Charlie steered him into one of the kitchen chairs and headed for the refrigerator.
"Everything all right?" Mrs. Furguson asked Charlie, who was rummaging in the icebox for something—ice, Ben realized a moment later. Charlie was making an icepack for his face.
"Yeah," Charlie replied absently. "Everything's fine—I've given her a little morphine, and she's sleeping peacefully now. Him," Charlie added, jerking his head at Ben, "I'm prescribing food and rest. Plus some ice to bring that swelling down," he added, turning and handing the bundled ice to Ben. "You're sporting a black eye, champ, you know that?"
Ben hadn't known it; he hadn't looked at himself in a mirror all day. He pressed the icepack between his eye and nose, and now that he was paying attention, he could feel the skin swelling there. Mrs. Furguson served them soup and bread and went home; Charlie, on the other hand, seemed to be here for the duration, and sat mopping up soup with a concentration that indicated no hurry at all. Ben put an elbow on the table and leaned low over his own bowl, holding the ice pack to his face as he ate; he hadn't realized he was so hungry, but he was hungry. Starving, in fact. Charlie showed him an odd, crooked smile and poured him more soup.
The time passed faster with Charlie there, even when they weren't speaking, which was most of the time. They played cards on the kitchen table by lantern-light; later, when his grandmother started moaning again, they picked up the lantern and moved into the bedroom. Ben stood nervously by the glossy black window, hugging himself; his grandmother sounded like she was choking. Charlie checked his grandmother's pulse and pupils. "I gave her a four hour dose," Charlie murmured, his eyes on his watch. "I figured, better to underdo it than to overdo it."
Ben knotted his hands and dropped into his grandmother's chair. "Why is she breathing like that?"
"That's normal," Charlie said absently. "She's just too weak to swallow or spit. It's not painful."
"It sounds terrible," Ben said quietly.
Charlie turned to him with a sympathetic expression. "Yeah. Yeah, I know."
Ben watched from the shadows as Charlie prepared and delivered another morphine injection. When his grandmother was sleeping more or less peacefully, Charlie turned to him and said, "You ought to catch a couple hours sleep. I'll wake you if her condition changes." Ben wordlessly shook his head. "Did you sleep at all last night?" Ben shook his head again. "All right, Ben," Charlie said quietly. "All right."
They kept vigil together throughout the long night. Ben paced nervously around the apartment for a while before returning to his grandmother's armchair. He was startled out of drowsiness by the sound of his grandmother's voice—"The children. John, where are the children?"—and he was about to get up and go to her when he heard Charlie's voice.
"They're safe," Charlie said softly, and now that Ben's eyes were attuned to the darkness he could see that Charlie was sitting by his grandmother's bedside and holding her tiny hand in his. "They're all safe. You saved them—Ben told me."
Ben turned his face into the wing of the chair and wept silently.
Martha Fraser died about an hour after sunrise. Ben was so relieved that he fell suddenly, deeply asleep, and when he woke, his grandmother's bedroom was bright with morning light. Charlie had covered his grandmother's small body with a sheet, but that didn't matter: her spirit was gone, he believed that.
He lifted himself out of the chair and went in search of Charlie, whom he found in the living room, taking notes on a large pad.
"Ben." Charlie stood up instantly. "Are you all right?"
"Yes," Ben said honestly.
Charlie stepped close and again lifted his hands to Ben's face. "You look flushed," Charlie mused, gently pressing his fingertips to the glands beneath Ben's ears. "Maybe it's just the bruising. Maybe it's just—"
Ben covered Charlie's hands with his his own, leaned forward, and kissed Charlie's soft mouth. It was a thoughtless act, more of a compulsion than a decision, but he felt as though his heart was overflowing, and if he didn't let it out he would drown.
Charlie pulled back, wide-eyed, glasses askew on his face. Ben instantly felt his insides convulse. He'd made a terrible mistake, a terrible, terrible mistake...
"I—Ben, I didn't mean—"
"No," Ben interrupted desperately; it felt like his face was on fire. "Please. That was completely out of line—"
But Charlie was still staring at him with that utterly stricken expression. "I'm engaged," he blurted. "I'm going to get married next summer. Didn't I say that?"
"Please," Ben nearly moaned; God, this was excruciating. "Don't say any more. This is entirely my fault—"
"I must have said that," Charlie repeated, though he didn't seem to be talking to Ben now. "Didn't I? Why didn't I say that?" Charlie asked, sounding almost horrified. "Because I didn't, did I? All this time, I don't think I've ever so much as mentioned Susan or the wedding—"
Susan. The word seemed to stab him in the head, and he pressed two fingers against his right temple, just in case a blood vessel should chance to burst. He wondered if you could get an aneurysm from humiliation alone. At least there was a doctor in the house, he thought, and almost laughed aloud. "Please. Charlie. Can't we just—"
"There must have been some reason I didn't mention it," Charlie repeated guiltily. "God. Ben. I hope I didn't lead you on," and then suddenly, bafflingly, Charlie was wrapped around him and hugging him hard. His body surged at the touch. Please! Ben's mind begged. Stop! his mind cried, and between those two sentiments, please and stop, he felt like he was being ripped apart. Charlie's arms were strong and he smelled just a little bit sweaty, and Ben wanted to pull away and he wanted to push forward; he wanted so much.
Charlie's palm slid behind Ben's neck, cupped the nape warmly. How long since he had been touched like this? How long since he had been touched period? There had been his grandmother, of course, and there had been Sean, but mostly people seemed to find him unapproachable, and so he was rarely approached. But Charlie Anderson was a doctor, and he must have sensed Ben's need to be held, because Charlie was holding him tightly and coaxing him to relax, to let go. Which was exhilarating—terrifying—and it felt like something within him was breaking as he let himself sink into Charlie's strong arms.
"Shhh," Charlie murmured, and Ben realized he was whimpering softly. "It's all right. It's all right..." and then Charlie was pulling him down onto the sofa with him.
Wrong. This was wrong. This was—but his heart was pounding furiously and he didn't think he was capable of refusing anything that Charlie offered him. Still, he was shocked to feel the palm of Charlie's hand skimming over the front of his trousers, and he twisted his face away and stared, panting, up at the low, beige ceiling of the apartment. Charlie's hand came back and traced his length more firmly before moving to unzip his zipper—and Ben's entire body jolted as Charlie's hand closed around him and began to stroke. God, it felt like he was being electrocuted, it was so good, it was so wrong, it was so—it was so—and he squeezed his eyes shut and tried not to come, because his body was crying to come, dying to come. It was hopeless, though; Charlie's hand on him was so thoroughly competent, stroking him firmly and steadily until he was slick and leaking and thrusting erratically. All too soon, Ben convulsed in a powerful orgasm; he was made weak by it, he was laid waste by it.
"Shhh," Charlie murmured again, and Ben let his head roll forward onto Charlie's shoulder and gasped raggedly against the fabric of his shirt. "It's all right..."
Was it all right? Eyes closed, Ben tentatively smoothed his palm down Charlie's chest, past his waistband, and felt—nothing. Charlie's arm was wrapped around his shoulder, holding him in an embrace, but Charlie wasn't erect, wasn't excited, didn't want him.
Charity, Ben thought bleakly. Public service.
"Sleep for a while," Charlie murmured into his ear, and yes, that was a good idea, wasn't it?
When he woke up, he was stretched out across the sofa, an afghan tucked up around his neck. Charlie was bent over the sofa, wearing his parka. "I've got to check in at the hospital." Ben nodded muzzily; his head felt like it was stuffed with cotton. "Is there anybody you want me to call for you?" Charlie asked. brow creased in concern. "A priest? Your father?"
Ben thought about this for a moment. "My father. Yes," he said, and asked Charlie to call Quinn.
The best thing about living out in the wilderness, Ben thought, was that he didn't have to see very many white people. He chose a site far from any town, in the middle of the land he loved best, and decided to build himself a cabin. The RCMP happily granted him authority to patrol there, so long as he reported in on at least a semi-regular basis.
His nearest neighbors were a tribe of about seventy-five Tsimshian living sixteen miles to the west. Quinn had given him a token of introduction, and he had brought offerings of respect to Ben Kitikmeot, the tribal elder. They watched him skeptically for several weeks as he set up camp and began to build himself a house. The cabin was more than halfway done when they apparently decided that he was serious, and one day a group of twelve young men from the village appeared on the horizon. That night they built a huge bonfire in what was now Ben's front yard and feasted on roasted deer. Somehow a keg of beer appeared, and someone else produced a box drum. Men danced around the fire, and the firelight danced on the cabin's wooden walls. There was singing, and Ben got very, very drunk.
He woke up the next morning feeling like death frozen over, and for a long moment, he couldn't remember where he was or what was going on. He certainly couldn't remember the dark-skinned man who was staring down at him.
"Are you dead?" the man asked.
Ben thought about this. "No."
"Good." The man now showed him a mischievous smile. "Because man, you really know how to party."
The second son of the Laxkibu Elder, Eric Kitikmeot had a lot of power in the village, and Ben now routinely found himself invited to join fishing parties and hunting expeditions, and also to attend the village potlatches when they occurred.
It was at one of these potlatches that a sharp-eyed old woman looked him over and pronounced him "soul sick"—and as this woman was a well-respected clan matriarch, her diagnosis warranted immediate action. The village shaman was brought forward, and he examined Ben carefully and prescribed both an herbal concoction and a time of purification in the sweat-lodge. Ben agreed to this course of treatment and spent several days meditating—and more often, hallucinating—as the steam rose up around him. He closed his eyes and watched Charlie Anderson climb the steps of the prop plane that took him back to Toronto, watched as Charlie turned and waved goodbye to him before ducking through the door—except that had never happened. Ben had left Tuktoyaktuk before Charlie did, unable to stand any more sympathy. But surely he was gone by now, and so Ben breathed deep and let Charlie fly away from him, let the plane disappear into the thick white smoke, heading south.
When Ben finally crawled out of the lodge, dripping and exhausted, the shaman looked him over and pronounced him cured. He slept that night in the Elder's longhouse, tucked under furs with the other seventeen members of the Kitikmeot clan. When he awoke the next morning he felt rested and more at peace with himself and his life than he had been since...well, probably since his (mother, his mind whispered) grandfather had died. He took the scenic route home so that he could make sure all was quiet around Lake Nakima and that no one was signaling for help in Bonnetplume or Ulusaktuuq.
Two miles from the cabin, he saw the sled tracks. Size ten boots marched up his front steps.
Inside the cabin, warming himself by the fire, was Sergeant Robert Fraser of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
"Nice place you've got here," Sergeant Robert Fraser said.
"Thanks," Ben said—and boy, they were already off to a running start, weren't they?
Robert Fraser stood up and clapped his hands together twice before rubbing them before the fire. "Excellent location," he said approvingly. "Central to everything."
Ben just stared; if his father meant by this that you could get from here to the North Pole and Los Angeles in about equal time, then yes, this cabin sure was centrally located.
"Central office told me that you'd taken a post out here," Sergeant Robert Fraser continued. "That's my boy, I said. An individualist, I said. A man with a deep love of the land—"
"Your mother's dead," Ben said, taking a mean pleasure at knocking that complacent look off his father's face.
"Er, yes," Sergeant Robert Fraser said, and at least he had the good grace to look embarrassed. He put his hands behind his back and rocked nervously on his heels. "I heard when I got back. Cancer, was it?"
"Were you with her?"
Robert Fraser nodded uncomfortably, perhaps out of stupid questions for a change. Or not. "How was the funeral?"
The months melted away. Ben could instantly feel the cold crispness of the day and see the vast blueness of the sky above them. Almost everyone in town had come to see his grandmother's ashes scattered and honor her memory. They'd stood by Father Connolly as he'd read from the Book Of Common Prayer, but Ben had closed his ears, afraid that he'd hear the whispers of gossip. Poor Martha. Poor Ben. How sharper than a serpent's tooth...
"Episcopal," Ben said finally.
"Ah," Robert Fraser said, as if that had been particularly significant. "Father Connolly, then. Good man."
My father isn't good with death, Ben realized suddenly. He can't cope with it. That part of him got damaged somehow—maybe when Mom died, maybe before. But now he can't even think about it; the denial's that strong. Robert Fraser, Ben thought critically—and God, it felt good to be critical!—would someday drop dead and be too stupid to fall down.
The question was out of his mouth before he could stop himself. "Will you be staying long?"
A hurt expression flitted briefly across his father's face. Ben hadn't meant it to sound that way, except of course he had. Some part of him wanted to make a scene, to yell, "Where were you?" and "Why weren't you here?" and "Why the hell aren't you ever here for anything important?" except that really meant, "Why the hell aren't you ever here forme?" But it was too late for that, somehow. He was twenty-four years old and a constable in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police—and it was a little late to be throwing temper tantrums, wasn't it?
"You can, of course, stay as long as you like," Ben added quickly.
Robert Fraser shook his head. "No, no, I mustn't. Promised to meet Buck Frobisher up at Eyeberry day after tomorrow."
Relief coursed through him; if his father was going to get to Eyeberry, he would certainly not be staying more than a single night. "I'm headed to Fortitude Pass myself."
To his surprise, his father frowned. "I wouldn't do that. That's dangerous territory, Son, and there's a storm coming. A big one."
This peeved him; he knew the landscape and weather conditions as well as his father did. Better. "I know—that's why I need to go now. I won't be able to see anything up that way once the snow comes." Ben smiled wryly at his father. "I won't stick around, believe me."
That turned out not to be true; not after he'd found the downed airplane. He'd set up his antenna and just managed to make radio contact with Fort Bradley before the storm hit. The plane had been stolen in Fairbanks, Alaska, and the person who had stolen it was wanted in connection with a robbery of the Mt. McKinley Bank. Armed and dangerous, approach with extreme caution. Hector Met-something, or maybe it was Victor; he couldn't make that part out through the static. Ben put away his radio, shouldered his pack and began to track him.
Or her. Very soon, Ben came to suspect that his crash survivor was a her, and he was determined to find her. He wouldn't abandon a woman, not even if there was a storm coming, especially not if there was a storm coming. A big one.
Later, after Ben had tracked the woman into the heart of the storm and up the side of a mountain, after he'd found her huddled in a crag, ice crystals glittering on her eyelashes, after he'd taken off his coat and staked a lean-to and taken her cold, cold fingers into his mouth, Ben lay back in the snow, already dying, and heard his father's voice. That's dangerous territory, Son, and there's a storm coming... Had there been any actual concern for him in that voice, or was it just their usual say-nothing conversation? I won't stick around, he had replied, but of course he hadn't anticipated the woman.
His father had raised him never to abandon a woman, unless of course you were married to her.
So he wrapped himself tightly around her, willing her to have what heat was left, what life was left. He urged her to keep talking, to say anything, and from deep inside her she managed a whisper: I caught this morning morning's minion... But her voice was weak and barely audible to him. And there was a truly terrifying moment when he knew death, when he was too cold even to shiver and he knew the awful stillness of death: Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? But then the woman touched his body and whispered to him with the voice of angels: High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing / In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing. Now she was holding him close, clutching him to her breast in their own low and blasphemous Pieta. He had never expected to die in a woman's arms, and he felt blessed, sanctified, gratified. The woman's voice was low and insistent—As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding/ Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding—calling to him, holding him, refusing to let him go.
They were both as near to dead as made no difference by the time the storm passed. But it was she who first exerted her will, who made herself move—choosing to crawl rather than die where she lay. This shamed him, because he was bigger than she was, and tougher, and had more subcutaneous fat. But she was stronger than he was in some undefinable way, and so when she crawled out of the crag he crawled after her, rapt with admiration.
They found his pack a day later and fell upon it like wolves. They ate everything he had, nearly two weeks worth of emergency rations, and he remembered the smears of food on her chin, the way water had streamed from his numb lips in his eagerness to drink. And then they'd lain back and stared up at the sky, bellies distended, as their strength slowly returned to them.
They camped properly that night on the outskirts of Fortitude Pass, and there he laid her back and took her. He could not have resisted her if his soul had depended on it. He had to have her, and so he laid her back in the snow and took her.
He sank into her and shivered as they became one body, one flesh, and he understood that this was sex, real sex, what sex truly was. Not his adolescent fumblings with Sean or the sympathetic touches of Charlie's hand but this deep, spiritual bond—two souls merging as bodies tangled together to share warmth and breath and life.
He was surprised by the depth of his passion, though not by hers—she was feral, pushing up to meet him and moaning softly as he thrust into her, egging him on to do it harder. He took her and took her over the next few days. He couldn't seem to have enough of her. He had to touch her everywhere, had to explore her entirely. He put her fingers into his mouth and sucked them softly, eyes closed and blissed out; he put his own fingers inside her and felt her tremble around them, tasted her wetness off his fingertips. He cupped her high, round breasts in his dry, cold-cracked hands and was shocked at the unimaginable softness of her. She saw that he wanted to lick and kiss her there and so she tugged him down and let him suckle. Her nipples were red and hard and rose up to his lips, and it wasn't long before he was driven to take her again.
Afterwards, he lay in her arms, shivering and sweating and trying to get his breath back. He had never wanted anything so much, never wanted anyone so much. She was a born survivor. She was a woman who could survive a plane crash, crawl across the tundra, cross a burning river—Christ, how he loved her!
Years later, in the hospital, he told this to Ray Vecchio, and Ray had smiled at him in that fond, sad way he had. "Yeah, Benny," he had said quietly, "she could've crossed, but she would've crossed alone."
That was true, Ben realized; on the outskirts of Fort Resolution, she had begged him to let her go free. "Please, Ben," she had whispered, and she had been holding him tightly in her hand. "Please..." and it had been all wrong, even then. Ten years later, she had asked him to feed quarters into a slot to see her, and this had stabbed his heart with its simple, elegant statement of what he was to her.
But he would never have abandoned her. He would have gone to prison with her, if they had let him; he would have gotten on the train with her, if Ray hadn't shot him. He would not have let her face those brutalities alone. For ten years, she had been in his thoughts every time he touched himself, her name the moan that escaped his lips at every orgasm. She had been the woman for him—the woman, the one and only—and losing her felt like a wound.
Now, though, he had to let go of her, or at least, his idea of her, and he'd already lost so much in the last few years.
Ray Vecchio, in his restless, intuitive way, seemed to understand this. "We can go and rebuild your cabin," he said.
Ben stifled a smile. "Ray, you hated that cabin."
"No, I didn't," Ray said defensively, "I just hated leaving it to go to the can. Which reminds me," he said and handed Ben a binder of bathroom fixture brochures. "Pick one, my treat."
Ben glanced over page after page of sparkling chrome faucets and white porcelain toilets and felt deep affection for Ray—Ray, who was trying to give him back everything he'd lost: Canada, his father, his confidence—
"You don't need a private privy," Robert Fraser said, peering over his shoulder at a toilet. "Unnecessary luxury, if you ask me."
"I didn't ask you," Ben muttered; and all right, perhaps his father wasn't quite lost enough.
Ray looked up. "What?"
"I said, I like that one," Ben said, pointing to the toilet. "Very smart, nice lines."
"It's good for a man to go out in the open air," Robert Fraser said, waving a hand airily. "Keeps the bowels healthy."
Ray stood up, put a warm hand on his shoulder, and bent forward to look at the picture. "Okay, good," he said, approvingly. "We'll get some lumber and—where do you buy lumber up there, anyway?"
"Is he joking?" Robert Fraser looked shocked.
"No," Ben said pointedly, and his father sighed and disappeared. Ben quickly looked at Ray and added. "I mean, you don't buy it. You cut it."
Ray looked delighted. "What, like from the forest?"
Ray's grin widened as he fell back into his chair and crossed one long leg up and over the other, raincoat flapping around his knees. "You're shitting me, right?"
Ben dropped the brochures onto the bedclothes. "Under the circumstances, quite the reverse," he said.
"From the forest, huh?" Ray mused. "How do you do that?" Ben mimed chopping wood with an axe, and Ray's face fell. "I don't have an axe."
"I have an axe," Ben replied.
"You got an axe for me?" Ray Vecchio asked, and Ben heard the question inside the question and didn't know what to say. Ray Vecchio had risked his house and his reputation and the livelihood of his entire family—his mother, his sisters. And Ray had stood there, pale-faced and shocked, as Ben had abandoned him and gone racing after the woman he would not abandon.
Now Ray was soul-sick with grief and regret and other emotions with which Ben was all too familiar, but there was no cure for Ray here. No herbs, no sweat lodge, no relief from his suffering. Western medicine was only good for so much and no more, he thought, and damn you Charlie Anderson. He loved Ray much as he imagined that Charlie had loved him, but love didn't solve anything. And passion could kill you.
"Yeah," Ben said finally. "I have two axes. Two."
Ray uncrossed his legs and stood up quickly. "Good," he said, with maybe a little more enthusiasm than was strictly normal. "So we'll go up there and try to—put Victoria behind us," he said, and even now, Ben couldn't help but wince at her name. "You know," Ray said, with rather less confidence, "it'll be like a do-over, like a fresh start for us. Right?"
A do-over. A fresh start. In his mind, he heard his father's voice: You're not going to get it. He'd wanted with Victoria what Ray wanted with him, but they were none of them going to get a second chance.
Ben never saw it coming—but with Ray Kowalski, Ben never saw anything coming. They'd been arguing in the car about the Kalliman case, ("Guys like that, they don't cooperate with cops," Ray said as he twisted around in his seat to parallel park. "Precisely," Ben retorted, feeling like he was finally getting somewhere, "so that doesn't mean that he—" "Does so mean," Ray shot back, turning back around and shoving the car into park. "Does so mean, because he is looking to hide evidence, that guy, I can smell it on his suit." "I had no idea you had such olfactory talents." "Oh yeah," Ray said, snorting. "Like you're one to talk—") and before that, they'd been arguing at Wing Foo's takeout counter, and before that they'd been arguing in the bullpen of the 27th precinct.
Ray grabbed the grocery bag containing his six-pack off the GTO's back seat, and Ben got out of the car on the street side, bringing the Chinese food with him. "All I'm saying," Ben said as Ray came around the front of the car, "is that I don't think we should be so quick to abandon procedure—"
"Yeah, and I'm saying that maybe we could do a little creative thinking on this one, save ourselves a buttload of—hang on." And just like that, Ray's attention was elsewhere and he was drifting slantways across the street. Ben followed Ray's eyes and Ray's slantways drift, and saw a man in a knitted cap bent over one of the battered tin trashcans in front of Ray's building.
"Hey! Mikey!" Ray called out to him. "It's Mikey," Ray added to Ben in an undertone, as if this explained everything, before raising his voice again: "Mikey, what'cha doin'?"
The man called Mikey raised his head and turned to watch Ray approach. He was filthy—his face was grime-streaked, his denim jacket and jeans stiff with dirt. His hands had hard, crusty knuckles and black nails, not to mention at least two open sores. "Hhhhey," Mikey said; he seemed to be stuttering. "Rrr. Rrr. Rrr—"
Ray had drawn close now and was looking the man up and down with some exasperation. "Mikey, what'cha doin', huh?" Ray asked, but the rebuke was a gentle one. "We talked about this, didn't we?"
"Yyyeah." The man nodded vigorously in his knit cap. "Yyyeah."
"Because I don't want to have to bust you, you know that," Ray said as if he were speaking to a really small child. "I thought we agreed you were gonna stay at the shelter—"
At this, Mikey began to shudder violently, and his left eye began to blink slowly, seemingly of its own accord. "N-uh. N-uh, Rrr—"
Ray put a reassuring hand on the arm of Mikey's filthy denim jacket; Ben had already noticed that his replacement Ray was a lot less squeamish about such things than the original had been, "—and stay on your meds, and stay off the dope, Mikey, right?"
"N-uh. N-uh." Mikey was grimacing horribly now, shaking his head from side to side. "Don't wanna—"
Ray shot him a reproving look. "C'mon, Mikey, what would your mother—"
In his memory, everything seemed to happen in slow motion. Mikey grabbed the front of Ray's jacket. Ray yanked himself away and stumbled backwards, wide-eyed with surprise. For a moment, Ben thought Ray had simply overbalanced, but then he saw the long knife sticking out of Mikey's sleeve. Horrified, Ben leapt forward to wrench the knife from Mikey's hand. It came easily—Mikey was just standing there, staring curiously at Ray as his knees buckled. There was a crash as Ray dropped the six bottles of beer, and Ben turned his head just in time to see Ray sit down hard on the pavement. White foam streamed out of the paper bag toward the street.
Mikey suddenly raised his arm to point and made a rough choking sound; it was, Ben realized a second later, laughter. "Heee! Heee! Fall dowwwwwn!" and Ben understood then that Mikey hadn't the faintest idea what he'd done. Blindly, Ben fumbled at his belt and found his handcuffs; seconds later he'd cuffed Mikey's wrist to the wrought iron fence in front of the building.
Mikey didn't seem to notice. "Rrr—dowwwwwn!"
Ray was just sitting there, still looking surprised, one splayed hand clutching his side. "Wow..."
Ben dropped to his knees and fumbled in Ray's jacket pocket for his mobile phone, trying to ignore the bright red blood seeping between Ray's fingers. "Where's your phone? I need your phone..."
"Fraser." Ray's eyes were wide, and he suddenly looked very, very young. "Ben."
Ben knew that beneath the slick undercover operative, the man who'd slung an arm around his shoulders and called him "Fraser, buddy," lay someone a great deal more vulnerable—someone who'd flushed and fidgeted and looked shy when Ben had asked him out to dinner. And the truth was that Ben had wanted to see more of that shyer, more vulnerable Ray—but not like this. Ben pulled the phone out of Ray's pocket and held it in hands that were rock steady, because he demanded they be rock steady.
It seemed to take forever to connect, but finally he heard the beep and the click and the brusque greeting: "Dispatch."
"Officer down," Ben said quickly, "Repeat: Officer down at 11 South Pagani, badge number 7718, do you copy?"
"Copy," the voice answered, and there was the promise of an ambulance and two units responiding. Ben clicked the phone shut and forced himself to look directly at Ray for the first time—at the blood oozing out between his long fingers, at the fear in his eyes.
Bandage, pressure, what the hell had he been thinking? "I can't believe it," he heard Ray say. Ben ripped off his serge jacket, flicked off his suspenders, and stripped himself of the henley he wore underneath. "I can't believe it," Ray repeated.
Ben leaned forward and pushed the wadded up cloth beneath Ray's hand; it began to soak with blood. Ben pressed his hand over Ray's, holding the bloody fabric in place. Ray's hand was shaking and already getting cold.
"I think he's killed me," Ray said, really matter of factly, and this brought Ben's head up.
"No," Ben said instantly. "He hasn't. You're going to be fine."
"Yeah." Ray winced and bent forward, gripping his midsection; his voice was glossy with disbelief. "Because people don't die in stupid and pointless ways every day, Fraser. God, I am so fucked."
"Ray, don't say that." Ben clutched Ray's shoulder with his free hand. "The ambulance is going to be here in a minute, and—"
He heard a siren, and a moment later, a black and white police car wheeled around the corner and screeched to a halt. The red and white ambulance was right behind it, lights flashing, and suddenly there were people everywhere. Two unfamiliar officers were vying for his attention, asking questions. Three paramedics were bent over Ray; Ray was sprawled on the sidewalk now, one knee up but otherwise flat on his back. "My name is Constable Benton Fraser," Ben began, "and Detective Vecchio is my—" They were lifting Ray up onto a stretcher; he seemed to have passed out, and he was chalk white beneath the oxygen mask they'd strapped to his face. "Can I go with him?" Ben asked, interrupting himself. "I want to go with him."
"We'll take you to the hospital, Constable," the female officer said; God, was this what his own implacable kindness sounded like to people in distress? "Just as soon as you answer a few questions."
Ben took a deep breath and tried to calm himself as they slid the stretcher into the back of the ambulance and slammed the door. He should be there. He would be there in a few minutes, if he could just gather himself to present a simple statement. "My name is Constable Benton Fraser," he began again, steeling himself as the ambulance pulled away from the curb.
Afterwards, true to their word, the two officers drove him over to Cook County Hospital. Ray was in critical condition and had been taken directly to surgery: Mikey's knife had done significant damage, severing a number of blood vessels. Ben nodded dumbly and the nurse gestured for him to step into the empty waiting area. Ben sank into one of the white plastic chairs to wait for more news.
Half an hour later, the door opened and Lieutenant Welsh walked in, followed by Mrs. Vecchio and Francesca. For a moment, Ben couldn't understand what Mrs. Vecchio was doing there, and then his brain cleared and he winced, remembering that she was supposed to be Ray's own mother. Mrs. Vecchio greeted him brightly and asked him how he'd been, why he hadn't come by the house lately. Welsh coughed deep in his throat and Mrs. Vecchio's face flashed first with guilt and then regret. "That poor boy," she said, shaking her head and wringing her hands. Chi prottega lui figlio! She would pray for him, she said. God would protect him, she said. She would do an entire novena tonight, and light a candle in front of the Blessed Mother at Santa Lucia's when she went to Mass tomorrow.
"He'll be okay," Francesca said quietly; she wasn't her usual bubbly self, perhaps because of her mother's presence, perhaps because of the seriousness of the circumstances. "Ray's pretty tough," she said with something very near to admiration, and then suddenly she showed him her familiar goofball smile. "Underneath that kid-on-ritalin exterior," she explained, "he's tough as nails, really."
"Constable Fraser," Welsh interrupted. "Can I have a word with you?" They stepped out into the hallway; Welsh's face was creased with concern. "How are you doing, Constable?"
"I'm all right. I'm fine. It's Ray who—did someone tell you the details?"
Welsh nodded grimly. "Yeah. They say it doesn't look good."
Ben felt suddenly cold. "What do you mean?"
"Just that it could go either way is what they're telling me, so prepare yourself. He's got a lot of internal bleeding. Plus, they're pretty worried about infection; the knife the guy used, we recovered it from the scene and it's none too clean." Welsh's face crinkled in distaste. "The guy himself was no Prince Charming either."
"Ray knew him. Ray was trying to help him." Ben rubbed his forehead with the heel of his hand. "Is there anything we should be doing?"
"Don't think there's much we can do," Welsh replied, and then he nodded his head toward the waiting room. "I brought the Vecchios over for a quick visit just in case, you know, anybody asks." Ben turned and looked through the window in the waiting room door: Mrs. Vecchio was moving a rosary through her nimble fingers, and Frannie was staring longingly in his direction through the door. "It might look funny if they didn't show up."
"What about his actual next of kin?" Ben asked.
Welsh's face hardened. "No can do, Constable; not in our current situation." A moment later, the Lieutenant's face softened again. "There's nobody, anyway," he confessed. "Not on file—I checked."
Ben found this very surprising. "But aren't his parents alive?"
Welsh nodded, one hand rubbing his stubbled chin. "They are, but I don't think they're reachable. Kowalski told me they're off touring the country in a Winnebago, so they're basically out of touch. I think they check in with him maybe every other Christmas," and so there it was, the same old story. Ben stared down at the faded black and white linoleum and imagined the next conversation Ray would have with his father. "How're you doing, Son?" Kowalski Pere would ask, clapping his skinny, blond son manfully on the shoulder. Ray would twitch inside his leather jacket and shrug that hand off. "Yeah, Dad, I'm fine—I went undercover to protect this guy and his weird Mountie partner, except then I got stabbed trying to help this homeless junkie outside my apartment. How's Mom doin'?"
Ben forced this vision out of his head. "Isn't there anybody else?"
Welsh shook his head. "There's his ex-wife, but she wouldn't have any legal standing as next of kin."
Ben felt an odd vibration in his chest; it took him a moment to identify that feeling as anger. "So you're saying there's no one? 'In case of emergency call...?'"
Welsh finished Ben's sentence by gesturing toward the waiting room, where the Vecchios sat.
"I see," Ben said quietly.
"Well, I'd better take them home," Welsh said, shifting his weight awkwardly from one foot to the other. "Are you staying?"
"I'll be at the precinct. Would you mind keeping me posted?"
"Not at all, Lieutenant," Ben replied. "I'll let you know if there's news."
"Good." Welsh looked relieved. "That would be much appreciated, Constable. Cause a lot of the guys, they'll want to know how he's doing."
Right. Not enough to turn up and find out for themselves, but they'd certainly be happy to get Ben's update, a thumbs-up from Welsh as they headed out for drinks after work. Except that was uncharitable: he had to remember that Ray Kowalski was only nominally a member of the 27th precinct, and that he hadn't, strictly speaking, been wounded in the line of duty. Ray was among the 2-7 but not really of the 2-7—like himself, really. If anything, he himself had deeper roots in the precinct.
Ben sat there alone for hours, leaning forward in his chair, Ray's cellphone clutched in his dangling hands. At three in the morning, it occurred to him to leave a message for Inspector Thatcher, informing her that he wouldn't be coming in tomorrow. The sound of her voice on the machine—warmer than it ever was in life—made him feel suddenly and unbearably lonely. He left his message, then hung up and dialed again and listened to Ray Kowalski's voice on the answerphone. "Hey, this is Ray, leave me a message and I'll get back to you."
It felt normal to call Ray when he needed help, and if he closed his eyes he could almost convince himself that Ray was coming. He redialed and listened again and again. The fourth time, he was surprised to hear himself leaving a message: "Hi, Ray. I really wish you were here."
But that was of course ridiculous; Ray was here, Ray was right down the hall. Ben shook himself, got up, and went to the men's room to wash his face, slick back his hair, and generally smarten himself up; by four o'clock, he was standing at the desk and showing the duty nurse his most winning smile. "I thought perhaps you could give me a sense of Detective Vecchio's condition."
The nurse's face was an almost comic mixture of duty and desire. "I'm afraid I can't—"
"He's a Detective." Ben was insistent but polite. "I'm his partner. Couldn't you please make an exception, just this once?" He leaned against the counter, bringing their faces close. "I'd be very grateful," and all right, perhaps this was manipulative, but screw it, he thought. It wasn't as if his fabled good looks had ever been much use to him, but if they got him some information about Ray, he'd gladly trade on them.
The nurse nervously licked her lips before leaning forward and dropping her voice. "The doctors, they don't like us giving out any information before the patient's been out of surgery for at least an hour. It's a volatile time, especially for critical patients. We tell the families that they survived surgery, and then they die in the recovery room—"
"So Detective Vecchio's out of surgery?" Ben interrupted, softening the rudeness with yet another smile.
The nurse nodded conspiratorially. "About twenty minutes ago."
"He's alive. He's very strong," and then the nurse explained something about how it was typical for patients with stab wounds to require a next-day thoracic or laproscopic evaluation because continued internal hemorrhaging made it difficult for the doctors to observe and repair all traumatic injuries...the words washed over Ben like a wave, but he'd gotten the gist of it. He's alive. He's very strong. "...monitoring him very, very closely," the nurse was saying, "because the longer he survives the more likely it is that he'll continue to survive. And even in the best-case scenario, the danger of infection is very, very real; by all accounts, the weapon was hardly a clean instr—"
"Can I see him?" Ben asked.
At this, the nurse shook her head vehemently. "I'm afraid not; not yet, anyway. He's in recovery, and he'll be there for at least the next few hours." She reached out and patted his hand; Ben was prepared to deflect a pass but saw only kindness and concern in her expression. "I'd try to get some sleep if I were you. Have you eaten anything since this happened?" Ben admitted that he hadn't. "Go down to the cafeteria," she advised. "I'd tell you to go home but something tells me you aren't going to do that. So eat something and then go back to the waiting room. I'll wake you when there's news," she finished, and then executed a coy, three-fingered salute. "Scout's honor."
"Thank you," Ben said gratefully. "Thank you very much."
He forced himself to eat, though he wasn't hungry, and then he stretched out in the empty waiting room and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, the light was different, and the nurse was gently shaking him by the shoulder.
"Wake up," she whispered. "They're transferring your partner to ICU."
Ray was nearly as pale as his bedsheets, and barely able to move, though Ben couldn't tell if that was due to injury, exhaustion, or medication. Ray's eyes opened, flicked to him, and then closed again, as if that were just about all the energy he could muster. "Ray..." Ben sat cautiously on the edge of the bed, and saw the bandage on Ray's chest, the IV tubes that snaked out of his forearm. "Ray, it's me..." Ben said, and Ray opened his eyes.
"Hey. Hi." Ray closed his eyes again; it was as if even those two words had cost him.
"Hey. Hi," Ben echoed.
Ray opened his eyes again. "M'all right," he said steadily; with an uncanny steadiness, in fact. "Saying I'm all right."
"Yes," Ben said hastily, not knowing whether Ray was asking for reassurance, or offering it. "You're going to be fine, Ray. They said you're doing very well, that you're very strong—"
Ray again closed his eyes, but he lifted his gauze-taped hand and dropped it on top of Ben's. For a moment, Ben was shocked by the touch of Ray's hand—but Ray had never shied away from physical contact with him. From that first, highly peculiar moment when Ray Kowalski had turned and moved rapidly toward him, arms raised to embrace him as if they were the oldest and dearest of friends, Ray Kowalski had touched him, hugged him, slapped his back—and so when Ray squeezed his hand, Ben turned his hand so that he could squeeze back.
"Frase...thanks for..." Ray didn't open his eyes, and he never finished the sentence.
Ben sat there and watched Ray sleep; it looked like it hurt him to breathe. He hated seeing Ray so vulnerable; he didn't think of Ray as a physically vulnerable person. He was the one who blithely risked life and limb all the time. Ray was sensible, cagey, cautious.
Ray had also saved his proverbial bacon more than once. Just recently, Ben had attempted to stop a robbery in progress, and he had nearly gotten his ever-loving head blown off. He had been unarmed, of course, when he'd felt the gun muzzle press against his head. In what must have been a second's worth of time he thought, Well, this is it, you've tried this one too many times. Bold action, you thought; bold action overwhelms most men, because most men are crippled by their own cowardice and hindered by their lack of moral vision. Not knowing what to do they do nothing, and this gives the advantage to the decisive man, the clearheaded man. Except you've finally met someone as decisive as yourself; someone capable of meeting your action with an equal and opposite reaction. Only a matter of time, really. The same thing happened to your father—except he didn't want to think about his father right now.
He heard the soft click and thought, Here it comes, here it comes, all the answers to the Great Mystery—but instead of the expected blast, he heard the soft sound of Ray Kowalski's voice. "Don't," Ray breathed. "Don't even." Ben risked a glance sideways and saw Ray Kowalski, long arms extended in a V, gun pointed at the temple of the gunman who was menacing him. "Hands up."
For a moment, they all stood there, breathing silently. And then, Ben felt the tiniest flicker of movement behind him and the world exploded in a deafening bang that sent him crashing onto the floor. He was blind, ears ringing, like he'd been wrapped in wet cotton batting—and he blinked and realized that the gunman was sprawled across his legs with half of his head blown off. Ben looked up quickly and saw that Ray now had his gun trained on the man's accomplice, who was screaming incoherently. He felt the sudden urge to say, "Why did you do that? Did you have to do that?" except then he remembered that tiny flicker of movement and shut up.
"Don't make me do this," Ray said regretfully, and within seconds, he had the other robber face down, hands cuffed behind his back.
It was difficult to see that strength of will in Ray now; Ray's skin looked so pale and so paper-thin that Ben could have traced the faint purple veins in his eyelids and the blue lines at his temples. He wished Ray would wake up and start a pointless argument with him, but Ray woke only occasionally, and even then, he only blinked sleepily at Ben a few times before drifting off again.
Flowers arrived later that day, three bouquets to be precise. The first one was from "Mama, Maria & Frannie," and the second was from "Everyone down at the 2-7—Get Well Soon!" The third—a tasteful bunch of purple irises surrounded by lavender freesia and purple asters—came with an unsigned, gold-edged card which read "Thinking Of You." Stella hadn't needed to sign it, really.
The lady herself appeared during that evening's visiting hours, and a single glance at her—and a single glance was all he could stand—revealed that she was as surprised to see him as he was to see her.
"I—hello," Ben began, just as Stella Kowalski said, "Oh. I didn't know you'd—"
They both stopped speaking at the same time. He pulled his hand away from Ray's, stood, and awkwardly turned to face her.
"I came to visit," Stella said finally.
"Yes, of course," Ben replied; he had become suddenly, overwhelmingly self-conscious of the fact that he was still there—or, to put it another way, that he had yet to leave. She must think it strange—well, certainly, she had to think it strange, it was strange. He debated essaying a white lie, "I also came to visit Ray," except Stella Kowalski was no fool and would certainly be able to draw the correct conclusion from the bloodstain on the right sleeve of his tunic and the fact that he hadn't shaved in two days.
"I was just leaving," Ben said hastily, and fled the hospital.
Walking home, Ben found himself remembering the dread he'd felt upon finding out that Ray was married—except Ray was not married, "not anymore," as Ray himself had been so quick to point out. Still, Ben had felt a burst of unwelcome cynicism upon hearing the news; it was unnerving that this man who'd hugged him so extravagantly, who'd stammered and flushed and looked pleased when Ben had asked him to share a meal, should suddenly produce a wife—even an ex-wife—out of nowhere. Ray had asked if Ben found him attractive and then proceeded to tell him an exceedingly strange story about a robbery in a bank, but Ben had been staring at Ray's bespectacled face and remembering how Charlie Anderson had touched his face, how he had kissed Charlie's soft mouth—and how Charlie had jerked back, face stricken, and said, "All this time, I never mentioned Stella or the wedding—"
Susan. Not Stella. It was Susan, wasn't it?
He had come back to himself to find Ray staring out through the barred window of the crypt at Marcus Ellery's mother's funeral procession. "He's not coming," Ray was mumbling to himself. "He's not coming," and then the thief they'd locked up behind them had asked, "Man, what kind of guy doesn't show to his own mother's funeral?"
Ben had opened his mouth and then bitten his tongue.
The experience in the crypt had served as a warning not to take Detective Stanley Raymond Kowalski at face value; the man was, after all, a professional undercover operative. Ben would be a fool to read too much into his gestures and mannerisms—except read into them he did. He studied Stella too, and had noticed the sharp sideways look she'd given her ex-husband when he'd explained the reasons for their divorce. "I wanted kids, she didn't want kids"—a lie, Ben suspected, because wasn't there some deep sadness in Stella Kowalski? And what had Ray called himself? "A con job, then and now." Whole marriage based on a lie.
He thought he could picture what had happened, almost as if he had been there. Stella had become suspicious but had said nothing; she had barely been able to have the thought, let alone formulate the awful words. But she had grown sad—had become listless and depressed, prone to sudden fits of weeping. Ray, terrified and guilty, tried with increasing desperation to please her, which only fueled her worst suspicions. The more solicitous he became, the more she came to despise him, until—
Until one fateful day when Ray had slipped up and left some piece of hard evidence—some room key, scrap of paper, telephone number, matchbook, hotel receipt, (because Ben simply could not imagine that Ray would have allowed himself to be caught in flagrante, fingertips tucked into the back pocket of some man's jeans while lips touched lips, or tousled and tangled under the bedclothes some night when Stella was away on business), some something—in his shirt pocket or in the glove compartment or on the coffee table.
Or was that just wishful thinking? Still, it seemed like a long time since he had wished for anything, and dreams were, after all, free.
Dief was waiting for him at the Consulate, and Ben found himself having to make a number of defensive explanations ("He's going to be fine, or at least that's what the doctor says...Yes, well, they don't permit wolves, so it wouldn't have...Look, I'm sorry, but I've had other things to think about!") before Dief allowed him to go clean himself up. He showered and shaved, exchanged his bloodstained uniform for his most comfortable jeans and a warm thermal shirt, and felt almost human again. Except he was just pretending to read the next chapter of Thackeray, just pretending to sip tea—just pretending to be human, really. Ben rubbed his forehead with his fingertips and glanced at the clock. Half-past nine. Visiting hours ended at eight. Stella would be long gone, and he could probably charm his way past the duty nurse... Except what would be the point? It wasn't as if there were anything he could do there. It wasn't as if Ray were even conscious. He'd just be sitting there.
Except he was just sitting here, wasn't he? Ben lifted his head and looked around his cramped office with something like revulsion.
He was back at the hospital by ten, dufflebag packed and slung over his shoulder. The nurse in the I.C.U. recognized him; her name was Nancy Hendricks, and he came to know her very well over the next couple of days. She was also much stricter about visitation than the nurse in surgery had been. He was permitted into Ray's room for the first ten minutes of every hour; the rest of the time, he was asked to remain in the waiting room, his visitor's pass clearly displayed. Ben colonized a corner, spread out his bedroll, and continued reading his Thackeray; as he later explained to Nancy Hendricks, he had lived in many a worse place.
Still, the schedule was erratic, even for him: he would sleep or read for fifty minutes, then go into Ray's room for ten. Ray scared him by seeming to worsen during the night—Ben was even denied his 3:00-3:10 a.m. visit on doctor's orders—before apparently turning the corner in the early hours of the morning. At 9:12 a.m., with morning light streaming through the waiting room windows, Ben collapsed on his bedroll in the waiting room and promptly fell asleep. He slept right through his 10 a.m. visit, and some time before 11 a.m., he was shaken awake by the day nurse. "Dr. Braddon wants to see you," she said, and that brought him awake fast.
They'd moved Ray again; this time, to a room outside I.C.U. Dr. Braddon turned out to be female—Felicia Braddon, M.D., her blue nametag said. She was scribbling something on Ray's chart when Ben walked in, and she didn't look up right away. He waited, hoping for some detailed information about Ray's condition. "Constable Fraser," she said finally; it wasn't a question and she didn't wait for an answer, "I just wanted to remind you to sign Mr. Kowalski's consent forms. We proceed without them in emergencies," she added, slinging Ray's chart back on its appointed hook, "but we like to have everything properly filed after the fact. Not to mention that we won't be able to release Mr. Kowalski until all the paperwork is—"
"Release him?" Ben asked, surprised.
"Yes, probably Friday," Dr. Braddon said and swept out.
Friday? That was only four days from now. How could Ray possibly be well enough to leave in four—?
"Will you?" The voice was weak but recognizable; Ben turned to the bed and saw Ray lying there, awake but wan-looking. "I know it's a pain, but..." Ray moved his hand across the tray in front of him, fanning out a multicolored sheaf of paper.
Two steps brought him to the side of Ray's bed. "Yes, of course."
Ray looked as awkward and embarrassed as Ben had ever seen him. "They won't let me go is the thing," he said; it looked like it still hurt him to breathe. "Because I live alone. Not that I—" He paused, licking his lip; the lower one had cracked, and a bright red drop of blood was welling there. "—feel like dancing or nothing. But I'd rather be home than here."
"Of course you would," Ben agreed.
"So they've got to release me to somebody." Ray looked away and his mouth grew resolute; he clearly hated the idea. "An' I don't want to go to the Vecchios. I mean, I like 'em, but—"
"Yes," Ben said. "I understand perfectly."
"You don't—" Ray had to stop to take a breath; this was the longest conversation they'd had since the surgery, and Ray already seemed exhausted. "You don't have to do anything once you've sprung me," Ray said, almost defensively. "I can take care of myself."
"Of course, Ray," Ben said, and took the sheaf of paper almost casually.
The white forms designated him Ray's next of kin, empowered to receive confidential medical information and make life and death decisions on his behalf; a blue one gave him what was essentially custodial responsibility for Ray upon his release; a pink sheet listed the duties of a primary caretaker. Ben's eyes scanned the Hospital Discharge Checklist: Do you know who will pick you up from the hospital? Do you have clothing with you or being brought to you that is appropriate to wear home when you' re discharged? Have you identified friends and/or family to assist you at home?
"You don't have to," Ray said, sounding much stronger as the day grew nearer, though he was sleeping nearly as much as before. "I'm serious. I'm no kid, Fraser, and this ain't the worst that's happened to me—not by a long shot."
Ray would say this, or something very near to it, a hundred times in the coming days. "You don't have to." "You don't need to." "I can handle it," and Ben thought there was something very like fear underneath the irritation in Ray's voice. "I can take care of myself, okay?" Ray insisted, except he was required to be released in a wheelchair, and so Ray sat in the wheelchair, clearly reluctant, obviously hating every single goddamned second of it. The moment the wheelchair cleared the automatic glass doors, Ray shoved himself out of the chair—and swayed. In a flash, Ben was beside him, gripping his elbow and steadying him. For a moment, Ray looked relieved—and then he showed Ben a look of commingled gratitude and hostility. Ignoring this, Ben walked with Ray to the curb and left him standing alone (to show Ray that he of course could stand alone) while he waved down a taxi.
On the ride home, Ray slumped in the taxi's back seat and hunkered down in his overcoat. He looked pissed.
Still, the trip took something out of him, and by the time they pulled up in front of his building, he was no longer overtly refusing help. Ben offered him a hand out of the taxi, which Ray accepted. Ben had been hoping that Ray would head directly, instinctively, for his apartment, but Ray stopped on the sidewalk and looked down the street toward the garbage cans, to where Mikey had stabbed him.
"Come on," Ben said quietly, nudging Ray's elbow, but Ray dug his hands into his overcoat pockets and didn't move.
"You never told me what happened." Ray's eyes were fixed on the scene and far away at the same time. "Is he all right?"
"Yes." Ben debated how much of the story to tell him. "He was arrested. He was...adjudged to be incompetent..."
He trailed off, but Ray Kowalski had been a police officer since 1983, and could connect the rest of the dots for himself. "...adjudged to be incompetent, remanded to psychiatric, two day evaluation, diagnosis: schizophrenia, suggested therapy: lithium, and he'll be back on the street in two weeks." Ray rattled this off with no particular emotion in his voice and a distant look in his eyes—but when he snapped back to himself, he was nodding. "Good."
Ben was glad that Ray seemed to find this outcome acceptable; he himself did not. He nudged Ray's elbow again, and this time Ray let Ben lead him into the building and up the stairs. At the bottom of the first flight, Ray defiantly grabbed the bannister and began to climb—but Ben soon caught up with him, and by the second flight, Ray was practically hanging from his neck and grimacing at every step. Ben tried to make the walk down the corridor seem casual, like he and Ray always walked together this intimately, arms around each other's necks. But Ray was greenish-white by the time they reached the apartment, and with no pretense of independence, he slumped back against the wall, fumbled for his keys, and tossed them to Ben.
"Thank God for take-out," Ray muttered as Ben unlocked the door.
He understood the statement for what it was: yet another small declaration of independence. You don't need to take care of me. I can take care of myself. Maybe I can't climb these stairs right now, but that's what delivery guys are for—that's why I live in Chicago and not in Tuktoyaktuk. "Mmm," Ben agreed, pushing the door open. "Take-out sounds good. What are you in the mood for?"
Bed, as it turned out; Ray went to lie down "for five minutes" and was immediately out for the count, lying sprawled across his still-made bed in the gray sweatpants and t-shirt he'd worn home from the hospital. Ben took the opportunity to go out for supplies: food, fluids, meals that could be eaten in bits and bites if Ray failed to develop an appetite. He himself had learned the value of such foods during his own numerous injuries and illnesses.
When he returned, Ben put the apartment in order and then took the corner by the window for himself. He dropped his dufflebag beside the old leather armchair, wanting to be out of the way, but close enough to hear if Ray needed him. Except Ray didn't need him—not anymore. Ray could take it from here, Ray could take care of himself, Ray was no kid, and this ain't the worst that's happened to me—not by a long shot. And as Ray had so astutely pointed out, there was food delivery here, this was Chicago, and not—
(Dane's Rock, forty miles below the tree line, where he'd fallen from a fifty-seven foot cliff and broken his left leg in two places. Prince Rupert Sound, where Diefenbaker, his coat crisp with ice, had tugged him onto the shoreline. He had recovered in his cabin, nibbling on crackers and pemmican and bits of hard cheese. He had recovered in the RCMP field hospital, leg in the air and unable to do anything but stare at the metal ducts snaking across the ceiling. He had been seven, and he didn't have a mother anymore, and his throat had hurt so badly that he couldn't even swallow, and nobody could figure out how he'd gotten the measles anyway, as far out as they were. "Grandmother," he had called, wanting water but really wanting his grandmother's company, because some deep part of him was sure he would never be well again, that some part deep inside of him was permanently sick. "Grandma... Grandma..." he called again, his voice a scrape in his throat, his face burning hot, but nobody came. "Mommy...")
—the wilderness he was used to. He had managed on his own, and certainly Ray could. Still—
(He didn't want to go. That was the crux of it, wasn't it? He could certainly return to the Consulate, to his claustrophobic room, his awful job. There would be no Chicago policework for him with Ray out of commission, and unlike Diefenbaker, he couldn't simply hie himself out the nearest window, tempting as that sometimes was. Unlike Diefenbaker, he had responsibilities; there would surely be work piling up on his desk—forms to be filed, correspondence to be answered. No doubt there were Canadian tourists in desperate need of help, or at least hockey tickets—)
—Ray had after all suffered a fairly serious injury, a stab wound. It surely couldn't hurt to have an extra pair of hands around at a time like that. And he had time coming to him: at least four weeks of paid vacation he'd never taken, not to mention eighty-seven sick days. Ben sat down in the armchair and pulled out his Thackeray; two pages later, he tossed it aside, went to Ray's sofa, and switched on the television. Ray had ESPN.
At the start of the second period, Ray wandered out of the bedroom and collapsed beside him on the sofa. Ray looked healthier if a bit dazed; he was wearing his glasses crookedly and his blond hair was sticking up at strange angles. He sat in silence and watched the game respectfully until they cut to commercial. "Hey," he said. "You're still here."
Ben felt his palms grow damp; he didn't think he'd be able to refuse a direct request to leave. "Yeah."
Ray scratched at his thatch of blond hair, and somehow managed to make it even more unruly. "I'm hungry. You hungry?"
Relief coursed through him. "Yes, I'm quite—" and then the larger implications of Ray's statement struck him. "You're hungry. That's good."
"Yeah, probably," Ray agreed. "So you want to order take-out, or—"
"I bought food," Ben said, rising quickly; he pretended he didn't see the way Ray's eyes had narrowed, the flash of confusion—or was it speculation? He busied himself in the refrigerator, and five minutes later he and Ray were eating bread and cheese, fruit, sausages, and oatmeal cookies as they watched the rest of the game.
Later, after the evening news, there was an awkward moment when Ray got up to go to bed. "You," Ray began haltingly, "you'll be okay, right? There are sheets, blankets—"
Ben hastily interjected, "I'll be fine, Ray—"
"—in the closet, with the towels and stuff." Ray stood there for a moment, looking confused. "An' a pillow, I must have an extra pillow somewhere—"
"Please, Ray. Don't trouble yourself."
But Ray was already stumbling into the bedroom, and, embarrassed, Ben followed him. "—or here, take this one—" Ray pulled one of the pillows off the bed, turned, and handed it to him. Ben took it—and then Ray's eyes narrowed again, except this time they were standing less than two feet apart, both of them holding the pillow.
"You don't have to stay," Ray said. "I can take care of myself."
Ben hesitated before answering; it was still not a direct request, though a tactful person would certainly interpret it as a very strong suggestion. On the other hand, something in Ray's face made Ben think that Ray didn't actually want him to go, and that impression was strengthened a second later when Ray let go of the pillow and took a step back.
"I know, Ray," Ben said finally. This seemed to be the right answer, because Ray nodded and wished him good night. Ben went to sleep in the armchair, legs stretched out on the ottoman, blanket wrapped around his shoulders, pillow tucked behind his head. It smelled of Ray.
When he opened his eyes in the dark room, he couldn't for the moment remember where he was, or why he was awake—and then he heard another muffled crash. "Motherfucker," and just like that, he was up and moving down the dark hallway toward the bathroom, things coming into focus as he went. The door was open, and Ray was standing, one hand braced against the tile wall, just visible by the reflected glow of the streetlight outside.
Ray's head jerked up, and the look on his face was terrible, savage. "What the fuck?" he demanded. "What the fuck are you—" and then he abruptly changed tacks and said, "I knocked over the— I was asleep and hit the fucking—" Ray's other hand shot out in a sweeping arc, and Ben saw the bottles and brushes scattered around Ray's bare feet. Ray'd knocked over his toiletries: hairbrush, hair gel and mouthwash, shaving cream and aftershave lotion. And then Ray sighed and let his shoulders slump. "You wanna hold my dick for me, Fraser? What are you doing here?"
Ben managed to keep his face and voice under control. At least Ray seemed to be feeling better. "I heard a crash," he replied, "and I was afraid that you'd—"
But Ray was already shaking his head. "I don't mean that," he said, and Ben saw that Ray's white undershirt was rumpled, and the drawstring on his gray sweatpants was hanging undone. "I mean, why are you here here?"
That was a direct question, and he'd feared that a direct question would paralyze him, but it didn't. Instead, he stepped forward, put his hands on Ray's hips, and leaned in to kiss him. It was the most direct answer he could give. The moment stretched out forever as he waited to be pushed away ("I—shit, Fraser, I didn't mean—")—and then Ray's mouth opened to his, and Ben felt a surge of lust so strong that it took all his willpower not to simply shove Ray back against the wall. Still, he couldn't help but slide one hand into Ray's hair, to cup Ray's head while he deepened their kiss. He slipped his tongue into Ray's soft, wet mouth and shivered with pleasure when Ray's tongue stroked against his. He thrust his hips forward mindlessly—and then Ray did push him away.
"Okay, look," Ray said, panting; he looked confused, helpless. "I—have to pee." He pushed Ben into the hall, started to shut the bathroom door, and then yanked the door open again. "You stay right there," he warned, then slammed the door.
Fraser closed his eyes and leaned back against the hallway wall; he was excited, he was terrified, and above all, he was furious at himself. Why could he never remember how agonizing passion was? And now that he'd started this, he couldn't go back and unstart it—no, now he had to wait and see what Ray was going to do, and Ray would probably give him some goddamned, well-meaning speech just like Charlie Anderson had. Oh, I didn't mean to give you the wrong impression, Ben. I'm so sorry. You mean so much to me, just not that way...blah, blah, blah.
The bathroom door opened, and Ray came out, looking hesitant. Ben's heart sank. Not again, he thought. Please not again, but Ray Kowalski was visibly searching for words, hands grasping for them in the air, and that couldn't be good.
"Look, I—" Ray started, but then he closed his mouth, and his lips formed a thin line. A moment later he took a deep breath and began again. "I didn't think, I couldn't tell if—" and then suddenly Ray was lurching forward, and Ben's first terrified thought was that he was ill, sick, fainting, but no—Ray was cupping Ben's neck on either side with his hands and kissing him so hotly that Ben felt like something in his spine was liquefying. Holy mother of... All he could do was bear it.
When Ray pulled away from him, his expression was a strange mixture of doubt and defiance. "You do this?"
It took him a moment to understand what Ray was asking, and even then he wasn't sure how to answer. Did he do this? Hard to say, considering that he'd had more sex with Sean Maxwell when he was twelve than he'd ever had since. He hesitated until he saw that Ray's face was crumpling in dismay. "Yes," he whispered quickly. "Yes."
But Ray looked distinctly nervous, now; doubt appeared to be triumphing over defiance. "You want to do this with me?"
"Yes," Ben said, more quickly this time. Suddenly he understood the wisdom of Ray's questions, and he wondered if Ray Kowalski had known a Charlie Anderson or two. "Yes, Ray. Very much."
"Okay," Ray breathed; it sounded like he was talking to himself more than to Ben. "Okay, then," and Ray closed the distance between them and gave him yet another of those soul-expanding kisses. This time, though, Ben was taking notes, and after a moment or two he raised his hands, clasped Ray's rough-stubbled cheeks, and returned the kiss exactly as he had received it. Ray groaned into his mouth and seemed to sway a little.
"C'mon," Ben panted, breaking away. "Not here. You need to lie down and—" He looked down and saw that Ray had nudged down his sweatpants and was clutching his erection, which looked hard and silky-smooth. As he watched, Ray squeezed his fist and massaged himself, sliding upwards from the base to his cock's full, soft head...
"Fraser?" Ben's head jerked up guiltily. Ray's eyes were full of desperation, but his lips were curved into a smile. He let go of his cock, but didn't tuck it back into his sweatpants. It jutted out, high and hard, against Ray's pale belly. "C'mon," Ray said, and tugged Ben's arm.
Feeling dazed, Ben followed him to the bedroom. In the dark, it seemed unbearably intimate. The rumpled bed, the piles of discarded clothes, even the room's smell was intimate—the intermingled scents of sleep and sweat and soap and cologne.
Ray sat on the edge of the bed, looking relieved to be off his feet. "I don't know how much good I'll be." He reached back and grabbed the collar of his t-shirt at the back of his neck, and pulled it up, over his head.
"You don't—" Ben began, as Ray let the t-shirt drop to the floor beside the bed. A large rectangular bandage was taped to his skin. "I mean, we don't have to—"
"Take your clothes off," Ray said softly.
Ben hesitated for only a moment, and then started unbuttoning his flannel shirt, fingers nearly tripping over themselves. Ray slid back on the bed, pushing the gray sweatpants down his legs and off. Ben wrenched the shirt off his shoulders and managed to get one of his hands stuck in the still-buttoned cuff. He pulled until the button twisted open, and then he was looking at Ray, naked and pale, sprawled and waiting for him. A moment later, he was kneeing his way onto the bed, still wearing his jeans, unable to stay away.
Ray grinned up at him, then tucked his fingers into the waistband of Ben's jeans and tugged. "C'mon. You're holding out on me," he said, and opened Ben's top button with a flick of his thumb. Ray stroked the bare skin above the opened button, and Ben inhaled sharply. His trapped erection was aching to be touched—and then Ray rasped his thumbnail down against the outline in his jeans. For a moment that was the only thing in the world, that hard, sliding pressure, the scraping sound of Ray's nail over the zipper.
When awareness returned, he was lying on his stomach next to Ray and kissing his soft mouth. Ray had curled one arm around his neck to tug him down, to hold him close...and then, he felt Ray's other hand gripping his wrist and moving his hand to... He tightened his hand around Ray's cock and felt Ray's sudden, sweet exhalation. Hard, thick, hot...and the surrounding skin was like velvet, soft and yielding under his fingertips. He stroked slowly; Ray's pleasure-sounds were muffled against his mouth, and he breathed them in.
Suddenly Ray broke their kiss and twisted his face away. His eyes were tightly shut, chest rising and falling. Ben slowed his hand and raptly watched Ray's face. Ray's eyelids fluttered. His nostrils flared as he breathed more and more rapidly—until finally his lips parted and he started breathing through his mouth. Ben tightened his hand just to watch Ray's face as he did it, and saw Ray's mouth fall open even wider as his face went momentarily slack. When Ben rubbed his thumb gently over the slick, soft tip of Ray's cock, Ray let out a wet-sounding moan. "Ohhh. Fraser."
"Ben," Ben whispered.
Ray's eyes opened. They were wide and blue and, for a moment, utterly unseeing. Then they focused. "Ben. Yes." Ray's face contorted and he began gasping for breath loudly. Ben feasted on the sight of Ray coming, coming hard, right here, with him, because of him. The smell of semen—musky, salty—rose off Ray's body. Ben breathed it in, relishing it. He slid his hand off Ray's cock and splayed it against Ray's warm belly, caressing him.
"That was good," Ray said breathlessly. "That was really, really good, Fraser."
Ben smiled, then reached up and pretended to tip a Stetson that wasn't there. "Glad you enjoyed it. Always glad to be of—"
"No. No. Nuh-uh." Ray gripped him tightly at the juncture of shoulder and neck, then softened his grip into a caress. "None of that Mountie stuff. Don't be a Mountie with me, Fraser—"
"Then don't call me Fraser, Kowalski." He'd meant it to be witty, but it came out sounding serious. An instant later, heart pounding in his chest, Ben realized that of course he was serious. "My name is Ben," he said and raised his chin a little.
Ray opened his mouth as if he were going to argue the point—and then shut it again. Instead, he cupped Ben's neck and traced the outline of his jaw with his thumb. "Okay, Ben."
His name sounded strange in Ray's mouth, and Ben felt a sudden pang of regret. Perhaps he'd been wrong to— Perhaps he'd miss Ray calling him "Fraser" now that—
Ray levered himself up with his free hand, and then Ray's mouth was kissing away all his doubts. After a while, Ray moved his lips to Ben's cheek and pressed a kiss there. "All right, Ben," Ray murmured, breath hot against Ben's skin. "Lie back, now. And get out of those jeans."
Ben obeyed, lying back in Ray's rumpled sheets and shoving his jeans and underwear the rest of the way off. The air felt cold on his exposed legs...except it wasn't cold in here at all. It was just that he felt so horribly, terribly vulnerable; he'd never been naked in a context like this. But beside him, Ray was sitting up on the bed, and he was loose-limbed and naked and apparently unselfconscious, his cock slowly softening. Ray seemed mesmerized by Ben's body, and reached out to touch his leg, fingertips tracing the scars on his right thigh.
"Two gunshot wounds," Ben said quietly. "One stab wound. Broke it twice."
Ray's mouth tightened, lips growing thin. "Unlucky leg, huh?"
"Yeah." A memory came to Ben and made him smile. "Ray—" Ray looked up at him. "—Ray Vecchio said I should wear a sign that said, 'Please shoot the other leg.'"
Despite himself, Ray's lips twisted into a smile. "Funny guy."
Ray's fingertips were still drifting over his body, but no longer seemed interested only in scars. Ben couldn't believe the depth of the intimacy between them, that Ray's fingers were sliding across his abdomen, carding down through his pubic hair, momentarily encircling the base of his cock. "D'ya think I'm funny?" Ray asked as casually as if they were sitting together on stake-out, sipping coffee—as if he weren't currently cupping Ben's testicles in his hand.
"Yes," Ben replied; he was trying to control his breathing, so he wouldn't lose his breath. "Looking," and that brought Ray's head up and put a grin on his face. "Not really," Ben added hastily, noting that he actually did sound rather breathless now, but how was he supposed to sound with Ray—with Ray's hand— "Actually," Ben confessed, "I think you're beautiful."
Ray's grin widened and softened at the same time. "Lay back and I'll do you, okay?"
"You don't have to." Ben's eyes dropped quickly to Ray's bandage, which still looked clean: a good sign. "I can—"
"You can take care of yourself," Ray said softly, knowingly. "Yeah. Yeah, I know."
"No. Yes. That's—not what I mean," Ben managed; Ray was now stroking his erection gently. "I just don't want you exerting yourself. Not yet."
Ray tightened his hand around the base of Ben's cock and smiled. "I'm not gonna swing from the chandelier or nothing," he promised. "Not yet," and then he bent down and brought his mouth to Ben's cock, giving the head a long, slow lick with the flat of his tongue. Ben gasped, partly in surprise and partly in awed pleasure. He'd never...and even as the thought formed in his mind, Ben found himself grinning at it, mocking himself for it. That made it sound as if he'd actually had lovers, which of course he hadn't. Not really. Sean had been twelve, and Charlie had been engaged, and Victoria...well, you couldn't call Victoria a lover. Victoria Metcalf had never loved anyone.
So he'd never. No one had ever. But now Ray was—simply, easily, like it was the most normal thing in the world. Ray was alternatively licking and sucking the swollen crown—tonguing it gently, then fitting his mouth carefully around it. Ben tried to keep still and couldn't. He tried balling his hands into fists at his sides, but they simply wouldn't stay there. Helplessly, he reached down and clutched Ray's head, fingers sinking deep into soft hair. Ray seemed to take this as his cue to go forward, and began moving his lips over the top of Ben's erection, up and down, up and down, as his fist worked the base.
Breathing hard, Ben squeezed his eyes shut to revel in sensation. The tight, hot, wetness of Ray's mouth, giving him what must surely be the most intense of kisses. Ray's hair twined around his fingers, so much softer than he had expected. Ray's other hand, hot and sweaty, grasping his hip, branding his hip—
Ray's mouth and hand sped up, torturing him with the building intensity of the pleasure. Ray massaged him, kneaded him, wetly sucked and slurped until Ben became aware that he was sobbing softly, rhythmically, hips helplessly jerking upwards. Tears were leaking out the corners of his eyes. His cock was in Ray's warm mouth—and he strained and his body surged upwards and then he was coming, spattering semen up across his belly and chest.
Ray had lifted his head and was coaxing him through it with hand and voice. "Easy. Easy..." Ray soothed, and it was only then that Ben realized his sobs had grown louder. He tried to clamp down on the sound, but his lips seemed to be trembling. Frustrated by his lack of control, Ben raised his arms and draped them across his face—one covering his mouth, the other drawn across his traitorous eyes.
The bed tilted beneath him as Ray moved across it; a few moments later, soft fabric wiped across his belly. Ben moved his arms away from his face and opened his eyes: Ray was mopping up their come with his discarded t-shirt, first Ben's belly and then his own. And then Ray tossed the shirt into the darkness beyond the bed, stretched out beside him, and tugged the coverlet up, over them both. Ben felt Ray's arm slide across his naked belly and shivered. He'd never slept in anyone else's bed before, and only Victoria had ever slept in his.
"Tell me." Ray was pressed to his side, close enough to share the same pillow. "Tell me everything."
Ben stared up through the dim light at Ray's ceiling. Tell Ray everything... where on earth he could possibly start?
Ray lay there beside him, apparently willing to wait until he found the right words.
"My first passion was for a boy named Sean Maxwell," Ben said finally.
Ray listened, sometimes nodding in the darkness, sometimes rubbing Ben's chest reassuringly with the palm of his hand. Ben talked and talked and talked until he felt like he was drowning in words; he couldn't remember ever talking so long, or having anyone listen for so long. But listen Ray did, to all of it, every word—and then, at the end, Ben found himself spilling out a part of the story that was new, even to him. "...and when I saw you there, and when you were lying there, I—" He cupped Ray's stubbled cheeks, and pulled him in for a kiss. They kissed for a very long time.
When Ben finally pulled back he said, somewhat breathlessly, "Now you. Your turn. Tell me everything."
Ray took a deep breath, nodded up at the ceiling, and said:
"I took this bus, I drove this car, I got on this train, I walked down this street, I turned this corner, I opened this door and Stella was on the other side. She was twelve, I was thirteen, and even to this day I can not tell you why I wanted her so much." Ray raised his hands to his temples and rubbed them roughly. "Except, I dunno, I just needed somebody. My father was always working; my mother, too, at the factory, sewing. She was always trying to earn extra money—mainly for me, I know that. She wanted me to have nice things, but nothing was nice, everything was crap and so, like, I decided to get my own nice thing. And that was Stella," Ray said. "Stella was golden—so pretty, I can't even tell you—and I guess I just thought, please God, if I could just have this girl. Just one nice thing, right at the center of my universe."
"Well," Ben said after a moment's reflection. "You got her."
"Yeah. Yeah, I got her, all right," Ray sighed. "So I asked her to marry me—I wanted to hold onto her forever, tie her to me, and I guess she felt the same. The world was a scary place, but I thought if I had her, I'd be okay. We were more like Hansel and Gretel than Romeo and Juliet," and that was true, Ben thought. There really was some strange affinity between Ray and Stella, even to look at them. Some consanguinity in their blond hair and fair-skinned faces, as if they were brother and sister instead of husband and wife. His mind briefly conjured up Victoria Metcalf's dark hair and blue eyes...but that was too disturbing an idea to contemplate.
"Stella's parents agreed to throw us a wedding," Ray said, and then he told Ben how Stella had insisted on six bridesmaids, all dressed in pink, and how he hadn't even had six friends to fill the groomsmen's slots. So his side of the wedding party had ended up being Stella's two brothers, one of Ray's cousins, and his three best friends, Phil Chrobak ("Chrobak the Throwback," naturally enough), Steve Oborski, and Salvatore Conti, who Ray thought was a pretty good guy despite his being Italian. Ray hadn't known Sal as long as he'd known Phil and Steve—"Hell, Phil and Steve knew me even before I was even Ray, back when I was still Stanley, like back in middle-school,"—but Sal smoked cigarettes and owned a battered old Indian Chief, which he was teaching Ray to ride. "And the Indian, I've got to tell you, was the coolest motorcycle ever made," Ray explained. "Forget Harley-Davidson, Kawasaki, BMW—just forget it. Phil had a Honda, which was junk, trust me."
"I trust you," Ben replied gravely.
Ray smiled and absently scratched his stubbled chin. "Okay, then. Just so you understand, because the motorcycles are kind of key," and then Ray told him how the night before his wedding, he and Phil and Steve and Sal had gone out drinking, determined to have one final blowout. And then, when they were well and truly loaded, they had piled onto the Indian and the Honda—
Even though it was now twenty years later, and Ray had clearly survived the experience, Ben found himself shocked by the stupidity of the idea.
—and gone roaring up Lake Shore Drive. "It was late," Ray said quietly, perhaps sensing Ben's disapproval, "and there wasn't much traffic, which was a good thing, because yeah, it was dumb and I know that. But at the time...summer night, bright lights of Chicago blurring beside you, wind in your hair...it was the best. I loved every single second of that ride."
Ray lay there, breathing up at the ceiling, breathing a little fast, and Ben was just starting to wonder whether Ray was overtiring himself when Ray pulled Ben's hand against his growing erection. Ben squeezed the warm flesh willingly, but Ray didn't let go; instead, Ray began to move Ben's hand up and down, slowly masturbating himself with it.
"When we stopped, we were all the way uptown at the beach. It was the middle of the night—dark, deserted—and we tumbled off the bikes and ran around on the sand. Completely off our heads." Ray's breath caught for a second on what must have been a particularly pleasant upstroke; he was already leaking and slick, and Ben felt his own erection hardening in response. "Phil and Steve had a six-pack and they went off to drink it while Sal fucked me there on the beach."
Ben's hand never slowed—Ray never allowed Ben's hand to slow, but kept moving it up and down, steadily but with gradually increasing speed. His voice grew shallow and breathless.
"I wasn't...I wasn't expecting—and I was drunk, sure, but that's...not an excuse. I was into it," Ray said, closing his eyes. "I was totally into it. We fell down on the sand and he touched me and some part of my brain just went yes yes yes..." and Ray's long fingers clutched Ben's hand and stopped it. Ray was shaking, Ray was coming all over his hand, and Ben felt deeply and irrationally jealous of Ray's long-ago passion. "I..." Ray exhaled finally, "I let him kiss me. I sucked his cock and I let him suck mine. I let him try to fuck me even though he was drunk and there wasn't any lube and so we didn't, ultimately. But he stuck his fingers in me, and he tried hard enough that I felt it all the next day, which... which..."
Ray voice tightened as he trailed off, but Ben didn't need him to complete the thought. He couldn't imagine what it would be like to feel that way on your wedding day.
"When I opened my eyes, the sun was coming up over the lake. I was sprawled on the sand and Sal was sprawled over me, head on my belly, still wearing his motorcycle jacket, jeans down around his knees. Twenty yards down the beach I could see Phil and Steve passed out, beer cans crushed all around them. I thought my head was gonna explode, and fuck, the sun was bright and I hadn't brought my sunglasses, because who needed sunglasses in the middle of the night? Sal had sunglasses," Ray sighed, as if that were only inevitable, "in his jacket pocket. He was something else, Sal—dark eyes, dark hair, lean, hard, very tough. Tougher than I'll ever be."
"You're tough enough," Ben said quietly; in his mind, he could hear Francesca saying, Ray's pretty tough. Underneath that kid-on-ritalin exterior, he's tough as nails, really. "And I'm glad you're not any tougher."
"Well, thank you. I think." Ray groaned and got up off the bed, heaving himself to his feet. Ben sat up, suddenly self-conscious about being naked in Ray's rumpled, semen-stained sheets. Ray bent carefully, one hand pressed below the bandage taped to his injured side, and retrieved his discarded t-shirt from the floor. He wiped his softening genitals, then crossed to the bureau and took something from the top drawer. When he came back, Ray switched on the lamp, which cast a small yellow circle of light over his side of the bed. He sat down, naked, and stared at the photograph in his hand, back bowed so that Ben could see every knot in his spine from the neck down.
Finally, Ray sighed and handed the picture to Ben. Ben scootched into the circle of light so that he could see it clearly: a group of young people gathered together on a green lawn, and—Good Lord Jesus, was that really what eighteen looked like? This didn't look so much like a wedding party as a group of friends gathered after the high school dance, which—
Well, yes, of course it did.
Ray was standing in the center of the photograph, one arm around Stella and grinning broadly at the camera. He was unbelievably young and yet recognizably himself—although he couldn't have been more than 120 pounds soaking wet. Stella, too, looked very young and gloriously happy, even though her face—all the women's faces, Ben noticed—had yet to lose the pudgy softness of girlhood. Her lips were the same rose pink as the bridesmaids' dresses. Ben's eyes moved to scan the men, who were all wearing dark suits with narrow lapels and skinny ties. It wasn't difficult to pick out Salvatore Conti. He was beautiful, Ben forced himself to admit. With his dark eyes and dark hair, he looked like a Spaniard, a bullfighter, a toreador. Very beautiful but tough, like Ray said.
"Everything was already wrong," Ray said quietly, and Ben jerked his head up to look at him. "I tried to pretend it wasn't. I dunno," Ray said, rubbing his palm over the strangely flattened spikes of his hair, "maybe it was all wrong from the start and I just didn't know it. I remember trying not to look at Sal. I kept wondering if the other guys knew—if they were awake that night, drunk or what. They never said anything, though, and I tried to convince myself that if they knew anything, they thought it was no big deal. A drunken grope, the kind of thing that could happen to anyone that far gone."
Ben looked down at the picture: Ray and his cocky grin, Salvatore and his dangerous beauty. "Except it doesn't happen to just anyone, does it?"
"No," Ray agreed, and then he laughed. "I asked around, though," Ray added, grinning. "'Hey, remember when you fucked that guy the night before your wedding? Oh, you didn't? So that was just me, then?'"
Ben snorted out a laugh and then rubbed his face to stifle it. "Did you," he asked, "did you and Sal, did you ever—?"
"Nah." Ray took the picture back from Ben, contemplated it for one more moment, then tossed it carelessly onto the nightstand. "Avoided him like the plague after that. Wouldn't you? Not that it mattered in the end." Ray turned off the lamp and lay back on the bed. Beside him, Ben rolled onto his side so he could look down at Ray's face. "There was always someone else in bed with us..."
Ben thought he could picture what had happened, almost as if he had been there. Stella had become suspicious but had said nothing, unable to believe the awful truth. Until one day, she'd found some piece of hard evidence: a matchbook, room key, hotel receipt... "You were having an affair?" Ben asked gently.
"Hm?" Ray, lost in thought, snapped back to answer the question. "Me? No. Her—she was banging the judge that she clerked for, this guy called, I'll never forget him, Jim Marshall. This guy, he was a circuit court judge, state court, I think he's even still there. Stella clerked for him her first year out of law school—and lied to me, lied the whole fuckin' time, I could hardly believe it. 'I'm just working late,' she would say. Yeah, right—I knew something was up, but I couldn't prove it until I broke into her desk and found the receipts from her Amex Gold Card. Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Hyatt Regency. The Mercury Bar at the Parkland. Then the shit really hit the fan."
Ben just stared at him, surprised. "Oh?"
"Oh, you betcha. To-ing and fro-ing and crying and fucking emotional mess, the both of us. At the time, I mean, I was furious, though half of it was feeling stupid and betrayed and, well, you know," and yes, Ben thought he knew. "The other half of it was feeling a whole other kind of stupid, because here's me thinking that maybe I want something else, somebody else except—okay, I took a vow, so I've gotta stick to it, right? Except Stella's fucking Jim fucking Marshall! God, I wanted to strangle her! I wanted to strangle him! I wanted to kill them both and cut them up into pieces and put them in a trunk and bury them somewhere." At this point, Ray raised a hand, inhaled and exhaled deeply, and said, "Really, I'm mainly over it."
Ben took Ray's hand and began to massage it between both his own. "Yes, of course you are," he said.
Ray blew out a long breath and continued. "So anyway. She was really freaked, promises up and down, it would never happen again. She left the clerkship, took a schmantzy corporate job instead. She made money then, and spent a lot of it on me, but—I didn't want money. I wanted..." Ray trailed off, and after a few long, awkward moments, Ben eased closer and kissed him, pretending not to notice the way Ray's mouth was trembling. "Yeah, that," Ray managed when Ben lifted his head; he'd pulled himself together. "That, and...I mean, I wanted to hold on to her. I needed to hold on to something. So I believed her. I...mostly believed her," he finished, lamely.
Ben winced. "Did it happen again?"
"Yeah." Ray was quiet for so long that Ben began to suspect that he'd come to the end of his story; the path to divorce was already clear from here. But then Ray started up again. "Yeah, and you know, I get it, I really do. We really were too young, like everybody said. She knew she made a mistake—I mean, she loved me, I know that, and maybe she even still loves me, but I think she knew it was a mistake pretty early on. So I think...yeah, she wanted to have whatever affairs she had, but maybe she was sending me a message, too. Testing my limits, trying to get me to break it off." Ray raised a hand to rub his right eye, then left it there, covering it, like he maybe didn't want to see. "Except I wouldn't let go. I couldn't let it go for a really, really long time."
"Understandable," Ben murmured.
"Pathetic." Ray seemed to force a smile. "I couldn't make myself let go of her. Even after it was perfectly clear that she would rather be fucking lawyers and I would rather be fucking guys. Because I couldn't handle being bisexual and I couldn't handle being alone. Even though I was already alone." Ray sighed. "And you know, it's easier to be alone by yourself."
"True, but..." Ben pulled Ray's hand to his half-hard erection, "...surely it's easier to be bisexual with someone else?"
Ray looked startled for a moment and then burst out laughing. "I—well, yeah. Okay. Sure." Ray licked his palm, then wrapped his wet, warm hand securely around Ben's cock. "No guilt?" he asked suddenly, curiously, looking up.
"Plenty of guilt," Ben pushed himself into Ray's hand, and his breath caught in his throat. "Not about this."
"Well, good. Great. Chalk one up for the Northern Territories," Ray said, squeezing gently. "I'm game if you are."
"Oh," Ben said breathlessly, "I'm game. I'm game. I'm entirely game, Ray," and it had been a very long time since Ben Fraser had had sex on purpose, with a friend, for fun, but as he and Ray fell asleep afterwards, arms and legs tangled together, Ben began to believe that Ray Kowalski might truly understand the nature of passion, and that Ray's passion might be equal to his own.
Ben lugged the third box of groceries to the Expedition and popped the hatch—but now there were two big shopping bags in the space he'd just cleared. He blew out a frustrated breath, then shifted the various boxes, bags, and packages again. Once he'd set down the box of groceries, Ben glanced into one of the shopping bags. Sheets, towels. Looked like Peterson's was having a white sale.
He shut the Expedition's door, turned around, and stretched, hands going to the small of his back. The sun was low in the sky—well, it was the time of year for that. He glanced up and down Depford Avenue but saw no sign of Ray, though he couldn't have gone far. He'd probably popped back into the hardware store—God knew, you couldn't get Ray out of the hardware store these days.
The bell tinkled as Ben pushed through into Maxwell's Hardware. It was a claustrophobic maze inside—stacks of cut lumber, piles of steel pipes, a forest of lamp fixtures. Ben walked past a pyramid of paint cans and glass cases full of power tools toward the back of the store, and sure enough, there was Ray. As Ben drew closer, he saw that Ray was bent over the battered wooden counter that ran along the back of the store, studying something. Some kind of design sketch, Ben saw as he drew closer.
Just then, Ray called out, without lifting his head, "Hey, what about plastic pipes?"
A voice came back from the stockroom. "Plastic?"
"Yeah. Would plastic pipes work?" Ray looked up as Ben joined him at the counter, flashing him a smile and nudging his shoulder. "Done with the shopping?"
"Yeah. You bought towels?"
"Yeah. They were on sale."
"I figured," Ben said, and peered down at the diagram, a complicated mess of coils drawn in Ray's characteristic style. Plumbing, Ben guessed. He thought that the rocket-shape at the center of the drawing might be a water tank. "What is this?" he asked.
Ray scratched at the back of his neck. "Idea I had," he replied. "I was wondering if, when I replaced the tank—see, I want to build something for the bathroom like a car radiator, where the heat of the engine heats the inside of your car. We're heating the hot water anyway," Ray said, picking up a pencil and pointing the tip at what was, in fact, a hot water tank, "so why send all that heat down the drain?"
Ben followed the swirl of Ray's pencil and understood; Ray was thinking about running heating pipes underneath the bathroom floor.
"See, and gravity pulls the water down and out, plus heat rises," Ray said, now drawing wavy little heat lines up from the floor. "Economically efficient, environmentally friendly, plus I won't freeze my ass off when I step out of the shower. What do you think?"
"I like it," Ben said, stifling a grin. He could still remember Ray saying, "All I bring to this relationship is my debt, Fraser," but that had turned out not to be true. Ray's contribution to their relationship was vast—more, to be honest, than Ben had expected.
Though he should have anticipated it. Ray's ratcheting enthusiasm for the north had been evident in the—well, the only word for it was zeal—with which Ray had researched off-road vehicles before insisting that they go with the Expedition, "with an upgraded engine, a F150 5.4 V8 which we can plug into a block heater and—" Ben had bowed to Ray's greater authority in the matter, and they'd co-signed the loan.
Then he and Ray had decided to gut the Fraser family cabin and rebuild it from the ground up. Ray had taken control of this project within days, by which time it had become perfectly clear that while he knew nothing about arctic building techniques or traditional Inuit methods of waterproofing, Ray was some kind of a genius with tools. Ray had near-perfect aim with the axe. Ray could saw a straight line by eye and hammer while hanging upside down by his knees and—topping everything—Ray could weld.
It was roughly about this time that Ray's love affair with Maxwell's Hardware began. Bench plane, table saw, router. Hand drills and power drills; flange, anvil and torch. Calipers and clamps. Blocking hammer. Sawsall. If Ray didn't know how to do it, Ray was damned well going to learn—and it was only when Ben woke up one night to find Ray squinting through his glasses at a book called Principles of Arctic Engineering that he understood that, for Ray, this was like building the biggest, most complicated muscle car ever.
In the past, Ben had depended on traditional sources of light and heat and had had a generator only for emergencies. Ray instead suggested that they not only have a wood stove but a hybrid power system which included solar panels and a wind turbine. Ray Vecchio had dreamed of an in-house toilet; Ray Kowalski had worked out a system for one that used a series of water tanks, a hand-pump, and gravity. That having been such a success, Ray was now determined to expand the bathroom and install a sink, a shower, and—apparently—a heated tile floor.
"Okay, see," Sean Maxwell said, coming from the back with an armful of pipe-lengths, "you've got your stainless steel, your galvanized steel, your aluminum and your chromium nickel," he said, putting each piece of pipe down as he said it. "Hey, Ben."
"Hi, Sean," Ben replied, slouching against the counter. "Is he bothering you again?"
"Yeah," Ray interrupted, "we're bothering his kids right into college. Show me the pipes already."
Sean rolled his eyes and set another length of pipe down on the counter. "Copper. Still the industry standard for drinking water."
"Okay, okay," Ray said, picking up the copper piping and examining it. "Except I'm reading about plastic pipes—you do plastic?"
"I can get it for you but I wouldn't use it myself," Sean replied.
"I just thought it'd be easier to work with," Ray said, frowning.
"Yeah, it would, it would be," Sean began, and he explained about the problem that some plastic pipes had with bacteria, and with mold, and how plastic was non-conductive to heat and so they were more prone to burst in cold weather, but Ben wasn't really listening to the details of this. Instead, he was scrutinizing Sean's face, which was still as round and cheerful as it had been in childhood, even though his gently receding hairline and the smile lines around his eyes showed that he was closer to forty than fourteen. But weren't they all?
Ben was taken aback by the sound of laughter; he'd missed the joke. "Okay, okay!" Ray said, grinning. "Copper."
"Copper it is," Sean replied; he was scribbling measurements in his order book and smiling in the maniacal way Ben remembered from childhood. But Sean still had both his parents, and his sisters had made good marriages to oilmen who had taken them to the chic suburbs of Edmonton, and he had married Linda MacGuire and had three sons and a daughter by her...and next to him, Ray Kowalski looked infinitely weathered and whipcord tough. Ray had smile lines and frown lines and "Holy fuck, you piss me off!" lines. Scraggly beard stubble and callused hands. Scars on his fingers from years of automotive work, one fingernail partly torn out from scaling a concrete wall at top speed. A long, white scar along one forearm, made by a perpetrator wielding a jagged piece of glass. Teeth marks on his left ear. A deep scrape down his left shin. Bullet wound in his thigh, gotten while rescuing a kidnapped boy from a warehouse in 1988. An independent childhood, a failed marriage, and a broken heart. Stab wound to the chest. Ray Kowalski had been scarred deeply, and he understood suffering. Beside him, Sean Maxwell still looked like a boy.
"—gonna be enough?" Ray was asking. "You gotta give me extra just in case I fuck up—"
"I know, I know," Sean said, still scribbling, "I got it covered, Ray. You'll have it by Thursday. Tank'll come Tuesday," Sean added, ripping a receipt out of his book and handing it to Ray. "If you want, I'll have Lenny drive it out to you in the truck, eh?"
"Okay, yeah." Ray scanned the receipt, nodded with approval at the figures, and tucked it into his wallet. "Thanks, pal."
"No problem," Sean said. Ray shook Sean's hand, and Ben smiled and nodded his goodbye before following Ray out of the door.
The sun was still where it had been earlier, low on the horizon. "You get the mail?" Ray asked.
Ray crossed his arms and stared down at the sidewalk; he was thinking hard. "We done, then?"
"I think so," Ben replied, and then he ticked their chores off on his fingertips. "Groceries, butcher, laundry, hardware—"
"What about the dogs?" Ray asked, looking up sharply.
"All taken care of," Ben said, casually letting his hand rest on Ray's back, just below the neck.
Ray showed him a slow, wicked grin; he didn't seem to be taking the gesture casually, bless him. "So what are we waiting for?" He extended his palm and Ben dropped the Expedition's keys into his hand.
Ray still seemed to take it for granted that he should do all the driving, and Ben wasn't disposed to argue about it. On the contrary, it struck him as yet another unanticipated luxury: for the first time in his life up here in the north, Benton Fraser got to relax in the passenger seat and check out the scenery. It was really very pretty up here.
Later, they unpacked the truck, and Ray went out to the shed to feed the dogs while Ben heated up yesterday's stew. They were still cooking on a two pot metal stove, but probably not for long if Ray had anything to say about it. Ray had his eye on a Todd four-burner with double overhead warming cabinets and a six gallon reservoir. Ray had barely been able to contain his excitement. Ben smiled down into the stew; it was beginning to bubble and he stirred it.
The outer door banged open, and a moment later, Ray pushed through the inner door into the kitchen, followed by Diefenbaker, who eagerly bumped up against Ben's legs. Must have smelled the stew. Ben looked up and saw that Ray was slowly flipping through the mail. Every so often, he flipped an envelope around to scrutinize a return address.
"You doing okay with the stirring?" Ray asked,
"Yes," Ben replied, and made a little flourish with the spoon for style's sake. "I got a first in stirring at the Academy."
Ray looked up, his lips twisting wryly. "You got a first in everything at the Academy."
"How true," Ben agreed, and then Ray startled him by dropping the pile of mail onto the kitchen table with a thwap—all except for one long, creamy envelope.
Ray was holding this envelope by the corner and peering at it with his head tilted to one side. "Letter from Stella."
"Oh?" Ben thought that came out sounding very reasonable and not at all jealous. "What does she have to say?"
Ray licked his lip slowly, thoughtfully, then sat down on one of the kitchen chairs and tore the envelope open—with much more force than he needed to, Ben thought. Ray pulled out a folded piece of paper and tossed the envelope onto the table. He had managed, Ben noticed, almost to mangle it.
"'Dear Ray, blah blah,'" Ray said, scanning it. "'Hope you're enjoying your new life in the north, dee dee dum, doing quite well, not much going on, still working at the S.A.'s office.' Okay, here it comes," Ray said; he hunched forward and read the next few lines with an expression of deep concentration.
Ben attempted to be patient. He stirred the stew again but this failed to maintain his interest. "What does she say?" he asked finally.
For a moment Ray didn't say anything, then he looked up and laughed, and to Ben's relief, the laughter seemed genuine. "What a freak," Ray said, and tossed the letter onto the table. "She wants to prepare me. She's 'seeing someone seriously,'" Ray said, and made quote marks in the air with his fingers. "Like I'm not—like I didn't already move two thousand miles away, which by the way was a major league fucking commitment and not a thing that I would do for just anyone." Something inside of Ben relaxed again, but Ray was still off on a rant. "So is it me, or is this an amazing amount of—whattyacall that? Boasting. Ego."
"Hubris?" Ben suggested.
Ray slapped his palm down on the wooden tabletop. "Hubris, that's the word exactly. Tell me that's not hubris."
It did seem strange that Stella would take the time to inform Ray of developments in her love life. Back in Chicago, she had seemed quite adamant that such developments were absolutely none of his business. So what had changed?
"I suppose that depends," Ben replied finally. "Who's she seeing? Does she say?"
Ray glanced over at the letter. "Someone from work, she says. Probably some lawyer—I'm telling you, Ben, Stella goes for lawyers like it's a sexual preference. Lawyers fucking lawyers; it's a hideous perversion of nature."
"It's legal in Canada, now," Ben said, stirring. "Sex between lawyers."
Ray waved his hand. "Ahhh, that's cause you guys are crazy up here. No moral fiber."
"I think you should be supportive," Ben said reprovingly. "Wear a pin."
"Yeah, you're right," Ray said, heaving himself out of his chair. "No one's forcing me to be a lawyer, after all. So whatever makes 'em happy."
"As long as they don't have children," Ben added, putting the spoon down. Ray grinned at him, and Ben added, "Dinner in five, all right?"
"Okay," Ray replied. "Let me wash up, change my shirt. Oh, and hey," he added, picking another letter out of the pile and turning to Ben with the envelope in his hand. "Vecchio's weekly missive. See, and if I can get the dish up, you could just email him—"
"Ray. Go change," Ben said, and tore open the letter.
He read it twice, then blew out a slow breath. Well, that explained a lot—that explained damn near everything. He tucked the letter into his back jeans pocket and then carefully, potholders on both hands, moved the stew onto the warming plate. He would have to tell Ray. He would have to tell Ray now, or else he would never be able to tell Ray, and he'd have to pretend to know nothing about it, forever and ever—and this thing between them was too new, and too wonderful, to withstand them having secrets like that. Ben set two bowls on the table, then added two napkins, two forks, and two spoons. When Ray came out of the bedroom, face freshly scrubbed and hair standing on end, Ben handed him an open, cold bottle of beer.
Ray's eyes narrowed. "What?"
"Drink," Ben said, gesturing toward the bottle. Ray hesitated, then tipped the bottle up and took a deep swig. Then he drew the back of his hand across his lips.
"It's Vecchio," Ben said.
Ray leaned forward a little. "What?"
"It's Vecchio. Ray Vecchio. That Stella's seeing."
For a moment, Ray just stared blankly at him. Then he nodded slowly. "Okay. That's okay."
Ben was watching Ray's face closely. "That's okay?" he asked.
"Yeah. I mean...yeah." Ray tilted the bottle up and took another swig. When the bottle came down, Ray's lips had curved up into a smile. "Yeah, Ben," Ray said, and then Ray's warm palm was cupping Ben's neck and bringing his face close, and Ray's kiss was soft and sloppy and tasted like beer. Ben leaned into it, one hand fisting the soft flannel of Ray's shirt, the fingers of his other hand curling into the loose denim at Ray's hip; Ray always wore his jeans loose. Ray's other hand was pushing up, under Ben's shirt, stroking his rib cage with callused fingertips. Ben blindly pushed forward against Ray's body, his hands sliding around to Ray's ass and rubbing, caressing, squeezing. Ray shoved back, mindlessly rocking against him, hands everywhere, mouth open and—
"The stew?" Ray asked breathlessly; Ben realized, with a start, that he'd pushed Ray up against the wall and pinned Ray's wrist near his head. Ray was flushed and panting hard. A pale blue vein pulsed across his right temple, as it did when he got excited.
"Fuck the stew," Ben said.
The first time he'd fucked Ray...well, Ben could admit, at least in hindsight, that he'd been competing with a ghost. He'd been trying to supplant Salvatore Conti in Ray's memory, foolish as that was, but the idea had gripped him like a compulsion. Salvatore had shaken Ray Kowalski's world, changed his idea of himself, maybe even ruined his marriage. Ben had imagined a young Ray shaking and moaning on a deserted midnight beach...and damn, but he wanted that, he wanted that; why should Salvatore have had it; why should Stella? They hadn't wanted Ray Kowalski; God only knew what they wanted. Ben doubted they knew themselves. But some people poured wine onto the ground while others went thirsty; some people gorged themselves while others starved.
And it had been in that mood that he'd taken Ray Kowalski for the first time, taken him the moment Ray had been well enough. Ben had felt feverish. Defiant. His hands had been slippery with nerves and Ray's back had been covered in a thin sheen of sweat. He'd worked his fingers deep into Ray, and ached with wanting him. Ray had braced himself on the bed, head bowed between his forearms. He'd tried to keep still, but he'd moaned at the first touch and was trembling violently by the time Ben seized his hips and hauled him up onto his knees. Ben knew he was being a little rough with Ray but he couldn't help it, and the way Ray was gasping and pushing back against him convinced him that Ray was enjoying it. In his heart, Ben knew that this act of lovemaking was really an act of assertion—maybe even of domination, certainly of possession. Maybe all passion was. But Ray didn't seem to mind being taken. He let Ben move him, position him, tilt his hips up and push his legs apart, and Ben had fucked him until he'd been literally overcome with it, his limbs going rubbery, the world blurring as he'd collapsed onto Ray's warm, slick back. And afterwards, when he'd gathered Ray tightly in his arms, he had felt Ray's heart pounding as violently as his own.
They had gone on like that for some time, those early weeks in Chicago. Ben had worried that he was taking too much, that he simply needed too much, but every time he opened his mouth to express this thought to Ray, Ray would grin slowly and shake his head. Five minutes later he'd have Ray clutching the sofa back, or bent over the kitchen table, or face down on the bed.
"I'm sorry," he'd managed one night as he stared down into Ray's shiny, flushed face, at Ray's dark, sweat-damp hair. "I'm—"
"Shh. Shut up. I get it. Just one nice thing—" Ray said, reaching up to caress Ben's cheek with his knuckles, "—so take it, Fraser. Believe me, you deserve it. I just can't believe it's me," he added, almost to himself, and Ben had buried his face against Ray's neck.
It was only after Ray'd decided to emigrate to Canada that Ben had offered himself—and, despicably, that's how he'd thought of it, as offering himself, as if he were giving his body to Ray as some form of compensation. It hadn't really occurred to him that he might enjoy it, because underneath, deep down, Ben still believed that he and Ray were essentially different, that Ray's ability to enjoy penetration made him different—more emancipated, somehow freer: more American. So when he'd finally offered himself to Ray, he'd done so on the grounds that this would give Ray pleasure—after all, making love to Ray had certainly given him pleasure. He had not imagined, despite Ray's visible enjoyment of the act, that he himself would enjoy being penetrated.
He had been wrong. He had been really, really, stupendously, tremendously wrong about that.
He'd known it from almost the first touch. Ray had leaned in to kiss him and had put his tongue into Ben's mouth just as Ben felt the first caress of Ray's slick fingertip. He had tensed, but some part of him had also trembled—and it was that part of him that had started unraveling, unwinding more and more rapidly, spinning and spinning until he was openly begging for it.
He could still remember Ray's barely suppressed smile.
Ben had expected it to hurt and it did, a little—but he hadn't expected the gut-wrenching pleasure of it. The way his body had burned as it opened. Ray hard and slick and deep inside of him, Ray's hands gripping his hips hard enough to leave bruises. The way Ray's cock kept rubbing that sweet spot inside him, convulsing him again and again—Christ, he hadn't known, hadn't even suspected that his body could produce such multiplicities of pleasure. He collapsed under it, went blind with it, and later, when he was shivering with his own cooling sweat, Ray laughed and roughly stroked his hair and face and head the way you might stroke a dog, the way Ray sometimes petted and soothed Diefenbaker.
"You've been holding out on me," Ben managed finally.
"Oh yeah. You betcha."
Since then, sex between them was determined by—well, by whoever wanted it more. And some days that was quite a competition. Ben drove Ray against the cabin's wood wall, and felt Ray pushing back, muscles hard and flexing. God. God. Ray's mouth on his was so wet and sweet. For a moment he lost concentration and just drowned in it, and when he came back to himself, Ray had gained the advantage and was propelling him backwards toward the bedroom. Ben swerved and together, they lurched sideways, still holding on to each other, swaying as they groped and kissed. For a moment, Ben was sure that they were going to trip and crash to the floor, but somehow Ray righted them and steered them back toward the bedroom with all the grace of an experienced dancer. Ben tried turning Ray around again but Ray's hands were tight around his wrists, Ray was adamant, his mouth insistent—and Ben all at once decided to give in and surrender everything. As if to show his understanding of this, Ray's hands slid up his arms, up his body, finally coming to rest in his hair, clutching and tugging his head forward for deep, sloppy kisses.
The next thing he knew he felt the bed against the backs of his calves, and then Ray was shoving him down, straddling him, practically sitting in his lap. Ben let himself sprawl backwards, let Ray sit astride him and loom over him, hands now fisted in Ben's shirt. So good just to give in, so wonderful to be the object of this force, this attention, this passion. Ray's hands were moving down his chest now, unbuttoning his shirt, fingers tightening on his nipples. Ben found himself panting into Ray's mouth, then twisted his face away, nearly hyperventilating, trying to suck air into his lungs. Ray massaged his nipples until they almost hurt, until the pleasure was so near pain it was excruciating. It felt like every part of him was aroused, every single part of him, and when Ray grabbed his hair and kissed him again, Ben nearly came right then.
He didn't, though, and when Ray lifted his head, leaving Ben's mouth wet with kisses, Ben sucked in a deep breath and tried to steady himself. Ray was sliding down his body, roughly unbuttoning his jeans, yanking them off—a blessing, a relief from this near-agony. He inhaled deeply, willing Ray to take him into his mouth, because he wasn't going to last. But Ray was lost in his own passion, his face vulnerable, made naked with desire. Ray wanted it, wanted him, and the knowledge burned inside him like a small hot fire.
Ray's hands clumsily grabbed at his bare hips, trying to turn him over, but Ben held his ground. "No," he said, "wait," and then he shifted on the bed, hooking one leg around Ray's waist, drawing the other up, and tilting his hips. Ray took a slow, deep breath, like he was trying to control himself, but his hands were white-knuckled where they gripped Ben's legs. Slowly, as if it required an effort, Ray relaxed his fingers, but when he reached for the lubricant his hands were shaking.
Ben's own heart was pounding double-time in anticipation. "Well?" he asked, his voice sounding breathless to his own ears. "Come on..." Ray was slicking himself with great speed; Ray's erection, Ben observed, not for the first time, jutted out hard and arrow-straight from his body, while his own curved almost imperceptibly to the left. "Hurry..."
Ray sucked in an audible breath. "Quit it," he said tightly. "Just—"
Ben realized that Ray was as near to coming as he was, and clamped his mouth shut. When Ray pushed his fingers in, Ben closed his eyes and concentrated on his own breathing, in and out, in and...God, Ray's fingers inside him felt so good. He could never have imagined—well, why should he, how could he, based on his limited sexual experience? The world had always seemed to him a hard place, where pleasures were won only after great difficulties that tested one's character. But this? He and Sean Maxwell had long ago stumbled upon the joys of physical intimacy, but he felt like he was constantly rediscovering the miracle of it...that one's body could manufacture pleasure like this, out of nowhere, unearned, for free. And with Ray, he had broadened his definition of passion to the point that...that...
Ray was pushing into him now, clutching his hips and pushing in. Ben moaned and rhythmically nudged his hips upward, wanting it, wanting him.
...that one could only call it love. This was love. Because when passion married understanding, it was love.
The pleasure was suddenly so intense that he could barely stand it.
"Ray, I love you," he gasped.
"I...yeah. Yeah." Ray was terrifyingly beautiful, looming above him, sweat darkening his hair at the hairline. "I love you too. Ben. Ben..." and then Ray's hips snapped forward and he was grunting and straining, fucking in earnest. Ben groaned and went lax, just letting the ecstasy build in him. When Ray leaned forward and gripped Ben's cock in one warm, sweaty hand, the world went bright and he came, moaning.
Ray moaned too, and thrust into him, again and again, and then closed his eyes and collapsed. Ben held Ray tightly as his orgasm shook him, leaving him incoherent and muttering against Ben's neck. "...s'great... Love you..."
"Mm," Ben murmured drowsily, and within minutes he was asleep beneath Ray's warm weight.
When he woke up, Ray was still sprawled on top of him, boneless and sleeping deeply. Gently, Ben rolled him to one side, slid out from underneath him, and sat up. He looked out the window. The sun was at the horizon, winking in and out; it wouldn't set, not entirely, not this time of year. He had a sudden, sharp sense of deja vu—something about the quality of the light—and hugged himself to stave off a shiver.
When they'd gutted the cabin and redesigned the floor plan, Ben had wanted the bedroom here, had wanted the bed to face this window. He'd slept here as a child, in a small bed that had taken up most of the space in the semi-private alcove his grandfather had built for him with a few planks. Cot, trunk, bedside lamp...and come to think of it, he'd been living that way for most of his life.
Not anymore. He and Ray had ripped out not only the rough planks that had set off his bedroom, but the cabin's entire interior: walls, cabinetry, ceiling, even a lot of the flooring. They'd stripped the place down to the bare walls, the mostly-intact roof, and the chimneys, and begun anew.
Now, the window he'd stared out as a child was the focus of his and Ray's bedroom—a good-sized room separated from the main living space by a huge, new, two-sided masonry fireplace, which they'd built themselves. Ray had insisted they have a queen-sized bed, which struck Ben as an outrageous luxury: neither his parents nor his grandparents had ever possessed such a thing. Ben had taken charge of dressing the bed, swathing it in the traditional fabrics of his childhood—not only heavy flannels and wools but also skins and furs. He loved waking up with his face buried in fur, breathing in the distinctive, musky smells of animal skins.
He looked down and saw that Ray had tucked a pillow underneath his head and tugged a blanket around his shoulders. Ben pulled another blanket up and over him, then bent to kiss him; the stubble on Ray's cheek felt soft against his lips. He got out of bed, tugged on a pair of flannel pants, then reached for his bathrobe, which was hung neatly on its hook beside Ray's. He pushed his feet into slippers, and then soundlessly padded into the cabin's main living space.
Dief was sprawled out on their kitchen floor. When he lifted his head off his paws, his ears first rose and then pointed menacingly at Ben. Ben stifled a smile. "All right, all right," he said, licking a fingertip and touching the side of the stew pot. It was still hot, and when he lifted the cover, the spicy, warm smell made his stomach growl. Dief was growling, too. "All right," Ben repeated, bending to pick up Dief's metal dish. He ladled stew into it and set it down for the wolf before preparing a bowl for himself.
He ate standing up, leaning back against the counter. In front of him, Dief was scarfing up his own portion—a wolf in the kitchen, how his grandmother would have scolded him about that. The thought made him smile. He looked up from Dief and let his eyes drift over the cabin. It was all so different now...his grandmother's stove had been where their sofa now was, and the wall of cabinets had been replaced by Ray's portable stereo and the rack of CDs he'd brought with him from Chicago ("I'm not going anywhere without John Lennon," Ray had said, and he'd meant it.) Ben had put a bookshelf and a writing desk where his grandmother's favorite chair had been, and there—just where his guitar was, held upright in its stand—was where his grandfather had had his heart attack. As he stared, he could see his grandmother bent over his grandfather's sprawled body, hands crossed, pumping, over his chest. And then he blinked and the spectre was gone, and there was only the curved wooden body of the acoustic guitar. He had only recently taken up classical, which Ray liked because it made him want to tango.
He stood there, eating stew in his bathrobe, and let his mind wander through his memories. So many ghosts come and gone. And then he drifted back into the bedroom with his bowl, kneed his way onto the bed, and sat there contentedly eating until Ray opened his eyes.