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What the Bears Know

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I woke up in the middle of the night feeling a cold space next to me where Raymond's warmth usually was. I reached out to pat the bed, a nest of spruce boughs with a layer of small animal pelts - mostly rabbit and squirrel courtesy of the trap line - piled on top. It was still slightly warm, so I sat up, looking all over the dim cabin for his familiar form, but he wasn't there. Skin prickling with worry, I hastily pulled on my boots and gloves and burst out the door to look for him.

 

The air outside was still, and without the wind it was a touch warmer, if that really meant much when you could still watch your spit freeze before it hit the ground. The moon and the stars were brilliant, giving plenty of light for me to see Raymond, standing by the river and staring out, completely still. For a moment I was worried about him freezing and I was tempted to go to him, to wrap my arms around him and get him back into our bed, warm and sound. But then I realized he must have gone out alone for a reason, and I reluctantly backed into the cabin, quietly shut the door, and went to lie down and wait for him.

 

A few minutes later I heard the door opening. I sat up straight and watched as Raymond came in and went to crouch by the fire, throwing a couple more small logs on so that the dim glow of the cabin flared up to a warm orange-yellow light and I could see him completely. His eyes locked onto mine and a pleasant shiver coursed through me.

 

I opened the blankets for him to crawl in, which he did after removing his parka, gloves and boots. He lay down next to me so that I could pick up what little extra body heat he had to offer. It wasn't enough, so I scooted even closer till our chests were nearly touching, my left arm draped over his waist and his right hand coming up to cup my neck. For a while we just looked at each other, and I watched the dancing firelight play across his face, flickering shadows on his cheeks. I was caught off guard a little when he leaned in to me and our noses touched, and I could feel his breath on my lips, sending another shiver down my back. He was the one who closed in for a gentle kiss, our harshly chapped lips just barely pressing together. He then backed off, looking sheepish, so I couldn’t resist pulling him in for another one, bringing a shy smile out of him that I could feel against my own grinning lips.

 

Afterwards I must have looked like an idiot, just staring at him and smiling my head off, but I didn't care. I was too happy to have him and hold him, alive and warm despite all we had been through together. And this? I wouldn't have wanted it with anyone but him.

 

We stayed like that for a while, kissing and breathing deeply in each other's warm air. My lips were starting to crack and his were too, making our kisses more and more uncomfortable until we had to give up and settle for just nuzzling our faces together, his nose digging through my pathetic facial scruff, my nose pressed against the soft curls of hair falling over his forehead. I don't know if he appreciated my sorry excuse for a beard, but I do know that I was head over heels for his lengthening hair, as I buried my hand into it at the nape of his neck and let the curls slip over my fingers.

 

"I really like your hair like this," I told him as I picked up a lock of his hair where it curled over his ear and gently pulled it towards me, then let it go for it to spring back across his cheek.

 

Raymond ducked his head and I thought it was adorable. "You look good too, actually," he murmured. "Kind of got that hockey player mullet thing going."

 

I raised an eyebrow and reached up to feel my hair. "I dunno," I said as I ran my hand through it, "it feels kinda scraggly to me. You really like it?"

 

Raymond shrugged. "Mostly 'cause it's you."

 

He ducked his head again as soon as he said it, missing out on seeing the huge grin that spread across my face. I reached out to cup his chin, nudging it up to give him a feather-light kiss. When I pulled away he looked uncertain, gazing resolutely at my chin instead of looking me in the eye.

 

"Do you really want this, Gabe?" he asked, voice tiny.

 

I answered by scooting closer to him and pressing my body all alongside his, feeling his warmth where our foreheads, chests, and legs touched. My eyes were closed as I brushed my nose up and down along his, slowly, lovingly.

 

He took a deep breath and pulled me closer, pressing his hand into my back. "It scares me sometimes, how bad I need you."

 

I started, pulling back to look at him. "You need me?" My eyes widened and I shook my head. "No way, man. I'd be dead six times over by now if not for you."

 

Then it was Raymond's turn to shake his head. "Not like that, Gabe."

 

I was about to open my mouth to ask “Then how?”, but before I could his hand was moving to the small of my back and he was pushing his hips against mine as he was laying a hot, open-mouthed kiss to my jaw. My insides stirred with arousal and apprehension, and I froze, unsure of what to do next. I quickly decided to just give over to instinct, letting my own hips push back, which got a moan out of Raymond that vibrated against my neck where his mouth seemed to be attached to my jugular. I gasped and writhed against him, back arching off the bed, but my hands had no idea what to do and just stayed pressed to his side.

 

Raymond had his hand at my back still, and I could feel his fingers playing with the hem of my sweater uncertainly. I tried to arch my back again, urging him on, but he still seemed stuck. Reluctantly, I moved away from him to take the thing off myself, throwing it next to the bed where our parkas already were. I was still clad in my wool shirt and thermal, and my hands quickly went to the buttons, fumbling in nervousness. Raymond was watching me, propped up on his elbow, mouth set in a line, not saying anything.

 

My hands slowed down, stopping just before the last button. "You okay?"

 

He nodded, but a little too quickly for my liking. I abandoned the shirt and reached out to brush a stray piece of hair from his forehead.

 

"It's up to you," I assured him. "Whatever you wanna do."

 

He looked down at his own chest, then back to mine. "You go ahead, if you want. Just...I donno, maybe not..."

 

I shushed him by laying a comforting hand on his side. "That's totally fine, Raymond. I get it."

 

He bit his lip and nodded, ducking his head while I continued to undress. Shucking the wool shirt and slipping out of the thermal quickly, I tried to ignore the nerves that were bubbling up inside me. As soon as I was finished I felt suddenly self-conscious. I hadn’t realized until that moment that any bulk I used to have must have been long gone from the lean living we had been forced to do, and I had been left with the skinny chest I hadn’t had since middle school. Raymond didn't seem to mind, though, as he reached out and placed his hand right over my rapidly beating heart.

 

"You cold?" he asked, eyes wide and looking right into mine.

 

"No." It was actually true, but I wasn’t quite ready to explain that it was because of him, his body, his touch, his kisses... All starting a fire in me that I hoped would never go out now.

 

I could see his hand nervously picking at the hem of his own sweater, and I reached out my own hand to cover it. He was refusing to look at me again, and my heart ached to know why.

 

"Gabe," he whispered, "I've never..."

 

"Don't worry about it," I soothed, quickly scooting in to crowd his space. I rested my forehead against his like we did earlier, and it appeared to calm him down. I could feel his shuddering breaths ghost across my face, slowly evening out as I waited for him.

 

Finally Raymond nodded. “Okay.” He grabbed his sweater by the collar and slowly pulled it over his head. It left his hair all tousled and revealed some of the lighter brown skin of his belly, where his undershirts rode up. I resisted the surprisingly strong urge to touch it immediately, and instead waited for him to take the rest of it off, until he was as bare as I was and we were both just lying there, looking at each other and taking it all in before we went any further. I was frozen, unable to take my eyes off Raymond with all that skin completely uncovered. His chest was thin too, but then it always sort of had been. He had even less hair than I did, just a small trail of scruffy black hairs leading from his navel and disappearing down into the waist of his pants. He was blushing like crazy, and it reached his chest more than it showed up on the darker skin of his face, where his long lashes hid his eyes from view as he looked down, unable to meet my gaze.

 

I took a deep breath and decided to make the first move, carefully reaching out and laying my hand on his side, where I felt a slight quiver, virtually undetectable. I stroked his skin calmly, going from the top of his ribs to his hip and back up again, determined not to stop until I felt his muscles give and relax into my touch.

 

When they finally did I was pleased to see him open his eyes fully again, and his hand came up to touch me too, lying flat against my stomach. I smiled at him and leaned in for a quick kiss, unable to resist his full lips no matter how roughened they were by the wind and cold.

 

He smiled back at me, a little nervous, but hanging in there. “You’re something else, Gabe.” The blush returned to his chest, and I just had to feel the heat of it, so I pressed my hand against it as I went in for yet another kiss.

 

I didn’t pull all the way back that time, instead remained with my lips only centimeters from his, close enough to feel his breath on my cheeks. “I feel that way about you, too,” I murmured against his lips before brushing them again. “And I want to show you – I want you to feel it.”

 

Raymond was completely still beside me, and he looked like he was about to cross over a big hurdle, just didn’t know how to take the first step. “You… want to show me?” he asked, licking his lips nervously.

 

I nodded. “I mean, I don’t completely know what I’m doing here, but hey, with you…" I shrugged and ran my fingers through his hair again, not taking my eyes off him.

 

"We’ll figure it out.”

 

He nodded back and with that I kissed him, deeper this time, and did a happy jig in my head when his lips gave way to mine and he let me taste him, all of him. He was making me breathless, making my head swim and my whole body feel like it was gonna float away, so I held onto him, wrapping one arm around his back and slipping the other underneath his neck to deepen our kiss even further until I was licking desperately into his mouth, whimpering at the back of my throat when I couldn’t get any closer to him than I already was.

 

He chuckled as we parted slightly for air, and I was blushing furiously at my own noises. It was more out of surprise than shame, not thinking anyone could make me feel so desperate, so needy for his touch and his taste. I couldn’t worry about it for long as we were kissing again, this time slower, Raymond moving his hand to cup my jaw and neck all at once, holding me down and taking control of our pace until it felt like time itself was stretching out, every movement of Raymond’s tongue against mine more like a steady current than a quick shock.

 

I could have kept it going forever if not for our poor abused lips, forcing us to break apart lest we end up with a mouthful of each other’s blood. Not that I minded the little taste of Raymond’s that I did get; it sent a thrilling rush of heat through me when I felt it on my tongue. I let out a low growl and sucked his lip in between my teeth, pushing him down into the bed so that I was mostly on top of him, our chests pressed together. I kissed him until I was seeing stars, lapping at the cut on his lip, my tongue pressed flat against it, tasting that iron and sweetness that made my veins boil and my head spin. My blood was thrumming in my ears and I had to feel rather than hear Raymond’s low moan seep into my chest from his like a wave of heat. He arched his back into me, giving me enough room to slip my hand between his back and the bed and press him even closer so that our hips ground together, decidedly inexpert, but eager.

 

It didn’t take long for me after that; how could it with Raymond whimpering and writhing beneath me as he rolled his hips against mine, over and over. He was close, eyes squeezed shut in concentration as his body undulated powerfully beneath me. I dragged my teeth over his throat as I raked my fingernails from the back of his neck, over his shoulders, and all the way down the length of his back, and then he was coming too, with a nearly silent low whine.

 

His arms around my back squeezed me close even when I rolled off of him to lie beside him again, both of us panting into each other’s shoulders. My fingers teased down his back, brushing gently over the smooth skin there, now damp with sweat. His scent was coming at me in waves, and I couldn’t resist licking at the sweat that was beading at the base of his throat, causing him to let out a little snort of laughter.

 

“That tickles, Gabe,” he protested as I kept at, teasing his flushed skin with my tongue. He brought his shoulder up to his neck and halfheartedly attempted to push me away, blocking me with his forearms. A threatening growl burst from my throat and I surged forward to pin him back to the bed.

 

“You’re a wild man,” he said, slightly breathless, and I gave him what I hoped was a wolfish grin, though it probably came out more goofy than feral. I dove down to give his ear a playful nibble, surprising a small gasp out of him that almost ignited my blood all over again. I filed away the knowledge to go for his ears next time, but at that moment I was nearly falling asleep and he was too, both of us cooling down rapidly in the chilly cabin air. I reluctantly heaved myself off of him and got up to stoke the fire one last time. When I was coming back he was cleaning himself off with one of the old pelts, tossing it at my feet when he was finished.

 

I grimaced as I crawled back into bed next to him. “That squirrel didn’t deserve that, you know.”

 

He threw a clean one at my face. “You use that or I’m kicking you out of this cabin.”

 

I did as I was unceremoniously told and was rewarded by Raymond snuggling up to my side, one arm around my still-bare waist, one of his legs thrown between mine. I was a little surprised by the rare show of affection, but recovered quickly to hold him in return, wrapping my arms around his shoulders and kissing the top of his head, pausing to take a deep breath with my nose buried in his hair.

 

“Gabe,” I heard him murmur, feeling his lips move against my chest.

 

“Yeah?” I replied, idly wrapping a lock of his hair around my index finger.

 

“This might sound crazy, but… I think I want to come back to this place.”

 

“That doesn’t sound crazy.” I thought about it for a little while, looking around the cabin, imagining it furnished properly, stocked with actual food, maybe some kerosene lanterns to brighten up the place. I was only half-joking when I added wryly, “How about during summer next time?”

 

He chuckled and pulled me in closer. “Yeah, when school lets out,” he murmured against my chest.

 

We lay in silence for a little while before he abruptly raised his head and looked at me, straight on. His dark eyes were hardened and his chin was jutted out defiantly.

 

“I think we should do it.”

 

I opened my mouth but shut it again as I could only nod dumbly, struck by how serious he was, and by how seriously I was taking him. I was rapidly making plans in my head, how we could get back there by float plane, bring all sorts of gear, and camp out for weeks, just him and me.

 

It sounded wonderful.

 

He was still watching me, paying attention quietly. The determination seemed to slide off his face. When he spoke again his voice was meek. “That is, of course, if we’re still…” he gestured at us lying there, limbs tangled and sharing each other’s warmth.

 

I searched his eyes, confused. “What are you talking about?”

 

Raymond pushed away from me to lay back against the pelts with a heavy sigh. “You know what I’m talking about, okay? We get back to Yellowknife, back to real life, we graduate, we move on… I donno, you'll go to college, you'll find someone, and I’ll just…" He stared up at the ceiling and shrugged.

 

I completely stunned. “Yeah, now you sound crazy,” I told him.

 

He frowned and folded his arms over his chest. “No, Gabe, I’m just trying to be realistic. I know that I’m not exactly what you wanted, that we’re just stuck here together, and that's why... Look, I get it, it’s okay, whatever.”

 

I heaved a weary sigh, scooted over to him, and slid my hand around the back of his neck, my thumb caressing his jaw. He looked away as soon as I touched him, shutting his eyes tight and taking a deep breath. I didn’t know what to say, but I had to show him how I felt, so I closed the distance between us to kiss him.

 

I could feel the tightly wound muscles of his shoulder relax as I moved my mouth over his and he released a deep shuddering breath from his nose that faded into the end of a gasp when I pulled away. I stayed there with my forehead pressed to his, doing my best to be his anchor at that moment.

 

“Raymond?”

 

“What?” he whispered, a soft puff of warm air that tickled my lips.

 

His eyes were closed, but I was smiling anyway. “You gotta know what you are to me, right?”

 

He pulled away from me with a rueful snort. “Yeah, I’m the accident-prone idiot who happens to have the same birthday as you.”

 

I shook my head, trying to will him to understand. Finally I decided to just come clean, to say in plain English how I felt.

 

“When you spoke Slavey to that bear?” I started, unsure, but determined to continue.

 

He nodded. He was looking at me, a mixture of anxiety and hope in his eyes, and all of a sudden my throat went dry. Because I realized this was it.

 

“That’s when I knew."

 

“Knew what?” his voice was barely audible.

 

“That we were…more.” I ducked my head, wishing I wasn’t so damn bashful all of a sudden. “And then I had the axe, and I was ready to go down swinging. For you. Because that’s what…” I could hardly say the word I was so nervous, “… that’s what mates do, I think.”

 

Raymond turned red all down his chest, tucking his chin down as he plucked at one of the pelts. I was so sure that I had screwed up, taken it way too far, but I still had a thread of hope that he would say the one thing, the only thing I wanted him to say at that moment.

 

“Me too, Gabe.” He lifted his head to look at me resolutely. “I had that exact same feeling. That’s what I told the bear.”

 

“What did you tell him?”

 

Raymond gulped and lowered his eyes sheepishly. “I told him that you were with me. That you were my mate.”

 

My eyes widened, my head swam, my heart lifted and swelled with excitement. I just couldn’t believe it.

 

Raymond kept going. “And it worked, Gabe, he left because I told him that we would go down fighting for each other, that if he messed with you he would regret it.” He shook his head and covered his face with his hands, muffling what he said next. “God, it sounds really weird to say it out loud.”

 

“I don't think so. I think it sounds right,” I assured him, reaching out my hand to cup his neck and bring us together for yet another soft, warm kiss. His hair felt softer and he tasted somehow sweeter and I sighed deeply into his mouth, so thoroughly satisfied that I felt like I was going to melt into the bed. Raymond slid his arm around my back to hold me fast against him as I broke our kiss and buried my face into the crook of his neck. I could feel his heart beat everywhere, a steady thrum like the rush of the falls, and for once I felt like I never wanted to make it back to Yellowknife, especially if it meant that I could stay with Raymond forever in the wild far north, in a warm bed with my brave strong mate, with the smell of crushed pine needles and sweat and a heat that went all the way through to our bones.