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The Wind Beneath

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It started innocuously enough. Toward the end of the afternoon, a Friday afternoon, Ray began complaining of a sore back. He said he thought he'd pulled a muscle during the morning's foot chase, which seemed a bit odd to me but I didn't think terribly much of it. He grimaced a bit, stretched a bit, then gave me that sunny grin of his and said it was nothing that pizza, beer and hockey wouldn't cure. Since that encompassed our plans for the evening, he seemed to be in luck. The rest of the night was uneventful, though pleasant. We ordered in from Sandor, Ray got his beer, I my tea, and Dief his favoured place on the rug. The Leafs lost, to Dief's disgust. Ray went to bed early but insisted that I bed down on the couch, since he firmly believed my cot at the Consulate to be an instrument of torture. The cot was fine, of course, but there was some truth to his assumption that his couch was more comfortable, for a number of reasons not entirely confined to the physical. I was happy enough, quite happy in fact, to take the blankets and pillow he pressed on me and settle in.

A bit past four I awoke to Ray shouting my name. I turned on the light and dashed in to his bedroom. He was sitting up in bed, drenched with sweat, eyes panicked and wide.

"Fraser," he said. "God." He scrubbed his face with his hands. "Sorry, just a bad dream."

I sat on the bed, careful not to crowd him. "Do you want to talk about it, Ray?"

"Huh? Nah. Usual partner-danger-anxiety thing, I'll be okay. My fucking back is killing me, though." He rubbed at his left shoulder, down toward the shoulder blade.

"Here, let me take a look." He turned to give me access and I examined him the best I could through his worn t-shirt. When I pressed lightly along the scapula, he hissed.

"Tender?" I asked, and he nodded. There was something strange about the muscles on both sides. They were knotted, as I expected, but the knots felt peculiar, almost like the connections to the bones were going to the wrong places, although that was obviously impossible. "Do you still have some of the salve I left here?"

Ray nodded again and I went into the bathroom to get it. I rubbed some on the affected areas, and Ray seemed to relax a bit. He laid back down on his side and I had to restrain myself from tucking the blankets in around him. He smiled at me and told me to get some sleep, apologized again for waking me, and I went back to my place in the living room.

 

I woke again two hours later, at my customary time. When I went to check on Ray, the vague concerns that had been nagging at me since the previous day erupted into full-blown worry. He was asleep but sweating heavily. A cursory check of his skin temperature revealed that he was running a moderate fever. His eyes fluttered open when I touched him and he groaned.

"Jesus, Fraser, I feel like somebody went at me with a two by four."

"Still in your shoulders?"

"Yeah, my shoulders and my back."

He turned around for me. I turned the bedside light on and slid his t-shirt up out of the way. "Oh, dear," escaped before I could stop myself. His back was bruised nearly black, from just above the scapula to about two-thirds down the spine. It certainly didn't look like any pulled muscle I'd ever heard tell of.

"What?"

"You've got a lot of bruising here, Ray." I began to palpate the areas, very gently, and Ray cursed and squirmed. From what I could tell, the abnormalities of a few hours before had grown more pronounced. "I'm taking you to the emergency room," I said.

"For a pulled muscle? Come on, Fraser! Forget it."

"Dr. Okimoto's clinic at least, then. Ray, you're running a fever and you're heavily bruised. Neither are symptoms of a simple strain. Whatever this is, I don't think it's a pulled muscle."

He slumped a bit, but he didn't argue any further, a sure sign that he was feeling very poorly indeed. "Would you put some more of that goop on me before we go?"

"Certainly," I said, and I did.

 

The clinic was fairly quiet first thing on a Saturday, so fortunately Ray didn't have to wait very long. Dr. Okimoto had treated both of us before for minor injuries, and had even stitched up a lacerated paw pad for Dief once, off the record, to save us an extra trip to the vet. She gave us both a warm smile when she entered the treatment room.

"So, Ray, I hear you're having some trouble with your back. Getting to that age, I guess," she teased.

"Hardy ha ha ha," Ray shot back, but with a shadow of his usual verve.

"Take off your shirt and stretch out on your stomach for me," she said.

A little scowl appeared between her eyebrows as Ray took off his shirt and laid flat to display his bruising. The knot in my stomach grew. The discolouration had spread in just the few hours since I'd last looked at it closely. Ray twitched and yipped as she ran her hands along his back.

"Sore, huh?" she asked, and he nodded.

"Okay, you can sit up." He did as she pulled off her examination gloves and tossed them in the biohazard container. "Ray, I have to be honest with you. At this point, I have no idea what this is. If it's a strain, it's certainly atypical. I'm going to send you for a x-ray, try to see if there's anything going on structurally, and we'll go from there."

So we made our way to the x-ray lab in the basement of the medical building, where the technicians couldn't get an image. I don't mean that they could find nothing out of the ordinary. I mean that they literally could not induce the machine to produce an image of Ray's torso. The equipment was in perfect working order. It had worked for the patient just before Ray, and it worked perfectly for the patient who came after. I volunteered for a test x-ray myself, and it produced a perfect image. I knew that x-rays had been taken of Ray many times before, without incident. But this time the films came back, over and over again, black. Blank.

When we got in the elevator to head back to Dr. Okimoto's lab, Ray turned to face me.

"Fraser, I got to tell you. This is freaking me out. I'm getting a little freaked out here."

He did indeed look patently anxious, but I couldn't think of a single thing to say that might offer comfort. All my narratives and platitudes were empty - worse, insensitive. Only physical comfort made any sense, so I made bold enough to embrace him, a brotherly embrace, I hoped. I was careful to keep my touch light on his sore back; for his part, Ray held on to me as though for dear life until the elevator chimed us to our floor.

When we reported the problems with the x-ray, Dr. Okimoto looked very worried indeed. "I've been doing some digging around," she said. "I called a friend who is an orthopaedic specialist, but nothing seems to be ringing any bells. I can't find any mention in the standard references of symptoms like this, even leaving out the issue of whatever's going on with the x-rays. I think the best thing to do is to run a full panel of blood work, send you home with some muscle relaxants and pain meds to make you more comfortable, and do what we can to keep the fever down. I'll give you some samples. The blood work should be back by Monday afternoon, if I put a rush on it. Maybe that will tell us something. If the fever goes up or the pain gets a lot worse before that, we should probably go ahead and admit you, just to be on the safe side."

Ray wasn't pleased but he thanked the doctor just the same. The nurse came back with vials for blood collection. Ray closed his eyes as she did her work, as he always does. (He's more than a little hemaphobic, though he swears he hasn't vomited at a crime scene since his first year as a rookie, as a point of pride.) His fever remained about the same, 101F, and his blood pressure was significantly higher than usual, though still not high enough to be dangerous.

We went home and I settled him on the couch with ESPN. I made an expedition to the grocery store, and was so distracted that when Dief asked for doughnuts I put them in the cart without a second thought. Still, I thought as I was checking out, perhaps Ray would enjoy them as well. It was certainly no time to be nagging him about his diet, and he seemed as though he might be grateful to take whatever comfort was available.

The afternoon and evening passed. Ray was quiet, increasingly quiet, but then he was often quiet if he felt very unwell. His initial voluble irritation at feeling poorly would give way to a sort of wan silence as his misery deepened. On the few occasions I'd witnessed it, I'd found it rather eerie, and it was even more disturbing in this context, when we had no idea what was wrong. I missed the screaming, the pacing, the little dance moves he was almost unconscious of, the threats. A Ray Kowalski so still and silent . . . it simply wasn't right.

He dozed off and on, was content to eat some soup and toast at mealtimes, even shared a snack of powdered doughnuts with Dief. I found his appetite encouraging. The acetaminophen dropped his fever a little, though the muscle relaxants didn't seem to be having any effect, and the pain meds only made him dopey and tired. Around 10pm I convinced him to move into the bedroom to try to get some deeper sleep.

He woke in the middle of the night again, screaming my name. I ran to him before I was fully awake. He'd turned the light on already, the pale circle illuminating the t-shirt he'd tossed to the floor at some point in the night. Thin streams of tears were slipping down his face, and he clutched my hand tight when I sat down next to him.

"Another dream?" I asked, and he nodded. "How's the pain?"

"About the same," he said, but he wouldn't look at me, just wiped his eyes with the back of his hand abruptly.

"Let me see."

He sighed and turned around. The bruising didn't seem any worse but the skin was puffy and swollen now, all along the discolouration.

"Ray, perhaps -"

"No, Fraser. No way. I'm not going to the hospital so they can tell me they don't have any idea what to do, and then wake me up all the time to check my fucking blood pressure. I'd probably get some kind of an infection just from being there, like one of those superbugs or whatever, and hospitals *smell* Fraser. They stink, okay? You of all people should know that, with your bionic nose. Okimoto said the blood work will be done on Monday. I'm staying here until then at least."

I couldn't help smiling at Ray sounding more like himself, which prompted an indignant, "What?" that I declined to answer.

"I'll just be going back to the couch, then," I began, but he grabbed my hand again.

"Frase, maybe I'd sleep better if you were in here. Bed's big enough, you know. Maybe I'd stop having those dreams if I knew you were right there. Besides, no point in both of us having a sore back, right?" I thought him very brave, to ask for what he wanted in that way, without a thought for propriety.

"As you wish," I said, and tried to give him an encouraging smile. "I'll just go get the extra pillow."

When I came back he was lying on his side, his tormented back covered by the sheet and blanket. I laid the pillow beside him and climbed into bed myself.

He didn't open his eyes as I settled in, just murmured, "Your pillow. It's your pillow, Frase," before dropping off to sleep.

 

I woke to find that I was lying on my back and that Ray had curled himself around my left arm. He was clutching me like a child does his stuffed totem, awake and smiling at me ruefully.

"I woke up like this," he said, "and it seemed stupid to let go, just so I could pretend to be something, some macho whatever bullshit that we both know I ain't."

I was always shocked when Ray said such things about himself. "You're the bravest man I've ever known," I protested immediately.

He scoffed a laugh, then coughed, once, winced. "I'm scared to death, Fraser. Scared of death. I'm fucking terrified, is what I am."

I was, too. Terrified. A sick knot of fear twisted and tightened in the pit of my stomach, that feeling that I loathed, the panic I never felt on my own behalf, only when those I loved were threatened. But perhaps that fear was for myself after all, the terror and ultimate certainty of being left alone.

But I am not as brave as Ray, and I couldn't say that I was afraid. I just covered one of his hands with my right hand, holding him in place. "It's bad, this morning?"

"We don't think about getting sick, much, do we?" he said. "I mean, cops get sick all the time, Jennings over in vice died of cancer last year, people have heart attacks, but we don't think so much about that, you know? We think about getting shot, something sudden, one minute you're standing there and the next minute you're on the pavement in a pool of your own blood, and people are shouting and running. We think about starting a shift like normal and ending the shift with Mort. We don't think about quiet and slow and all this time to wait."

"Ray," my voice broke, to my horror.

He smiled at me, gently. "Frase, it's okay," he said. He sounded hoarse; he must have been in terrible pain. "Just stay with me like this for a little while, that's all."

I nodded. We stayed like that for what seemed like a long time, silent and clinging to each other. Eventually, dawn light started filtering through the blinds but we didn't move.

"You're going to have to be more careful," Ray said. "Not that I've been doing such a good job of watching your back –"

"Don't be silly, Ray –" I started, but he cut me off with something approaching his usual level of energy.

"You almost got shot, Fraser!"

On the Wednesday before, I had been pursuing a suspect and jumped from one roof to another without thinking about it, leaving Ray behind. The suspect had turned and shot at me while I was caught in the open on the next roof, missing by a fair distance. Ray had castigated me briefly, at a reasonably high decibel, but then was uncharacteristically silent for the rest of the ride back to the station. I had suspected this might have been the source of his recent uneasy dreams. "I shouldn't have run ahead like that, as you said at the time, Ray. It was my own fault, and anyway, I wasn't shot."

"I should have been able to keep up. You're gonna have to find somebody that can keep up with you, Frase. Make Welsh find somebody good to be Vecchio, okay? Somebody that can jump off buildings and –"

"Ray, stop. I don't need another partner. You'll be fine. We'll get through this and you'll be fine."

Ray gasped and clenched my hand so hard the bones ground together. "Frase, nothing this weird that hurts this much is going to end with me being fine." He had broken out into a heavy sweat and he seemed much warmer.

"I'll get the painkillers. You should take another dose of acetaminophen, too; I think your fever's gone back up." I started to get up but he wouldn't release me.

"It doesn't help," he said, gritting his teeth. "Just stay here, that's the only thing that helps."

I was torn between doing something, no matter how pointless, and doing as Ray wished. In the end, I couldn't bring myself to shake him off. His grip on my hand grew stronger and he groaned.

"Jesus God," he gasped, curling closer around me. There was nothing to do but hold on to him and hope. Very soon the pain seemed to reach a crescendo. He cried out and twisted in my arms. There was a sound like fabric tearing and suddenly everything was wet, I thought at first from tears, his and mine commingled, but Ray rolled, sat up on his knees, and it was at that moment that I realized that something very unusual had happened.

Ray had, stretching out behind him, a pair of large, still-wet, white feathered wings. He shook himself, a quintessentially Ray gesture, and his wings shook themselves out as well. The wings folded around Ray's arms, as though he were hugging himself, and Ray looked at them with stunned wonder, running a finger along the tops where the feathers were downy and soft.

He looked up at me and his expression hardened. "Fraser, what the fuck!"

"Excuse me?"

"I got wings, Fraser. Big fucking feathery wings!" He shook his wings to demonstrate and gestured behind him, as though a large pair of white wings suddenly appearing on my partner might have escaped my notice. "How the fuck did this happen? What the fuck did you do?"

"Please, Ray, language." I sat up and leaned against the headboard, still in shock. "I assure you, I had nothing to do with . . . " I couldn't finish the sentence. With Ray growing wings? The very idea was absurd. Surely this was another of my strange hallucinations, albeit stranger than usual.

"This kind of shit only happens when you're around, Fraser!" Ray shouted. "Chicago detectives do not just go around sprouting wings at random. I don't know how things go in the Northwest Areas, but this is not business as usual!"

"Of course, Ray, the Yukon is famous for people suddenly growing wings for no reason," I snapped. "Why the Inuit don't consider their families complete until one or two of their children have wings!"

"Do not bring the Inuit into this, Fraser. Do not!" He poked me in the arm with two fingers, and his corresponding wing came around and whacked me on the shoulder. "Ow," Ray said, and began rubbing his wing tip gingerly. "They're tender."

"Are they . . . that is, do they . . . may I –"

Ray turned around with a sigh. "Knock yourself out."

The feathers were starting to fluff up, lightening to a swan-white colour as they dried. Each wing had a sharp claw along the top of the first joint, and there were long cuts down Ray's back where the wings appeared to have sliced themselves free. The edges of the cuts were oozing blood but most of the fluid that stained the sheets (and my own t-shirt and sweatpants) was clear, thin, and odourless.

"No licking!"

I smiled and realized that, despite the surprising alterations, at least Ray seemed to be well again. That was a vast relief.

"May I touch them?" I asked.

"Sure."

I ran a light finger along the top of the left wing and Ray shivered.

"Tickles," he said.

"My apologies." I took a slightly firmer grip and gently stretched the wing out to its fullest length. It was a few inches longer than the full length of Ray's arm, and heavily muscled at the root, attached along the vertebral border of the scapula. The feathers grew downy along the connecting joint there, running to smooth skin on Ray's back. The muscles around his shoulders had changed, grown much heavier to support the weight and work of the wings. I couldn't resist running a hand along the shining flight feathers.

"They really are quite lovely," I said.

"Well, that's something at least." Ray snickered. "'Cause having mangy-ass wings would really suck. Hey, do you think you can use hair dye on feathers?"

"Perhaps you should allow yourself some time to get used to them before you start getting experimental," I said. "I'll be right back." I went to the washroom to get Ray's supply of butterfly bandages and some antiseptic. I dressed the cuts with hydrogen peroxide and antibiotic ointment, then fastened them closed with the small butterfly bandages, explaining what I saw as I worked, since Ray couldn't examine his wounds for himself. He was silent except for a few hissing exhales when I applied the peroxide. "These may scar if you don't get them stitched," I said.

"Fraser, think about that for a second. Who am I going to get to stitch my back where my wings came out, huh? I'd rather not end up in some government lab or something, okay? I've got weirder things to worry about on my back than a couple of scars."

"You wouldn't trust Dr. Okimoto?"

"Christ, Frase, I don't know. Let's just leave it for now. The butterflies will do for the time being." He stretched a bit and the wings stretched with him. "They feel really weird. I mean, they don't feel weird, which is weird. It just feels like they're my arms, or something, except when I move and they move with me and I'm not expecting them there. But when I think about it, like sort of move them on purpose or something, they just go where I want them to and it isn't weird at all."

He stretched again and the wings flapped, stirring the air in the room. He turned to look at me with that cocky, mischievous grin of his.

"Hey, Fraser," he said. "Wanna go jump off a building?"