Now that Ray was single, half the time he fell asleep on the couch watching ESPN with the sound down. Nothing good was waiting for him in the bedroom, just his lumpy-ass bed, so it wasn't like the couch was that much different. Usually he'd wake up after a couple of hours and stumble in to where there was an alarm clock and where the sun didn't come busting in through the windows at the ass-crack of dawn.
That night, though, something woke him up, all the way up, his heart pounding like he'd been chasing a perp. He sat up, looked around, and nearly jumped out of his skin when he found Fraser standing there in the middle of his living room, glowing in the blue tv light. Fraser was all covered up in cold-weather gear, with snow all over his coat, which struck Ray as mighty strange given that it was July in Chicago. And he looked terrible, like he'd dropped thirty pounds. The tiny lines on his face seemed deeper, and his tired, flat grey eyes had big smears of purple underneath, dark as bruises.
"Frase? What's wrong?"
Fraser smiled at him but he looked so sad. If a smile could be like crying, that's what it would look like, Ray thought. Something was horribly wrong. Ray's stomach started twisting into sick knots.
"Ray," Fraser said, almost whispered. His breath hung in the air like smoke, and Ray could feel cold pouring off him. "God, I'd almost forgotten. It's very good to see you, Ray."
"Fraser, you saw me about six hours ago. What's going on?"
"My goodness, look at you. I remember that shirt, with the holes in it. And those jeans, too, with the rip in the thigh. There were little flashes of skin everywhere on laundry day. And here's the sofa with the mysterious stains, and the chair, Dief's chair, all covered in wolf hair. God."
"Frase, what in the holy hell are you going on about?" Ray stood up and stepped toward him, intending to pull him onto the couch, try to coax him into relaxing, like he always did when Fraser was freaked out enough to show that he was freaked out.
Instead of landing on Fraser's elbow, though, Ray's hand passed right through him, like Fraser was a ghost. Ray shouted, stumbled backward, and fell onto the sofa. "Fuck! What the fuck!"
"Ray, are you all right? I'm terribly sorry. I realize this is rather unexpected."
"Yeah, unexpected. What is this, some kind of dream?"
"If you like. Most cultures acknowledge that dreams contain important messages. Call it whatever you'd like, but you must pay attention."
Ray struggled to sit up. He reached a hand out to touch Fraser's leg, running it back and forth, watching as it went through, again and again.
"Ray, Ray, Ray, Ray, Ray. Pay attention."
Ray looked up at him, so beautiful and strong, even with the terrible strangeness and the cold rolling off him. Whatever this was, he looked like Fraser and he was in trouble. How could Ray do anything but pay attention?
"I was afraid, Ray. So afraid of frightening you away. Every moment I stayed was a step closer to confessing everything, ruining everything. All I thought about was the consequences of action, when I should have been thinking about the consequences of inaction. It was a disaster, Ray, and I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry." Tears began running down his cheeks, freezing into slicks of ice on his face. "I was so wrong, unspeakably wrong. I should have trusted, tried at least, God." He took a deep breath, then another. "That transfer was my greatest failure in a life full of them."
The living room was filling up with cold. Ray began to shiver. "But you didn't take the transfer to Ottawa," he said. "You stayed. We both did. I dropped you off at the Consulate a few hours ago."
"I refused the first transfer, but I took another, later, to Yellowknife. Or rather, I should say, I am thinking about taking it. Ray, you have to stop me."
Ray shook his head. "This doesn't make any sense. How can I stop you from doing something you did already, except you actually didn't?"
"Time is more flexible than you think, especially where the borders between worlds are thin. I made a hideous mistake and it's up to you to fix it, just like always. Our duet, remember?"
"Wait, are you saying you're from the future?"
"A future, I hope. I tried talking to my past self, but I wouldn't listen. I thought I was losing my mind. Why spectral fathers are unremarkable but future selves are evidence of insanity, I don't know. The important thing, Ray, is that you must keep me in Chicago."
"But why? What happens if you leave?"
"Nothing good." Fraser wrapped his arms around himself and shook off a bit of loose snow. "I can't stay much longer, I'm afraid."
"No, wait! Nothing good happens to you? What happens, Fraser? Tell me what you mean."
"Nothing good happens to either of us. Don't let me take the transfer, Ray, that's the thing to remember. And if you can't stop me, then you need to start wearing your vest, all the time, no matter how hot the weather." Fraser reached out and caressed Ray's cheek, a touch with no weight, only cold. Fraser smiled, wistful and full of light. "I love you, Ray," he said as he started to fade from view. "I'll see you soon. I hope I'll see you soon."
In a moment, the vision, dream, hallucination, whatever, was gone. Ray sat on his sofa, shaking with cold, ESPN still throwing out silent blue light. He lifted a hand to where Fraser had touched him and his fingers came away dusted with frost. That left him with a serious case of the wiggens. He ran to the window, opened it, and was suddenly covered in a blast of hot July air. How could this be, he wondered. If this is all in my head, how is it so cold in here? He turned to stare at the spot where that ghostly, horribly sad Fraser had stood.
As he leaned against the window sill, a soft rain began to fall inside his apartment.
* * * * * * * *
Twenty minutes later, he was standing on the front door of the Canadian Consulate, picking the lock with his credit card. He still didn't know what to think. Was it just a bad dream brought on by too much kung pao chicken? Some kind of hallucination? Was he going crazy? No matter what, Ray knew he would not sleep a wink until he'd seen a living, breathing, not at all ghostly Fraser with his own eyes.
When he swung the door open, Fraser was standing there on the other side. Just as Ray had hoped, he was living and breathing and not wearing forty pounds of tundra stuff. He was wearing jeans and a frayed white t-shirt, in fact, and no shoes. He was holding a cup of tea in one hand, looking surprised and maybe a little worried.
But, being Fraser, did he say, "What the fuck are you doing breaking into my place at one thirty in the morning?" No. He said, "Good morning, Ray. Would you like a cup of tea?" Even though he knew Ray didn't drink tea.
Ray walked up to him and put his hand right over his breastbone, over his heart. He was warm. Ray could feel his heart beating under his hand, and the soft, old cotton of the thin shirt. His hand made a couple of affectionate little circles without Ray's conscious permission. He grabbed Fraser and gave him a big bear hug, just because he could.
Then he stepped back and said, "Sure, Frase, tea'd be great."
Fraser gave him a look like he was unhinged, but he obediently headed toward the kitchen with Ray following behind. Ray sat at the little table in the big, steel, gleaming monstrosity of the Consulate kitchen and watched Fraser pour him tea. Fraser set the cup in front of him, added a spoon, sugar bowl and a little pitcher of milk. Then Fraser refilled his own cup and sat down as well. Ray dumped a random amount of sugar in, stirred, and took a sip. "That's not too bad," he said. "Thanks."
"You're very welcome, Ray," Fraser answered, but he still didn't ask why Ray was there. Which was good because Ray still didn't have a reasonable-sounding answer, but was bad because it left them sitting there together in an awkward, wee-hours silence.
Since Fraser was dressed, either he'd never gone to bed or his sleep had been interrupted bad enough that he got up and put on clothes. If Ghost Fraser had been to see Real Fraser and left him thinking that he was losing his marbles, that'd be reason enough to give up sleeping for the night. And if both Ray and Fraser had seen the ghost, then it stood to reason that everybody's marbles were present and accounted for, and also, just as a side note, that some seriously bad shit was about to go down. But it wasn't the sort of topic that was easy to introduce. "Say, Fraser, you didn't get visited by some freaky future ghostly vision of yourself earlier tonight, did you? Nah, no particular reason, I was just wondering."
And just what had Ghost Fraser been implying, anyway? What secret was so big that Fraser had broken up their duet over it? Or was going to break up their duet over it – this time travel thing really fucked with your head. And if Ray got/will get shot because Fraser wasn't/isn't there, then what happened/will happen to Fraser? What was Fraser's "nothing good"? Ray knew that picture would be burned into his brain forever, Fraser looking so sad, so sick, so tired, so cold that the chill surrounded him like a death shroud. If there was even a chance of that happening to his Fraser, Ray would move heaven and earth to stop it. He would kick every head between Chicago and the Yukon if he had to.
Fraser cleared his throat. Ray had gotten so deep into his own thoughts that he was actually startled. He looked up to find Fraser watching him carefully with a closed expression, closed even for Fraser, King of Neutral Expressions.
"Ray," he said, "I was wondering if I might ask you for a favor."
"Yeah, buddy, of course."
"It occurs to me that there might come an occasion when I am either physically or mentally indisposed. I thought that, if it isn't too much trouble, you might agree to hold my power of attorney. You'd be the logical choice to make any decisions on my behalf here in Chicago and it would set my mind at ease to know that Dief's care was arranged in advance. I know that he'd be pleased to have you acting in this capacity, as well."
Ray shivered. Okay, that was not a coincidence. No way was that a coincidence. But he smiled as best he could and said, "Sure, Frase. I'm honored you'd ask."
"You mustn't let him get too fat, though, Ray. He's become appallingly gluttonous in Chicago. And don't let him talk you out of getting his teeth cleaned, no matter what he says about the superior dental health of wolves. If he wants to avoid the cleanings, he shouldn't eat so much sugar."
"Well, hopefully we'll never have to worry about it, right?"
Fraser nodded but there was an uncertain light in his eyes that made Ray nervous. Then he seemed to shake it off. "I'm so sorry, Ray, where are my manners? What brings you to Canada this morning?"
I'm so sorry, the ghost had said, tears freezing on his face, so so sorry. . . Ray squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, forcing the memory out of his head. When he opened them again, Fraser was waiting for an answer and Ray would have to wing it. The sudden chill in the room was just the hyperactive Canadian air conditioning, Ray thought. That was all.
"I guess it's just the night for serious thoughts," Ray said. "Sounds like you've been doing some heavy thinking, too."
"And what have you been thinking about, Ray?"
"Fate. Do you believe in fate, Frase?"
"I believe in consequences. Outcomes follow from actions, often irretrievably. But I don't believe anything is predestined, no." He sat back and took a sip of his tea, more relaxed now, like he was on familiar ground.
"So you think even if we're headed for some big life disaster, we can change something and go another way?"
"In theory, yes."
"And what about relationships? Do you think you can ever talk someone out of leaving if they decide to go?"
Fraser paused for a second, like he was giving it some thought. "I suppose it depends on the person's reasons for leaving. But if someone's mind is decided, I think that can be very hard to change."
"What if you could catch them before their mind was made up? What if you could figure out why they were thinking about leaving and fix it? You'd have a shot at changing everything then, right?"
"I suppose so, Ray. Did you have a specific circumstance in mind?"
Ray jumped up from the table and started pacing through the kitchen. "Well, like, when you almost took that transfer to Ottawa. That was because we weren't getting along good. Our duet was out of whack. But I thought we'd been doing pretty good lately. Well-oiled machine, set 'em up, knock 'em down, kick 'em in the head. But I just got to wonder, here. Is there something you're not telling me? Are you unhappy about something? 'Cause if you are, buddy, you got to know I'll do whatever I can to fix it."
Ray stopped pacing and waited for a response. Fraser looked shocked, which almost never happened. Mild surprise, he got sometimes, yeah, but never full-out shock.
"I thought we were talking about Stella," he said.
"What? Stella? What does this have to do with Stella? I'm talking about you, you and me. Jesus, get with the program here, Frase. You heard a word I said or what?"
Fraser licked his lip, like he did. "Ah, I'm sorry, Ray. What was the question again?"
Ray rolled his eyes and spoke very slowly and carefully, like he was talking to Dief. "Are. You. Thinking. About. Requesting. A. Transfer."
Fraser rubbed his eyebrow and Ray exploded.
"Godammit, you are! You are and you haven't even said a fucking thing about it. That's not buddies, Frase, that is not buddies at all!" He paced some more, tried to get a grip, calm down. Yelling wasn't going to convince anyone to stay. He should have learned that by now. Ten steps away, ten steps back, deep breath, deep breath, deep breath. "Okay. Tell me why. What can I do to make things right?"
Fraser looked like he'd rather be tortured than say. Ray knew he hated talking about feeling stuff, but too bad. Over Ray's dead body would this warm living Fraser become an ice-covered ghost.
"Look," Ray said, "I know you hate this, but we got to work this out." He crossed back to the table and touched Fraser's cheek, just like the ghost had touched him. "We can't split up now, Frase. You've ruined me for all other partners. I'm not happy anymore unless I'm jumping out windows."
Fraser smiled a little but he still looked green. "It isn't you, Ray, honestly. It's just me." The famous last words of dying relationships. Jesus.
"What, are you homesick?"
"I do miss Canada, of course."
"Yeah, I get that. But nowhere in that sentence did you say that it's why you're thinking about leaving."
Fraser looked even greener and Ray knew he was on to something. "Ray, I don't want to tell you." God, he was nearly pleading – talk about shit that never happened!
"Yeah, I get that, too. What are you so afraid of?"
"Please don't make me do this, Ray."
"I have to. What could be so horrible, Frase? What could scare you so bad? No matter what you say to me, I'll still be your partner. I'll always be your partner. Just tell me and we'll work it out together, just like we always do. Nothing you could say could change how I feel about you, Frase. Nothing."
Fraser laughed, all bitter, another first, and Ray didn't like the sound of it at all. Not at all. "Don't be so sure," he said.
"I am sure. That is one thing that I am four thousand percent sure of. You're the most important person in my life, Fraser."
Fraser sighed. "Oh, Ray." He rested his head in his hands, covering his face. He didn't say anything for a long time and Ray began to wonder if he'd fallen asleep or something. When he finally spoke, his voice was muffled by his palms.
"I'm in love with you."
Ray blinked. Did he just hear what he thought he heard?
Fraser still didn't look up. "I'm sorry," he said. "It's inappropriate and I hoped you'd never find out, but I knew that was foolish. You know me too well and you're too perceptive. The very things that made me fall in love with you in the first place destroyed our friendship."
Whatever Ray was thinking it would be, whatever freaky Fraser thing, it wasn't this. It made perfect sense, though. Everything the ghost had said slotted into place. His brain was running a million miles an hour, all the little bits of information dancing around and rearranging themselves, every weird gleam in Fraser's eye at an odd moment, every embarrassed eyebrow rub, every single second suddenly getting a whole layer of meaning it didn't have before. God, it was like stripping all the wall paper out of his brain and putting in new carpet all at once, in like two seconds. It wasn't until he realized that he'd been standing there like a moron with his mouth open for god knew how long that his head finally caught up with the conversation.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa! Hold up a minute. Who said anything about stuff being destroyed?"
Fraser looked up, hope and total misery competing for top billing.
"Just give me a minute, here, okay?"
Fraser nodded, and Ray went back to pacing.
Fraser was in love with him. Him, Ray. Fraser! Jesus. And it was sort of like some kind of sick game you'd play as a kid. Like, would you drink snot for a million dollars? Would you fuck your best male friend if it would save his life? Like, if aliens suddenly came down and said they'd disintegrate him if you didn't suck his dick, would you? And the snot question was bad enough, but there was no good answer to the other question either, because if you would it made you a cocksucker and if you wouldn't then you were a shitty friend. And in this case, it looked like sucking Fraser's cock would save not only Fraser but Ray, too. And the answer to "Would you suck cock to save your own life?" wasn't necessarily pretty, but it was absolutely yes. Ray would suck someone's cock to save his own life. Ray would suck the cock of someone completely disgusting to save his own life. He just didn't have that much pride. He knew that about himself.
He stopped pacing for a second and looked over at Fraser, whose face was fretful and unhappy and a little bit hopeful, and just as gorgeous as the day was long. His best friend. His only friend. His freaky, wonderful, dead-guy-licking, insanely honorable, unhinged friend. English didn't even have words for how he felt about Fraser. Ray was pretty sure he'd suck the cock of more than one completely disgusting guy to save Fraser. Fraser, though, was not completely disgusting. Not even partially.
Ray sighed and sat back down at the table. "Look, Frase, I admit I didn't expect this. Tonight's been one long parade of stuff I wasn't expecting. But I'm not so stupid I'm going to hate you forever because you have the hots for me. Hell, I'm flattered. Really flattered. People are tossing their panties at you all day long; you could have whoever you wanted."
"Obviously not, Ray." Fraser was really giving that new bitterness thing a workout. He jumped up from the table, took the teapot to the sink to clean it up. He had to pour almost a whole pot of tea down the drain in order to start cleaning it, but he seemed determined. With Fraser standing at the sink like that, Ray got a very thorough look at the back of his worn Levi's. It was a nice view. Really nice. Like, shapely.
Ray felt something in him start to unwind. Maybe this was something he could fix. "Well, I don't know about that. I mean - I really don't know. During my experimental years, there was no experimenting because I was with Stella. But I'm not a bigot and I'm not a prude. I'm pretty flexible, Frase. If you can give me some time to get used to the idea, maybe we can work something out."
"Some sort of compromise, you mean?" Fraser finished scrubbing the teapot, set it in the drying rack and turned to look at Ray with this funny look on his face, sort of hopeful but confused, like Dief when he hadn't been paying attention to what you were saying but suddenly realized that you could be talking about doughnuts.
"Maybe more like starting on the bunny slopes," Ray said. "Compromise makes it sound like I’m doing something I don't want to and it's not exactly like that. It's not like you're wanting me to eat ground glass or something. You're not exactly Frankenstein over there, you know?"
"I think you mean Frankenstein's monster, Ray. In Mary Shelley's 1818 novel –"
"Okay, whatever, I get the picture. I give you a compliment and I get the Encyclopedia Fraseranica. I'm trying to say making out with you isn't like drinking snot. I mean, I'd rather make out with you than do half the stuff you talk me into on a regular basis. If I never see the inside of a dumpster again, it will be too soon, not to mention the people shooting at us."
"I know, Ray." Fraser said, kind of fondly as he wiped his hands on a dishtowel. "Wildly bizarre ways."
"Exactly. This hardly registers on the weirdometer. And if it doesn't turn my crank, then we'll figure something out. We'll work it out. Together, you and me."
That earned an actual Frasersmile, not exactly as happy as Ray had ever seen him, but relieved, and like he wasn't about to puke up his tea anymore. "All right, Ray."
"Okay. And no transfers, you hear me? Not without proper discovery and disclosure and discussion and all that other shit."
"Okay, then. I'm glad we got that worked out." He tossed back the rest of his lukewarm tea and stood up. "I'm gonna go home now and crash for a couple of hours. You wanna go to dinner with me tomorrow night? Tonight, I guess, really."
"Are you asking me out on a date, Ray?" And Fraser seemed genuinely puzzled about this, the giant freak.
"Yes, Fraser, I am asking you out on a date." Ray rolled his eyes. "Except we go out to dinner together all the time so it's not gonna be all that different. You wanna go or not?"
Another smile, a little bigger, a little realer. Now Ray was getting somewhere. "Yes, I'd like that very much."
"Okay, I'll see you at the station tomorrow afternoon then."
Fraser walked him to the door of the Consulate, which he normally did because he was Polite Canadian Guy, but it felt different than usual.
When they got to the door, Fraser held it open. "Sleep well, Ray."
"You too, Frase." He started to go through the doorway, then turned back on impulse. He didn't give himself time to think about it, just gave Fraser a gentle kiss, barely open mouthed, just to get an idea of what he was really getting himself into. Fraser kissed him back, and it was sweet, so sweet. Tea and skin and warmth and a little frizzle of something cha-cha-ing low in Ray's belly. The hair on the back of his neck stood up and his skin all over broke into goosebumps. He pulled back after a few seconds.
"Jesus, Frase," he said. "That is really a lot better than drinking snot. See you tomorrow, 'kay?"
When Ray got into the Goat, Fraser was still standing there with the door open, all dazed and glassy-eyed. Ray grinned to himself. He might be batting for the other team now, but he still had it. Yeah, baby. Ray Kowalski, 1: Frozen Ghosts of Christmas Future, 0.