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1. One of these days and it won't be long, you'll call my name and I'll be gone

His home is just the right size to him, but out-of-doors is enormous, a world beyond comprehension waiting to be understood. Twigs stuck up to make trees in frosty mud, cold-blasted shrubs still budding, the white puffs of his breath in the air: Benton plays every day for as long as he's allowed, but comes back directly when his mother calls. There is work to be done, and she shouldn't have to do it all herself if he can help; he's the man of the house while his father is away.

The land isn't beautiful, to him. His mother isn't beautiful. They are; they are necessary; their absence is unimaginable. Pretty things are summer flowers in a jam jar, the silver-tipped fur of his favorite dog, a rare apple sliced on a blue plate. The pictures in the storybook his mother reads from every night - knights and ladies, slender and sad-faced and yellow-haired all, pose and bend and hold out their arms to each other in ways that seem to have nothing to do with the bodies and movements of any people he's ever seen. He loves them anyway.

He learns from the stories that beauty is treacherous, and may be a mask for evil, but it's also the first qualification for a princess as a heroine. That birds and beasts and eccentric old women must be treated with respect, because they are possessed of secrets. That virtue and cleverness will always be rewarded, and that the best reward is true love.

He has very little concept of what true love means. He thinks it might mean something like the way his mother and father smile at each other when his father comes home, holding each other by the shoulders and staring for an inexplicable length of time into each other's faces, which they surely ought to know well enough by now. Only, preferably without the arguing afterwards that leads to his father stomping off to sleep with the sled dogs. Benton would prefer to have a bed, if he's going to get a happy ending.

There are things his mother thinks are pretty that he does not. She has her records she plays sometimes when his father is away, and he's allowed to wind the Victrola, but he doesn't like the harsh skittery voice singing, 'Fare thee well, oh honey, fare thee well'. Benton prefers the nights when she sits with him on her lap in front of the old upright piano, and guides his hands on the keys, chords and scales and simple folk songs. 'If I had wings like Noah's dove...' He doesn't know what it means, but his mother tells him he'll understand one day.

One day is too far away to be satisfying to a little boy who's always curious, but there are other things - the workings of a woodstove, the structure of a stray feather - to keep him occupied. He doesn't doubt one day will come, nor that she'll be there to share the understanding.

 

2. "I should like to be alone;" to which the visitor replies,"I should like to be alone; why not be alone together?"

"Am I good-looking, at all?" It was a new thought, and one too peculiar to keep to himself though Ben regretted speaking a moment after, when his grandmother paused and gave him a look over her glasses that told him just how peculiar it was.

"I beg your pardon?"

"I - It's not important."

They were sitting together with their afternoon work, the front door and window wide open to let in the summer light. This house in Kakina was expansive by their way of thinking - four rooms and an attached bathroom - but years of habit kept them spending their indoor time either in the narrow library - shelves, a chair, a desk and the card catalog its only furnishings besides the books - or this larger main room. The rich warm light of evening through the screens made the Coleman lamps unnecessary; the oil in the antique glass lamp cast shadows and glints like a dull golden prism.

Ben, his legs aching pleasantly from a day spent practicing his tracking over rock and wood, had erected a small wall of books and papers before him so he could conceal his notebook; on the other side of the well-scrubbed surface of the oak table, Martha Fraser sat surrounded by awls and heavy needles, heavy thread and glue: the tools of book restoration, neat in their ranks as she worked. Her hands, stilled momentarily from stitching up a book's unravelling spine, tapped restlessly as she considered him. "It's the Leeson girls. Have they been round to the library to giggle at you again?"

"No!" he said, blushing furiously. "That is. Well, yes." His grandmother made any real system of chivalry very difficult to carry out, at times. "But that doesn't have anything to do with...with anything."

"Silly chits," she observed, lifting her needle again. "Well, in that case what's inspired this flapdoodle?"

"Actually, I was hoping to circumvent the explanation," he tried.

His grandmother arched an eyebrow as she pulled a thread taut. He caved.

"It suddenly occurred to me as a possible variable. One I'd overlooked in...in my observations." He shuffled his notebook a bit, though he hadn't particularly wanted to draw her attention to it. She lifted her chin, indicating he should continue.

Ben rubbed his eyebrow, and casting his eyes on the book she was working on was distracted when he recognized it as his old book of European fairy tales. It had been one of the few things he brought with him when he came to live with his grandparents; Martha Fraser had hmm'd, looking at its bright elaborate illustrations, which she said might be worth a pretty penny to a rare books dealer she corresponded with in Vancouver: enough, perhaps, to buy a few dozen plainer books. George had cleared his throat, and Martha had first frowned at him and then back at the book, which their grandson hadn't been able to help reaching up for plaintively; something in the sight had made her expression soften a bit, and there had been no more talk of selling or buying. In retrospect, though the softening had made him feel a little less frightened of her and a little more at home, Ben thought it had mainly been not affection but the weakness of any confirmed librarian at seeing a child wanting a book.

He hadn't read the thing in years. He supposed he'd grown out of fairy stories; the mythologies of the Territories seemed to him much more sensible, grounded in the realities of survival and community instead of errantry and romance. Being nearly a man grown (the caribou notwithstanding - he knew now he still had things to learn before laying claim to manhood) he naturally had turned away from childish things.

He wondered if the pictures were as lovely as he remembered.

"Your observations of what, Benton?"

"Oh. Ah, well...." And he explained.

Kakina, unlike many of the villages where the Fraser Mobile Library stopped, had a school, and during this stay Ben had become fascinated with the behavior of the other boys and girls in his class. The girls in particular: popularity among the boys seemed tied to unambiguous, quantifiable qualities like strength, quickness, physical courage, the ability to spit long distances. The girls, though - the calculus of who was in demand and who was pushed aside mystified Ben. Some of the popular girls were large, some were small; some were clever or frivolous, and some slow or thoughtful. Based on the behavior of the boys towards the popular girls - they always seemed to agree with the assessments of the girl group, and made up to the dominant ones - Ben had hypothesized they might be pretty.

He'd been collecting data for the past week. Patty Leeson had her books carried by Chester Marsden; Jennie Barbeau and Judy and Sara Kitikmeot giggled as Patty handed the books over into Chester's keeping, and smiled at him.

"But, you see, if I'm good-looking, then as an observer I may be affecting their behavior in ways I hadn't accounted for."

"'Ways for which'."

"Ways for which I had not accounted." He looked at her, expectant.

His grandmother snorted. "It isn't a matter of one girl being prettier than another."

Ben's brow wrinkled. "It isn't?"

"When we were in China..." And she was off. Elderly ladies she'd met who'd had their feet bound, younger women aping Western fashion with fur collars and absurd hats. Standards of beauty differing throughout the world, based on racial and social norms - read The Descent of Man on the subject, Benton, although a lot of the book is hogwash. Beauty known throughout the world as a destructive force - 'its existence is too much; it tears one to pieces and each fresh wave of consciousness is poison.' Or so some would have you believe - self-indulgent morbidity, really. Consider, first and only, the wholeness and hardiness of your body and the work it can do for yourself and others. She'd known a missionary in Shenjing ...

On and on: he'd heard it all before, and couldn't help feeling a little resentful at having his perfectly reasonable question overridden.

He'd been feeling resentful a great deal recently. Secondary sources would suggest that this was a normal consequence of adolescence, but he was finding it very unpleasant; he missed Innusiq and Joon, and Quinn's weekly tutelage. He missed Inuvik, and Mark. He missed...something, he didn't know precisely what.

It was good to be beside Eric again, to walk familiar paths around the village, but it was different this time, and he didn't know how to fix it. He was still a boy, but no longer a child - a stray cub any mother might feed and take in for a night. People were being polite to him, and girls had begun to giggle in his presence, which he could only regard as ominous.

His grandparents had never not been distanced from everyone; they didn't know how it was to have Albert calling him "Fraser" now - jokingly, but with a truth behind it. The Tsimshian had a history with missionaries, and it would have been of little use to say George and Martha Fraser were friends of their people, and atheist librarians, not soldiers for Christ. His grandmother especially possessed exactly the same grim zeal for her secular humanism that had sent her dour Presbyterian kin across the ocean, prayerbooks in hand. Worse, Ben's father was a Mountie, and whatever Bob Fraser's personal dealings had been, the RCMP's record was dark when it came to the First Nations.

Ben didn't even have the defense of insisting strenuously that he had no intention of following in his father's footsteps. A hockey career seemed, well, not so likely anymore, not without Mark and the daily practice. Ben didn't know exactly what he would do with his life, but he felt the ground tilting under his feet, angling him towards some predestined fall. And his grandmother was talking about people living all the way on the other side of the globe.

His grandfather came in mid-lecture, tromping his heavy boots on the mudscraper, shucking his garden-gloves, and nodding at Ben and Martha as he came in. His arrival had been preceded by the carrying sound of his voice, singing.

"We're up against troubles that few people know
It's only by courage and patience and grit
And eatin' plain food that we keep ourselves fit..."

As his wife was speaking, he hadn't broken off to offer greeting, but song somehow didn't count as interruption. (It wasn't done to interrupt a lady. Or anyone, really, but especially a lady...except maybe in cases of dire emergency, such as an enraged bull moose or an avalanche approaching, which obviously didn't apply here. Even in those cases, you ought to do it courteously.)

Ben watched him, with one ear unwillingly attending to the turmoil of social traditions during the War of Resistance to Japanese invasion, and the other being told what a pity it was the singer hadn't listened to his poor horse Kitty before crossing Tickle Cove Pond. His grandfather was separating out bunches of herbs and branches he must have been collecting this afternoon; his hands were still deft, wrapping the stems with twine, but he moved slowly reaching up to hang them on the hooks on the kitchen ceiling. Stinging nettle - that would be for the soup tonight; Astragalus propinquus, goldenseal - well, he'd been thumping his chest a bit recently, Ben had noticed; perhaps he had heartburn or some other sort of digestive problem. Ben resolved to keep an eye on him after meals.

His grandmother was waving her needle in the air, making some point about the history of women in revolutionary endeavor, as his grandfather finished both his task and his song. Whistling through his teeth, he put his foot up on one of the rungs of Martha's chair, and caught the needle neatly from her hand as she gestured. He'd rethreaded it and begun sewing up a tear in the leg of his blue jeans before she took notice.

"Pity's sake, George, don't use that needle!" She snatched it back, and substituted another from the fat rosemary-stuffed pincushion. "Hold still, you old fool. And don't think I don't know you're just trying to get me to do your darning for you. I ought to let you rip holes in your trousers: it would serve you right." She bit off the offending thread her husband had used with still-strong, still-sharp teeth, and reached for a new spool.

"Yes, dear," George said, and winked at Ben. Off a darkling look from his wife, "M'apologies."

The subject of beauty was shelved for the evening.

But late that night, when Ben was half-asleep beneath his thin summer blanket in his own room, his grandmother came in quietly and laid a pair of flannel pajamas down on his chest of drawers. She'd been reinforcing the hems, that much Ben understood; but then she paused by his bed, and stroked back his hair from his forehead, looking down on him. He wasn't sure what to make of that.

"You'll be handsome enough for all reasonable uses, Benton," she murmured, with an odd note in her voice. "I wouldn't wish for more than that, if I were you."

3. So in a voice, so in a shapeless flame

Her cold dry lips on his, the shocking heat of her belly and inner thighs, the fine skin beneath her breast - he could feel her heart beating when she guided his fingers there, like a small creature struggling for freedom in his hand - these things were real to him. As he followed her voice, lovely though tired and dispassionate with repetition, back to consciousness, he couldn't make out the words; they were just past his fainting comprehension. But he knew they were meaningful, beautiful. 'O my chevalier!'

Even then, he'd thought of knights and temptresses. (He didn't know how he claimed to be any kind of student of folklore. It occurred to him, years later, lying in the scratchy pale hospital sheets, that there was no culture on Earth that wouldn't have known how to advise him on black-haired women with lovely voices found in the wild, harsh reaches of the world.) It hadn't mattered to him.

When he'd rallied a little, and begun to speak back in wandering phrases, she'd thanked him for saving her. Told him stories: a mother who'd left her as a child, a brutish father. (She never mentioned a sister. There was no telling whether any of it had been truth, outside the harsh and inadequate facts shown in official records. But her voice had been so full of conviction.) I know you, he thought. I've always known you.

It was almost too much, when they pushed through a chill white veil back out into the searing light of sun on snow, to see that her face was beautiful too. 'Nor in nothing, nor in things extreme, and scatt'ring bright, can love inhere.'

Just the bright air around them as they searched for his pack, the shining black of a lone raven flying above, were too much, let alone the thick curls of her hair, the classic structure of a face he recognized from so many old photographs of much older statues. That was what beauty looked like, he thought. And almost suspected her for it. Mostly he was overwhelmed, as ravenous for her as he was for the food they devoured there in the snow. He knew he would have to turn her in. He knew, too, that these rations they consumed now would stick in his throat every time another woman turned her face up for his kiss.

(He thought, coming to, seeing Ray's familiar clear green eyes looking down at him anxiously, none of that had any truth but what I gave to it. I took her over my doorsill because I wanted something I couldn't even believe was real. This was real: solid friendship and companionship, built on common endeavor and common values. This was reality.

A pity it was shattered all to hell, to the point that he couldn't manage to be properly polite or talk at length to anyone but an animal who couldn't even hear. Too bad.)

Her darkness was his darkness. He should be with her. (She should be gone. He never wanted to see her face again.)

4. They use against themselves that benevolence

"Don't be afraid."

Dear lord, what was she wearing?

Francesca Vecchio swayed towards him, looking oddly tall in those impractical shoes, until he belatedly realized this was because he was still sitting down, looking up at her. He jumped to his feet, and nearly doubled over as almost his entire body registered its displeasure with this course of action. Diefenbaker, at his feet, made a brief whuffle of contempt.

"I'm not here to...Fraze? Are you all right? What - what is it?"

"Perfectly all right," he averred, in a voice he couldn't seem to control. He appeared to have swallowed a few pine cones. "Well, mostly. I will be."

Francesca began slapping the walls, for some reason. "Where's the light switch, Frazier? I mean...I mean Benton...?"

"There isn't one." Even with the cover of shadow he felt exposed; he cleared his throat and looked around frantically for a shirt, or, for that matter, some more substantial bottoms. "I'm sorry, I'm...I'm not really dressed for company."

She shot him a look. Not without reason, he had to admit: they were both in the same leaky punt in that respect. Though at least she had chosen to be here in less than requisite attire. Not that he hadn't chosen to be here, and, and taken off his own attire, but it had hardly been in the expectation of, of...

"What do you mean, there isn't one? How can you not have a light switch?"

That tone, at least, was familiar; it was the same tone Ray used when chiding Fraser for lacking some apparently essential amenity, and though she seemed to be finding fault with him he felt a good deal more comfortable with that than with seductive cooing. "Well, I don't really see the need to waste resources on electricity I'd seldom use anyway." He found the matches and bent over to light the lantern he'd only just extinguished. He turned around to find her watching him with mingled incredulity and...something else.

There was a entirely horrible pause while they took each other in.

"Frazier," she said at last. "I...I didn't know, nobody told me. I mean, I heard you got roughed up a little, but you look like someone took a meat tenderizer to you." Her eyes tracked down his chest, and then lower. He shifted from foot to foot, and her gaze jerked back up. "Are you...shouldn't you be in the hospital or something?"

"No, no."

She seemed to take that as a cue to step towards him. "Ray should've made you stay at our place. We've got," an uncomplimentary glance at his furniture, "real beds. With headboards, and everything."

He really wasn't sure of the utility of headboards in this case but didn't want to ask, as she was stretching out her fingers towards one of the bruises. She touched it lightly, and he flinched.

Francesca's eyes filled abruptly with tears. "I'm sorry. I...I'm an idiot. I mean...wow, great....great timing, Frannie, wait till he's been whipped up by goons and then spring your new ensemble on him."

He didn't know what to say, but he couldn't allow that hysterical note of distress to go on. "You're not an idiot."

"No. No, you see, I am, because I thought, I thought maybe if I was just here, if I was really clear about it and got it through your thick skull, maybe you'd see me and you'd want..." She choked.

Fraser looked around helplessly. He couldn't even offer her a handkerchief. He attempted a comforting hand on her regrettably unclad shoulder.

Francesca threw her arms around him. He tried not to wince, failed, and stiffened.

"Sorry! Oh god." She pulled away, and ducked her head, shaking. "You must think I'm..."

"I don't - " he protested, not sure what he was denying. 'Their love is an eager meaninglessness,' came lines from some deep, uncharitable corner of his mind. 'Too tense, or too lax.'

Taking a deep breath, Francesca stepped back and met his eyes. "Frazier. Do you. Do you even think I'm pretty?"

There could be only one possible answer, even if she hadn't, by all reasonable criteria he knew, fit that description. "Yes."

"...Really?"

"You're a lovely young woman, Francesca," he reassured her, having at last, here, some appropriate form of gallantry to offer. "And you have a good heart. Any man would be proud to have your ... your esteem."

"My - ? Right. Right!" She smiled, to his immense relief. He took this as a sign that he could break eye contact long enough to pull on one of his henleys. "Jeez. I just really picked the wrong night to sproing this on you, didn't I?"

"I'm honored, of course, that you'd come for a visit," he told her in his best, solemnest voice, pulling his head through the collar and trying not to smile back. "May I offer you some tea, or - ?"

"Oh, no, I should be letting you rest. So you can get better. Soon. I should go."

She looked around for her coat, and found it crumpled on the floor. While she was shaking it out and donning it he took the opportunity to grab a pair of jeans, himself. Better, he thought, to avoid his uniform pants. The serge seemed to have an unsettling effect on American women.

He zipped up his fly. "At least let me walk to your car."

"I took a cab. Oh," she smacked her forehead, "He'll be gone. I mean, I didn't ask him to wait, not that he would've in this neighborhood, because I thought I was going to... I mean," she shot him an oddly hopeful look. "Maybe I should..."

Dief began licking an inappropriate part of his anatomy.

"Well, then, let me walk you to a neighborhood with more cabs," he said, with desperate heartiness.

As he pulled on his hiking boots, and she watched as though finding the process fascinating, Fraser reflected on the differing hospitalities of north and south. No one would have thought anything of it in the Territories if a friend's sister had taken shelter with him for a night; an extreme climate made such things commonplace. But then, in the Territories no one went around in garments like the one Francesca had on, especially not in inclement weather. He felt he'd had just about all he could take of women's lingerie today, really - at least the shopkeeper's bodice had been constructed from a more sensible and hard-wearing material.

On the other hand, the Vecchios had taken him to their bos....hearts, unreservedly. Such quick and easy acceptance was a new thing in his experience, a gift. The people he knew back home were courteous, unflaggingly helpful, but not lavish with their affection. Perhaps he shouldn't wonder at the unrestrained nature of Francesca's offer; it came from the same kind of open heart, after all, as her brother's friendship.

As they walked down the sidewalk together, her small hand tucked correctly in the crook of his elbow, Fraser decided he felt rather optimistic. After all, this encounter could really have been much more painful. He had been unaware of a woman's intentions towards him, which was by necessity awkward. But they had come to an understanding. Perhaps they could now be friends. He would like to have Francesca Vecchio as a friend, he thought.

"It's a nice night," she said.

"It is," he agreed. Personally he found it a bit foggy, the city grime heavy in his lungs. But there was no point in disagreeing simply because he was currently in less than perfect physical condition. He could think, as he usually did on nighttime walks, of the great vaulting expanse of air and atmosphere above what they currently breathed, and the night that stretched out forever into the stars.

At the moment he mostly wanted to go back to bed, not to cast his spirit out into the cosmos, but the thought was usually a comfort, and logically it should still be.

He tried, as they walked, to tell her about Kakina, his survey. The impossibility, for him, of predicting what others found beautiful. It seemed like something she ought to understand about him, if they were going to be friends.

"...The popular ones were the ones with the sharpest teeth?"

"That's right. You see, in the north...."

"You like girls who file their teeth?" asked Francesca, aghast. That, too, was one of her brother's tones.

"Well, it's not completely unheard of. Especially in the Amazon Basin," he said gravely, and poked his tongue into his cheek. She stared at him. "But no," he relented. "Not especially."

She seemed to be giving the idea some thought over the next block. He helped her across a particularly unsavory gutter, and she seemed to come back to herself. She smiled up at him coyly, and began to stroke his arm.
"You know. There's no rush. We could go for coffee sometime."

"What? Oh. Yes, of course, I'd like that." Oh thank heaven, there was a cab. He hailed it for her.

"Goodnight, Frazier," she said, climbing in. "You were a real gentleman."

"Well, I..."

"But thank you anyway." As he blinked at this, she surged back up to press a kiss on the upper corner of his mouth, quick and warm and soft. And a bit sticky with lipgloss. Slouching back into the car, she grinned up at him. "I'll see you later."

Oh. Oh dear.

5. They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them

"Very much so, yes."

His erratic new partner seemed only partly mollified. "You're not just saying that?"

Fraser was at a loss.

Which seemed, really, to be his perpetual state with this Ray: that first day, spinning and bewildered in the wake of an impostor, he'd assumed elaborate conspiracy, worked to prove his own sanity, and only ended up finding that he'd been making a thorough fool of himself and endangering his friend's life. He'd felt, as the new Ray had put it, "a little pink."

But it had seemed to be all right at dinner; the stranger had laughed with his whole face alight at the stories Fraser told about "their" cases. "Of course, Ray, you remember the time..." It was a pleasure, holding back the pang of missing his Ray, Ray Vecchio, by pretending they were one and the same. Fraser thought he'd been getting to know the new Ray.

He'd thought he had a handle on the game they were going to play. He'd thought informing himself with the man's service record would give him some kind of advantage. And then today happened, and none of his usual tactics worked.

His discussion of revenge with Rico and Bert had devolved into an uninspired lecture on early modern dueling, with frequent cribbing on his part from Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Without attribution: his grandmother would have been scandalized. Rico agreed that fights to the death were pointless self-indulgence, while Bert held for their innate romance, and Mrs. Carls reminisced over the way boys had fought over her in her youth. Apparently, in one contretemps, badminton racquets had been involved. Ray occasionally sent disbelieving glances their way, but for the most part was silent and uninvolved over in his patch of sunlight, armed with his binoculars and skepticism.

And then, just as talk had died down, Ray'd dropped the conversational equivalent of explosives in a heavily fish-stocked lake. Fraser couldn't imagine why the others were quibbling with word choice: attractive was so clearly what Ray Kowalski was; it was ranking in Fraser's mind now in terms of the man's leading characteristics with frustratingly persistent, and he felt his own folly again, as he dodged the query with a sad lack of success, for not having realized at once just what was affecting him about his new partner.

He was almost certain Ray Kowalski wasn't beautiful. He thought he'd seen faces like that before - bony, angular, toothy and lined at the corner of the eyes. There was the contradictory softness of the mouth to be accounted for, but Fraser felt sure if he could only...only make Ray hold still for a moment, pin him in place long enough to get a good look at him, he'd be able to understand what he was seeing and deal with it from there.

In the pale light leaking into the crypt Ray's hair was glinting with gold, and Fraser was strangely, and most unwillingly, moved by the damn silly heavy glasses hanging under Ray's chin from his small round ears. Even subdued and confined by these walls, there was a constant thrum about the man. Attractive. 'It balks account,' Fraser thought. 'It is curiously in the joints of his hips and wrists; to see him pass conveys as much as the best poem, perhaps more.'

"I'm not really qualified to judge," he said. It was the truth.

Ray, bewilderingly, began to laugh.

6. Have you strung your soul to silence?

"So Fraser. Loooooouuuu," Ray broke off, choking apparently on combined fragments of noodle and howl, and Fraser concernedly offered the thermos of coffee at his side. After waving one hand at it for the space of a few coughs, Ray accepted the drink, took a swig, and continued, "Skagnetti - what is that, is that Italian or something? - anyway. He eat a lot of princesses?"

"Well, Ray, the story would seem to imply so, yes." Fraser took a mediative bite of spaghetti bolognese al fresco. The woodfire had imparted a subtly smokey taste and crunchy texture he found appealing, especially in the (relatively) open air of their campsite. He suspected Mrs. Vecchio would not have approved of the faint grey tinge of the noodles, but firelight could cover a multitude of sins. "Of course, from a literal or anthropological standpoint, the region around Sulphur Mountain has no real tradition of hereditary monarchy or..."

"Yeah, okay, but here's my question. If this guy is a bad guy, he keeps eating princesses, what's this girl think she's doing, stopping by for dinner? I mean, that is not a smart move if you ask me. Not unless she's setting him up, like she's got a whole bunch of knights hiding in the bushes or something."

Fraser found it unexpectedly hard to swallow. "Perhaps she is," he managed after a moment, setting down his mess plate.

Ray shot him a keen glance. His face was softened of its harsher lines in the ruddy flickering light but hadn't lost any of its expressiveness; he turned infinitesimally closer to where Fraser sat. "Hey, it's a story, that's fine. I'm just trying to get what it means."

"What do you think it means?"

He got a frown. "Do not do that, Fraser. I got enough of that from Mrs. Dabrowski in ninth grade."

It was typical that Ray would actually take an interest in a story for which Fraser had no pat interpretation. He'd been cobbling it together from half-remembered fairy tales and local ghost stories, trying for something suitably haunting for a campfire. The shape of the story had been there in his mind from the first, and he'd known it needed to be told, but he hadn't thought in any detail about why, about themes. "It's about love, Ray."

"Yeah, your inner bell rings." A smile, lightning quick, as Ray met his eyes, and then looked down again. His lashes cast shadows on his cheeks, and Fraser wanted to reach towards the various textures of the man beside him. The softness of his coat, crisp bright hair, the warmth of his face. "I can see why that's a campfire story. That's scary stuff. But - " he leaned forward.

Enough, thought Fraser, and straightened his back a little, where he sat. "Yes?"

Ray looked obscurely disappointed. "Well, okay, how many princesses are going to be showing up covered in lichen and...is there actually some fruit called 'chokecherries'?"

"Yes, of course. There are several deciduous shrubs native to North America which produce..."

"Never mind, that's not my point. My point is..." Ray stabbed his fork in his spaghetti. Fraser waited.

The aluminum mess plate in Ray's hands was mostly still full - Ray's nutrition really was appalling. Doesn't eat enough to keep a bird alive, said a memory of his grandmother's voice. She hadn't said it often of Fraser, not after the first few weeks; growing boys need to eat, and he'd eaten, packing away nourishment against the cold. An extra layer of subcutaneous fat: useful, but comparing himself to Ray's sinewy grace, there were times his own solidity weighed on him.

"Wanting someone doesn't change who we are," he said at last. "Even if we might wish otherwise."

"Tell me about it. I mean," Ray glanced at him, "don't tell me. I know that. So I'm suspicious, I'm a cop. I been divorced, I'm kind of a jerk sometimes. It doesn't go away."

"She should have understood," said Fraser sharply, surprising himself with his vehemence.

And Ray as well, apparently, as he looked up again, face quizzical. "Nah. I get why she didn't."

That made one of them, thought Fraser bitterly. Oh, no doubt it was galling for Miss Russell not to have Ray's trust handed over to her whole and implicit, but really, what did she expect? She'd seemed knowledgeable enough about legal process in regard to wills; did she really think Ray would be snookered enough by desire not to perform a simple background check?

He'd never understand Chicago women, their expectations and illogic. "I looked at her. She's drop-dead beautiful. She looked at me. She's actually interested in me," Ray'd said, as though such interest were incomprehensible. Surely Ray was a fine choice for any woman, kind and loyal and capable as he was.

'Drop-dead beautiful' - but she looked just like you! he wanted to protest. He'd never really grasped American standards of beauty, never would understand how anyone could look at him, bland and stolid and so frequently absurd, when Ray was there beside him, but even presuming certain arbitrary rules, they'd been so alike. Twinned, thin and pointed-chinned and golden-haired when he'd seen them standing together on Mrs. Tucci's porch, their angular faces turned towards each other, large eyes closed as their lips met. Ray had reached for Luanne with the disbelieving gentleness of a man touching his own reflection, the instant before Fraser cleared his throat. (He cleared his throat again, remembering.) Presuming that one of them met the standards of, of drop-dead-ness - disturbing phrase - it followed that the other would...

"You still with me, Fraser?" asked Ray in a quizzical tone, and bumped Fraser's shoulder with his own.

"Yes, of course.'"

"You get that a lot with cons." It took a moment to recall where Fraser's thoughts had left the thread of conversation. The motivations of Miss Russell, of course. Ray was continuing, "You know. Maybe they've turned over a new leaf, maybe they haven't, but they're mad as hell if you don't believe every word out of their mouth. I don't know, Fraser."

Heartened, he said, "I'm glad to know you won't be pining for her unnecessarily."

"Pining," his partner repeated, leaning forward towards the flame, elbows on his knees. "Kinda pathetic, huh. At least with Stella, I knew I could believe in her."

Oh dear. Fraser rubbed his eyebrow. Not this road again. "You know, Ray, when I was young and living in the far north, I spent a great deal of my time reading - "

"You don't say."

"I would read descriptions of people, people unlike any I'd ever met. Their faces, their expressions. And I'd look out on the land around me, the vast expanse of tundra that was familiar to me as my own hands, and try to imagine how each expression appeared on a human countenance. 'Longing,' or 'disdain.' I don't think I ever saw exactly what I had pictured. What I had pictured had little to do with anything but my own imagination."

He glanced over at Ray, and rushed on, "I think sometimes I've done the same thing with - with emotion."

Ray frowned, and leaned towards him. "Meaning?"

"Meaning..." Fraser caught his hand scrubbing away at his eyebrow again, and forced it down to his lap. "Meaning there are different ways of believing. You can believe in people; it's a fine thing, believing in people. But then there are ... there are," 'Eternal truths that shame our soothing lies,' he thought, but did not say. He didn't want to try Ray's patience with landscape-related poetry. There had been an incident once with a few lines of Wordsworth and Smarties used as a offensive weapon. "There are the things that will always be true, and with us, regardless of our thoughts, or faith."

He looked up, following the path of the firesmoke into the tree-crowded night sky, polluted with exhaust and reflected city lights. For a moment there was silence, and then he became aware that his partner was staring, and looked back.

Ray was smiling at him.

"Yeah, okay." Fraser had to keep from startling as Ray slung an arm over his shoulders, making Fraser's whole body flush with warmth. "I can see that. That's nice."

"Good."

He was still smiling. "So what's for dessert?"

7. Love in the open hand, no thing but that, Ungemmed, unhidden, wishing not to hurt

"So I get the impression there's some history there," remarked Ray.

"History?"

The water ahead of them was clear through the faintly grimed window glass, but vanished on all sides, except one, into fathomless black. Above, the underside of the ice was a surreal landscape, with glowing blue protruberances and spires like an upside-down alien city. Sedna's realm: Fraser could easily imagine her great body moving silently, powerful, here in the underworld deeps. Or he would have been able to, if not for the steady beep of the sonar, the voices drifting in from the main body of the submarine, and Ray's distracting presence in the seat beside him.

"The Ice Queen and Cyrus Bolt. I mean, I could be wrong, but something about the way she kicked him in the nuts, it looked like a personal kinda gesture to me."

"Ah. Yes." Fraser glanced over his shoulder. Most of the prisoners in the main body had fallen into sullen silence, but Bolt's men had struck up an argument over the relative merits of various automatic weapons, and seemed in generally high spirits, only wincing now and again as they attempted to gesture and were stopped by their handcuffs. Constables Clancy, Rubin, and Trudeau seemed nonplused, but had the situation well in hand; they were unlikely to be interrupted or overheard.

So much for that as an excuse, then.

"Well, as you know, Ray, members of the Bolt family would appear to be much in each other's confidence. I would imagine Cyrus was privy to and expressed certain of Randal Bolt's opinions in regard to the Inspector, and she responded as she deemed appropriate."

"Uh-huh." Ray was quiet for a moment.

It wasn't that Fraser wasn't grateful for his partner's companionship, for as long as he could have it. Capturing Muldoon had been his guiding purpose over the last days, tempered only by the need to keep Ray alive and with him. Now that his mother's killer had been handed off to authority, in the persons and at the insistence of his superior officer and his father's friend, he had only this delivery to make. To the rest of the world, the submarine and the terrorists held prisoner inside were much more significant than one man, however bloody his hands. Fraser mainly was conscious of a great silence in his mind, now, in contrast to the ache of the bruises he'd gathered falling down the mine shaft. The otherworldly black of the waters outside seemed curiously reflective of his state of mind.

"I got to say, I didn't figure Thatcher for handing off the sub for you and me to bring in. I would've thought she'd want to be sitting all posed on the, the stick-uppy hatch thing when it pulled into harbor."

"You and I were the only officers present with experience in handling an underwater craft," Fraser pointed out, wearily. They'd been over this at the time.

"Yeah," said Ray, and quirked a grin. "This time you know where you're going?"

"I suppose I do," said Fraser.

There would be a trial ahead, perhaps several trials. Ray would likely return to Chicago until he was needed to give evidence, which wouldn't take more than a day or two out of his schedule. Fraser would see him then, no doubt. And he...he himself would go where he was told to go, as he had done before.

Inspector Thatcher had been full of enthusiastic predictions about what this capture would mean for her career; perhaps he might request a posting in the Territories. He would be back where he belonged, as though the last three years had never happened.

"You okay?"

He raised his eyebrows at Ray.

"About Muldoon. And the rest of it. You're pretty quiet there, buddy."

There would be a time, soon, when no one would ask him that sort of intrusive question. Fraser imagined it would be very much more peaceful. "It's been a long day."

"Yeah, no kidding."

Another pause, filled with some tuneless humming. Fraser caught only a few of the lyrics Ray was muttering under his breath - 'When you're gone, though I try, how can I carry on?' and they meant nothing to him. And then Ray was twisting around in his seat to face Fraser, legs sprawled out wide and arms folded. "Okay, explain to me again what the guy said to piss off Thatcher? Just, you know. To pass the time here, so I don't have to think. Otherwise I gotta listen to those scumbags back there and seriously, I have had enough assault rifles for one day."

Fraser sighed. "Really, Ray, I could only speculate..."

Ray glanced over his shoulder at the prisoners, still engaged in their own violent debate. "So speculate already."

"I don't want to," he said, and was embarrassed by the childish peevishness of his own tone. He dropped his gaze to the instrument panel in front of him.

In peripheral vision, he could see Ray watching him, thoughtful. "Something happen with you and her?"

"Nothing," said Fraser, "that wasn't always bound to happen. 'Nothing's permanent,'" he repeated to himself.

Ray drummed the underside of his seat, the same rhythm he'd been humming. "Talk to me, Fraser. You're not making sense to me."

"Have I ever?" he asked bitterly.

"Yeah," said Ray. "Yeah, you have. C'mon. Spill."

So Fraser told Ray about the kiss on the train, the world streaming past them, the ground shaky under their feet. (It was by far the least important of the stories he could have told. It occurred to him how seldom he spoke to Ray Kowalski about his own life, as though some part of him always assumed Ray already knew all there was to be known about him.) She had been speaking in such a passionate voice, and he'd felt a jolt of recognition, of longing for...something.

"That's why she was always freaky around you. Good to know. Finally." Ray stretched out his legs before him, and Fraser felt a twinge of longing. Oh, for god's sake. Enough. After everything that had passed now, enough.

"You know. You could try asking."

He froze. No, ridiculous, of course Ray couldn't know. "Asking."

"For what you want. You wrestle bears, you climb mountains. You can't...?" Ray twitched his arms in a gesture indicative of frustration. "Maybe, you know, maybe all you had to do was say it."

(Of course he assumed Ray knew everything. Ray had begun by knowing so much more than Fraser would ever have given him permission to know.) "Say? To Inspector Thatcher?"

"To. To anybody. I know you're not like me..."

"What does that mean?"

"Pissy Mountie. That means you're...you're you, you can do anything. You're so," he drew a deep breath. "So beautiful, you don't even look real. But you..."

Fraser gripped the panel in front of him, his knuckles going white. "That's a terrible thing to say."

"It's...no, it's not. I don't mean that. I mean, you got to get real close to you to get you're real. Most people you don't let that close."

"Do you think you're that close?"

When he dared look over, Ray had tilted his head and wore an odd little smile. "Hey, I don't see so good. First time I saw you you were across the room, big blurry red thing saying my name - by the time I got close enough to look at you, I already had my arms around you."

Fraser's heart made a painful little bump in his chest.

"And you were already being a pain in my ass, by the way. So yeah, I know you're not perfect. I just....do you get anything I'm saying here?"

"I don't..."

"Okay. Okay, fine." Ray slipped out of his chair and kneeled his way over to the side of Fraser's chair. "Look, you don't have to re...recidivate, or nothing. Just. I want you to know." His jaw tightened; he seemed to be trying to steel himself. One hand reached out; Ray's thumb traced hesitantly over Fraser's lips.

Without quite knowing what he did, Fraser caught the hand in one of his own. Ray inhaled sharply, looked down, said, "Yeah, okay." He tried to pull away.

"No, you don't - " Turning the hand back to his face, unclenching it, he dropped a kiss in the palm. He met Ray's eyes again and found them dark.

"You. You got something to say, there, Frase?"

There was a sudden outburst of laughter from the main body of the sub, and Ray's gaze jerked away towards the door. Whatever he saw seemed to reassure him; he turned back with a sheepish smirk. "I really, I just hate those guys."

"Ray."

"Yeah?"

"'As one should bring you cowslips in a hat, swung from the hand -'"

"As who should bring you what?"

"It's a poem, Ray." Laughter was welling up in him, from some hidden pool he'd never known could be plumbed.

"A poem, huh. Cowslips. What's that, that like," Fraser interrupted him with a kiss, "...frilly thing whatshername wears, old cartoons, Ara, Clair, Clarabelle, Clarabelle Cow wears."

"Ray," Fraser managed, fitting in another kiss. Delightful, delicious, annoying...

"Except that's a dress, not a slip, because it's a Disney cartoon, why is that, animals in cartoons always got to be either dressed all the way or naked, like there's no middle ground - "

"Ray." He yanked Ray up and onto his lap, where he straddled Fraser's knees and grinned unrepentantly.

"But you are kinky, Fraser, I did not know that about you, that you're into cartoon cow underwear - "

"Ray."

"Yeah, Fraser?"

Fraser kissed him just as hard as he could, and then pulled back. Ray was panting. "Why," he asked, voice low and rough, "why are you babbling?"

"'Cause," Ray licked his lips. "'Cause guess what? We got ten hours, minimum, and a bunch of nautical miles till we're gonna see anyone else's underslips. Unless you want to give the mooks back there a free show."

Fraser stared at him, then groaned and let his head thud back against his seatback.

"Welcome to love outside of poems," said Ray. And licked a stripe along his jaw.

----

Bibliography (god help me):

1. Caroline plays "Dink's Song."

2. Lines in part 2 are from "Marriage," by Marianne Moore. George Fraser is singing "Tickle Cove Pond."

3. Victoria recites Hopkins' "The Windhover," but you knew that already. Fraser thinks of Donne's "Air and Angels".

4. Referenced poem is "Women," by Louise Bogan.

5. Fraser is getting slashy with Whitman's "I Sing the Body Electric."

6. Fraser thinks of "The Call of the Wild," by Robert Service. Yay canon.

7. Ray is humming Abba's S.O.S., because he is facing death, or at least rejection. Title and Fraser's quoted poem are "Not in a silver casket cool with pearls," by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Water beneath an ice field.

 

 

Clarabelle Cow.

 

Cowslips.

 

Fairytale ---