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After Fortinbras

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Geoffrey knows it's nothing personal. He knows there's no point in yelling "Aidez moi!" at 3 in the morning in a dodgy section of Montreal while he's getting mugged on his way to his car.

He knows putting up a struggle is asking for more trouble.

He knows he should just accept his bad luck and hand over the damn wallet.

He knows he's outnumbered two to one, and he's never been much of a fighter, not when he's sober. Except.

Except, he's worked hard for this money, and the theatre needs it, the company needs it, Ellen needs it, and she's been such a trooper, she has tried so fucking hard right alongside him for the past two years, and he just. No. No, he's not going to simply hand a week's pay over to a couple of thugs. No.

Instead he's crouched inside his heavy winter coat like a beetle on the sidewalk, hunched over his vulnerables while some anonymous asshole kicks him in the ribs, and another alternately smacks at the back of his head and drags at his nearest arm, trying to make him uncurl or let go, and it hurts, and it's fucking terrifying, but still, no.

He fervently hopes they don't get fed up and pull out knives or hockey sticks, he hopes he doesn't end up with a concussion or broken ribs or broken hands, because he won't be able to keep tending bar at Pierre's with broken hands, and goddammit, as humble as it is, he likes this job. But, no. No.

And then someone says something, and the pounding stops, and there's scuffling and grunting and Geoffrey breathes and opens one eye, and cautiously raises his head in time to see a third figure, tall and slender in a long coat, weirdly shadowed in the poor illumination from not enough street lamps, and Jesus, he's fast, is Geoffrey's immediate thought, watching a two-to-one brawl end in under thirty seconds, with the newcomer last man standing.

While Geoffrey's attackers flee, staggering and cursing into the dark, the man in the long coat kneels in front of him. "Y'okay?"

Geoffrey rights himself, groaning a little as he sits up on the sidewalk. He clears his throat, trying to sound as though his whole body isn't quaking with residual fear. "Yeah. Mostly. Thank you."

The blond guy extends a hand toward Geoffrey, a strong hand pulling him to his feet.

The world goes disconcertingly tilty, Newton's law in overdrive. Geoffrey wobbles, and the stranger steadies him with a hand on his shoulder, his brows furrowing deeply as he studies Geoffrey's face. His eyes are huge, and in the uncertain light Geoffrey thinks they might be dark blue.

The newcomer rummages in his pockets, pulls out a pack of cigarettes. His lean face is briefly fire-lit, long hands cupping the flame to the end of his cigarette.

Geoffrey is inclined both by training and by instinct to notice that he has a beautiful mouth.

A stream of cigarette smoke floats off into the chill night as he offers the pack to Geoffrey.

The very thought makes him queasy. "No, but thanks." He winces, feeling a nasty bruise blossoming around his left eye. There are, in fact, nasty bruises blossoming in a lot of places he's sure to regret later. Hell, he's going to be practically paralyzed in the morning. "Um... I'm Geoffrey. Geoffrey Tennant."

"Ray."

Geoffrey rubs gingerly at his ribs, most of the damage throbbing there on the left. Ow. Fuck. He wishes his heart would quit racing, but he's probably got enough adrenaline in his bloodstream at the moment to cold start a Studebaker. "If you don't mind me asking, where'd you learn to hit like that?"

Ray flashes him a feral grin. Honest to God, Ray's is a truly beautiful mouth. It's a little unsettling.

"High school," he says. Then Ray tosses his half-finished cigarette on the ground, crushes it without bothering to check where it landed, and closes the space between them.

Ray grasps the lapel of Geoffrey's coat in one hand, and pulls him forward, so easily Geoffrey hardly realizes he's moving until Ray is kissing him, and what surprises him, what makes him gasp a little and close his eyes and open for this stranger is the gentleness of it. Ray's lips are cool and soft, and he tastes bitter from the tobacco. His tongue darts into Geoffrey's mouth, just enough to make him shiver, and then Ray mouths at Geoffrey's lower lip as he's pulling away, and he licks his own lips and lets Geoffrey go. And all the while, he keeps staring into Geoffrey's face as though trying to decide whether he's real.

Geoffrey blinks and swallows. "Uh..."

Ray closes his eyes briefly, murmurs, "Sorry. Sorry," and then he turns, hefts a large rucksack from the sidewalk onto his shoulder, and walks away.

"Ray," Geoffrey calls softly, running on instinct, on the memory of being haunted. "Ray, who were you kissing, just now?"

Ray's shoulders hunch up and he ducks his head away from the question, distinctly less heroic than a minute ago. He stops, and turns back, looking weary, as a man ought to in the darkest hours of the night. "I'm sorry," he says again.

"I understand. Well, not entirely, but..."

"Look," Ray offers, "d'you want me to walk with you to... wherever. I promise I won't..." Ray gestures with one hand. "You don't have to worry."

Geoffrey catches up to him in a few strides. "I'm not worried." He points to his broken down little red hatchback waiting at the curb around the corner. "This is mine. Can I give you a lift anywhere?"

Ray eyes the car, gives Geoffrey a long, evaluating look. "You sure you wanna let some strange guy into the car with you?"

"We'll be lucky if it starts at all," Geoffrey confesses.

Ray holds out one hand. "Gimme the keys."

And Geoffrey does.

 

They tried not to wake her when they came home, Geoffrey and his stranger, but though Ellen is accustomed to Geoffrey's Thursday through Saturday night schedule, last night she was awake and inexplicably fretful, and she heard the sad coughing and wheezing of Geoffrey's little red car as it lurched and ground its gears into the dilapidated parking lot below their apartment. When a second voice joined Geoffrey's she decided she might as well get up and see who Geoffrey had brought home.

When Geoffrey walked through the door looking like Banquo's ghost, Ellen's first response was to yelp, "Oh my God, Geoffrey, what happened?" and throw herself into his arms, except that she didn't - throw herself into his arms, that is. It was pretty obvious that any kind of hugging wasn't going to be welcome.

Ellen pours herself a second cup of coffee. Last night she was both angry with Geoffrey for getting himself beaten half unconscious over a stupid week's pay from the bar, and proud of him for being so brave. This morning, she's mostly proud of him. It always seems to work out that way.

She sits down opposite Ray, who is spooning a remarkable amount of sugar into his coffee. He sips blissfully. "I can fix that engine for you," he says. "Tranny could use some work, too."

Ellen shakes her head. "We can't pay you." She places Ray's age at close to her own, his jaw rimed with pale beard stubble, his face weathered by some fresh grief.

Ray negotiates, "If you can buy the parts, I can do the work. I know I kinda look like a hobo, but I'm not hurting for cash."

"No, you don't," Ellen corrects. "Look like a hobo, I mean. Jeez, I count it a victory if I can get Geoffrey to comb his hair."

Ray snorts and smiles into his coffee cup.

He has beautiful eyes, Ellen thinks, dark blue and luminous. When she first walked out of the bedroom this morning, he was standing in the light by the kitchen window, toying with the petals of a bouquet of white roses on the small table. The sound of her footstep on the old hardwood floor startled him, and as he turned toward her the morning light slanted across his face in such a way that the lines around his mouth stood out starkly, and all of the color washed out of his eyes, leaving them pale grey and cold as frost on the window glass. It unnerved her, remembering what Geoffrey had told her, that this man was one to strike hard, strike fast, no regrets.

Then he shifted away from the light, and all the blue and the warmth flooded back into his eyes, and Ray stood shy as a teenager on a first date, and he said, "Uh, hi. Good morning," and almost knocked over the roses with his elbow in his haste to shove his hands into his pockets.

"I didn't mean to snoop," Ellen confesses, "but your back pack was open. You carry a lot of books."

"Journals," he corrects quietly.

Ellen is on the verge of apologizing and changing the subject when he continues, "They're Benton's. My, um... My partner, he started keeping a journal during this, during this big adventure we had back in the beginning, way up in the Territories, that's where he's, where he was from, and he kept 'em ever since, and I didn't want to leave 'em in an empty cabin while I go walkabout."

Ellen has played too many tragedies not to be able to fill in the words unspoken, not to guess the gist. "You loved him very much."

"We built our own house. Built it together." Ray's smile makes Ellen ache inside, it reminds her so sharply of how Geoffrey looks at her sometimes. She's never gotten used to it.

Ray toys with the salt shaker for a moment, then offers, "I do a pretty good mess of scrambled eggs. My porridge is blue ribbon. Let me cook?"

"I'm a terrible cook," Ellen allows.

 

Geoffrey is tired, and he's achy, and feeling righteously sorry for himself, huddled deep within his rumpled nest of bed linens. He is reluctant to leave the comfort of his and Ellen's bed and this pleasant, self-pitying wallow to go out and face the bright light of day, and all that movement that daylight tends to expect. Nope. Staying right here. Although, that coffee smells pretty damn good. Crap.

Ellen comes into their bedroom and crouches next to the bed, her touch soft on his forehead. "Hi."

"Hi."

"How are you doing?"

"I got mugged. It was scary, and all of me hurts, a lot."

"There's coffee," Ellen invites.

"Could you bring me some?"

"Nope. You have to get up, or you'll fossilize. I have to go. I promised to help Nahum figure out which current disaster area to try to turn into the green room, and then Cyril and Frank and I need to hunt for a gazillian yards of cheap curtain fabric."

"I thought we'd decided on that old office on the north side."

"You know why the windows are broken in that room?"

"'Cause someone threw a rock through them?"

"'Cause someone rammed a car into the wall. It needs to be partially knocked out and re-built."

Geoffrey groans, "Ahh, fuck."

"Sorry. I asked Ray to stay and keep an eye on you. You should talk to him. He knows how to build stuff. We can use someone who actually knows how to build stuff."

"We can't pay--"

"He knows. Geoffrey, I think he needs us."

He can't help teasing, "When'd you start going all den mothery?"

"Smart ass."

"No, I like it."

"Just talk to him, will you? I have to go." She stands, bends to kiss Geoffrey gently, adding, "I opened the child-proof cap on the ibuprofen for you."

"Thanks." He watches her disappear, listens to small talk between her and Ray in the living room, and then the sound of the apartment door opening and shutting. He makes a grumpy noise into the pillow.

"Hey," says Ray's silhouette.

Geoffrey squints at the narrow shape of him. "You're going to stick around for while, I hope?"

"I need to check the oil in your crappy car before Ellen drives it, but I'll be back, okay?"

Not really what Geoffrey meant, but, "Okay."

By the time Ray comes back Geoffrey has washed his teeth, made a desultory attempt at combing his hair, swallowed three weirdly orange pain pills, and he's sprawled on the sofa in his shorts and his bath robe, meditating on his coffee as though it contains all the secrets of the universe.

Ray washes grease from his hands at the kitchen sink and then stands with his hands shoved into his blue jeans pockets, looking lost. Geoffrey regards him with a director's eye, watching him for the first time properly illuminated and up close without that big coat around him. He'd say Ray is skinny, but that's a term that implies a certain weakness, and there's nothing weak about the long, cable muscles rolling beneath the pale skin of Ray's arms as he fidgets. Ray is all long arms, and long legs, and nervous energy. There's that springy grace that Geoffrey recalls in quick moments of half-lit violence from the night before. His stance is instinctively wary, like an animal. Geoffrey wonders if he realizes it.

"Sit?" Geoffrey offers.

Ray takes a quick breath, nods and sits on the floor, leaning back against the front of the sofa.

Which, again, not exactly what Geoffrey meant, but he doesn't quibble.

Geoffrey finishes his coffee and sets the cup on the floor, grunting as his ribs twinge. "You never told me where you learned to fight the way you do." He lets himself list to one side, making himself reasonably comfortable along the cushions. He has a cock-eyed view from here of Ray's profile.

"Sure I did. What's it got to do with anything, anyway?"

Ray scratches at his upper arm, and doesn't look at Geoffrey. Ray's scratching reveals a black and red tattoo on his arm that Geoffrey can't see enough of to read.

"Who were you before I met you, Ray?"

Ray shrugs, "Lots of people."

Not the answer Geoffrey expected. Perhaps he should learn to expect that. He prods, "Are you a con artist? Maybe an actor?"

Ray hesitates, then he closes his eyes and he smiles, bittersweet. "I was," he tells Geoffrey, "a skinny Polish kid with glasses in a workin' class neighborhood in Chicago. I was Stella's husband, for a while. I was a Chicago cop, for a while. I was the friend and partner of Sergeant Benton Fraser, Royal Canadian Mounted Police. And then I was his husband, and he was mine."

Geoffrey grunts, "Huh."

"Problem?" Ray's shoulders tense alarmingly.

"No, no. Just... Is that who you thought I was last night?"

Ray squirms and turns, all elbows and knees. The sleeve of his t-shirt pulls up high toward his shoulder. 'Champion,' the red and black tattoo reads. Ray stares at Geoffrey with those big, dark blue eyes, and something terrible passes behind them, and he says, "Yes. Okay? Just for a minute there, in the dark I imagined I could touch someone who isn't on this planet anymore. I got a little confused. Crazy American. I'm sorry. Won't happen again."

Geoffrey grimaces, "Ah, hell. I'm sorry, Ray," and reaches out to graze one bony shoulder with his fingertips. "And I don't think you're crazy. Honestly, I'd be the last person."

Ray turns away, rubbing quickly at his eyes. "You ever think you saw a ghost?"

"Please, don't get me started," Geoffrey grumbles, before he can catch himself.

Ray gives him a bemused smile and lolls back against the sofa. "Okay, I won't ask."

In the silence, Geoffrey restrains his urge to run his hand over the disarrayed spikes of Ray's hair. It glints like wheat straw in the daylight.

"There was a moment," Ray confesses, "when he'd… when he'd first gone, just slipped away from me, and I hadn't told anybody, I thought about seeing if I could follow, if I could catch up to him, y'know? Open the door, all the windows, lie down beside what the cancer'd left behind and just let the winter take me to wherever Fraser was."

Geoffrey swallows hard, his brain racing through a dozen quotes - poems, plays, sonnets - and landing hard at I am more an antique Roman than a Dane. He takes a slow breath. "But you didn't." It occurs to him that he does not want to be Ray's haint. They've both endured enough of that.

"Nah. He woulda been mad at me, doin' myself in, when he wanted so hard to hang on. And then I almost burned down the cabin with him in it, you know, like a Viking funeral without the ship… but it's our cabin. We built it, and I'm not ready to let it go yet."

"So here you are," Geoffrey observes, and he's already worrying that his next move will be the wrong one, because he's suddenly running on emotion, his mind full of fire and the kind of love that burns through centuries, and he knows from experience it's a crap-shoot for results when he's this way.

"Yep, here I am."

"What if... what if you were to find a place to settle down? Someone who needed you?"

Ray rolls his head sideways, frowning at Geoffrey. "You think I'm some kind of refugee?"

Geoffrey snorts, "Christ, Ray, we're all refugees around here. A bunch of lunatics taking shelter in an asylum of our own making. I doubt it's escaped your attention that this building could use some work."

"Ellen says you're trying to turn it into a theatre. Three times the charm."

"What's that?"

"You all got fired from that fancy place where you used to be big actors. New Baggage, or whatever. Then you got kicked out of the last two places you rented 'cause you were broke. Hence, I'm thinkin', your preference last night for getting your head kicked in rather than hand over your wallet. Understandable, but kinda stupid there, Geoff."

"Don't call me Geoff. And yes, my wife said the same thing."

"I like her," Ray says. "I like Ellen. Except I think maybe she can read my mind."

"Yeah, she's creepy that way." Geoffrey squirms on the sofa, making himself less uncomfortable. "Of course, we have no money and no experience--"

"Gee, really?"

"--so anyone who actually knows what the hell he's doing and isn't terribly concerned with being paid regular wages would be especially welcome."

"Huh." Ray scowls toward the kitchen. "I could turn out to be some kinda psycho-killer," he reasons.

"If you're a psycho-killer you let a perfect opportunity pass you by last night," Geoffrey replies logically. "And believe me, you wouldn't have been the first to have been tempted."

"Bastard when you're feeling better, huh?"

"This is not my first black eye."

Ray barks a laugh, a good, clear sound.

Geoffrey suggests, and here's the rub, here's the fucking play, "Kiss me again, Ray."

Ray frowns at him. "How's that?"

"Kiss me," Geoffrey encourages. "Right here, in the daylight, no ghosts. Say my name when you do it."

Ray twists up onto his knees, and rests his forearms along the front of the cushion, peering intently into Geoffrey's face. "This some kinda exo-voodoo thing?"

Geoffrey blinks at his nearness, unsettled by the sudden heat of him. "Exorcism? Only of this illusion, not of your memories. Those I expect you'll want to keep."

Ray regards Geoffrey silently, his eyes narrowed in thought. Geoffrey feels as though he has waded into a depth far over his head, the familiar thrill and terror of a great story waiting to be told. He has no idea how this one will end. He watches Ray sifting through the possibilities.

"'Kay. Yeah," Ray murmurs at last. "Yeah, I get that."

Geoffrey scoots forward, leaning toward the precipice. "So kiss me, Ray."

And Ray does.