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Under A Blackened Sky

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It started in a bar in the long daylight, where the bulbs were dim and the air smoky, at the precise moment when Geoffrey spat a full mouthful of liquid over a total stranger.

The man jerked backwards, slipping off his stool, and batted ineffectually at his face. The front of his hair was soaking. "You..." he began, but Geoffrey sighed, set his expression into a hooded-eyed mask, equal parts certainty and delusion, and rolled up his sleeves, slowly, deliberately, so the needle tracks were visible.

"...fucker!" the man finished and scrambled away from the bar as fast as possible.

Geoffrey sighed, again, and went back to his drink. It still tasted wrong. Waving a careless hand in the general direction of the bar, he thought about it, and by the time the bartender came close, he'd figured it out. "This isn't what I ordered."

The bartender peered at him through the slow curls of cigarette smoke, wafting around between the meeting of their eyes. Geoffrey hadn't been allowed to smoke in a while and the cravings had died in his blood, but he recognised the nuances of the scent, the way it clung. "Didn't you?" asked the bartender slowly. And then, suddenly, "No, you didn't. You... didn't."

He took a step back, his hands fluttering through the fog. "That guy," he said, nodding behind him, "that guy. He looks – I mean, he ordered..."

But after that his voice started becoming fuzzy and static, and faded into an absence of sound. Geoffrey frowned to himself and stood up with care, shifting a plastic packet into his pocket. There was a reasonable sequence of logic here, he thought; clearly, if he had taken a mouthful of mineral water and spat it over an unsuspecting patron, there was someone on the other side of the bar dripping in undrunk Scotch. Pleased with the conclusion, he picked up the glass, walked unsteadily around the place, passing the windows and the swathes of snow, grey cloud beyond, and settled in a seat next to a man staring at a drink in mute fascination.

"Not yours, is it?" Geoffrey asked, and was treated to a flash of blue eyes and a startled expression. And then he knew he was wearing a startled expression of his own, because it was like looking into... something. Not a mirror. More like a forest pool, reflection blurred with the past, water and sky.

"No," said the stranger. "But I'd make a guess that it was yours."

His voice was quiet, and less familiar than his eyes. He swirled it around, once, and handed it to Geoffrey, who took a sip and immediately felt better. He looked up to find the stranger watching, quiet and still. "The resemblance is certainly striking," he murmured. "Would you care to sit down?"

Obligingly, Geoffrey sat in the stool next to him and waved at the bartender again. "Mineral water, please," he called, and motioned to the other glass. "You don't want this, I may have spat in it."

"Thank you," said the stranger, now sounding cautiously amused. "I suppose that the bartender was simply bamboozled by the resemblance and exchanged our two orders."

Geoffrey smiled, slowly. "I didn't think people actually used the word 'bamboozled.'"

"I can produce a synonym if it offends you." Still that note of cautious amusement. "'Flummoxed' is a good one."

"Perplexed," Geoffrey said. "Confounded. Mystified."

"Confused," said the stranger. He took his glass of water from the bartender and drank half of it. "People are often confused."

Geoffrey nodded. "I'm often confused." He mirrored the movement, drinking some of the Scotch. "Very often. Do you have a name?"

The stranger looked guardedly at him. "Are you wondering, perhaps, if we may be somehow distantly related?"

Geoffrey shook his head, feeling oddly disconnected from the world. "I just wanted to know your name."

"Benton Fraser," was the reply, and the words were self-contained, cold, Geoffrey thought. It wasn't a name that had been called and shouted, whispered, murmured, screamed into the night. Without the resonance of use, it was something like an identifying card on an artefact, a scribble in the margin of the dramatis personae.

Geoffrey wasn't very good at articulating his thoughts, these days. "Is that what your mother calls you?" he asked, and the disconnection persisted, something to do with this stranger who stayed strange even when labelled.

"Ah, no." He looked embarrassed. "My mother called me Ben." For a moment he sat less straight on his stool, stared less intently at Geoffrey and more at the glass.

"I'm sorry," Geoffrey said.

"What for?"

"Your mother. Past tense."

"Oh." He was still slouching, but he looked into Geoffrey's eyes. The effect was disconcerting, mesmeric; it reminded Geoffrey of protagonist and antagonist in cocooning spotlight, darkness and audience all around. Disconnect, he thought; no-one left in the smoke to answer the phone. "Er... thank you."

"My mother died recently," Geoffrey went on, dreamily. "I didn't go to the funeral, due to my being unavoidably detained at the time."

"Unavoidably detained?" Ben – he was going to call him Ben, Geoffrey had decided – had moved backwards a few seconds in the conversation, gone back to stiff, cautious. "Sir... I'm sorry, I don't know your name. But before you speak freely, I think you should know that I'm part of the RCMP."

Geoffrey frowned until the acronym clicked, and then he laughed, delightedly. "You're a Mountie?"

Simply: "Yes."

"It's a good name for a Mountie." It wasn't a label on a historical artefact, Geoffrey decided; it was historical, a symbol. "And," he added, smiling, "I wasn't in prison. It was the other type of unavoidably detained."

"The other type – oh." He got it. He looked at Geoffrey with slow-burning flickers of understanding. "Sir, I think you and I may be related after all."

Geoffrey laughed. "I have a name, too. My mother called me Geoffrey."

"And your friends?"

"I don't have any, right now." Geoffrey thought about that. "I have lovers, colleagues, distant relations. I have doctors and therapists. I have" – he was floundering, looking behind him, through the smoke and through the snow – "I have Canada, I suppose."

"I have Canada, too." Ben Fraser seemed very, very certain about that; he had the gleam in his eyes Geoffrey had seen in the mirror, sometimes. "I don't live here now, though."

"You left the motherland?" Geoffrey asked, half-ironically, and he was surprised; it was difficult, in the atmosphere of smoke and alcohol, to play his usual game of directing, casting, tying the world into narrative. He'd been good at it – he and Oliver and Ellen had played to type all the way through, shining nova-bright, with that same intensity of destruction, and later, the doctors, the nurses, the drugs, they had all made a sterile spectacle of their own, an ecosystem of an institution, drama against a white background. Here, in the smoke, he saw this stranger who looked like him against a backdrop of space, sky, blue expanses; stories of snow, of arctic exploration bubbled up, unbidden, into his mind. It was a vivid image, clear as ice. He supposed it was the drugs.

Fraser nodded. "I went to Chicago on the trail of the killers of my father."

"That sounds like the start of a story," Geoffrey said before he could stop himself. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be." Ben grinned, and the change was startling, the resemblance at once more and less pronounced; he had more of Geoffrey's spark, less of his wariness. "I occasionally wonder to myself, after dark, how events could possibly have come to transpire as they did."

"I know," Geoffrey said, softly. "Believe me, I know." And he understood that, real life as brutal and cold, without theme or beauty, and he placed a gentle hand on Ben's arm.

"I come from," and his voice was like Geoffrey's now, with those same low soliloquy tones, "the far, far north. The land I know best is cold, bleak and either endlessly dark or endlessly light. There are stories told about that place, and they rarely have happy endings."

Geoffrey said, "You can start a new page." He grinned. "I'm getting out of here," and it was the first time he'd said it out loud, to himself, to anyone, "and I'm heading south, to Toronto, and I'm going to start my own theatre company, and it's going to be a new story. With some of the same characters."

He was standing up as he said it, pushing the stool back and finishing off the drink, because something like that, a lurch forward in the narrative, needed a physical movement to mirror it, something to ground it in the here and now. To his surprise, Ben was following him, quietly reaching for his jacket and laying down his glass. Together they were walking towards the door, the late daylight coming in cold and icy. Geoffrey saw his breath steam out, a warm cloud of nothing beneath the huge sky.

Something about Ben's expression cleared, then; or, at least, it became impenetrable in a different way. "You're Geoffrey Tennant, aren't you?"

Geoffrey raised his eyebrows. "You heard of me in Chicago?"

"I was visiting home at the time." Fraser looked embarrassed. "Mostly, I heard of your... performance. That it was quite something. And then, the rest of the story was, was incidental."

Geoffrey had a strange, unaccountable urge to hug him. He paused, turning a circle on the grey paving stones, looking at the sky, and didn't do it. "Thank you."

Fraser nodded. "How long," he began and stopped. "When did you," he tried again.

Geoffrey took pity on him. "They let me out about a month ago," he said cheerfully, "on several conditions. Number one of which was, I shouldn't drink."

Ben looked concerned, amused, something else indefinable, in equal proportions. "But you…"

"I try not to," Geoffrey said, still cheerfully. "But I was – I mean, I am an actor. It's how we remind ourselves that all the world's not a stage. You" – he stopped, made an expansive, world-encompassing gesture to bring in sky and snow and horizon – "you know that it's so much... more. So much bigger than that."

Ben nodded. "It's cold out there. Big and cold." He paused and his voice changed. "Do you smoke?"

Geoffrey dug into his pocket and pulled out a packet of cigarettes, unopened. "I don't know," he said honestly. "I did. And my girlfriend – she did. And then I didn't, because I couldn't, and now...."

"Me neither." Ben smiled at him and took the packet from his hand. Quickly, efficiently, so Geoffrey barely saw the flame, he opened it, lit a cigarette, held it out. Geoffrey took it, handed it back, blew out.

The smoke rose, a screen between them and the sky. They walked together beneath the clouds.