"Fraser, I took three weeks off work, and we're gonna rebuild that damn cabin if it's the last thing we do, so pack up your rucksack and the mutt and let's go," Ray had said, and we had.
Of course, it wasn't quite that simple. I did have a fairly serious head wound and a fortunately much less serious concussion, which nonetheless required a night's observation in the nearest hospital. After that, there was the call to the closest RCMP outpost, requesting that they come pick up the remains of what had once been a determined--if aerially challenged--criminal. After that, there were three days occupied mostly with Ray demanding that various governmental and law enforcement bodies retrieve his luggage from the wreckage of the plane, and those bodies steadfastly refusing, and me sitting nearby with a poultice on my head while I drank my fill of water and Ray watched me out of the corner of his eye.
But after that, we packed our things--or what was left of them, in Ray's case--and went.
This time, our travel was miraculously uneventful, but the sight that greeted us as we came over the final ridge onto my father's property made the plane crash seem like a minor jolt in comparison. The blackened remains of the cabin stuck up from the landscape like a broken tooth. I thought I'd prepared myself--after all, I'd seen the cabin destroyed once before--but my heart began to thud painfully, and I had to stop walking, my knees gone weak. Dief pressed himself against my thigh like a warm, furry buttress.
"You okay?" Ray asked after a minute. Over the rushing in my ears, I felt rather than heard him moving closer, the heat from his body radiating out to the edges of mine.
I took a deep breath, then another. "I'm fine, Ray, thank you. Let's go."
Staff Sergeant Mears had been true to his word, and some work had obviously been done to clear the area, but I suspected they'd stopped when they'd found the box full of money. It was understandable; the law was the priority. Still, seeing the job half done was somehow worse than if they hadn't come at all--it just added to the dissonance, and walking across what had once been the threshold, I couldn't help wondering: what had she touched, here? Where did it start?
"You know, Benny, we don't have to--"
"It's all right, Ray." He was close again, just over my shoulder. I let myself rest in that for a moment, then touched his arm briefly and leaned down to pick up the what was left of the bench from the dining table. "Let's get to work."
When I announced that it was time for dinner, Ray straightened from the pile of debris he'd accumulated and squinted up at the sky. "Dinner? Fraser, it's broad daylight."
I squinted up, too, making sure I'd measured the angle of the sun correctly. Or at least assuring Ray that I was making sure. Of course, I could have just consulted the watch on Ray's wrist, but that would have been disappointing for both of us. "We're quite a bit further north than you're accustomed to, Ray," I explained. "On the summer solstice, the sun never sets at all in some parts of the Yukon. Here, at this time of year, we won't see sunset till after eleven o'clock."
"Huh." Ray braced his hands on the small of his back and arched backward with a quiet groan. He was covered in soot and dirt, but the curve of his exposed neck made my stomach tighten nonetheless. "Light all the time. Kids must love that."
"It does make for some lengthy games of hide-and-seek." Forcing my eyes away from him, I surveyed the area around us. Ray's pile of charred wood and metal was one of several, sitting like lopsided cairns around the husk of the house. Still, even that measure of order was a balm to the dull ache in my chest. We'd even set up the tent already, at Ray's insistence--"Fraser, I'm not gonna be any good for origami by the end of this day, believe me"--and it sat like a small red oasis just at the perimeter of the yard. "It's a good day's work."
"Yeah." Ray gave me a wry smile. "Now just about thirty more of those and we'll be done."
I smiled back. I'd known from the beginning that Ray's estimate had been low, but I hadn't cared--he only had so much leave time, and if we didn't finish now, I could always come back before winter set in. It was a beginning; that was what mattered. "Come on. I'll cook."
"No offense, Benny, but at this point, that's more of a threat than a promise. I'm still having grub flashbacks." Ray shuddered theatrically.
"All right," I replied, "then you should cook."
Ray looked at me for a few seconds, surprised, then snorted with laughter. "Walked right into that one. Man, you'd think I'd have learned by now."
"You'd think," I agreed cheerfully, and set off to retrieve my cooking gear.
"You sure this is a two-man tent?" Ray shifted on his bedroll, bumping against me at shoulder blade and backbone.
He shifted again. "You positive?"
And again. "Because I'm just wondering if maybe you somehow got it confused, you know, and maybe this is supposed to be a one-man tent, and anything left over is supposed to be for, you know, padding, so you don't end up with rocks stabbing up into vital portions of your kidneys..."
I took advantage of our positions to smile, unseen, at the tent wall. It was a peculiar trait of Ray's that he could carry me on his back through unfamiliar territory for hours without complaint--even with something resembling dogged good cheer--yet minor discomforts inspired a full-length monologue of grievances. I supposed it was evidence of my own peculiarity that I'd come to find such monologues oddly comforting. As long as Ray was complaining, things seemed paradoxically right with the world. "We could sleep outside if you'd prefer," I offered. "It's certainly warm enough."
"Oh, no," Ray answered immediately. "I don't wanna get eaten alive by caribou."
I felt my smile widen. "Caribou aren't known for their taste for human flesh, Ray."
"Yeah, well, lots of things aren't known for lots of things around you, Fraser, and they happen anyway, so I'm not taking any chances."
"Your caution is commendable."
"Thank you." Silence for a moment, then a flurry of rustling and nudging, culminating in a firm poke to the small of my back. "I can't sleep. It's too light."
I rolled over and regarded my friend. Or rather, my friend's black-and-magenta-striped silk sleep mask. "I'm sorry, but despite my apparent potential to inspire caribou to devour us, I can't do much about diurnal motion."
Ray pulled the mask away from his face and blinked in the light. "So he admits he has limits. It's an Easter miracle."
"Easter was over a month ago, Ray," I pointed out.
"Like I said: it's a miracle."
"Ah." There was no need to hide the smile this time, because Ray was smiling, too. I was acutely aware of Ray's proximity, of the tempting shape of his mouth and the rise and fall of his chest, just scant inches away. And truth be told, this was why I'd insisted on the tent, even though it had been far too long since I'd voluntarily slept under the stars; after everything we'd been through, I wanted Ray close. Not that I intended to take advantage of the situation in any way--though the urge was stronger than ever, I'd had extensive practice at resisting it, and for the moment, I was grateful enough for Ray's continued friendship that that I wouldn't risk upsetting our tenuous balance by asking for more. But I was greedy enough to ask for this: sharing Ray's warmth, sharing his air. To sleep and wake and know that I hadn't lost everything after all. That much, for the time being, I couldn't seem to deny myself.
Suddenly Ray let the sleep mask snap back into place, and rolled over again. "Sun never sets," he muttered. "And you call yourself a civilized country."
"Actually, we call ourselves a civilized country because we have a long and proud history of art and culture from the people of the First Nations, which has since been melded with--"
"--the influence of the Vikings, of Basque fishermen, of the European settlers who arrived here in approximately--"
"All right, all right, I give! I'll go to sleep." He burrowed deeper into the blankets. "Jeez, I thought the Mounties didn't go in for torture."
I grinned. "Good night, Ray."
"Only by a very generous definition," Ray sighed.
He must have been more tired from our exertions than he'd let on, though, because it wasn't long before his breathing lengthened and his body relaxed against mine. I let my own spine curve outward, eliminating the last of the space between us. A quick glance revealed that Diefenbaker was still outside the tent; his solid bulk made the tent wall concave at our feet, and I could feel heat radiating through the thin fabric. I breathed deep and closed my eyes.
Unsurprisingly, I woke before Ray did in the morning. I briefly considered rousing him, but given his relatively recent wound and the work we had ahead of us, I changed my mind and left him snoring faintly on his bedroll. When I emerged from the tent, I discovered that Dief had already been hunting--his whiskers were dotted with bits of kibble.
"Found the stash, did you?" I asked with a sigh. Dief just wagged his tail unrepentantly. "You know," I told him, "there was a time when you would have seized the opportunity to snare a nice, tasty rabbit." Of course, there'd been a time when I would have seized the opportunity for solitude instead of insisting on sharing a small tent with a friend, but still. I was sure--fairly sure, anyway--that Dief's newfound habits were more potentially detrimental than mine.
But further discussion had to be tabled when Dief raised his head, gave two short, low warning barks, and then bounded off behind me. When I turned, all I could see at first was red serge bright against the sky, and the shock of it hit me directly in the solar plexus, stealing my breath away. For some reason I hadn't thought... it hadn't even occurred to me that... but the procession of red and gold wove steadily toward me, four figures moving with varying degrees of grace across the brush, and eventually my vision cleared enough to recognize my father's old friend Charlie Underhill at the front of the line. Which explained the serge, even in the field; Underhill was a great believer in the value of ceremony and symbols. He smiled and waved at me as they approached.
"Hello, the house!"
Dief was trotting next to him, bouncing with excitement.
"Sir," I said, my heart still thudding hard against my ribs. I felt horribly exposed, out of uniform and with the ruined house behind me.
"It's good to see you, Fraser." The Superintendent offered me his hand, and I took it automatically.
"Good to see you, too, sir. Though I must admit, it's something of a surprise." The last time I'd seen Underhill, I'd been standing outside a courthouse, and he'd told me I was the last of a breed. It was possible he knew about... recent events; it was equally possible he had no idea. I wasn't sure which I was hoping for.
Underhill gestured at the remains of the house. "We heard from your pilot that you'd come to clean the place up, and we thought we'd lend a hand." He shook his head. "Terrible shame, what that woman did. Did you catch her?"
So he didn't know. I hesitated, then simply said, "She escaped." It felt uncomfortably close to a lie, and Underhill deserved better from me, as my superior and my sometime ally, but I couldn't just blurt out the entire lurid tale over coffee and hardtack. Not that I had either of those ready at the moment, and I was just about to offer my apologies when Ray's sleep-rough voice broke the silence.
"What, did you send up the Bat-signal?" He was standing next to the open tent flap, rubbing at the back of his neck with one hand.
"Detective Vecchio," said Underhill. "Welcome back to the Territories."
"Thank you, sir," Ray replied. He flicked a questioning glance at me, then came forward to shake Underhill's hand. "You guys the reinforcements?"
"Something like that," Underhill told him. He turned to indicate the three officers flanking him--two female, one male. None of them looked more than twenty-five. "Constables McClure, Callaway, and Wydword. Constables, meet Detective Ray Vecchio of the Chicago Police Department, and Constable Benton Fraser."
He pronounced the name with an emphasis that had touched me when he'd been speaking of my father, and had encouraged me when I'd been standing alone outside that courthouse; hearing it applied to me now made it difficult to stand still, like when I'd stumbled into the house as a child with my wool sweater sopping wet with slush, and my grandmother had made me wait, cold and itching, while she fetched a towel to keep me from dripping on the rug. My shoulders twitched involuntarily, though I managed a wordless nod to my fellow constables, who were staring at me with an unsettling combination of reverence and fear.
Ray's eyes found me again, another of those quick, confused looks, before he extended his hand to each of the constables in turn. "Good to meet ya." I recognized his tone immediately: the Obnoxious American tone, and even after over a year as his partner, I still wasn't entirely sure how much of it was an act. But all their wide-eyed attention went to him as he continued, "I hope you all know how to swing a hammer, 'cause we got a lot of daylight to work with, here, but my lieutenant'll have my hide if I'm not back in two weeks, and at this rate, we're gonna be done in about two years. C'mon, that's it, pick up a charred stump, don't be shy, there's more than enough to go around..." And just like that, he'd ushered them all away.
Underhill was watching the proceedings with eyebrows raised. I gave him my blandest Don't Mind the Obnoxious American smile.
"Shall we?" I offered, extending an arm toward what had just become the work site.
"Apparently," he answered dryly. He was still shaking his head slightly when he moved in to keep Wydword from braining Callaway with an unwieldy piece of pipe.
"Can I give you a hand with that, sir?" McClure offered, lending a shoulder as I struggled to shift a particularly heavy beam that had fallen across the stove.
It was midday, and we'd made excellent progress: Underhill had been called away after only an hour or two, and Dief--as was his wont when there was work to be done--had conveniently disappeared, but between the rest of us, we'd managed to clear most of the area, and even select a few trees that looked likely for building. Now Wydword and Callaway had gone to fetch a truck to begin hauling away what remained of the unsalvageable debris, and to ferry the felled trees back to our worksite.
Ray had gone with them. He and Callaway--a pretty woman with a loud laugh and a sardonic smile--seemed to have developed something of a rapport. I'd heard Ray regaling her with tales of his exploits, which she seemed to take with the appropriate handful of salt, and had even offered a few stories of her own in return. She was apparently originally from Toronto, and her mother was American, so her stories involved less in the way of metaphors and more in the way of semi-automatic weapons than mine usually did. Given that Ray seemed to have very little time these days for making connections outside of myself and his family, it was good to see someone new appreciate his better qualities.
It was good.
"Sir?" McClure said.
I realized I had thrown the beam to the ground with more force than was absolutely necessary.
"Thank you, Constable," I told him, briskly--and uselessly--rubbing the dirt from my palms and trying to catch my breath.
"Sir," McClure repeated. "If you don't mind me asking.... Your father built this cabin, right?"
I nodded. My memory of that time--it was not long after my mother's death--was vague, but there were some clear images. Dad scouring the nearby forest for the strongest trees, pacing off the enclosure for the dogs, hammering his thumb and swearing a blue streak before he noticed me watching him, then trying to convince me he hadn't been swearing, he'd been speaking in Inuit.
I'd believed him. Or I'd wanted to. I'd always wanted to believe him.
"My father used to talk about your father all the time," McClure went on. His eyes were hazel and shining, and his cheeks were flushed. All day, I could tell he'd been leading up to something, staying near, offering to help with the slightest task. "He used to say that Bob Fraser could track a tern across an ice field and never take a false step."
I held in a snort, torn between pride in Dad's memory and hope that he wasn't hanging around somewhere, listening--I'd never hear the end of it. "Well, your father sounds like a very kind man."
McClure's earnest gaze slid away. "He was..." He hesitated, then, with forced good cheer, "Well. That doesn't matter. What matters is that he talked about your father all the time. Was posted with him near Haines Junction for a few years, and he never forgot it. And then I joined the RCMP, and got posted here, and Superintendent Underhill talks about you all the time. Do you think that's coincidence?"
I blinked, and my hand went up automatically to adjust my collar. Only I had no collar, just the open curve of the Henley, the fabric stiff with sweat and dirt. I dropped my hand back to my side. "I don't know," I answered finally. "What do you think it is?"
"I don't know," McClure said. "But... I just figure it has to mean something, right? And... and I just wanted you to know." Then he squared his shoulders. "I'm going to go make sure the axes are sharp enough," and he was off across the yard.
Dinner was something of an awkward affair, at least as far as I was concerned; McClure persisted in relating exaggerated versions of my own family history, and when he wasn't speaking, Callaway--seated next to Ray on the opposite side of the fire from me--was filling us in on the latest Ontario gossip. Or Ray was running down the list of his favorite arrests. Or Wydword was detailing the adventures of her pet cat, who was apparently the terror of every fly in a five-mile radius. It felt simultaneously like being the outsider in my own home and like being too much under scrutiny, and as soon as I could, I excused myself and escaped to the cabin. The illusion of privacy was exactly that, but even half a wall was better than being surrounded by open space and open eyes.
The restless feeling dogged me, though, and the lingering sun seemed to call out every shadow in the cabin as I searched for a task to occupy my mind that wouldn't attract offers of help from the others. Eventually, I discovered an old carving of my father's: a falcon curving up in sharp relief from a block of maple. It had hung on the wall above the dining table since I was twelve, when Dad had come back from a particularly harsh winter with nothing but a full beard and a host of original camp songs and that carving. It was charred almost beyond recognition, but I searched through the pile of usable wood until I found a block large enough to serve my purpose.
I hadn't carved anything since before I'd come to Chicago. It had always used to calm me, the soft snick of a sharp knife against fresh pine, the changing texture against my hands, the pleasure of watching a shape emerge from the heart of the wood. Now, however, I couldn't find a rhythm, and it seemed there was a knot wherever I needed a hollow; even the direction of the grain appeared determined to resist me. By the time Ray came to find me, I was biting hard on my lip to keep from cursing.
"Arts and crafts?" Ray asked mildly. "You get extra credit for that?"
"Just making use of the daylight." I hissed out breath between my teeth as another curl of wood went awry.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Ray put his hands in his pockets. "Hey, Benny, if you want to--"
"I'm fine, Ray." I said sharply.
He took a step back and made a quiet noise, the air rushing out of him. I was half-afraid to look at his face.
"Really," I said, forcing my tone to soften. Ray had already borne me on his back through the woods; there was no need for him to bear the brunt of my frustration, as well. I schooled my features into earnestness and looked up at him. "I'm perfectly all right, Ray. I just spent so much time sleeping during my recovery that the opportunity to be active is a welcome change."
Ray shook his head. "You sure know how to take a vacation." He opened his mouth as if to say more, then seemed to change his mind and gave an exaggerated stretch instead. "Well. In that case, it looks like I'm gonna have to turn in early for the both of us."
"Good night, Ray," I said. I had already returned my attention to the wood-block.
I heard him sigh. "'Night."
Ignoring the pang of regret that stung me, I re-applied myself to the carving with much more dedication than success. I could picture the falcon perfectly in my mind, but no matter how finely I shaved the wood, I couldn't seem to master it. I wasn't sure how long I'd been struggling when a voice came from just behind my shoulder.
"I always loved that old carving," followed by a wistful sigh. "Ah, well. Can't be helped now. And I suppose it's good to divest myself of my worldly possessions, all things considered."
I sighed, too, and let my knife drop to the table. "Dad. I've been wondering when you were going to show up."
"Well." He lumbered around to the chair opposite me, still wearing his snowshoes. "I can track a tern across an ice field and never take a false step; after that, it's not so difficult to find you."
I rolled my eyes. Just a bit, but more than I would have dared had there been the possibility of corporeal punishment. "So you heard that, did you? I'd like to know where that particular story originated."
"Never can tell with legends, son." Dad leaned back in the chair, crossing his arms over his chest. "They take on a life of their own."
I didn't want to talk about legends. "Do you remember him? McClure, I mean."
Dad shrugged. "Yeah, I remember him. Quiet fellow, mostly. He liked old crime novels--off-duty, you could hardly catch him without a paperback in his hand. Used to follow me around sometimes, too, when we were on duty, especially if Frobisher was around. Never could figure it."
I nodded; it appeared we were talking about legends after all. I understood--better than most, maybe--how my father's exploits and energy might appear to someone with an active imagination. "What happened to him, do you know? Is he still on the force?"
"No, actually." Dad cast his gaze upward, remembering. "He was discharged several years ago. Before you joined the force. Stole some food supplies from his outpost, I think. He'd lost his family home in an earthquake, and he had a wife and child to support." He shrugged again. "A man gets desperate, I suppose."
In my mind, I could still see the way McClure had looked at me earlier: hopeful, open, like if he tilted just the slightest bit, his soul would fall right into my hands. I picked up the knife and bent my head to my task again. The air in the room felt too thick, straining my lungs.
"I thought the original was of a falcon, wasn't it, son?" Dad asked, after he'd watched me in silence for a while.
I tried very hard not to glare at him. "That's what I'm carving."
"Ah." He stood up and leaned closer to inspect my work. Then he straightened again. "If you say so, son."
"Dad." The knife slipped in my fingers and cut deep, too deep, into the wood. My breath was coming faster, and my head was starting to ache; maybe I could incorporate the gash into the tailfeathers somehow. Dad was still watching me. "Don't you have someone else you can haunt?" I snapped.
"No," Dad said simply, but he turned around started clomping his way toward the space where the front door used to be. "Looks more like a wolf to me," he called as he crossed the threshold, and I let my head sink down to rest on the ragged wood in front of me.
Ray stirred when I climbed into the tent, my hands raw and red from splinters and the grip of the knife.
"Benny?" he murmured. He sounded sleepy and warm, and I wanted to sink into his voice. "What time is it?"
I glanced out at the sky. The sun was setting, finally, merciful shadows stretching underneath the trees. I closed the tent flap. "Go back to sleep, Ray."
For a moment, I let the hope fill me that he wouldn't, that he'd catch one of his infrequent late-night second winds--the product of too many stakeouts, I suspected--and roll over and wake up and talk to me for a while. But he just made an indistinct "mmm" sound and curled deeper into his bedroll, his back to me.
I laid down, careful not to touch him, and tried to sleep.
My father always used to say that a good night's sleep was the best beginning of a good day's work. And it was, of course, an annoying but unavoidable corollary that a terrible night's sleep heralded a terrible day's work.
Even so, ten hours spent listening to Ray and Wydword laugh uproariously at Callaway's jokes while we did our best to cobble what remained of the cabin into some semblance of a solid structure, all the while with the hero-worship in McClure's eyes hemming me in like a slow-rising flood... that seemed a bit beyond the pale. And all under a relentless sun that prickled on my skin, though it was probably only seventeen or eighteen degrees out even at the height of the day. At least Underhill was absent again, having taken his genial, paternal mien into town to help settle a dispute over the ownership of a drugstore.
I winced at my own uncharitable mental description and yanked upward on a particularly stubborn log, which would probably serve perfectly as a brace for the new wall if I could just get it out from under the old one.
"Need some help, there, Benny?" Ray called from a half-dozen meters away, where he and the other three had gathered to chat, their enthusiasm for the task at hand clearly having waned as the day wore on. Diefenbaker was sprawled in an obliging shadow nearby.
"No," I gritted, "it's not as if I've recently suffered a significant head wound; manual labor is an excellent curative, I've heard--"
"I'll help," McClure offered, rushing to my side.
Immediately, I could feel my lungs constricting. "No," I tried, "Constable, it's--"
"I've got it, sir," McClure insisted, and grabbed for the log to illustrate his point. His eager grasp almost overbalanced me, and for a moment the log swayed between us.
"Get back," I ordered him, gasping under the strain.
"No, sir, I've just--"
--and as he shifted his grip again, the log slipped and crashed to the ground at our feet.
Inside my chest, the dam seemed to burst. "Constable," I said. I could feel each consonant between my teeth.
McClure was white-faced, staring at the scant centimeters between the fallen log and his right foot.
I kept my voice to a normal speaking level, but it scraped coming out of my throat, harsh with barely-contained anger. "When I tell you to step back, you step back. Is that understood?"
"Yes, sir," McClure answered. I could see his hands trembling. He couldn't meet my eyes, his shoulders hunched like he was expecting a blow. Or like he'd just received one.
Suddenly overcome with shame, I turned away from him to face Callahan and Wydword. "We're done for the day," I told them stiffly. "Thank you for your assistance."
And with that, I strode past them; I wasn't sure exactly where I was going, just that I was desperate for the shelter of the trees. I could feel Ray's disapproving gaze on my back the entire way. I shook my shoulders briefly, like Dief when he came out of a snowdrift, and ducked into the woods without a backward glance.
But even that scant shelter proved short-lived--I hadn't gone more than a few dozen paces before I almost ran into a khaki-clad figure.
"Well, son, I hope you're proud of yourself."
I spun on my heel, looking for escape routes. "Oh, shut up, Dad."
"You can't talk to your father like that." I wasn't sure I'd ever heard him sound so affronted.
I flung my arms out to either side. "Dad, you're dead. I shouldn't be talking to you at all!"
"Well, it's not exactly a picnic for me, either, you know." Dad trudged a few feet away until he could lean against one of the trees. "I was hoping the afterlife was going to be green fields and horses and your mother waiting by the fire, not trailing around after you for the rest of eternity. And stop thinking of me in these ridiculous clothes, will you? If you're not going to put on your own uniform, you could at least let me have one."
I gave up and matched his pose, pressing back against the rough tree bark and taking a perverse pleasure in how it scraped against my back. I crossed my arms in front of me. "I'm on vacation. I don't have a uniform."
"Yes, you do," Dad replied. "It's in the barn, right where you left it. The barn isn't damaged; it's perfectly fine."
"Well, maybe you can wear that one, then."
"Wear the barn? I'm not quite sure how I'd manage that. Not that I'm an expert on the rules of my current state, but--"
"The uniform," I clarified, my hands clenching into fists of their own volition.
"Well," Dad said, "be specific in your speech, Benton; your grandmother would be ashamed of you."
I thunked my head back against the tree. "Thank you, Dad. As always, you've been extremely helpful."
For a few seconds, blessed silence reigned. Then, "The Yank's trying to help you, you know. You were just yammering at me not a week ago about how you owed him; does that debt extend as far as an explanation?"
I sighed, almost without realizing I was doing it. "Ray wanted to come up here to put everything behind us. That's what I owe him, not more..." I waved a hand in front of me. "Whatever this is."
"You said it to me, son." Dad shrugged. "She didn't deserve better, she deserved me."
I ignored the sudden thudding in my chest. "Dad, I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about."
"'Course you don't," he said. "'Course you don't." He shook his head and walked off into the trees.
Ray was waiting for me when I returned to the cabin. Our tools from the day had been packed away into a corner, the tent had been dragged into the center of the living room to leave more space for the logs outside, and Ray was using a round of tree trunk as a makeshift chair. Dief was nowhere to be seen; sulking, no doubt, and the thought threatened to break my tenuous hold on equanimity.
"So what was that about?" Ray asked quietly as soon as my feet crossed the threshold.
So much for the hope of reprieve. "What do you mean?"
"Don't pull the innocent act," Ray demanded. He leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees and pinned me with his gaze. "You coulda gotten hurt, Benny, and you yelled at the kid, or at least as close as I've ever seen you get to yelling. I know you've just been through something and so I didn't want to push it, but man, this isn't like you."
I raised an eyebrow. "And what is like me, exactly?"
Ray spread out his hands in front of him. "Patient," he said. In spite of his obvious concern and frustration, a smile was playing at the corner of his mouth. "Annoyingly calm, even when you shouldn't be. Too nice for your own good. And God help anybody who gets between you and something you want, or something you think is right."
"That's what you think of me?" I asked. The pressure was building in my chest again.
"That's what I know," Ray said simply.
"Well," I snapped, "it seems that everyone already knows everything; I'm not really sure why my presence is required at all."
It was a testament to either the strangeness of my life, or the strangeness of Ray's, or the strangeness of our life together, that he didn't even ask me who else I'd been talking to since I'd disappeared into the woods. The reminder sent another pang of guilt through me, and I could feel myself starting to crack under the weight of it. I studied the soot-streaked floor under my feet.
"You think you let them down," Ray said quietly. "Right?
I looked up at him, surprised.
He laughed without humor. "Benny, you haven't put your uniform on since..." He trailed off and lifted a shoulder. "Since. When half the time you wear it to the grocery store. And now you freeze up as soon as the Big Red Brigade shows up. It don't take a genius."
Maybe not, but it took a friend, and the heat of my anger drained away abruptly, leaving me hollow and tired. I'd never been good at lying to Ray, except about the nature of my feelings for him; that had always been struggle enough, and I gave up the rest with a rush of resignation and relief. "I don't know what to do," I admitted quietly.
Ray just rolled his eyes. "Aww, c'mon," he chided. "So you screwed up! And yeah, you screwed up pretty big, but you do everything pretty big. And from where I'm sitting, it seems like the big stuff you do right sure as hell makes up for the big stuff you did wrong."
"I appreciate you saying that, Ray, but it's not a balance sheet." I met his eyes directly. "Either my judgment is sound or it isn't. Either I can be trusted or I can't. Either one of my legs is slightly longer than the other or I've lost the ability to navigate through a forest."
"You're still stuck on that, too?" Ray asked, shaking his head. "Look, you're a pretty smart guy, but this is the dumbest thing I've ever heard. You're asking yourself to be perfect."
I drew myself up straighter. "When it matters, yes. When lives are at stake, at the very least. When people are counting on me."
"Uh-huh." Ray stood and crossed his arms in front of him; his voice took on his interrogation tone, all steel and reason. "Do you expect me to be perfect?"
"Of course not."
"What about your dad?" he pressed. "All that money, sitting there in that account, and you don't know where it came from. That make you love him any less?"
I huffed out a breath. "Ray, it's not the same thing."
"Why not?" he demanded.
"Because it's my job," I shot back. "To be an example. To be a symbol."
A muscle jumped in Ray's jaw. "Fraser, you're not a symbol, you're a person."
"Not to them." I crossed my own arms in front of me, knowing I was projecting sullen defiance and not--for once--particularly caring.
Ray started to pace the room. "So you think it's the uniform?" he asked, all feigned rumination. "A whole lot of starch and an unloaded gun, that's what makes people turn themselves in and give you their kids to raise and mortgage their houses for your bail? Huh?" His voice was deceptively calm, but his strides were short and tight with tension.
He spun on his heel and leveled a finger at me. "Of course not. Because if it was the uniform people needed, then there'd be confession lines around the block at every Canadian consulate in America, and no one would litter in Canada, and all of the rest of us law enforcement professionals could head down to Florida and play golf."
He just looked at me for a moment, then let his chin drop to his chest and sighed heavily. "Your dad," he said at last, and now it was the easy, wry, dark-of-the-car tone I'd heard on stakeouts and at the ends of long days. "He was your hero, right?"
It caught me off-guard, and I had to swallow hard before I could speak. "Yes," I managed hoarsely.
Ray slid his hands into his pockets. "You ever find anything in his journals that you didn't know about when he was alive? Anything that made you think maybe he wasn't such a hero after all?"
I nodded. "Yes."
One step closer. "And do you ever wish you didn't know that stuff?"
That wasn't quite the question I was expecting. And yes rose to my lips automatically, but I hesitated. Forced myself to truly consider the answer. It had taken me quite some time to come to terms with the possibility that my father had accepted bribes, and I had certainly read things in his journals that had angered, confused, or saddened me; sometimes all three at once. And my recent conversations with him had been somewhere on a scale from perplexing to infuriating, not to mention the fact that they quite probably didn't bode well for my sanity.
And yet. I'd lived in his shadow for my entire life and never really known him.
I met Ray's eyes. I could see that he already knew the answer, but he was waiting to hear it anyway. "No," I said. "No, I don't wish I didn't know it."
Ray's mouth curved slightly. "You know, when I first met you--for a while, I just thought that you were... I don't know. Superhuman or something. That you always knew the right thing to do, and you always did it, no matter what. And now I know better. And that's what makes you the best guy I know, Benny. Not that you aren't tempted to do the wrong thing sometimes, but that you're tempted, and you don't. Ninety-nine days out of a hundred, you don't."
"And on the hundredth day?" I couldn't help asking.
He just kept looking at me, calm and steady. "Well, then I figure that's my turn."
Unbidden, a smile spread across my face. "That hardly seems an equitable division of labor," I said. It seemed vaguely inappropriate to joke at such a moment, but I couldn't help myself. Perhaps I'd been in Chicago too long.
"Yeah, well." Ray shrugged. "You know what they say about us lazy Americans."
I smiled wider, the tension in my body starting to slide away. In its wake, I could feel relief, sweet as the first drink of fresh water in the mountains, and something else, too, something strong and hot that filled me with a heady certainty.
"Oh, and one more thing," Ray continued, oblivious.
He stepped closer still, index finger pointing emphatically toward the floor. "You don't shut me out. We're partners, Benny, or at least we were the last time I checked, and when something's going on with you, I need you to tell me so that I can help. I don't ask you for much, but I'm asking for that."
I could hear the faint edge of panic in his voice, like a hand reaching out. Like I'd reached out for him in the forest, blind and uncertain and determined not to show it. The answer seemed so simple now. I nodded slowly. "So if something's..." I paused to mimic quotation marks around the words, "'going on' with me. You want to know?"
Ray cleared his throat. "Yeah."
I took one step toward him. "No matter what?"
"Yeah," Ray answered, though he was starting to look slightly nervous now, which was strange, because for the first time in weeks, I felt entirely calm.
"What?" Ray said, eyeing me suspiciously. "Are you gonna tell me you got an illegitimate kid locked away somewhere? You got a storage locker full of the Queen's jewels? You--"
"Ray," I said, and pulled him to me and kissed him.
It was a fairly chaste kiss, considering how long I'd been waiting for it, though as soon as I felt his mouth against mine, my body began clamoring: more, yes, now. I ignored it for the moment and forced myself to pull back enough so that I could see Ray's eyes.
They were wide. "Oh."
I couldn't help smiling a little. "Oh?" I repeated.
"Yeah, 'oh,'" Ray answered, self-mockery creeping into his surprise. Surprise, though, not revulsion or embarrassment, and I took heart.
"Ray," I said, though it was hard to focus with his hips so close to mine, "I know this has been a difficult period for both of us, and I know that adding a romantic entanglement to what is already a fairly complex relationship might not be--"
"Benny," Ray interrupted.
I blinked. "Yeah?"
"Shut up," he said. With a sharp-edged grin I'd never seen before--which in itself was enough to send a jolt of heat down my spine--he yanked me closer, till I could feel his breath on my lips, and then he hovered there, waiting.
I'd seen a liquid magnet once, in a chemistry class, stretched open into an oddly graceful porcupine shape by the corresponding magnet beneath it. I could feel the same sort of pull now, as if even the blood rushing through my veins was keyed to Ray, straining to be closer. But I kept still, wanting to see what Ray would do. After all, delay had a way of making the gratification sweeter when it came, and what was a handful of seconds compared to months of vigilance? After a long, breathless moment, Ray's tongue flicked out, wetting my upper lip.
Only that, and I abandoned all pretense of control, sealing my mouth to his.
Ray met me halfway and then some, as he always had, his mouth generous and eager. "Benny," he murmured, in the brief spaces when our mouths parted, "Benny--"
I let my hands roam over his chest, down to his waist, feeling the long lines of muscle and bone underneath. He'd lost weight in the hospital, despite his mother bringing us both enough food for an army; something fierce and protective welled up in me at the realization and I slid my hands underneath his untucked shirt so that I could touch him, skin to skin. He hissed in breath, muscles contracting underneath my fingertips. I could feel him hard against my thigh as I pressed a leg between his. He moaned at the pressure and twisted my shirt tighter in his fists.
"Tent," he mumbled indistinctly, then rocked his hips into mine with an urgency that made the prospect of pausing in our exertions for any reason extremely unappealing.
I rocked back just as urgently. "Are you--" My breath caught in my throat as we found just the right angle and pleasure arced through me. "--Sure about that?"
Ray's eyes rolled back and his eyelids fluttered closed, but still, he managed to marshal himself enough to start dragging me vaguely in the direction of the tent. I grinned--apparently the prospect of sex didn't have a miraculous effect on his navigational skills--and redirected him gently. He didn't seem to notice, his hands busy at my belt buckle.
"I've waited a hell of a long time for this," he told me as we stumbled, "I'm not going to get bitten by a mosquito in the middle of it--"
--and so I was laughing when we fell together into the tent.
"Yeah, yeah," Ray grumbled, half-underneath me, "it's real funny. Some of us don't like getting eaten by nature, okay?" but his eyes were dark and shining. "Shirt," he said, "off," and started shoving the hem of my Henley upward. I finished the motion for him, and by the time I'd tossed my own shirt aside, Ray had squirmed partially upright and divested himself of his.
But when I twisted back around to face him, he was still, one hand tentatively raised to the level of the angry red scar that still twisted the skin of my back. All the heat and humor had faded from his gaze; his face was pale. It wasn't a new expression--I'd seen it dozens of times during my recovery--but now I had a new way to answer it.
"It was the hundredth day, Ray," I told him firmly. Then I reached out, tracing the ridge of his own scar with the tips of my fingers. "So was this." I leaned forward and kissed him with all the conviction I had in me. "They were on the hundredth day."
When I sat back, Ray drew in a long, slow breath, but it ended on a shaky laugh. "That some kind of funky Canadian math or something?" His cheeks were flushed.
I smiled. "Yeah. Something like that."
He shook his head. "Dirty trick," he said, rough with affection. "You always fight dirty."
Joy was building in my chest, so bright and full that I ached with it, with the effort of holding it in. "Well," I said. "You did say no secrets."
"And I did say shut up," he reminded me, and pulled me down on top of him.
The lingering sunlight filtered through the red tent walls, washing Ray's body with warmth as we undressed each other. I'd barely spent more than twelve hours outside of Ray's company in the past year, yet I still had new things to discover about him: the faded white scar at the upper curve of his calf, the birthmark in the hollow of his hipbone, the slight asymmetry of his index fingers. I catalogued everything with hands and mouth and tongue, and let him complete his own inspection of me in turn, till we were both sweat-slick and panting.
Finally, Ray pressed me down onto the bedroll and settled himself between my legs, driving hard and steady and solid; I met him thrust for thrust. His voice was ragged in my ear, Benny oh God Benny, the curves and hollows of his skin sliding against mine with shuddering friction.
"Ray," I breathed, "yes," mapping the lean muscles of his back with my fingers, still hungry to feel more, see more, taste more, each thing I learned tucked away like a treasure. I was standing anchored in the middle of the flood and I was greedy enough to want more still, because Ray was hungry, too, Ray was wanting, and I wanted to, I wanted us both to--
I canted my hips up and Ray gasped, rough and urgent, and thrust one last time, mouth open now against my throat. His hands tightened on my triceps as he spilled between us with a groan. I arched up into his heat and let go.
Later, curled up on what appeared now to be our shared bedroll, I let my hand roam idly over the rough expanse of Ray's chest. The ability to touch him--just a simple touch, and just because I wanted to--was a wonder I didn't expect to become careless about anytime soon. "You are going to have to break the news to Constable Calloway," I told him teasingly.
The skin under my hand flushed red. "What?"
"I just hope the disappointment doesn't permanently color her opinion of Americans," I went on, tracing his nipple with a finger.
"Look, it was obvious the Cub Scouts were freaking you out, I was just trying to keep them distracted," Ray protested.
I nodded. "Mmm. That was quite selfless of you, Ray, thank you."
He elbowed me in the ribs, and I could feel his stomach muscles contract with silent laughter. Then he brought one hand up to tangle his fingers with mine, but when I looked over at him, his eyes were downcast. "Hey," he said. "After everything that happened... I was just happy you still wanted to be friends, okay?"
The uncertain set of his shoulders sent a quick ripple of shame through my contentment. In the face of his eagerness to put the past behind us, it was sometimes easier to forget that in addition to betraying my calling, my country, and myself, I'd betrayed Ray, too. I'd broken his trust. And for my part, I'd never be entirely sure what he'd been aiming for, there on the train platform, and whether he'd really seen a gun in Victoria's hand.
I gripped Ray's hand more tightly and moved closer to him, fitting my chin into the hollow between his shoulder and his neck. The ends of his short hair tickled pleasantly against my nose. He smelled like sweat and pine. "Have you ever broken a bone, Ray?"
I could feel the slight motion of his head cocking to one side. "Yeah, sure. Broke my ankle once, when I came down wrong from a jump shot. Eddie Castello's goons caught me in an alley one time, too, and broke my arm." He held up the arm that had been pressed between us and angled it so I could see the very slight shift in the line of his forearm, about two-thirds of the way to his wrist. "See?"
I pressed a kiss to his neck. "Does it hurt anymore?"
"Sometimes," he said. "Before a big storm, it kind of aches. But mostly it's fine." Then a laugh rumbled through his throat. "You gonna tell me that broken bones heal stronger than normal ones? Is that where this is going?"
"Well." I sniffed. "I wouldn't have just said it so bluntly. There is an art to these things, you know."
I could hear him smiling. "So there would've been animals, and names I can't pronounce?"
"Probably." I rubbed my toe along his calf. "Now I guess you'll never know."
"Aww," Ray said, laughing again. "Lucky for me your Inuit stories come around more often than the 85 Central bus."
"Given the whimsical nature of the Chicago Transit Authority, I'm not sure whether I should be flattered or insulted," I mused. It was still nagging at my mind, though, something about fractures and fissures, wounds and healing and changing angles. Then, suddenly, inspiration struck. I glanced up at the light shining through the tent wall; a few hours of light left, I calculated, and that should be enough time.
I nuzzled into the warmth of Ray's neck for just a moment longer, then nipped my way up his jaw until I found his mouth, and kissed him long and thoroughly. When I pulled away, Ray looked up at me with drowsy, pleasure-heavy eyes. "What was that for?"
"Well," I said, smiling, "aside from the worthy endeavor that kissing you represents on its own--you do have a truly wonderful mouth, Ray--" and I paused to enjoy his blush and his answering smile, then, "--but also, there's something I have to do, and I didn't want you to think... well." I leaned down to kiss him again. "I realize that a hasty departure under these circumstances can sometimes be misinterpreted."
"Love 'em and leave 'em, huh?" Ray said, but he was grinning. "Never woulda thought." Then he narrowed his eyes at me. "You're sure everything's okay?"
I nodded firmly. "I promise, Ray." I kissed him one last, lingering time, and this time his answering kiss was enough to make me seriously reconsider my intent. By the time I finally managed to tear my mouth away from his, I couldn't hold in a reluctant groan. Ray smirked up at me, his eyes hot and mischievous. "I won't be long," I told him.
He winked. "I'm not goin' anywhere."
I might have liked to think that humming under my breath as I completed my morning ablutions was a statement in bold defiance of my father's aphorisms regarding sleep and work, but the truth was, it was nearly involuntary. One portion of my evening's work lay completed on a chair resting against the wall, and as for the rest of it--
"Indoor plumbing!" came Ray's voice from outside the barn. "That's all I wanna know, Benny. When are we gonna get to the part where we introduce the modern conveniences of--oh." He stopped as he came through the door. He was still damp from his makeshift bath at the water pump, droplets glistening on his neck. His smile bloomed across his face, as slow and warm and bright as summer in the Territories, and he crossed the barn to stand in front of me, close enough to put his palm on the red wool over my chest. "Hey," he said, low with pleasure and approval. His thumb rubbed back and forth across my sternum. "Looks good."
I straightened my lanyard. "Thank you. It feels good," I admitted.
"'Course," Ray went on, hooking a finger behind one of the buttons, "it also just makes me want to take it off you..."
I grinned and leaned in, more than ready to entertain that possibility--after all, it wasn't as if the serge was going to last long in the heat of the workday, anyway--but we were both distracted by Dief's welcoming barking outside.
"Your people have terrible timing," Ray informed me ruefully.
"No," I said, "we just have excellent stamina."
He laughed. "You're a cruel man, Benny." He pulled me in for a quick kiss, then shoved at my shoulder with one hand. "Go on, beat it, unless you want to give the junior Dudleys out there a free show."
Outside, I sought out McClure first. "Constable," I called as I approached him.
He squared his shoulders and turned on one heel to face me, mutiny and hurt lurking behind his carefully respectful blankness. "Sir." The word was sharp enough that I could practically feel it whizzing past my ear.
"I wanted you to have this," I said, and I held out the carving that I'd wrung out the last drops of daylight to finish.
His head tilted to one side. "Sir?" he repeated, his coldness thawing into uncertainty, but he reached out and took the carving anyway. He turned it over in his hands, inspecting it from different angles, running one finger over the slope of the wolf's wooden back. Certainly a true artisan could have put me to shame, but I was pleased with the result, and my fingers tingled pleasantly at the memory of Ray soothing away my splinters with his tongue.
McClure looked back up at me. "Thank you, sir. I... I don't know what to say."
"I wanted it to be a falcon," I explained. "Then my hand slipped, you can see there--" and I traced the lean line of the wolf's belly, "and I realized it wasn't what I'd wanted it to be after all." I lifted a shoulder. "Of course, I was tempted just to throw it away and start over, but. I thought perhaps I'd see if I could make something of it anyway."
McClure cocked his head further, still wary, but his hands tightened on the edges of the wood. "It's a good carving, sir," he said finally. "Are you proud of it?"
Modesty dictated that I say no, but I hesitated and looked around me, at the high morning sun and the bright sky bringing the green of the trees into brilliant relief. The new logs were stacked neatly next to the cabin's foundation, ready to be used. Ray was standing inside the beginnings of the front wall, either measuring something or trying to look like he was measuring something; it was difficult to tell. As my gaze lingered on him, he looked up, and the smile he gave me was like a warm murmur in my ear, a slow, knowing touch on my skin.
I breathed deeply and met McClure's eyes again.
"Yes," I told him, smiling. "I am."