(c) 2002, by Starfish
Thanks to the folks who looked at this early on, and especially Aral, who said, "yes, yes, yes, do it like that." Thanks to Aral, AuK, and Carla for stupendous beta. Special thanks to AuK, who encouraged me to write it even when I didn't want to.
This story contains very high levels of angst. Haz-mat suits may be needed. Or at least a Kleenex.
Soundtrack: "Song for a Winter's Night" (Sarah MacLachlan), "Secret in Your Eyes" (Gross/Keeley), "Clearest Indication" (Great Big Sea), "And So it Goes" (Billy Joel).
I haven't spoken to a soul save Diefenbaker for nearly three weeks. Eric was here for a few days, but he seemed to understand my need for silence. I can only assume someone showed him the article - or perhaps he really is, as I have suspected before, in touch with the spirit plane on a regular basis. Either way, I was grateful; I couldn't have told him what was wrong without saying the words I refuse to speak aloud.
"It's not like there's anything keeping me here, Fraser. Right? It's not like I have a reason to stay. Nobody's made me a better offer or anything."
I'd heard the words and couldn't disagree with them. What could I have offered, after all? A cold climate, hardship, deprivation. Accommodations in a one-room cabin in the middle of nowhere, or a two-room apartment at the back of beyond. My occasional presence when not on patrol, neither family nor lover . . . better for him to go back to Chicago, back to his own home. To ask him to stay would have been the height of selfishness -- or so I'd believed. And so I let him leave.
Feels kind of stupid, writing this like I'm gone when I'm not, but I've been thinking about stuff lately, about getting older and slower, about the odds stacked against me, and I figured if I never get to say this stuff in person, I still want you to know.
I had just come back from a long patrol, and was getting re-acclimated to the sight and sound of other humans, when the package arrived on my desk. I saw the Chicago postmark and ripped it open eagerly, hardly registering the fact that the handwriting was unfamiliar. The contents were simple: a folded newspaper article, an envelope with my name on it, and a brown leather journal. The handwriting on the envelope was Ray Kowalski's and I opened it first, barely glancing at the other items.
I missed him so much; regretted, almost daily, that I hadn't found some way to compromise between my need to return home and my need for . . . him. His companionship during my time in Chicago had meant more than I could say -- certainly, as it transpired, more than I had said. And so I eagerly unfolded the single sheet of paper, happy for any contact.
I've since destroyed the letter. There was no need to keep it, although I never want to read it again, every word is imprinted on my brain, probably forever.
My next memory is of someone gently chafing my hands while a cool cloth was pressed to my forehead. A familiar voice was saying my name.
I opened my eyes slowly, unprepared for this highly unlikely sight - my sister Maggie, in uniform, crouched beside the divan upon which I had evidently been placed while unconscious. I struggled to a semi-reclining position and looked around to confirm that I was indeed still at the post. I was reassured to see the familiar outlines of the seldom-used parlour around us.
"Yeah, it's me. Surprised?"
"What are you - how did -"
"Transferred in last week. We were keeping it a secret."
She raised an eyebrow and shrugged. "I wanted to get to know my big brother. I figured I'd pop in on you tomorrow morning at the diner, but when Threadgill came and told me what had happened . . . "
It all came back to me in a rush. "Oh God -- Ray -- Maggie, he's . . . "
She nodded, and her mouth quivered, then firmed. "I know, Ben," she said gently. "I . . . read the article."
"How . . . how did it happen?"
"You don't know?"
I shook my head. "I only read the letter -- Maggie, you didn't read the letter, did you?" I was filled with conflict -- upon finding out that my feelings for Ray were returned, but too late to matter to me, my first thoughts were to protect his reputation. But I also wanted confirmation of what I had read, wanted to know that other eyes could see the words Ray had written.
Maggie blushed. "I'm sorry, Ben, but I did read it, before I knew . . . what it was."
"He said he lo-" I stopped, unable to go on, and Maggie nodded.
"Yes, he did. I could see it when I first met you both, how close the two of you were."
"Why couldn't I see it, then?" I asked, a plaintive, needy tone in my voice I didn't recognise.
"Maybe you didn't want to. Maybe he didn't want you to. Take it from me, Ben, hindsight is always twenty/twenty, but you rarely see what you need to with it."
Maggie began to cry then, and as I held her in my arms, I felt my own tears begin. Tears for a man who would never see them, who never once saw me cry. Tears for myself, as well: for the last piece of my heart and soul, blackened and gone forever now.
I don't know how soon you'll get this after I'm gone, I told the lawyers it would need to be sent the fastest way they could think of, but I know you're not always at the other end of a convenient mail-route. It's stupid to say I wish I could be there with you when you read this, but try to find somebody to talk to, okay? I know that even if you don't love me like I love you -- that's getting easier to write, by the way -- we were always friends, first and foremost, right from the beginning. And I know it's hell to lose a friend.
According to the newspaper article (which Maggie summarised for me, as I couldn't look at it without shaking), Ray's beloved GTO was found in an area of the docks very near where our investigation of the spurious ghost ship had taken us. The first officers to respond to the scene found the interior of the car in flames, but managed to put out the fire before it completely obliterated all evidence. The body found inside the car had sustained a shotgun blast to the head, but not before the victim had apparently fired upon and fatally wounded the wielder of said shotgun, a known car-jacker, found scant yards away. The article went on to say that "the victim's ex-wife" had identified the body.
Ray's ex-wife. Stella. Now married to Ray Vecchio, although possibly not for long, judging from the tone of his last e-mail correspondence. I did wonder, rather pettily, whether she had also received a letter. But Ray had always been able to talk to Stella, in spite of the constant rebuffs and insults he suffered at her hands. She would have known all he felt for her already.
Read my journal, okay? I wrote it for you, so maybe you can understand what held me back from telling you. Why I couldn't just take what I wanted.
I'm a bit light-headed, but that's to be expected. And it will pass soon enough. Everything does, after all. I pick up Ray's journal from where it fell when I dozed off this time and try to find my place. I've already read it once, from beginning to end. Now I skim through, dipping in here and there, almost able to hear his familiar voice speaking the words.
You almost died today. I've never been so scared in my life, or so angry at another human being. Not at the perp, either. At you. Because here's the thing, Fraser, that maybe you don't get -- if you tell someone you love them - symbolically, platonically, whatever - you don't make them watch you die. Not like that, not when there's any other choice. It was a shitty thing to do to me. And I had to keep most of that inside, so nobody'd wonder why was Vecchio going nuts on the Mountie.
It's cold in here now since the fire's gone out. The snow started again at dusk, and I can see where it's drifted on the windowpanes, stark white against the blackness. I only hope the oil in the lamp holds out - I've got a few more pages to go before I can stop.
I keep a lot of things inside lately. Maybe too much, I don't know. But if I ever let go, if I ever just broke down and told you -- I feel like I'd lose everything. Maybe I wouldn't, there's been times I was almost sure you felt the same as I do. Times I thought you might mean something just a little different from what you said. But if I'm wrong -- if I say something, make a move, and you leave because of it -- I'll just go spinning off into space like that guy in 2001. Nothing to hold me back, no way to stop. Spinning off into vacuum, no air, no hope.
Ray's words touch me in ways that I hadn't ever expected. His rough exterior and manner did, indeed, conceal the poet he once told me he was. I want to tell him he never needed to hide anything from me. I'll have the chance soon, if my father's situation is at all typical. If not, my only wish is not to remember, any more, what I've lost.
Maybe someday, my brother's kids will ask me why I never re-married. I don't know what I'll tell them, but the real reason is you. I know I'd never find the kind of closeness we had with anyone else, man or woman, sex or no sex. And I can't see myself settling for less, now that I know how it's supposed to be.
The light is fading now, the shadows seem to want to swallow me whole. I close the journal, the last words resounding in my brain. And then I close my eyes and wait.
I can hear Dief howling outside. He'll be all right, he remembers how to hunt. I wish I could stay, but . . . there's nothing left for me.
Nothing left of me.
And I'm so tired.
"Stupid, stubborn - fucking idiot! Maggie, hurry up! He's like ice! Goddammit all to hell, Fraser, how could you do this to me?"
Feeling returns slowly. Rough hands on my face, shaking my shoulders, combing through my hair. Rough voice, made rougher still by the tears I feel dropping on my cheeks. The ghost of rough lips, chapped by cold or wind, fleetingly touching my forehead.
"Don't you dare die now, not after all this. Don't you dare. You're going to get better, Fraser. And then I swear to God I'm gonna kick your ass for pulling a stunt like this. Come on, Maggie - oh, okay. Careful - got him? Get the blanket. No, you sit there. I'm in, I'm in - go!"
Vague sensations of movement pull at me, but I prefer to remain passive, inert, until I am able to understand what is happening. I never would have thought the other side would be so . . . so like life. I had imagined tranquillity and peaceful contemplation, and I nearly laugh at the thought -- since I came here seeking Ray, what did I expect, after all? Still, it is good to hear his voice, even better to feel his arms around me. If only I could stay awake to enjoy it.
More vague sensations - Ray's mouth finally on mine, the moment spoiled by fingers pinching my nose. After a moment, I hear sounds again.
"Okay, I got him back. Concentrate, Fraser! Air -- in and out. I am not going to lose you in this fucking van five minutes from the hospital. Next time you quit Dief does the mouth-to-mouth, got it?"
It's beginning to dawn on me that I may not, in fact, be dead. Surely no afterlife I can imagine would include the potholes this vehicle is driving through.
Opening my eyes is difficult, but my reward is in the sight before me. Ray looks . . . well, frankly, he looks terrible. But he is, most assuredly, alive.
"What happened to your hair?" I try to say. Unfortunately all that comes from my mouth is an embarrassing croak.
"Water bottle," Ray snaps. In another moment I feel coolness flowing over my lips, and I swallow reflexively. "How long's it been, Fraser? When was the last time you ate?"
I blink, trying to make sense of the question. I can't seem to recall, with any certainty, how many days have passed.
Maggie moves into view. "Ben, Eric said he'd seen you a week ago. Have you eaten since then?"
Eric brought rabbits with him, I remember that. But since? Again, my voice betrays me, but I try to shake my head. They seem to understand.
"Shit. Why, Fraser? What were you thinking?"
I summon every bit of strength. "Follow you," I manage to whisper. And I see Ray's face drain of all colour before my world fades to black again.
White. Grey. Antiseptic smells. Soft noises that resolve into footsteps and rustling cloth. A voice. "How is he?" Maggie, sounding worried.
"Hasn't woken up yet." Ray, sounding tired. My body will not obey my commands; my eyelids stay obstinately shut.
"Has the doctor been back?"
"Yeah, about an hour ago. She said to let him sleep. Where's Dief?"
"I left him at the post."
A snort from Ray. "Ten bucks says he shows up within half an hour."
"Ah, you clean-cut Mounties. Won't even make a friendly wager."
"It's a sucker bet, Ray. I doubt it'll take him fifteen minutes. In fact, I'm surprised he even pretended to stay this time."
"Yeah." I hear Ray's smile in his voice, and then, when he speaks again, something darker. "God, Maggie - he almost -"
"Shhh, I know, it's okay. C'mere."
I finally manage to force my eyes open. The lights, soft as they are, nearly blind me, and I blink to clear my vision. I am in a hospital room, as I had surmised. An IV pole is beside my bed, the contents dripping slowly into a tube that leads to a needle in my left arm. Ray is in a chair in the corner by the window. Maggie is standing over him, holding his head to her stomach, patting his back and his hair. He is holding her tightly, and I hear his voice again, muffled by flannel.
"My fault, it would've been my fault. I didn't know, I swear, I thought it would help, Maggie -"
"Hey, hey, calm down. You couldn't have known. Shhh. He's going to be fine, Ray."
"I know he is, and as soon as he can stand up I'm going to kill him."
I lick my cracked lips, or try to, preparatory to speaking. My tongue feels like a piece of terrycloth in my mouth, however, and I hear another voice before I can make a sound. "That would seem a bit contradictory, Detective."
I turn my eyes toward the sound and see a diminutive East Indian woman in a white coat standing in the doorway. My assumption that this is the doctor is borne out by Ray's response to her dry humour.
"Yeah, well, once you get to know us, Doc, that's going to seem normal."
A commotion in the hallway behind her draws her attention, and in the next second, a white whirlwind blows past her and Diefenbaker is on the bed, licking me wherever he can reach. I try to fend him off, and only then realise that I am confined by wrist restraints. Despite a burst of anger at this indignity, I can understand their reasoning. Any suicide attempt should be taken seriously. I shall have to convince the powers-that-be that I am no longer a danger to myself, now that Ray is back.
But . . . .
Ray was dead. How can he be sitting in this room, having a conversation with my doctor?
Ray and Maggie drag Dief off the bed, and it takes both of them to prevent him from jumping back up again. The doctor introduces herself, then takes my pulse and checks my pupils. She listens to my heart and lungs, after asking Maggie to take Ray and Dief out into the hall so that she can hear. My lips are coated with salve, and I am given first water, then a disgusting chartreuse liquid that I am told will help restore my electrolyte balance. I drink it without complaint, then ask to be released from the restraints.
She frowns at me. "Constable Fraser, do you know why you are here in hospital?"
I nod, feeling embarrased and ashamed but knowing I brought this on myself.
"I need you to say it."
It's next to impossible to get the words out, and not just because of my sore throat, but her stern look tells me I must. "I wanted to die. I . . . tried to kill myself."
"You did rather more than try, Mr. Fraser. Your partner tells me that you stopped breathing in the van. I think that qualifies as success, don't you?"
"Yes, I suppose it does." I don't say that I was raised with the tenet that one must try to succeed in all endeavours - it is hardly appropriate in the circumstances. I also don't say how surprised I am that Ray told her he was my partner - and I wonder in which sense she understood it.
"So. You tell me. Can I take your restraints off?"
I nod, emphatically this time. "Yes. I've . . . the situation has changed."
She raises an eyebrow. I try to elaborate, noticing as I do how difficult it is to talk freely when one's hands are restrained. Or perhaps that's just me. "Certain events had occurred -- at least, I was under the misapprehension that they had occurred -"
"He thought I was dead." Ray's flat voice cuts through mine, stopping my awkward recitation. I look toward the door and see him standing there; eyes red from lack of sleep, features drawn and pinched. I try to hold his gaze but he looks away, after I see anger flash across his face. "You can undo him for now, Doc. I'll keep an eye on him."
She raises an eyebrow, but unbuckles the restraints. I shake my hands to restore the blood flow, and they feel oddly light for a moment, like they could float away. "Thank you," I say, with sincerity. "I assure you, I do appreciate the gravity of the situation. Could I have a moment to speak to my - to Ray?"
"Certainly," she says. "Let me just take out your IV, and then I'll be back to check on you later." She gives Ray a look that conveys, to me, at least, that she expects to find him here when she returns. He nods sharply, and wanders over to the window until she leaves with the no-longer-needed IV stand. Only then does he approach my bed, stopping a metre away, staring at the floor.
"Where are Maggie and Dief?" I ask, after the silence between us has stretched too far for my comfort.
"In the waiting room. Had to do some fast talking to get them to let Dief stay." His voice is still flat, without a trace of warmth or humour. If I had not heard his earlier joking exchange with Dr. Parheeskar, I would worry that he'd undergone some sort of radical personality shift. "Is that what you wanted to talk to me about, Fraser? Seems like the doctor could've stayed, if that was all."
"No, that's . . . " I take a moment to study him, still feeling rather at sea. His hair is very short, cut in what I believe is referred to as a "buzz," except for one patch over his right ear, which has been shaved. I can see a healing gash there, with ten or eleven sutures in it. "Ray, what's going on? Why are you here? I mean -"
"You mean why aren't I keeping Mort company like I should've been?" He smiles grimly and his gazes shifts from the floor to my hands, clasped across my stomach. Progress of a sort, I suppose. "Yeah, there's a story I won't be telling my grandkids. Reader's Digest version is I got car-jacked by two incompetents who evidently couldn't decide how to split things up evenly afterwards. They took everything I had, shot me with my own fucking gun, and left me for dead behind a dumpster before having their little showdown. I woke up a week later in the ward at County with a bunch of stitches in my head, a new hair-style, and no fucking idea what had happened. Lucky for me I knew who I was. Called the Lieu and Stella first thing, and got ahold of my parents. It was a mess. By the time I got around to calling the lawyers, the package was already here. Called the post, talked to Maggie, hopped a plane." He shrugs. "Then we found you."
"Ray, I'm . . . I'm so sorry. I never meant . . .I didn't mean for you to find me."
He finally looks me in the eye, and I almost wish he hadn't. "No shit, Fraser. But what about Maggie, huh? Did you give her even a second's thought? What about Dief, for fuck's sake?"
"I . . . wasn't thinking."
"Obviously." He shakes his head in disgust and turns abruptly, stalking towards the window.
I am bewildered by the turn of events. My joy that Ray is alive is tempered by the realisation that he is furious with me - so angry that he can't even face me. I close my eyes and lean my head back against the pillows. I feel a terrible weight settle upon me, and it's hard to breathe. The first stirrings of fear begin. He's going to leave me again, just like before. But this time there'll be no letters, not because he's dead, but because he hates me. I did this. I was selfish and stupid, and I ruined the best friendship I've ever had. Ruined my last chance. I take several deep breaths to try to regain some equilibrium. I must not give in to the panic I can feel building. Ray can understand. I can make him understand, if only I can talk to him, and get him to talk to me.
"Why did you do it?"
There's a change in his voice, finally; it's softer, not so harsh. Almost like the man I remember. I open my eyes, and he's standing by the bed again, looking at me. "Why, Fraser? You're - you were always the strongest guy I ever knew. This just doesn't make any sense to me."
"Ray, I-" I stop, and look into his eyes. There's anger there still, but something else as well. I steel myself for rejection and hold out my hand. He looks puzzled for just a moment, then he takes it and moves closer, until he is sitting on the side of the bed. I grip his hand -- it feels as if it is the only thing keeping me afloat -- and try to answer his question.
"I couldn't . . . cope. I was just drifting, sleeping most of the time. Only eating when Dief insisted. And then one day, I thought, 'Why bother?' And I . . . I suppose at that point I just gave up." This sounds hollow even to my ears, and Ray is far from satisfied.
I sigh. "Your journal . . . it made me realise how badly I'd misread you during our time together. I couldn't stop thinking about how I'd failed you -- how I could have changed things."
"Fuck," he breathes, and I smile, although I feel far from happy.
"So . . . I still don't get it, Fraser. So what if you didn't figure out I was queer? You didn't fail me. I didn't want you to know."
"That's what Maggie said."
"Yeah, she's pretty smart. Must get it from her mother; I don't think it's the Fraser genes."
"You're probably right."
We sit for a moment in a slightly more companionable silence, until Ray breaks it with another question - or rather, a demand. "So tell me how you think you failed me."
I concentrate on our still-joined hands as I say, "You're not the only son who was afraid of . . . disappointing his father, Ray." He inhales sharply, but I continue. "I think that if I had told you, though, things would have been . . . different. Better. If I'd had the courage to break the silence -- you wrote about the walls I've built, Ray -- you have no idea."
"But your dad's . . ."
"Dead, yes, I'm aware of that." I am hesitant to tell him all of it, but it's essential that he know. "Something about which I had to keep reminding him rather frequently, I'm afraid."
He looks at me suspiciously, dropping my hand to run his fingers through his hair. He winces when he encounters his injury. "Let me get this straight. So to speak. You're telling me that not only are you gay -"
He looks at me closely for a moment, but accepts my correction with good grace. He takes my hand again and squeezes it gently, before continuing. "Yeah, okay. Not only are you bisexual, but you were somehow communicating with your dead father?"
"Like -- how? 'Cause you don't strike me as the type to visit a psychic, Fraser."
"I'd hesitate to call him a ghost, but I don't have a better word for it. He took it upon himself to more or less move in with me."
Ray's eyes grow wide. "The closet thing? Way back then?"
I nod. "Before as well. Although he hadn't set up permanent residence then; he just popped in to meddle."
He shakes his head roughly, as though attempting to dislodge something. "Wow. Are you -- look, don't take this the wrong way, Fraser, but did you ever consider -" He stops talking and his eyes go to the restraints still attached to the bed frame. He blushes and clamps his lips tight together.
The situation would be almost funny if it weren't happening to me. "Did I ever consider I might just be crazy, you mean? Many times, actually, until I learned that Buck Frobisher could also see and hear Dad."
"But still . . ."
"And that Maggie could, as well."
He looks at me worriedly. "Maggie? For real?"
"Okay, I guess I - Jesus. So if I go ask her, she'll back you up?"
I try to mask the hurt I feel at this, but some must show. "Shit, Fraser, I didn't mean to - it's just a little hard to believe, you gotta give me that."
"It's all right, Ray. Go talk to Maggie. I'm . . . feeling a little tired, anyway."
He scrambles off the bed. "You want to rest for a minute? Okay, that's -- okay. Just -- you sure you should be alone?"
I nod wearily. I really am tired, in mind, spirit, and body. "I'll be fine. Go, talk to Maggie."
"Can I send Dief in?"
Unaccountably my throat tightens. "Yes, please," I manage. My vision shimmers for a moment, and I blink my eyes to clear them.
Ray stands by the bed for another moment, shifting his feet awkwardly. "I'm, um, really - I'm sorry I was so pissed at you. I was just so scared -- you swear to me you're gonna be all right? If I go talk to Maggie, I mean. Not about the ghost thing, just, stuff, just -- shit. We're not done, here, Fraser, not even close. I still want -" He breaks off and sighs deeply. "I'll go get Dief."
He leaves the room too quickly, as though he is eager to get away. I watch him go, wondering how long he'll stay around this time, wondering how I'll bear it when he leaves again, even if we are now more likely to part on good terms, at least.
Dief bounds in and jumps on the bed again, licking my face. I hug him as hard as my strength allows, and try to pretend my face wasn't wet before he got here. And then, although my mind is fighting to process all that's happened, I sleep once more.
When I awaken this time, Ray is perched on the side of the bed again, petting Dief. He sees my movement and jumps to his feet, putting space between us. His nervousness seems to be back in full force. "Hey, you're awake. Can I get you anything? Water? You want food? I can call the nurse if you want something to eat."
"Not just yet, thank you."
"Okay. I can go get Maggie, if you want. Yeah, why don't I do that? She's right outside. I'll, um, I'll go get her."
When Maggie enters, I see on her face the same mixture of anger and something else that I saw in Ray's eyes earlier. She leans over my bed and hugs me so tightly I can barely draw breath. After a moment she releases me and sits on the edge of the bed.
"Benton, you idiot, how could you do that?"
"Of which particular foolishness are we speaking?"
She frowns at me. "Starving yourself, of course. Why, what else have you been up to?"
"Didn't Ray tell you?"
"No, he just said you needed some rest. He went to call his folks and then he came right back in here. I hope he's gone to get dinner now. That's all I need, for him to wind up --" She grimaces, and changes tack. "What happened?"
"I told him about Dad."
She stares at me in much the same way Ray did. "You what?" she finally manages.
"Told him that you and I, and Buck, had seen and talked to Dad's . . . ghost."
Her hand worries the chain at her throat. "Why on earth did you do that? Ben, you're already going to have to undergo serious therapy before they even think about letting you go back on active duty. What if he tells the doctor?"
"I'm more worried that he doesn't believe me."
"For God's sake, Benton, who would?"
"Point taken," I say. "Can you tell him, please, that in this one small instance, I'm not off my rocker? Please?"
It's not something I'd ever dreamed of explaining to anyone, let alone Maggie, but I suppose I must. "I need him to know why I . . . did what I did."
She crosses her arms. "Maybe you could practise by explaining it to me first. I'd kind of like to know myself."
I sigh. She has a point. But before I can begin, the door opens and Ray slips into the room. His previous manic energy is gone now, and he moves to the bed to slip an arm around Maggie's shoulders, leaning on her slightly.
"Did you eat?" she asks.
"Hell, yeah, Mom, lay off," he says with a grin belying the gruff words. "I had something they called a turkey sandwich out of the machine down the hall. Happy?"
He grunts, then looks at me and says, "Sorry for running off like that before, Fraser."
"That's quite all right, Ray. I didn't mean to . . . freak you out." He makes a sound suspiciously like a giggle at my foray into his vernacular, and the tension in his shoulders lessens a little.
"Yeah, so, um . . ." He shrugs, moving away from Maggie to pull the chair up to the bed. "You feel up to talking now?"
"Yes, I believe so."
"Good. So talk."
"Maggie?" I say quietly, and she nods and turns to Ray.
"Ray, what Ben told you was true. For what it's worth, I talked to someone I'm convinced was Bob Fraser when I was in Chicago. I can't explain it, and I really haven't tried very hard. I never saw him again after I left."
Ray sits quietly for a moment and looks at both of us. "So either you're both freakin' loonies, which I'm still not convinced isn't the case, or . . ." He scrubs at his face with his hands. "Okay, sorry, that was out of line." He sighs heavily. "All right, I'll give you the ghost story. What does it have to do with anything?"
Maggie turns to me expectantly. I stare down at my fingers twining nervously in the blanket as though they belonged to someone else, someone who doesn't have to be here, in this bed, in this hospital, telling his deepest, most intimate thoughts to the two people who mean the most to him in all the world . . . .
I begin talking, still looking only at my fingers. "The last time I saw my father . . . we were in the mineshaft where Muldoon and I had fallen. He -- Dad -- was walking away down a tunnel of light with my mother. And they both looked . . . so damned happy, finally together again, and . . . and I wanted that." I finally look up, at Maggie. "I'm sorry," I say. "I don't mean to hurt you or in any way denigrate your mother, but . . . Dad and Mum, my mother, I think they were . . . meant to be. I could see it on their faces, in the way that they looked at one another." Maggie nods, and I go on.
"It was so obvious to me, at that moment, that death was no barrier to that kind of love. I didn't think Dad had treated Mum very well when she was alive, but he insisted she understood him. And I imagine he was right, because there she was, waiting for him. At the time, I suppose I filed it away, mentally, but after Ray . . . after I got the letter . . . I started to think about it. About dying not being the end, and about what that might mean. And after a while I could feel myself slipping away, and . . . I welcomed it."
I can't say any more. I risk a glance at Ray, and find him staring at me with a kind of hunger. In a rusty-sounding voice he says, "Maggie, could you excuse us for a minute?"
"Hmm? Oh -- sure. Of course." I hear her get up to leave, but I'm unable to look away from Ray's eyes. "Dief, come on. Walk." Dief grumbles but hops off the bed, and they go out, closing the door behind them.
Ray stands up and approaches the bed. "I'm still mad, you know. It was an extremely fucked-up thing to do."
"Yes, I know."
"I can't be the reason you live or die. I don't want that kind of responsibility."
"But do you understand . . ."
"I hope so," he grates out. "Otherwise what I'm about to do is gonna be pretty embarrassing."
He leans closer and takes my face between his palms. Our eyes are still locked, and in his I see a calm acceptance, with a small under-layer of fear. I hope he can see in mine what I couldn't say. "God, Ben," he breathes, and his mouth comes down on mine.
As kisses go, it's nothing spectacular, except for the fact that it's the first time our lips have met without a life-saving technique being involved. Except for the fact that it feels like spring after a hard winter, like water in the desert. Except for the fact that it feels as if I'm finally coming alive again.
The bed dips as he puts one knee up on it, and I pull him forward until he falls half on top of me with a grunt. His elbow presses into my chest, and I instinctively squirm to get away. He springs backwards off the bed. "Dammit -- did I hurt you?"
I shake my head and try to get my breath back. "I'm fine."
"Okay. Good." He nods, and runs his hands through what's left of his hair again. "I don't -- Fraser, what are we doing? What's next?"
Carefully I say, "Whatever you want, Ray."
"No, that's no good. No fair. You already know what I want, you read the letter, you read my damn journal. You know every thought I've had for the past two years. And all I know is that you're a stubborn idiot who talks about tunnels of light and dead parents and nothing real. I need something real, Fraser."
"I don't know how --"
"You better learn, then. Because this is easy compared to what's next. Compared to who drank all the milk and whose turn it was to do laundry, this is a walk in the park, my friend."
It's an eerie almost-echo of my father's words to me the last time Ray and I were at odds. "Partnership is like a marriage," I mumble without thinking, and Ray squints at me.
"What did you say?"
I look him full in the eye, and hitch myself up further on the bed so I am nearly upright. "Ray, would you ever consider moving to Canada?" I say tentatively.
He nods slowly. "I might. If somebody asked me to."
He's not going to make it easy on me at all, but I suppose I owe him this much. I take a deep breath. "Would you please move to Canada, Ray?"
"Because . . . because I want you to." It sounds horribly selfish to my ears, but Ray is smiling.
"You got good pizza?"
"Chinese like Ma Huang's?"
I shake my head. "Definitely not. But I heard that a Russian couple are opening a restaurant next week."
"Russian's good. Interesting." He starts to pace, his natural energy returning. "What about cable?"
"We could get a satellite dish, if you wanted."
"What'll I do for work?"
"I have no idea. What do you think you'd like to do?"
He shrugs. "Maybe I'll just sit and watch the tube all day. Take a few months' vacation, see what happens."
A few months? I fight the sudden panic and try to sound calm. "If you'd like. I suppose it needn't be . . . permanent. You should probably keep your options open; I'm sure Lieutenant Welsh would be glad to have you back."
He stops pacing and looks at me, dumbfounded. "Welsh? Why are you talking about Welsh when you just asked me to move up here?"
"I thought -- you said vacation, and I thought --"
"I meant maybe I'd just take it easy for a while. Jesus, Fraser, it's the dead of winter in the middle of the fucking tundra. If I want a vacation, I'll go visit my parents in Arizona. I kind of thought you were asking me to live with you."
Feeling incredibly relieved, I say quickly, "I was. I am."
"All right then. I accept. That cabin have running water? I didn't notice."
"Yes, it does. And electricity, before you ask."
He raises an eyebrow. "I suppose a phone is out of the question?"
I raise an eyebrow in return, and he snickers. "Yes, Ray, I have phone service. And a microwave and an electric can opener."
He sighs dramatically. "So that's it? I poured my heart out, and this is the best you got? Appliances?"
The words that came so easily to him are impossible for me. Perhaps, for now, he will forgive my use of another man's.
" 'Come live with me, and be my love, and we will some new pleasures prove'-"
"Doesn't rhyme," he interrupts, but he's smiling -- grinning, really. I fall into the rhythm of our old exchanges gladly.
"Well, it's a kind of rhyme."
"Not the kind that, um, rhymes." He climbs back onto the bed, straddling my legs, and puts one hand on my chest. "But I guess it's a start. What're you going to tell the shrink?"
"That I was horribly depressed at the loss of my best friend. That it was a very bad choice to have made."
Feeling rather like Dorothy at the end of "The Wizard of Oz," I venture an answer slowly. "That I have to live for myself, and it's wrong to expect any one person to be everything to me?"
"That too. I was going more for 'And absolutely nothing to do with ghosts or tunnels of light.' " I nod vehemently. "Good. You mind if I kiss you again?"
I close my eyes for a moment, trying to contain the joy I feel. When I open them again, I see Ray waiting for an answer. "I wish you would," I say.
He leans forward, his hand clenching my hospital gown for balance, and our lips meet. Before we can take it too far, however, the door opens and Dief bounds in again, followed by Maggie and the doctor. Ray mutters, "Dammit," and I smile. He looks around and sighs. "I guess you want me to move, huh, Doc?"
She surprises both of us by laughing. "I would like that, at least for now, Detective."
"Better make it just plain 'Ray,' Doc. The detective gig's pretty much doneski. I got a better offer." He turns back and smiles at me, giving me another quick kiss before moving from the bed.
Lethargy overcomes me again, and I drift hazily as the doctor checks my pulse, reflexes, and respiration. She frowns at the nearly full water pitcher and pours a glass, watching as I drink it down. "I want that whole pitcher gone, and another one besides. And you need to eat. I will consider sending you home tomorrow, after you've seen the staff psychiatrist. Do you have someone who can stay with you?"
"I got it covered," Ray says. "I'll have to go back to Chicago in a while to pack what's left of my stuff, but that can wait 'til he's up and around." He grins wickedly. "Or maybe a couple days after that."
I can feel my face getting warm from a blush I'm sure won't be the last. The doctor smiles and Maggie laughs outright. Ray's eyes are warm as he regards me steadily. "That okay with you, Ben?" he asks.
"Yes," I say. "More than okay. I thought that was settled."
He comes back to the side of the bed as the doctor moves away. "Yeah. I just wanted to hear it again. Make sure it's real," he says softly. "I spent too much time keeping quiet. Don't want to do it anymore."
I nod. This I can understand. I whisper "Come live with me, and be my love," and I see him blush.
"Best offer I've had in a real long time," he says, and kisses me once more.
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