(Here be other fic)
Due South, Fraser/RayK, rated in the R to NC-17 range, 46,250 words.
For the inuvikdotcom challenge; more information and author's notes here.



"You know, when I add it all up, I only got one regret. That I never went on any kind of real adventure... like finding the, you know, the top of the Nile, or the tomb, King Tut's tomb, dating a supermodel, or Franklin. What the hell is Franklin, why did I think of Franklin?"  --Ray Kowalski, "Call of the Wild"




AFTER THE NILE


The cold winter months provide a direct connection from Inuvik to Aklavik and Tuktoyaktuk which otherwise doesn't exist. (approximately January-April)


I. Happy Endings


The light was going grey and the wind was coming in from the side, had been for hours, snow whipping through it, just enough to keep you squinting, not enough to notice. The buildings hove up ahead of them dark and dim like rocks underwater, the first right angles for a hundred miles.

Leaning and pulling, leaning and pulling, two guys moved toward the town (one of them being Ray), along with a bunch of dogs (one of them being also a wolf), and a sled, footsteps and breathing mixing with the sound of the wind. And voices. They heard voices. Like something from the bottom of a tunnel. Ray heard them before he could see them, a bunch of coats in a line, making noise at each other.

Sharp noise. Trouble noise.

Instincts Ray hadn't thought he'd need out here sort of woke up and took an interest, and he squinted through the snow to get a better look. A bunch of big guys standing around a wide sled, okay, the big guys owned the sled, or they were trying to steal it, maybe from the little guy. Dief was interested too, he was making some noise of his own, barking and whining.

"Quiet, Dief," Fraser said, getting a slow start out of his silence, or maybe just his lips were numb. "We'll get there soon enough. There's no need to upset the team." But Dief pulled on ahead, and they all moved faster. The little guy in the furry hood was facing the goons down, pointing, really putting it to them. Gutsy, yeah, but that big guy on the end could be bad news. Ray reached for his armpit automatically, but no holster, his mitt bounced off his coat, everything insulated, no touching out here, no guns.

The buildings closed in from the right and left and they were in action range, heads swivelling to check them out and then back to the little guy, like he mattered more. Fraser raised a stiff hand and called out, loud and casual. "Trouble, Constable MacKenzie?"

The little guy turned and - the hood went back, and snow started spotting white on a shiny sleek blonde head, a pretty face, big eyes getting bigger in surprise. Ray gaped. She waved back, and yelled, "No trouble, Constable Fraser. I was just giving these boys a reading lesson."

Turning back to the goons, she said, "Sam?" The big guy on the end stood away from her and settled himself facing the others, all quiet hulking menace, while she stepped over under the eaves of the nearest building and banged her gloved fist against the wall. The ice fell off in a near-perfect rectangle, showing a carved and painted sign: Trapper's Rest: Pop. 43. No Loitering.

"Okay, okay, we get it," one of the goons said, and a couple weak noises from the others.

"I don't think you do." Maggie broke her way back through the snow and got right up under the leader's nose, kind of literally, especially small now with her hood down. "You're inside town limits, Farrelly. My town. Let's not have this conversation again."

"Suits me," head goon said, caving, backing up and sideways. He collected his boys with a few backhand slaps, and with a lot of grumbling, they went off out into trackless nowhere, toward the river, dragging the sledge in the middle.

Fraser watched them go, face bright and interested. His eyes scanned the scene back and forth, reading tracks and calculating compass bearings and deducing what everybody'd had for breakfast, or maybe he was just glad to have something to look at that wasn't Ray. Which didn't really explain why Ray was still looking at Fraser, now that he had other options, so he pulled it back to Maggie and waded in close through the snow.

"Hey," he said, trying to put on the charm, but it was kind of hard with everything frozen. He settled for leering hopefully and sticking his arms out. If nothing else, she was a familiar face, and probably a warm body. Jesus that sounded nice.

She gave him a small but real smile and, after a hesitation, took one of his hands to shake. "Ray. Good to see you again."

"Friendly town," Fraser said, turning up next to them and distracting her.

"Sometimes." There was some annoying telepathy and stupid bigger smiling and then Fraser got the hug, well okay, family, brother, sister, fine, Ray got that.

When Maggie's rosy face emerged from the shoulder of Fraser's coat, she backed off and stuck an arm out at the remaining goon, who'd closed in to stand near her again, and said, "And this is Constable Ulysses Grant."

"You can call me Sam." He shook gloves with Fraser, who was frowning at him.

"So your full name then would be..."

"My pop was American. Moved up here before I was born."

"Ulysses?" Ray snickered, shuffling around to keep warm and drifting back in his mind to far-off parking lots. Name worse than Stanley, go figure. "That must have got you beat up a lot after school."

Ray turned and his numb nose nearly ran into a field of brown parka that ran out for a ways on either side and some up and down. He jerked back and moved his own shoulders out resentfully, twisting to take up more room. The guy looked down at him from the top of the coat. "You can call me Sam," he said.

"Huh. Yeah."

Ray dropped back beside Fraser, who'd been carrying on some talk with Maggie, lots of hand-waving and politing, and got in step with him next to the sled as she started to lead the way down the flattened snow path between the buildings. "I don't like that guy," he muttered.

"This way, Diefenbaker." The dogs were already moving. Fraser watched Constable Goon fall in a pace behind his sister and said nothing about it. But. Fraser didn't talk as much as he used to, could mean anything.

"Did you know she was here?"

"Oh, Maggie?" Fraser said, as if they'd seen another woman for weeks that Ray might be talking about. "Well, not exactly. She wrote me that she was being posted outside Inuvik, and I'd hoped to find her along our route. It seems a good chance to-" his eyes flickered across Ray's face, and he went on, "regroup."

"Regroup. Right." He looked front again, watched the dogs and the two backs ahead of them, the occasional walls of shacks and snowdrifts going by. After however many weeks in the middle of nowhere, four people felt like a parade. Or something. "Hoped to find her, huh? Fraser, you picked our route."

"Oh, I wouldn't say that, Ray. Your input was the deciding factor."

"I pointed at the map and said 'hey, what about that piece of white with the blue circles? Looks more fun than the one with the squiggly lines.' You're the one who picked the towns and the compass bearings and the, the bivouacs."

"Well." It sounded like Fraser was going to keep going, but then, he didn't, that's all that was on the menu. Again. Surprise.

Maggie took them back to the outpost and helped them kennel the dogs, Mr. Big helping too, and Dief didn't growl at him, though that didn't prove anything. There was a sled team already there, and the dogs were all busy getting to know each other and sniffing tails and growling and thumping, and human stuff was going to have to wait. Well, at least he got to go and get some heat now. After all those nights in a tent, Maggie's place looked like a Hilton. They left the dogs munching tallow and went around the corner in the dark, snow crunching under their feet, Maggie's keys jingling as she let them in to scrape their boots by the door.

Call-me-Sam took off at that point, like he had that vampire thing about crossing thresholds, her hand on his arm as she said, "I'll be there in a minute."

Ray, pack hoisted on his shoulder, craned his neck to watch and practically walked into Fraser, as the relative warmth of the dark living room closed in around them.

"Pardon me." Fraser moved away with his own lumpy share of the baggage and the lights went on, weird and artificial. Not a lamp. Maggie had a generator. Ray stared at Fraser's face, the new set of planes and shadows. Fraser didn't look back as he dropped the bag on the floor and straightened up. He started shucking his scarf and hat, unzipped his collar. Automatically, Ray did the same thing.

"Well, make yourselves at home, fellas. The, ah, facilities are through there - you're in luck, we got the pipes thawed out last week. I'll be back soon. Sam thinks he saw something in the tracks by the old tannery."

"May we-?" Fraser lifted a log at her, and she of-coursed and did a funny kind of salute and put her hood up and backed out the door and shut it, leaving them there, in civilization.

There was a table. Chairs. Rugs. Books on shelves. Quiet, no dogs, no beating and flapping tent walls right by your head. Fraser was setting up sticks in the fireplace.

Ray burst out, "Regroup? You mean go home. You mean give me a chance to chicken out. Right? That's what you're thinking."

The match flared and started to burn down to Fraser's fingers, as he looked up. Then he tossed it in among the tinder and sat back on his heels. Predictably, a fire started right up, reflected on his face.

"You mean you thought if you got me under a roof again, running water, I'd start thinking about hot showers and hot dogs and fast cars and fast women. Little taste of home and Ray waves the white flag, huh? Not ready for the Canadian league, no harm no foul. You thought I'd punk out and slink home like a yellow dog, all talk, no guts, that's me, that's what you think."

Fraser's fingers folded and brushed his neck, trying to tug a collar that wasn't there. "I'm not impugning your resolve, Ray, but since you raise the subject..."

Bare. Neck. Fingers. "Well, I got news for you, Fraser. It may have escaped your notice but I am from Chicago. And Chicago? Is cold. Big boy cold. Wind chill, ice, frostbite, we got it all. Your car runs out of gas on the way to the store and just like that, you're a roadside popsicle. You how know people talk about hell freezing over? Yeah. My home town. So, you think you can scare me off just by throwing some camping in there too, you're wrong. This is nothing, this is a walk in the park. You want me gone, you gotta try harder than that."

"A walk in the park?" Ooh, something in the tone there. Something waking up. Fraser's hands were on his knees, he was giving Ray a look, going to call him on it. And Ray was going to get mad. There was punching coming on, hard words, fisticuffs, his breath came faster, because at least - at least -

But Fraser just looked at him, and got to his feet, slow and civilized, no sign there was anyone in there after all. "All right." He moved back to the entryway, Ray spinning, knees bent, but it wasn't about him, nothing doing. "You'll want to hang your coat up before it drips on the floor."

"I know. I knew that. I'm not a kid, Fraser, we have coats in Chicago."

But he wasn't in Chicago any more. And whose bright idea was that?


...


Yeah, well, see...


...


So, the deal with the thing was he'd kinda thought it would be more fun than this.

Nah, okay, he hadn't really been thinking, at all, except say anything that might slow it down, put off the moment when Fraser went one way and he went another, back toward home like a cowboy riding off into the sunset.

Except Steve McQueen got to ride off with Yul Brynner - yeah, even Steve - and maybe that's why he'd had the nerve to say it, just blurt it out, "What about the big adventure? You want to go? You could go with me." Like he knew how to do it by himself anyway. Like he'd last a day here by himself, like he'd want to.

But Fraser said yes. That just... whoa, blew his mind. He'd been saying it was a stupid idea and ducking and all set to scram for the other side of the room and it took him a minute to get that Fraser was nodding with the staring, it wasn't a Ray-you-are-a-crazy-man stare, not a face-it-game-over stare, just some kind of... maybe a that's-a-pretty-good-idea stare, maybe some kind of good thing.

Fraser'd had this starry-eyed look ever since they crossed the border, kind of weird being on the receiving end of it, but this place just did something for him, you could see that. Ray never understood how homesick Fraser'd been until he saw him here, saw him all happy. Not exactly a different guy, but - weird. He was nodding harder now.

"The hand of Franklin," he said, in the storyteller voice, rich and warm and smoky, corner of his mouth going up, satisfied, his unfocused eyes halfway to the ending already, Ray could see lines rolling across a map like in the movies. "Why not."

Yeah, why not? His parents weren't going to get it, but they tried not to get a lot of things about him, since they decided to start talking to him again. Thatcher got it - oh boy, did she - and if looks could kill he'd be six feet under, but she pressed her lips together until they turned white and wished them luck, hell, what else, she'd made her choice. She just didn't want the guy bad enough. Tough.

And Turnbull got excited and said some stuff in French, and started to sing, until she hit him in the kidneys. And Fraser explained it to the smelly boss Mountie, Frobisher, and they got all their stuff together, and picked up some dogs, and made some really fuzzy long-distance phone calls, and put on a bunch more long johns, and then they rode off into the sunset together. Except it was more like dawn, but same concept, right?


But maybe dawn just didn't work the same way.


...


The A-frame was clean and well-organized, few personal items in the common area. No, for example, family photos. Fraser made efficient use of the facilities - indoor plumbing and running water, Ray would be pleased - studied the spines of the books and moved on to investigate the kitchen, while Ray unpacked in moody silence.

On Maggie's return, cold-cheeked and thoughtful, Fraser helped her heat up a simple meal, Ray wisely staying out of their way after the first few collisions.

"I'll, uh, I'll wash the dishes," he called from the doorway, sounding frustrated.

Fraser was curious about their encounter with the man Farrelly and the results of Maggie's investigation at the tannery, but she didn't volunteer the information and of course he didn't wish to pry in another officer's jurisdiction. Particularly since, as an older brother, he might be taken to be, well, interfering.

He asked about her trailer instead - sold when she moved - and the generator, as he had been away for a few years, granted, but surely it was still unusual for the officers' quarters in a town of only 43 to have heat, water, and electricity. To which the answer was that the town infrastructure was required to support much larger seasonal population fluctuations, which was understandable, with Inuvik nearby and the traffic on the ice roads. Maggie warned him that the road to Tuktoyaktuk would be closing in a few days, and he changed the subject.

"So, what are you two doing here?" she asked, after a decently uninquisitive period had elapsed. "Have some stew, Ray."

"Thanks. Mm-mm! Looks great. What is it?"

"Moose, mostly. We got word you were heading north, but Sergeant Frobisher's message wasn't clear about why. Is it classified?"

Fraser deferred to Ray to explain his dream of adventure, but Ray was mouthing the word 'moose' at his plate.

Maggie looked back and forth between them and said, "Is something the matter?"

"Oh, no, no, moose, moose, that's good." Ray turned the full force of his 'She puttin' me on?' expression on Fraser, who, without addressing the question, assured him that moose was full of protein and surprisingly tender, earning a suspicious look of his own, to which he didn't respond. As he'd expected, Ray then shrugged and fell on his dinner like a starving wolf. Ray might complain or protest at times, but on the whole, he was a fairly pragmatic individual.

Fraser launched into the explanation, repeated enough times to roll off his tongue. "Well, Maggie, you might say we're on a sort of quest, or journey of discovery..."


Far more feasible than it sounded, assuming proper preparation and the guidance of one familiar with the environment like himself. He'd impressed upon Ray principles such as the importance of taking care not to exert himself to the point of perspiration, as sweat soaks clothing and cools the body, and the need to guard his own safety at all times. Once you've been injured, he'd told him, your judgement is affected, your reflexes slowed, and your likelihood of further injury increases dramatically. At which point you can effectively protect neither your own welfare nor that of your partner.

"We're not partners any more, Fraser."

Ray's voice was calm as he struggled along, pacing Fraser by the side of the sled, his gait still awkward that second day, but no longer the same inefficient protest against the very concept of snow.

"What? Of course we are."

"No. You, being a Mountie, up here. Me, a cop, in Chicago. Not partners."

Fraser raised his eyebrows and digested it. "All right. I suppose you have a point. Very well. For now then we're merely two men, in a voluntary association, to... pursue a quest for the Hand of Franklin. We're explorers."

"We're not explorers. Maybe you're an explorer. I'm a dumb flatfoot who couldn't find his ass with both hands."

"I've been meaning to talk to you about that, Ray."

"What's that?"

"Fat." He flourished the well-wrapped bundle. "More precisely, blubber. Muktuk, as the locals call it. A very efficient form of calorie transfer. You'll need to build up a seasonal layer of subcutaneous insulation, similar to my own."

"Yeah. Come again in English?"

"Your... ass. You need to be able to find it."



Ray was wiping the back of his hand across his mouth, staring at Maggie, and giving her that rather rakish grin that might have a concerned father reaching for his shotgun. Fraser, of course, was neither her father, nor - in any reasonable sense - concerned, given that she was a very bright and competent young woman, fully capable of making her own decisions. Nor was he bearing arms. For a number of good reasons. He returned his attention to the stew.

He concluded, after some thoughtful tasting, that it did contain moose (legally hunted, of course,) complimented Maggie on the seasoning, and ate up.

"Well, that's quite a story," she said, absorbing Ray's open stare with only minor discomfort. "Best of luck to you."

Ray was still eating. "Thank you," Fraser said for both of them.

"So you're on extended leave, then?"

Ah. A reasonable question. Yes. Very reasonable. He said, "Might I trouble you for another serving of this excellent stew?"

"It's good," Ray said. "Even the, you know, the chewy bits."

Fraser waited patiently until his sister moved to refill the bowl.

"And what about you, Maggie, how are things? Congratulations on the new posting, by the way."

She laughed, once. "It's probationary, but I'm lucky to be back on duty at all. And it's less developed than Inuvik. Reminds me of home."

"But not, I noticed, without... activity?"

She accepted the invitation with a grimace. "Farrelly and his gang. They haven't been any real trouble. Not that I can prove. Actually, this whole town is strangely - peaceful. Very little drunk and disorderly, few hunting or traffic violations, and no violent crime."

"What. None?" Fraser lowered his spoon. She met his eyes squarely.

"Not so much as a barroom brawl."

"Well, hey, congratulations, right?" Ray leaned back in his chair, a hand on his stomach, squinting.

"That's odd."

"Very odd."

"It certainly is."

Their eyes were still locked, but he could sense that Ray was growing restive. "You see, Ray, violent crime is common in this part of the Northwest Territories. It's by far statistically the highest - none at all? Really?"

"According to my predecessor's files, there've been no reported incidents for at least a year."

Ray slumped forward with his chin on his wrists. "So you're saying it's quiet. Too quiet." He snickered to the table.

Fraser was about to identify the reference for his sister's benefit, just in case, when he stopped, struck by her expression. "It is, a bit," she said, as if confessing something. "I can't put my finger on it. But sometimes... it feels like I can't even hear the birds."

She noticed his attention and stood up, collecting the flatware. "Time for some bark tea, eh?"

Ray shoved his chair back and danced like a boxer, as if unsure which of them to address. "You know what? Much as I would love to have some tea. Because, you know, after a long hard day's night that bark stuff really hits the spot. But I think I gotta... Dief, I gotta go check on Dief. See that he's settling in okay with the local dogs, say hello. Read him a bedtime story."

"That's really quite unnecessary, you know, we've talked before about not indulging his whims."

"Fine, fine, no story." He was hopping around in his stocking feet, dodging their chairs and into his coat in the small space. "I'll just, uh... be back soon. You guys got stuff to talk about."

"You're welcome to stay, Ray, you're not intruding-"

He was gone around the corner, and with a shuffling noise of boots the outside door banged.

"He doesn't like tea?"

Fraser stopped looking at the empty doorway and turned back to her. After discarding a few alternatives, he said, "I'm sure he still has every intention of washing the dishes."



The cold air hit him like a wall - and he'd been hit by walls, before, so he knew. Ray hissed and pulled the door shut again.

Just like that. He'd gotten used to it - he'd been out there for weeks, day and night, he'd lived in it like a, like a fish in water. No problem. Couple hours indoors, and suddenly it was more than he could take. Cold enough to make you cry, teeth-chilling, eyeball-piercing cold. He couldn't face it.

Ray rested his cheek against the door and gripped the knob. He'd said he was going to check on Dief and when a man says he is going to go see a dog about a thing, he does it. On three. One, two,

"He seems to be adapting well."

Crap. He wasn't going to listen to this. Any possible answer from Fraser was going to get his guts all twisted.

"Yes, I suppose he is."

Suppose? He was adapting, she even said so. That would be good, right?

"That's good." Yeah, see, Maggie thought so too. So why did Fraser sound like he was talking about dead fish?

Fraser cleared his throat loud enough to be heard in the next room. "I know you must have been surprised to see us. I hope we're not too much of a bother."

"Oh! Not in the least!" She sounded like she meant it, anyway. Good sport, Maggie. "I was hoping you'd turn up. They even sent mail for you."

"Really!" Ray could see his face, the lower lip out in surprise, the eyebrows. He pulled himself off the door and took a deep breath.

"Forwarded courtesy of Sergeant Frobisher. You're getting decorated, by the way. Did you know that?"

Fraser with a medal, and a grateful nation waiting to welcome him home. Ray got the door open and jumped out into the icy air of doom and shut it all away behind him - warmth, shelter, relaxation, safety. Home, for somebody. The door clicked to and he was alone in the dark. The inside of his nose froze and the wind felt like it wanted to personally kill him, but he put a hand on the firewood stack and felt his way along the wall toward the kennel, keeping his feet flat so he wouldn't slip on the ice. A guy can get used to anything.

He can get used to it as many times as it takes.



"But I can't help but wonder - sometimes-" Maggie was bashful with him, a natural touch of hero worship. He supposed that had he an older brother, he would react the same way. "I joined the force as soon as I was old enough," she said now, sitting back down with her mug and passing him his. "Keep the strong from preying on the weak. I've never wanted to do anything else. But it's just a little strange, going from hunting the Torellis back to... filling out forms and checking hunting licenses."

Fraser looked at the steaming surface of the water, then back at her. "No human institution is infallible," he said. He'd learned to say it, over the years, even if he still didn't quite believe it. "Even the RCMP. Yes, you were forced to act alone to locate your husband's killers. But in the end you turned to the law for justice, rather than vengeance."

And that had saved her. He wondered if he should tell her how very much he did understand - how close he had come, himself, to killing from anger and a belief that he could judge, to putting a criminal down like a mad dog. Beginning to try to frame the words, he pushed them aside and said only, "This is what people need, Maggie. The execution may be flawed, at times, but where civilization is spread thin, we are the best tools for the job. The greatest source of hope."

She sighed, and then forced a smile. "Of course." Still relative strangers, their strongest bond was perhaps that training, and that belief. He thought back to their meeting, his sense of ease with her, their traded stories. It was almost eerie how much they had in common, despite a few obvious differences. He thought that at her age, he had been considerably smugger, for one thing. Still, Ray's reaction to her had been - interesting. An almost desperate pursuit.

She hadn't seemed to respond, natural enough in a recent widow, and yet, at the end, she had chosen to kiss him. Fraser had turned too quickly and seen it. He'd seen Ray bent forward, his neck stretched, his mouth pressed against Maggie's, his arms pulled back as if to avoid familiarity. He suspected that was not how Ray normally kissed a woman. He would kiss as he did everything else, with sharp focus, with frenetic energy, with headlong abandon.

Fraser caught this train of thought - he'd been soothed by the bark tea, his mind drifting - and cut it off firmly.

He must not, indeed it was very important that he not, think about kissing Ray. This was another general principle. The thought did things to him. It distracted him, for one - something that in the wilderness could be fatal. It even kept him awake, at times, which meant he would be in less than peak condition the next day, and also... when he was near sleep, he seemed closer to the dangerous, reckless side of himself, the one that responded to promises of revenge, and violence, and lust.

His instincts seemed especially alive out here, his animal side. But control and discipline, constant watchfulness, were even more necessary to their survival.

Maggie was as bright and clean as a freshly pressed uniform, her young face lined with pain, but not yet compromise. Looking at her made him feel that his dark thoughts and doubts were simply nightmare, the product of isolation and lack of sleep. He was who he had always been. And Ray was his partner and friend. Any inconvenient physical reactions could be dealt with the sensible way, alone, tonight.

"Speaking of Chicago. How is your - our! father?" She looked about the kitchen eagerly, eyebrows raised. Checking the shadows.

Fraser felt the comfort drain back out of him before he'd had a chance to get used to it. "Ah. I don't know," he said. Reluctant to discuss it, but she had a right to ask. "But I believe he's..." he groped for a word. "Well."

"You're not sure?"

Fraser shook his head. "He left. He... left." It was strangely difficult to talk about, even to someone who believed him. "He's gone now."

Maggie's eyebrows went up further. "Really gone?" In the openness of her confusion and disappointment, she looked like a little girl. So this cabin was one more place Bob Fraser had forgotten to come home to. Searching for finality in his face and finding it, she sat back, then said to herself, a bit rallyingly, "Mum said he never stayed for long."

"When my father first began, haunting me, I suppose you could call it, it was - well, on the whole, peculiar, and inconvenient and often very irritating, but still, I thought we'd been given another chance. To get to know each other. To be like other families. Perhaps become, close." Laughable thought. "After we cornered Muldoon, he said he'd solved his last crime, and so, there was no further reason to be here. Of course."

His mouth was numbing, tongue tangling and heavy, but he found he couldn't stop. Maggie stretched a hand to him, as if she could see through the shadow of the mine shaft. "And... my mother came. She..."

Maggie's reaching hand lay on the table, the fingers curling uncertainly. He closed his eyes against the steam from the tea. "She led him away. She didn't say anything. I don't think she could. I could see her, but I wasn't... close enough." He opened his eyes again on the stirring of foolish anger. "He said I didn't want the other door."

Maggie had pulled her hands back, but she leaned forward now, her fists on the table. "You didn't."

He tried a smile. "No?"

"When Casey was killed - bringing in the Torellis was the only thing that kept me moving. Knowing they were out there, that they'd gotten away with it. That they were alive and he wasn't. Otherwise I'd have-" she laughed awkwardly, but the sincerity was clear - "just lain down in the snow one night and waited for him to come find me."

Fraser nodded at her. For a moment he could feel the cold of the train platform against his back, phantom snow spinning down around him, the pain of more losses than he could count shooting through him, dizzy and brutal.

"Tell you the truth, if I'd known I might really have seen him, well, I wouldn't be here." She wrapped her hands around the mug again and looked earnestly at him. "But, you have to keep going. Mum always said things happen for a reason. Besides. You have me now!" He tried to give her a real smile that time, and winced as he saw the inadequacy bruise in her clear and hopeful eyes. "And - Ray. You still have Ray. He seems a very faithful friend."

"Faithful, yes."

"He's come a long way to be with you."

"Believe me, I'm aware of that." Fraser pulled his hand away from his temple, sighed.

Maggie tilted her head. "Then you..."

"I should really go see if he's gotten lost on the way back from the kennel. Excuse me."

"D'you think he would? It's just around the corner."

"With Ray - it's hard to know what to think."

But he'd hardly gotten his boots on before Ray came back through the door, or half-fell, rather, shivering and uttering formless curses.

"And how is Dief?"

Ray gave him one of those strangely black looks from under his brows and said, with another heaving breath, "Dief's good. He's good."



Dief was good. Dief, unlike Ray, was bedding down for the night with a bunch of warm bodies next to him, although Ray would have settled for one. He wasn't sure, but it looked like Dief had picked up some kind of girlfriend already. Damn dog had more fun...

The sleeping bags were laid out in the main room with extra blankets on top, further apart than they'd gotten used to on the trail, or than they would have put them in Chicago even. Maggie, stopping by on her way to bed, poked up the fire for them, her jeans giving him a rear view that was kind of hard to forget, until she turned around and there was the shirt she'd been wearing under the other shirts that she'd taken off, a kind of thermal waffle thing that curved in all the right places - well, no, that was Maggie doing the good curving, but staring at the shirt was just that little bit more polite, and Fraser was going to kick his ass if he didn't stop right now, right? Or maybe Fraser wouldn't notice. Maggie noticed, but she was a sport, bit frigid maybe, but still kinda hot. Cold, hot, cold, hot.

"Ray. Ray. Ray. Ray."

He blinked and shook himself all over. He'd fallen asleep on his feet.

He dove into the sleeping bag and shed clothes in a whirlwind, pulling on others, ignoring Fraser's silent presence, his broad face showing at the top of the bag. The floor felt strange after weeks on the ground. Maybe less comfortable, maybe more, he didn't know.

He seems to be adapting. Yes, I suppose he is.

Suppose? What is that? Fraser didn't know? Maybe Fraser hadn't thought twice about it. Maybe... Ray didn't know what that meant, but he knew he was mad. He rolled onto his shoulder. Still mad. He rolled the other way. He was mad over there too. He thrashed his feet and lumped up into a bundle, pressing his head against the floorboards until it started to hurt. His toes were still cold. But at least he could feel them, even wiggle them.

"Ray," Fraser said pissily.

"What," he muttered to the floor.

"Just straighten out and relax into it. You'll be warmer in the long run."

Yeah, easy for him to say, with his subcutaneous layers of muktuk. Straightening out flat and thinking about Fraser's thicker body warmer in his own sleeping bag, the padded curve of his ass and stomach, his chunky shoulders and arms lying straight and still at his sides, didn't make him any less mad, although it did get him kind of ... from bothered to hot and bothered and do not pass go, and here we go again.

Christ on a bike. This hadn't happened since Chicago. Sure he'd kept noticing Fraser, who wouldn't, even all bundled up and quiet. He got under your skin, he just did. But nothing Ray couldn't forget about. Fraser'd actually given him some kind of instructions on how to beat off in a sleeping bag without getting it ruined - though he'd been so businesslike about it that Ray hadn't realized what he was talking about until it was practically over - but he hadn't needed to do it yet, crazy as that sounded, he'd been too tired, too brutally, bone-deep tired. Like getting punched all over. Soon as he got himself in position, Fraser's sleepy voice saying goodnight and he was out like a light.

Here, though. Safe and warm and dry. His muscles felt strange, twitchy. Maggie and the insides of her thighs in those sturdy jeans. Fraser over there on the floor, the line of his body from nose to toe, but he wasn't going to look. Staring at your friend and partner, ex-partner, at night was creepy enough without thinking heavy-breathing thoughts while you're doing it. Okay, okay, he was going to have to fix this though. How'd he gone this long without a little hands-on action? Craziness. Too cold to go outside. Too cold even to get up and head to the can, and that would mean waking up Maggie, anyway. He'd do it here. Just wait for Fraser to fall asleep.

He watched the fire on the logs, tempted to let his hand drift down just for kind of preliminaries, just to get it in position, but better not, it might get hard to stop. And he wasn't sure how he'd know when Fraser was asleep, since he always dropped off first. Snoring would help. What was he going to think about? Maggie? Nah... too close, he'd be guilty, feeling like Fraser would know, somehow, paste him one. That blonde Mountie he'd met back at the ship? Thatcher? No. No Mounties, no uniforms. Get away from the Mountie thing entirely. Elaine? Cop! Look, okay, start from the other end. Picture a frilly dress... short, pink... high heels... there was a noise.

Just a shooshing faint rustle from across the room, but his whole body stiffened. Not just the part that already was.

It happened again. Soft, stealthy, slow. A hand against material, moving for no reason. Nothing. Then, moving again.

He knew that sound.

It couldn't be, but it had to be. He let his head fall left, eyes squinched shut, and it stopped. It stopped, and he lay there listening to the logs crackle and feeling his building hard-on pushing against his briefs, and trying to keep his breathing really even - really quiet - really - asleep.

And yeah. It started again. Fraser's hand. Sliding. In the old rhythm.

Cautiously, he opened his eyes a crack, eyelashes still touching, then more. The sound kept going, swoosh, pause, swoosh.

The room was dark, but he could see shadows and shapes, in the yellow light of the fire. The solid outline of Fraser's body, head, chest, feet, and sure enough... movement, right there. Fraser's hand was moving, he was touching himself. Ray knew Fraser had the same equipment everyone did, he'd seen it, sure, but he'd never really believed -

And the hand was moving faster now, Fraser was getting into it. His breath was coming harder, harsher. There was a catch in it, like he was putting the brakes on a runaway car. He was - he was getting up on one elbow, scooting back, his mouth open, his eyes screwed shut. His whole arm was scraping against the material, and the blanket slipped down - and Ray could see the top of his hand, just the back of his hand coming out of the bag, wrapped in a handkerchief, doing a twist and plunging down out of sight. Then back. Again. Again.

Ray watched with his eyes half open and his mouth all the way, stunned, totally rigid, until Fraser made a sort of wheezing whimpering noise and shuddered all over, and then slowly straightened out again, pulling out the crumpled-up kerchief and shoving it under his pack behind the folded clothes, and bringing his arm back inside the bag. Then his breathing ironed out flat and he was asleep, for real.

Ray wasn't.

They were too close. He was too used to being near Fraser, he could catch the unfamiliar smell in the air, even with the woodsmoke. Ray rolled himself carefully onto his back and then reached an arm out to fumble in his own pack, quick and quiet. Fraser'd given him an extra one of those big handkerchiefs, he'd never been sure what for, but he knew where it was. This was going to take about 45 baZOOM seconds, and then maybe he could pass out.

He told himself he wasn't going to think. Getting it up wasn't a problem tonight, that's for sure. He forced away all awareness of the room and the other person in it, closed his eyes, made himself see just dark. Just feel his hand. It worked, for about two strokes, and then... dark, tired, aching, no, not this again. Fuck, he'd tried not to think about this, but it came back sometimes.

He was in the locker room again. With his shirt over his head, pummelled and tired, couldn't get it off and Fraser was watching. The dog's at his feet giving him this look like he knows something about Ray and he's laughing at him, and then the dog's not there and Fraser still is and the shirt's stuck around his shoulders and he's leaning forward, weak and bare.

He wasn't going to think about it, but he couldn't stop, and it was different tonight. Tonight Fraser was walking forward.

In the echoey silence of the empty locker room, he could hear Fraser's footsteps coming towards him, around behind him, and he was staring at his own feet. He knew Fraser was looking at him. Standing behind him, just standing there looking at Ray's back. Fraser won't touch, he'd never do that. But he's looking, he wants to - look at - wantstowantstoFraser wanting - and now, he's, he's, Fraser's got his hands at his belt... he's opening it up, he's unbuttoning... and that's enough, BLAM. But as Ray started to come Fraser came too, face like that, came all over his back, thick spatters across and between his shoulder blades, warm and clinging. Ray groaned out loud.

And then it was over. He had just long enough to pant a couple times, pull off the kerchief, drop his hand to his side and think "I am so screwed" before sleep sucked him into a big, black wall.




II. Ice Roads


Maggie was frying bacon the next morning. In the close indoor air, you could feel the smell touching your face, heavy with grease and salt. That was all. Ray blinked himself conscious, confused, until he realized what was wrong - he was expecting to wake up to Fraser, Fraser's sweat, Fraser's - and then he nearly closed his eyes again.

He didn't because Fraser was padding around the room, awake. Wearing his long johns. He'd rolled his bed up already, and been to the kitchen to say hello. He got down on the floor by his pack and started going through it for clothes, kneeling, face soft like a choirboy. No sun or wind in here. It was the first time Ray had seen him when he wasn't squinting, for weeks, almost. He had a nice mouth.

Ray watched him take his clothes into the bathroom and shut the door.

Normally Fraser would have changed right there, peeled that red flannel off and stepped out of it. Maggie, that's why he'd closed the door. Nothing to do with this fluttering, thudding sensation every time Fraser moved a hand or turned his head. And it wasn't even the first time he'd felt it looking at Fraser, although it was the first time he'd been sure what it was. He used to think it was just... like, excitement. Because you had to stay on your toes with Fraser around, he kept you moving, left, right, duck.

First time they met Fraser could have had him on the ropes in seconds. With that private school accent and the worse-than-they'd-warned-him good looks, and that skeptical attitude, a lot like Stella. (Everything was like Stella back then.) He'd had to push back hard just to keep his feet under him. Show he wasn't Vecchio Lite, make Fraser deal with him on his terms. He knew he could do the job, he was prepped and ready, if Fraser would give him a chance. And finally Fraser saw it his way. Then he kept on pushing because hey, that's what he did, and Fraser seemed to like it.

Yeah, he liked it. And Ray liked him.

Ray was a different guy back then, or close to it. Closer to the edge. Without Stella to take the edge off at night the job was chipping away at him hard. Didn't want to turn into one of the bad guys, too late for college, too dumb to see another way and too stubborn to ask anybody. Then for a while, he'd found something that really worked. What came back at him from Fraser was a him he could feel good about, and Fraser always knew where he was going.

But he'd gotten sucked in too far. He'd thought maybe he had a prayer of finding himself out here, turning into somebody big enough to walk on alone when the time was up. And now this.

Last night, being in the same room, seeing that - it was like, like something had happened, like they'd fooled around, almost, only Fraser didn't know they'd done it. Less of a deal than some of what he used to - back, jeez, million years ago now - before he married Stella, the guy stuff, but it felt like more. He'd forgotten about all that as much as he could, pretended it didn't count, but he couldn't look at Fraser now and not... not... put it together. He knew he wanted to do it again, do more, he wanted Fraser to know about it, he wanted Fraser to want him to want to want him to... uh... the point here is feelings, he was having some feelings. Kind of stupid to pretend they weren't there.

Although there were maybe some signs, speaking as a detective with highly trained instincts and a special sensitivity to body language, that he'd been doing that for a long time.

The shower went on. The whole house creaked as water started going through the pipes. He could think back about how stupid he'd been, smack himself up about it, but why bother. Done was done. Instead, he lay there listening, while on the other side of the door Fraser was turning his face up into the spray and his hair was going black, and thought some more about what he was going to turn into.

What his dad hadn't wanted - one of those guys you see on TV, or like Jimmy Treutler down the block: decent guys but lispy, and, and, twinkletoes. No, never, no way. (Maybe?)

Frannie. Pathetic and moony-eyed and getting pissed off, finally, that Fraser never would get a clue. Except that he already knew that if Fraser didn't get it it's because Fraser didn't want to, so that wouldn't happen to him. More like...

Himself, like before the Henry Allen, only worse. Keyed up and haywire, going nuts because he wanted something and he wasn't sure what. Until he got it: Fraser decided not to take the transfer. He'd agreed to stay, because they mattered, Ray mattered. Unless he was just hanging around to see Vecchio again. But in that case, why'd he been planning to go? Had to be because Ray got to him, right? Ray pissed him off that badly that he was willing to give up and go. So either way, Ray was a big deal, if you looked at it like that.

Hi, I'm Ray Kowalski, and I'm turning into my fake sister.

And she wasn't even that any more. Frannie was just some crazy chick he used to work with. The real Vecchio was back, ties were cut, and Ray was floundering after Fraser through the snow like cans tied to a car, banging along the ground, hoping, hoping, hopeless.

But floundering Ray could do. Pathetic he could do. Subtle he was not so good at, but that didn't matter with Fraser, who was a master at the art of not seeing what was under his nose.

"Ray?" Maggie was standing in the doorway, looking uncertain. "You want some breakfast? Fraser said you might like a break from pemmican." She had her arm up like a guy, her breast curving out under the lumberjack shirt not like a guy at all. That still looked really good to him. Really, really good. Okay, so, New Ray was a lot like Old Ray, pretty much. And the bacon smelled fantastic. He smiled weakly at her and shoved the handkerchief way down in the bag so it wouldn't come out when he did.

When he stumbled into the kitchen, still dirty and crusty and walking in his socks, Call-me-Sam was leaning opposite the stove with his arms folded, looking like he owned the place. The slanted wall made him loom out like one of those gargoyles on the Tribune Tower.

"Company, huh?" Ray stood right next to Maggie while he was getting his plate, just proving he could.

"I stopped by about the jamboree group."

"Would that be the Beluga Jamboree?" Fraser asked, straight-faced, coming into the room dressed and flannelled up and shaved with his hair clean.

"We send a group up to Tuktoyaktuk every year. I was going to go check those tracks again in better light, but Sam says this is looking like a problem." Maggie turned the gas off and smiled up at Fraser, giving him a distracted little punch in the arm, and pulled over a can to pour the grease in. "You're sure it won't wait?"

Ray sat down with his bacon and biscuits and got ready to learn more than he wanted to know about beluga. Adventure, the big, grand, thing, he was still pretty much okay with, high mountains, big plains, the works, but most of the day-to-day details turned out to be hard or cold or squishy. Beluga sounded squishy.

Sam was talking at Maggie. "Grandpa Nungak buttonholed me at the store this morning. Wants us to get Jules off his back for him."

"Maybe with a full detachment," she said, tipping the cast iron one-handed, and he did a ha noise kind of thing that was probably how goons laugh when they're busy checking out Fraser.

"So you're Constable MacKenzie's cousin?"

Fraser did a slow take on that, then tried it over again while looking at Maggie, the words 'Am I supposed to be your cousin or do I tell this bozo you're my dad's love child?' lit up in blinking neon across his face.

Smooth, Fraser. Ray shook his head and gnawed the bacon.

"Oh. He's..." Maggie put the pan down and looked over her shoulder. "No, he's my brother. Half."

"Half-brother. Brother," Fraser chimed in.

They looked at each other and said "Brother" together, finishing off the who's-on-first routine, and Maggie got back to cleaning up, and what anyone else thought about it, hard to say. Constable Junior was still looming for all he was worth over there, while Ray ignored him and got physical with the breakfast. He could ignore a lot with food in his face. He did end up learning a few things though, not on purpose.

Beluga was whales, not caviar. The weather was supposed to be warming up. Fraser ate his food like he couldn't taste it. Maybe he just missed the pemmican. Call-me-Sam had a thing for dark navy sweaters. Sometimes he'd peel one off and there'd be another one underneath. He was kind of good-looking in that way you don't really notice - plain and masculine, dark eyebrows. He didn't talk much. Ray still didn't like him.

"I'd better get moving." Maggie stood up and so did her shadow, unfolding his arms and straightening some, although he still had to keep his head down. What a suck-up. "If you gentlemen want to come along, you're welcome? I know you're on holiday..."

Fraser stacked his knife and fork like he was glad to be rid of them. "I'd be very happy to, but first I'll need to exercise the dogs. I'll catch up to you later."

"Dogs. Right." Ray dropped the napkin by his plate and started to push himself up.

"Oh, there's no need for you to come too. Why don't you stay and..." He ran out of things Ray could do besides stay, and finished up "make yourself comfortable" just so it wouldn't be all the way insulting.

Still was, though. Ray slowly sat back down again.

"Well. Great! It'll be good to have you along. Sam, Ray is a very experienced detective, from Chicago."

Sam didn't look like he thought that was good news. Territorial much? Pissing someone off sounded good right now. Ray felt himself starting to heat up behind the eyes, mean and eager. Bulk isn't everything, pal. When he looked down again, Fraser had left the room.

"Constable MacKenzie," Sam said, hands in his pockets. "You didn't tell him where we were going."

Maggie looked surprised. "Oh, he'll find us. He's a brilliant tracker. He was famous for it, back home."

Sam shrugged, and his hands fisted. Possibly the subject of Fraser being brilliant was not his favorite thing to start the morning with either. Ray left them in the kitchen and went to go clean up. See if he could do something about this permanent case of hat head, too. Not that he was wanting to get a couple more inches on the guy, though, because playing playground games by means of hair gel, that would just be sad.



"And keep out of those yards!"

The sun was bright on the snow fields, which were bluish and sparkling, speaking of changing temperatures and nightly refreezes. The dogs ran eagerly, refreshed by their night under a roof, Diefenbaker flamboyant in his crosses and leaps. Showing off for... ah, the Husky cross with one brown paw. He'd have to find out the owner. Puppies would be very inconvenient right now.

Under the noise of the panting and barking, he heard distant sheet metal rattling on the roofs, a few engines turning over, doors opening and closing. Even, if he stopped and closed his eyes, the far-off creaking of ice on the river. That was all.

Ray had looked tired this morning. Off-balance, and sour. Maybe this journey was wearing on him more than Fraser had realized. Even, possibly, as much as he had feared. Ray had accepted his desire to be alone meekly enough. Ray, meek, was a bad sign.

Fraser shaded his eyes and watched the front of the pack skirting a fenced area, but not - for once - jumping in. Dief was always better-behaved when he bore the responsibility of leading a team. Chicago perhaps hadn't been good for his character.

Maybe Ray would want to go home. Or stay here, for a while, huddled up by Maggie's fireplace and watching her every move as if he were starving. If so, ... if so, there wouldn't be any need for... and he'd, so he'd...

The charge of keeping them both alive on this quixotic venture was a weight, the need to see Ray as another burden, an object of chivalry, even, a dampening barrier between them. His whole body revolted against the pull of that need, his mind shutting it out: not again. But an end to the quest meant he'd regain his partner and lose him at a stroke. And for himself, where next? Solitude had never been trackless to him, before. He'd thought himself in home territory, but the strangeness had grown as they moved north. Even the end to his father's dubious presence had made things harder to grasp, not less.

One night he had lain in the close darkness of the tent, listening to Ray's breathing, and reminded himself for the hundredth time that there was no reason to think Ray would accept his kisses, his hands.

No; no, but he could make him.


Oh, that was an ugly thought. But it was true, wasn't it; out here... Ray might even fall ill. He might lie, helpless, completely dependent on Fraser for food and water and relief of all kinds. In a stupor, perhaps, eyes closed, arms weak. Unable... the idea horrified him, and triggered a sickening twitch of arousal. He rolled away.

"Frase? You okay?"

Fraser pressed his hands to his eyes.

"I'm having a bad dream."

Ray shifted in the sleeping bag behind him. "You, uh, you sound pretty awake there, buddy."

"Yes. I know."


The dogs had done a broad turn and were headed back this way. Fraser bent and scooped up a handful of snow, pristine and separating into damp white crystals, and rubbed his face with it.



"So what's with all that 'Constable MacKenzie, ma'am'?" Ray did a little ape-arms goombah dance, following Maggie through the edge of town from a few steps ahead. He was still nervous around her, and she was still kind of stiff, but - lots of women didn't want to flirt with Ray, but she acted like he wasn't trying. She didn't seem to remember giving him that kiss that time, and he wasn't even sure he wanted to try again. It was too weird, with Fraser around. And it helped that she didn't turn his crank the same way now that he knew what the uniform thing was about, and anyway, she had the big coat on.

She checked her watch again. "Oh, it's strange, that. He usually calls me Maggie. I think you boys make him uncomfortable."

Ray grinned and rubbed his chin. "Yeah?"

"He's a lot of help out here. I'm still new, the locals talk to him more. He'd probably have better luck with the Nungaks, but he says they want the senior officer, and those tracks won't last."

Tracks, tannery, right, she'd sent Sam the goombah to go check that out again. Sounded more fun than talking to some cranky old Eskimo guy, but hey, Ray was just here for the ride.

Maybe he could help out a little though. Just because the badge meant squat out here didn't mean he couldn't still walk the walk. "Uh." Fill Fraser in later. "So... yeah, you mentioned. What were you looking for out there?"

Maggie frowned. "I don't really know. Farrelly wasn't transporting anything more interesting than potatoes last night, but that doesn't mean he won't be next time."

"That sled thing, that was full of potatoes? It's almost nighttime, it's below freezing, who says, hey, let's get the guys over and go out for spuds?"

She gave him a thoughtful-Mountie face, like, 'Exactly, Ray my friend, you have hit the nail on the head,' but all she said was, "Well, this is pretty good weather by our standards."

Good looks and a great sense of hu- oh, she wasn't kidding.

No, she didn't look like anything was funny. "And it's getting warmer every day. If you want to take the Winter Road to Tuk, you'll have to leave soon, you know. Even if there's a cold snap, the Mackenzie river hasn't stayed driveable past the end of April in several years. So if you go, you won't be able to come back. Not that way. You should tell Fraser."

"Right." Ray tried to look like the kind of keen-eyed explorer who had anything to do with when he left, where he went, which road he took, and what rock he pissed behind. He thought he was getting it pretty convincing, but she frowned some more.

"Ray..." she said, scanning away in a move he'd seen his dad do a thousand times. Something real fascinating right over there that no one can see, oh yeah. "Are you... that is... Fraser."

Ray scratched at his hat and waited, getting a good offensive lineup ready, starting with 'No' and 'No WAY' and 'heh! heh! why the hell would you think that?' and maybe moving on into 'Come over here and I'll prove it, sweetcheeks.'

"Is he all right?"

Oh. Not where he'd thought that was going. "Fraser? Sure, he's good, he's happy. I mean. You know Fraser."

"Oh, good, good."

Yeah she bought that like a sack of moldy potatoes. Ray ran through the question again, since it didn't seem to go into the danger zone. "Okay, maybe not that good. Maybe not happy, happy. Not like when we first got here." Not even like how he was when they started out on the adventure.

She didn't seem to know what to say to that. He didn't know what to say about it either, since it was probably his fault. Who had Fraser been hanging out with the whole time? Who wiped that grin off his face? Wasn't Diefenbaker. More or less had to be Ray Kowalski, accidental illegal tourist. Really nice having this brought to his attention, that was great, yeah, that really put the icing on the muffin.

The town wasn't exactly hopping, though he could see somebody walking out from between two buildings in the distance and hear a jeep or something revving out of a drift. Wanting hard to change the subject, he went for some of that distracting small talk, opened his mouth and said, "Wait, hey, the Mackenzie? You're named after a river?"

She shot him a sideways look and said, "That was my married name."

He started to feel bad without knowing why and then a couple facts went click click clack into place - dumb, dumb, de-dumb, the thing was all the physical stuff was so hard up here it kind of took over, most of the details from before seemed fuzzy, got put in long-term storage until he needed them, or sometimes - like now - about 30 seconds afterward. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Fake name, huh. You didn't know?" Damn, not helping, but it just slipped out, she grew up around here, she didn't notice her boyfriend was named after the local river? She must have been crazy in love with the mook.

She put a hand up near her neck and sort of closed it mid-air and lowered it again. He thought she wasn't going to say anything and he started to apologize again but then she was telling him, softer but intense, like it was his business after all, "I knew there were things Casey didn't want to talk about. I knew his dad drank, I knew - we don't get a lot of people moving up here. It's not an easy life. People come because they want to get away from something, be a new person. His heart was honest. I wasn't wrong about that," she added, sounding more than a little batshit crazy still.

Ray went quiet too. He understood crazy. "So... say a guy... say he wasn't a - wasn't his job any more. Say he wasn't somebody's husband, he, he stopped being his dad's son a long time ago. He could find a new life, up here? Go looking for who he really was?"

Maggie didn't seem to find the question strange. "You are what you do, Ray," she said. "I don't think you can find yourself by looking." She snorted, and added, with that old Canadian literal mind, "Unless you've got a mirror."

The figure up ahead on the right was Fraser, coming to meet them. Ray recognized his knee-first walk and the way he kept his head down, the shape of the Stetson, long before he could make out the face. Here they'd been out of each other's sight for the first time in weeks, and it had only been a couple hours, and now Fraser was back again, and the universe just got a whole lot righter. Maggie was a nice girl, cute, she registered on the meter all right, but Fraser turning up was like the volume going on high, bass thumping, in his bones and down through his feet. Before, black and white, now, full color. Oh yeah, he was screwed.

Talking, Maggie had been talking.

"Sorry, what? You said what?"

She nudged into him with her shoulder, like he'd passed some kind of brother test.

"It wasn't important."



Grandpa Nungak lived in a frame house, along with a lot of other people, most of which thought Ray was pretty funny for some reason. Maybe he shouldn't have taken his hat off. They gave Maggie the time of day but not much more, and they pretended Fraser wasn't there. The old man wanted them to have some caribou soup with him, and when Fraser skimmed a look at Ray and said they'd just eaten, he gave them some shortbread from a box. Ray never was good at this part, he'd rather jump and run and tackle and have guns going, even if it scared the bejeezus out of him.

He pulled his knees in and looked around, letting the Mounties handle the talking. Soften up the suspect or interrogate a witness, he couldn't tell yet. The house had some extra insulation taped around the windows and a small picture of the Queen in one corner, with some papers on the wall. Snow shoes, a cute girl with braids sitting on the floor against the wall doing homework - well, that's what it looked like - and a man sitting astride a bench carving something, who hadn't looked up when they came in, and a boy next to him who had. A couple women pretending they were cooking, but listening hard. A radio crackled, and a man came busting through the door, then there was shouting and grabbing coats, people all talking at once. Ray was on his feet, feeling for his gun again and realizing it was packed up back at Maggie's.

"Snowmobile accident," he heard, got that part. Maggie was up and ready, dropping the social face and going all shoulders and fists as she got her coat back on.

"I'd better go," she said, dropping a hand on Fraser's back when he started to get up too. "Trouble at the fish camp. Would you-?" And then she was gone with the men, before Ray could say anything, and the rest of the Nungak family was staring at him, so he dropped back down again next to Fraser and wiped his hands on his legs.

Fraser was turning his blank friendly face at the old man, and the old man was looking back at him. Here was where they got booted or offered tea, depending on if Fraser's special power to cloud men's minds was doing its mojo.

The old man looked Fraser over with a face that gave away exactly diddly and went with the tea.


Half an hour later they'd gotten as far as that old man Nungak was the big star of the Jamboree expedition - some kind of contest winner, showed the flag for Trapper's Rest every year, beat out those stumblebums from Eagle Creek and Aklavik - and this year he didn't want to go.

"So, you're, what, like a wood-carving champ?"

"Harpoon."

"You throw harpoons?" Trying not to look skeptical, but it was hard to believe this skinny old guy with his hunched back could beat out anybody in the local Olympics.

"Anyone can throw a harpoon. What matters is where it goes."

"Oh." Ray squirmed. Everything the guy said sounded incredibly significant, like a not-backwards Yoda, but if you stopped and went through it word by word he wasn't saying jack. Maybe it was the accent. It made Ray feel stupid.

He squirmed again. Sitting next to Fraser on the hard sofa made him edgy, crackly, like last night was still in a thick cloud around him and could float over and stick to Fraser, too, rubbing at his arms and his head and his neck, don't look, don't look at the neck. So he kept his eyes away, and every time Fraser shifted on the seat, he felt it go right up his spine.

"I'm told that the rest of the expedition is waiting on you, and that this delay could be dangerous if the ice road thaws too soon."

"I think a lot of things are dangerous, Constable."

There, he was doing it again. Ray ate some more cookies and kind of eavesdropped a little on the cute girl with the homework, because the carving boy was stopping by to ask her something, and the man on the bench looked up.

"I see." Fraser sucked his lip in and smiled, ingratiating but steely, about to make you do the right thing whether you wanted to or not, although what was so right about making this guy go to the whale party if he didn't want to was not exactly clear to Ray, not that he cared too much, because hello, bored.

"You're a constable as well, aren't you, Mr. Nungak? Retired." Left hook from Fraser. "I noticed your picture of Her Majesty."

Nungak looked wicked, like he thought that was funny. "Special constable. Not the same. They wanted guides, and someone who understood the dogs." He talked slowly. "When I was your age it sounded like adventure. Good money, too."

"Representing your community is important to you."

"I'm an old man, and my bones hurt. They can go without me, they just won't listen. Maybe they'll listen to you."

"Well, I'll give it a try, Mr. Nungak. If you're not feeling fit enough to compete, no one can object."

"I can pin the target with my eyes closed," he snapped. "I could still hunt whale, if the wind didn't knock my ass out of the boat."

"You're from the coast, originally?"

"Came down here when my sons did. No reason to go back. Family's important, Constable Fraser."

Fraser put his hands on his knees and leaned. "I agree."

"Children are important. The future is important."

Ray would have written the whole thing off as a dead end and been out of here after that, but Fraser clicked on instead: lit up like he'd gotten the key. What was it? Repeated something. Repeated stuff was important. Okay. He listened as Fraser started pushing, hunting down the thing the old man was waiting to say.

Maybe it was that Canadian thing, that close-mouthed none of your business thing. He knew the sound of someone who might be willing to talk, if you asked him right, but the signals were different up here. Same old cop work in a different key. Not that different though, he could learn. The international language of stonewalling.

He knew that one. He knew it real well.



"You spoke of your desire for adventure, but I'll confess, Ray, I didn't take it very seriously."

Fraser sang a lot, when they first started out. He taught Ray all the verses to Northwest Passage and sang them along with him, and even got Ray to try it by himself once. He sang about some sea rovers who robbed to feed their brothers, and about some girl who drowned herself because she couldn't have her true love, and some girl who drowned her sister instead, and a bunch of other ones like that, all pretty tunes and more perps and stiffs than a slasher movie. When he wasn't singing, a lot of the times, he talked.

"Oh yeah? Why not?"

"Well, for one thing, because you've never evinced the slightest desire for adventure, ever before." Fraser thought it over. "In fact, you've shown an active dislike for anything involving wilderness, or... swimming, jumping from heights, physical danger, discomfort..."

"Yeah, okay, I get the picture."

"And given your preference for what you've referred to as 'the good life,' which seems to involve double martinis and the Crystal Ballroom..."

"Yeah you explained it already. You explained it. It's good."

"And you feel that - closes the matter."

Fraser was peeling a turnip or something for dinner with his big knife, casual. Ray was drying their socks by the fire and playing with breath clouds.

"It's just that some might feel that, the subject having been raised, it would be polite, that is, the burden of explanation might fall onto... the person giving rise to... the source of the puzzlement, as it were." Plenty of chances to catch the drift, there, and Ray was letting them go right on past him.

"Do not talk about burdens to me, Fraser. I've been humping what feels like half a school bus and a dead German shepherd on my back for two weeks."

"More like a week and a half. We made our farewells ten days ago."

"Oh." Ray remembered Thatcher's face when she heard the news. She might be sitting in a hot tub in a ski lounge right now, or knocking back cocktails in a jazz club, while he was up to his knees in the cold white stuff, but that did not mean he couldn't gloat. "Yeah, they thought we were crazy, huh."

"It's just possible they thought that before," Fraser said.

Hey, was that a joke? He checked out Fraser's face and a-ha. Son of a gun.

Fraser waved a hand and hurried into a new sentence, all 'let us not talk about my amusing joke for I am too modest,' stepping over his own goofy little grin. "But I'm sure their good wishes were sincere, although it's too bad our departure was somewhat marred by your coughing fit at the end."

"Oh, that." Ray squeezed the toes of the socks on the right and flipped them, using two sticks. It didn't seem so important out here - not when he was so tired, and Chicago was so far away, and at least Fraser was showing some interest in what he had to say, not clamming up like he'd been starting to - so he told the truth, which is the thing you have to remember not to do when you're a con job, blew it, yeah, he was sure about that later. "That was 'cause of Turnbull. He was talkin' to me, when we were all shaking hands at the end there? I was saying, 'Later, Turnbull. You're a pretty chill dude after all,' right? And he comes back at me with more 'Bon voyage, mon ami' and stuff, and then he goes 'I just know you'll be very happy together.' So, you know, I coughed."

Fraser stopped peeling, probably so he wouldn't cut himself when he busted out laughing. Except, yeah, he didn't laugh, and thinking back Ray couldn't remember the last time something made him give even that little giggle.

"Crazy, huh?"

"Turnbull is... he's a little..."

"Yeah."

"He has a fine service record. You'd be surprised, actually. I'm sure his parents are very proud."



Ray stared at his hands and pushed back into the wall, where he'd been sitting next to the cute girl with braids, and opened his mouth again, wondering how he'd ended up in an after-school special. "Well, good luck, Minnie. You seem like a real smart kid."

"Bite me," she said, her heart not in it.

One of the women standing nearby said something sharp and smacked her one on the shoulder, just lightly.

"Sorry." Minnie was looking at where Fraser was coming over from talking to the wood carvers. She closed her binder. "Thank you, Mr. Kowalski."

Good times. Ray got up again and answered Fraser's silent question with a shrug and a tell-you-later move of the head. The boy had trailed after him and was giving Ray a cool once-over, not shy, nice brown eyes and full lips like Fraser's. A teenager like Minnie, but he didn't look like her.

"You're the Yank," the kid said. "You're looking for Franklin."

Ray glared at Fraser, who shrugged apologetically. "News travels fast in a small town, Ray."

"You're going north? You're going to get killed by the white wind."

"Kids say the darndest things, huh?"

"It's a death spirit. It comes out at night and sweeps over the ground, killing the animals, and the people too."

"Shut up, Ez."

"It's true. Your grandpa told me." He raised his eyebrows at her and laughed, and she hit his leg with the binder.

"He lies as much as you do."

"Ray?" Fraser invited him to step aside with a look, and they beat it over to a spot by the Queen to compare notes.

Ray looked over his shoulder and put his hands out. "Simple deal, Fraser. They're talking 'bout sending the girl to some relatives so she can go to school down south, better school, and she doesn't want to go. So she's acting up and her grades are tanking," he sucked in a breath and rattled off the rest, "and gramps is the only one who can keep her in line, so he won't leave town in case they get stranded up there when the roads close. Is this really what cops do up here? Deal with this stuff?"

"This stuff is part of the fabric of the community. The town council believes that making a good showing at the local events helps attract workers and investment, so Mr. Nungak's participation is important. And besides, you'd be surprised how many major crimes have their roots in family arguments. Now, I believe I can supply the remaining pieces. That young man, Ezra, works under Minnie Nungak's father, and the two are childhood sweethearts."

"Oh." Ray was both moved and disgusted. "Young love again."

"Correct. But due to his family's relative poverty, he will be remaining here in Trapper's Rest, probably all his life, hence the conflict."

"Can we go now? I heard there was some kind of snowmobile thing."

"Patience, Ray. I'll try having a word with Minnie."

Ray tried to push some patience physically into his forehead, but he still had to hang around kicking his heels for what felt like at least another two days while Fraser had a heart-to-heart with the kid, then the other kid again, while Ray fidgeted, read stuff on the walls, watched the carving going on - he still couldn't tell what it was supposed to be - and wondered how after all this time Fraser could still be so right there, so straight-ahead convinced that getting teenagers to do their homework was as important as stopping bank robbers or fighting fires, and whether his hands and his face and the shape of his knees were as freakishly beautiful as they looked right now or if Ray was just clear out of his gourd from acute deprivation of sex.

When Fraser headed back to the grandpa, Ray was after him like a barracuda, pulling his hat back on and ready to shake hands and get out.

"...and I believe she means it. She's a smart girl, Mr. Nungak."

"Takes after her mother. My boys were all dumb as rocks."

"So you'll go to the Jamboree?"

The old man sighed. "They'd better make sure we get back again."

"I'm sure they will," Fraser said, moving to - yes! - shake his hand. Ray grabbed and shook as soon as he was done and then they were starting to go, but Fraser had to pull a Columbo and turn back, going, "Oh, one question."

Mr. Nungak looked blank again.

"I was curious about a story of a... death spirit, a white wind, that comes down from the north."

"Can't say I know it."

"That's interesting. Your granddaughter's friend said you'd told it to him."

"Oh. Ezra." He started folding up the shortbread box, tucking the tag in with his scarred fingers. "It's just an old story, something to tell children at night. The people have many legends."

"Well! Quite true, yes. I heard a great number of them when I was growing up." Fraser raised his thumb to his eyebrow. "It's a funny thing, though. I've never heard that one before."

Nungak stood up and started walking them to the door. "Maybe it's new. It's probably a metaphor for the winter cold."

"In April?"

"It's not spring, yet, Constable. The birds haven't started to mate."

He gave that the full Yoda treatment, Ray shifting around embarrassed that this was somehow aimed at him, but Fraser just nodded like the old man had given something away and said, "I see. Pleased to meet you, Mr. Nungak."

And then they were out the door, and open air never felt so good.



"We go look for Maggie now?"

"Hm? Oh, no, I don't think that would do much good without a car. The river's too far away, she'll be back before we could get there, even by sled."

"Oh." Wrong again, surprise. "What are you looking at?"

Fraser pulled his chin down. "Just the sky, Ray. And the brush."

"I don't see anything."

"Exactly. Normally, by April, this area would host flocks of snow buntings, ptarmigan, perhaps some chickadees and red polls. Instead, there are only a few."

Ray looked around again, it all looked pretty much iced over to him, just houses and low bushes and snow, but he'd take Fraser's word for it. "Come on, you don't believe this stuff about a death spirit, do you?"

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio," Fraser said almost cheerfully. He looked like getting in a little do-gooder practice had woken him up some, put a bit of the old spring back in his step.

"Than are dreamt of in your thing. Fraser, we are planning to go north after this. If there's a big death spirit killing everything in sight, that might be something we might wanna think about."

"I think it's unlikely."

"Oh, well, as long as it's unlikely."

"Good man," Fraser said, and clapped him on the back. Huh.

"So if we're not gonna go help Maggie, where are we goin'?"

"I thought we'd have a look at those tracks she mentioned last night."

"Oh, yeah. She sent that Sam guy off to check 'em out this morning."

"Hm."

Ray didn't ask what that meant. He was still feeling that pat on back, just a push on the back of his coat, but he could feel it back there still, sticking to him. He flashed on the night before, that picture of Fraser's face, the heat, the way it felt to - yeah. Um.

They tramped across town, stepping in some deep ruts from snow tires. A couple people waved, or just stopped and stared. Fraser tipped his hat at them.

"You know, it's an interesting thing, Ray," Fraser said after a while, "but Trapper's Rest is just the Anglicized name for this town. The Inuit name was Nareamaisuq, which, roughly translated, means 'rotting pile of corpses.'"

"That's nice." Did Fraser make up random bullshit just to see if he was still awake? "They get invited over much?"

"Well you see, it first acquired the Inuit name during the Gold Rush, when there was a plague of influenza in these parts, but the worst outbreak came later, in the 1950s. Prospectors and trappers died by the hundreds. The bodies along with their possessions had to be stored, identified, and shipped home or disposed of. This town was at a central point for much of the activity, medical and legal, so it acted as a sort of storage depot for the bodies, and... Trapper's Rest it became."

"Okay! Got it! Enough with the creepy history."

Fraser looked surprised, but at least he was talking. "You don't find it rather charming?"

"No, I do not find it rather charming, I find it rather disturbing and sick."

"It's part of this area's rich cultural legacy."

"Sick, Fraser, and if you say one word about zombies, I'll-" He stopped.

Fraser waited, and when Ray didn't continue, said, "Zombies aren't part of the Inuit-"

"-Part of the rich legacy, I know, I know. But I still gotta fall asleep tonight in Dead Guy Town."

"If it helps, we're not staying near where the bodies were kept."

"Oh good."

"No, Maggie's quarters are near the old tannery, where the dead men's shoes were sorted and rendered for reuse, compost, and possible emergency rations." He stopped and stuck his arms out. "And here we are."

It was a beat-up building that looked a lot like some of the other buildings. It had tracks around it on more than one side, but Fraser went straight to the sled ones, bending over and backing up, making sure he didn't step on them himself.

He looked like a dork, maybe, and also really cool, like, Benton Fraser, confident super-spy. Ray kept out of the way so as not to mess him up. "Find anything?"

"It's hard to say." He backed up again and duck-walked over to the far side of the biggest mush of holes in the snow crust, bent and touched one of the skid marks. "There's been snowfall, and some day melt. I can make out the tracks of several men, and Maggie's, they're much smaller, of course, and these look to be Constable Grant's."

"I don't like that guy."

Fraser breathed out sharply. "I believe you might have mentioned that, thank you, yes."

He sounded annoyed. "What? I don't."

Getting up and dusting off his legs, Fraser went on as if he hadn't heard him. "But on the whole, the tracks are confused to the point of being almost impossible to read. And that in itself is interesting."

Ray got closer and took a look, trying to see what he could see. "You mean you think somebody came back, and, uh, stomped on them? In the middle there?"

"They've been deliberately obscured, yes. Well spotted."

Ray shrugged shyly and looked around some more. "So what's the point? We know they came through here, we know they had a big sled full of potatoes."

Fraser said incredulously, "Potatoes?"

"Yeah, see? That's what I said. So why mess with the tracks?"

"They may have been trying to obscure a change in direction. Other groups came through here last night, some cutting through this area. Our best bet is probably to circle out and see if we can pick them up again far enough away from here that they weren't being cautious."

Far enough away turned out to be a lot of circling later and a big steel shed in line of sight of the tannery, rusty and blocked off with sagging chain link, lichen on the roof and dirty brown windows. "This would not be the place where they stored the dead bodies, would it? Tell me it's not."

"Very good guess, Ray."

"And you want to go in."

"This would seem to be the obvious place to investigate."

Since the tracks led right up to a broken part of the fence around back, he couldn't argue. Wondering again why he hadn't brought his gun, Ray legged over the gap and followed Fraser out into the yard, where the broken snow proved as clear as inky handprints that this place wasn't as deserted as it looked from outside. Stepping only in the trampled part, they approached the side entrance, a regular door, not the big front roll-down. "You think we can get in?"

"Clearly, someone has." The rusty door had a fresh padlock. "In fact-" Fraser cocked his head, listening, then shook it. "No, I think they're away. Now's our chance."

"To what." Ray watched Fraser fiddle with the lock, resigned to the sour taste in his mouth. "Go in there and get stuck like a rat in a trap when they come back? We got no guns, Fraser, no backup, no reason to do this and hey! No search warrant."

"All salient points," Fraser said, twiddling the lock at top speed, "and I won't blame you in the slightest if you choose to go back and wait for Maggie's return. The aid of officers with jurisdiction here would be very - ah."

The bar popped out and the lock dropped into Fraser's hand, all, take me, you big bad lock-picking Mountie.

"Screw you, Fraser. I'm not saying we should go back, I'm just sayin' we may be getting into more than we can handle, here, and-" Fraser had the door open a crack and he shut his yap in case someone was in there, the dim line of the unknown creaking open and adrenaline going through him, firing him up.

It was dark inside compared to the snow-blinding afternoon in the yard, but shadowed, not pitch black, and when nobody shouted or shot at them, they slipped inside and shut the door.

Still nothing. Ray's eyes adjusted. A big warehouse kind of thing, no internal walls, just metal frames of shelves and support beams, some stacks of old boxes and piles of sacks. The light was coming in mostly through the cracks of the high, dirt-crusted windows. He didn't hear anything moving. Fraser's head was turning, scan, scan, scan.

"Doesn't smell like dead guys," Ray said.

He thought Fraser might tell him to shut up until he'd said the place was empty, but he just said, "Definitely not unused, however," and prowled over to the nearest stand of boxes, then went on to the next, looking for tracks in the dust, maybe, if he could see that well already.

Ray felt the absence of his holster like a dark weight on his soul, but he took the other side of the shed and started poking around. There wasn't much stuff, and what there was looked like it had been there a really long time. Dust, dust, rusty metal on the ground. He checked it all out as well as he could without a flashlight, trying not to get his hands and feet in anything that would leave a mark, going slow and careful so Fraser wouldn't feel the need to go over it again after him, because that might not be the last straw but it would sure make his guts burn.

More dust, less dust, big piles of crates against the walls, boxes covered with tarps, a box that was hardly dirty at all, and he got his hand around back to check for goodies and - "Well, hey, hey, hey."

"You found something too?" Fraser sounded strained, like bending-over voice, and there was a thump.

"Yeah, what you got?"

"Potatoes." Another thump, and his voice smoothed out. "Sacks of potatoes."

"Then get on over here, because I have struck gold."

"Really! Again?" Fraser was at his side in seconds, looking fascinated.

"Huh? Oh, uh, no, no, not really." Ray got up against the wall and pushed at the box so he could see better. "I mean American gold. The very basis on which we base our currency."

Fraser took in the sight of the stack of automatic weapons and his eyebrows went up and his lip went out, and he did not argue.

At the other end of the building, a big rackety scrapety noise started and a crack of light exploded along the floor. The roll door was going up.

Ray gave the box a quick tug back and they were scramming for the side door, quiet as they could keep it, while the light inched up their legs, and then they got there but it was rattling too and somebody was cussing somebody out for the open lock, so they pulled up and wheeled, looking for cover.

The big door jerked up another foot and then stopped, that whole wall creaking. Boots and snow pants up to the knee went back and forth, clustering and yelling. "You said you had this fucker up!"

"It went last time, boss..."

Ray and Fraser hit each other on the arm at the same time and they dived for shelter behind the crates. Slight problem though: Ray was thinking get as near the guns as they could in case they needed them, and Fraser was thinking some other kind of thing, and they collided and had to two-step down the wrong aisle and then the side door opened and they were up against the wall, stuck.

How long had it been before his eyes adjusted? Couple minutes? Fraser was scooting along the wall, he'd found a space behind one of the tall stacks of boxes. Looked like room for two. Ray started to squunch in, but he got up against Fraser and bounced out again, no dice. The side door was open and people were walking in, making room for each other, yapping.

"Wasn't me!"

"You're the one who forgot last time."

Ray's eyes ran around his options like a scared rat in a wheel. Across the aisle with everyone looking. On top of the boxes, no. Behind a steel beam that wasn't wide enough. Across the aisle...

Fraser's hand closed on the scruff of his jacket and Ray got pulled right in behind the boxes with him. Oof.

So there was room if you got in tight. And oh, man, were they in tight.

"You dumb cluck, Axel's gonna skin you."

"Wasn't me, I tell ya!"

With a rattling sheet metal drum solo, the back wall went up. The air in the place changed as the light got brighter, the crack Ray could see out getting way too clear. Wall, box edges, edge of tarp, the steel beam that wasn't wide enough to hide behind. He turned his head and Fraser's head was there looking straight up, then over the other way, doing the same thing he was. If anyone came back here they'd probably get seen, but they'd be good and hidden if they didn't.

Yep, in real tight. Oh yeah.

Voices from the far end of the shed, getting closer. "Swear to god, Axel. It went up like a schoolgirl's skirt last time."

"Last time doesn't count, Farrelly. Never counts. You know what I care about? Next time." Lotta guys moving around, collecting, pretty nearby - pretty near the guns, next set of crates over, so maybe this really wasn't the best place to hide. "That door better not get stuck tomorrow night, or you'll be wearing that skirt, you hear me?"

Some goony chuckles that ended in a smack and thud, the boxes shaking as something bounced off them. A subdued voice: "Sorry, Farrelly."

Round about now Ray started getting really distracted. Right when he wanted to be paying attention, because this, this was interesting, this was cop work, not homework, the kind of thing he could do something about, but with the shaking, kind of a wiggling, of the boxes, and then them being stuck up against the wall together, and all... and it wasn't even the first time, kind of a cruel fate thing going on there, that it was his doom to keep getting smashed up against Fraser front to front, for all eternity, maybe, like that Sisyface guy. Of course, with a couple differences it wouldn't be too bad, like if they were -

Zap! Ray killed that thought as it got started. Zap! again as it made another try.

"...snowmobiles?"

"Looks okay. I don't think they saw anything, you, Frank?"

"Nope." Pause and drawl, like maybe Frank was a bit slow on the uptake.

"Mounties gonna be any trouble tomorrow?" That was the Axel guy again. Big boss man.

Snickers from goon line-up. "Nah."

"MacKenzie's got guests, though." Whozat talking, Farrelly? Yeah. "Pals came into town, they're staying with her."

"How many?"

"Two. But one of 'em's the Mountie who took down Muldoon."

It went quiet, enough that Ray could hear the wind off the frame of the open roll door, one of the bad guys sniffing, Fraser's breath warm and quiet past his ear. Ooooh they were in tight, but he wasn't going to think about it. Simple fact of being face to face, chest on chest, crotch to crotch, same height, same everything, was not something he needed to be thinking about at this - at this juncture.

He was starting to feel something, too, and he'd already agreed to stop pretending not to notice his feelings, even if they were the not so convenient kind. He tried to turn his hips a little, managed to change the angle, further from Fraser, but couldn't move enough off, too stuck for that. He tried the other way for more traction and bumped right into Fraser's own bump there, the package, Fraser was well set up for package, uh damn, tried to turn away again, boxes were shaking just a tiny bit, freeze, freeze, freeze.

"Well, ain't that nice." Axel sounded rough as a slug of rotgut.

"MacKenzie's a tough sister, but she's got no clue. Nothing to worry about."

"They're on vacation, boss. Just passing through on the way to Tuk. They got a dogsled and a copy of The Arctic Circle on $25 a Day, you know? No worries."

Fraser had something stashed away for the winter all right. Ray was not going to think about it, though. No. Nice to be lined up next to it, but he wasn't going to think about it.

"Yeah. That sound real likely to you, Farrelly? Doesn't sound too likely to me."

Nice, real nice. Uh... zap!

"You think they're here to check us out?"

Ray squirmed. Gotta stop this. Turn the hips. No, better not, maybe, better hold still. Well... maybe better turn them. No, hold still.

"I think we better get moving. I think there'd better be no slip-ups, I think everyone better not act like a fucking idiot between now and next week, and I think that door better go up smooth and easy tomorrow night."

"I hear ya, Axel." Clattering sounds.

No, better turn. There, yeah. No-

"Ray."

He shot him a look. Fraser's face was strained, his eyes distant, a little pinched. He hissed again, mouth moving carefully with minimum sound, "Could you stop that, please. Trying to concentrate."

Stop-? Ray went hot and cold all over. Fraser meant... he was, he was doing it right now. He'd been nudging up against the side of Fraser's dick, so busy not thinking that his body did stuff on its own while he wasn't watching it, the stuff that felt good, nudge, nudge, nudge.

Then Fraser gave him a quick look full in the eye and licking electrical sockets had nothing on this. Ray swallowed what felt like his tongue and jerked away a couple vital inches, until he was business end elsewhere, still touching Fraser's hip all down the edge but only his hip, and Fraser wasn't looking at him any more, and probably wouldn't.

Ray panted and kept his head turned away, looking at that metal beam that wasn't wide enough, and thought about really cold things and sick embarrassment and major fuck-ups of his past and present. It helped.

There was a lot of scraping and banging and heaving out there, no more chatter, and some experimental rattles as the goon squad went after the roll door with whatever Canadians use for WD-40. Maybe Fraser was hearing more than he could, with his special bat ears that were attuned to the silence of the northern forests or whatever. Ray's ears were attuned to the roaring of crowds at Wrigley Field, and all he picked up was some cussing and banging and that one guy sniffing again.

Then they were leaving. The roll-down got rolled down and clamped to the floor, the scraping and clattering finished, feet went thudding in a group out the side door, men laughing and slanging each other, and the door shut and didn't open again, and Ray counted sixty in his head and then the two of them pushed and wrenched out from the crack by the wall like champagne corks popping, Ray rubbing his face and gasping for breath.

Fraser stood, then moved away without saying anything, checking out the boxes and tarps for changes. Ray hung, on his toes, not knowing what to do, then started looking around himself. Because, yeah. Well, you have to move on.

"Ray, the weapons?" Ray jerked, but Fraser sounded pretty normal.

"Oh. Right."

First glance looked like nothing was missing, just moved around. He went to see if the stash of loose AK-47s was still there, cracking his neck, trying to loosen up. Normal, okay, nothing happened. Well - yeah, nothing happened. Just some being shoved up together, like had happened before in that crevasse, only with not as many layers of clothes between them this time, and not as cold, and maybe some added wriggling. Kinda awkward, but not a big deal. No worse than the first time you pee next to each other and you can't help but look out of the corner of your eye. Bit weird, little personal, then you move on.

The side door rattled again and opened.

Fraser threw himself flat behind the sacks of potatoes, great cover, really great. Ray sprinted for the guns, jammed his hand back, found them, pulled one up and out. Cock it, cock it, how'd you work one of these, he used to know, he'd done it at the range. Check the magazine, holy crap, they kept them loaded? Pull the lever down - his hands remembered and he spun it up ready to fire, crouching, looked up and saw Fraser looking at him. Fraser was on hands and toes in the push-up position, ready to spring. They counted silently in their heads again as footsteps came down the center aisle, just one guy, get ready, five, four, three...

The big guy came into sight between them and turned as Fraser jumped, tackling him from below, and Ray launched himself forward and up and slammed his elbow into the guy's back, because if he hit him with the gun it might go off. There was a heave and a grunt of pain and then Fraser had the guy flipped on his back, on the ground, and Ray was jamming the muzzle of the gun up against his neck, and whispering fast at him to keep it quiet - and - he did.

Also, it was Sam.

"Constable Grant," Fraser said out loud, sort of hearty but firm. He didn't make a move to let him up.

"Constable Fraser," Sam said.

Ray pulled the gun off and rolled his head, exasperated. Where he came from, you got polite with a guy or you leaned on him, not both.

"You're out of uniform."

Sam reached a hand up, paused it when Ray pointed the gun again, then with exaggerated slowness undid his parka and pulled down at the neck of his sweater to show a grey shirt with a dark blue tie. "We're maybe a little relaxed about that up here, in winter."

A tie? He'd been wearing a tie under there the whole time - a tie that no one could see? Freak!

Fraser, of course, accepted that as a good enough reason to let him up, and Ray reluctantly lowered the gun.

Sam rolled up without using his hands - on purpose, showing off, you know what, Ray really didn't like him - it's not like Ray couldn't do that too, he had good abs, he just, why waste the energy, right? - and went into a sort of arms-behind-back stance, like Fraser's, but not all the way tight, like he just wanted it out there that Fraser wasn't his boss, but he wasn't looking to start something either. He looked Fraser over and Fraser looked him over and Ray did not put down the gun.

"Find anything interesting?" Sam said.

"No, I just walked over here from Maggie's with an assault rifle in my pocket," Ray said.

Fraser rubbed his own shoulder, weird, not one of his usual moves. "Your investigations of the tracks by the tannery led you here?"

"Yeah, last night I thought I saw some rust in the snow, but this morning," he smacked his lips, pop, "gone."

"Ah. So, where is Constable MacKenzie?"

Sam seemed to hit a wall on that one, backed up and tried it again, went round a third time and said, "Finishing up the paperwork for the snowmobile crash north of town. I figured - I didn't know that I'd seen anything."

"You didn't tell her you were coming here?"

"Thought I'd just check it out, see if Farrelly was on the hop. Tell her if there was anything. You know..." he looked at Ray and then back at Fraser, and said, "Didn't want to look stupid." He said it like a challenge. Ray didn't get what exactly but he knew when someone was in his face, and that was a challenge.

"Ah. Well, at this point we have sufficient evidence of wrongdoing to proceed, so, I suggest we return to headquarters and make a full report."

'Suggest' meant do it, and Constable Grant got that loud and clear, lowering his chin just enough and stepping between them to move ahead toward the door. Ray checked with Fraser via hand signs and head jerks about whether they should leave the weapons stash or not, and Fraser gave a judicious sort of naaaaahr face that seemed to mean leave 'em, so Ray shrugged and kept the one he had and followed.

"Hey," he called, chasing to catch up. "Was that door locked when you got here?"

Grant waited that extra three seconds just to make it clear he didn't have to talk to no one without a Stetson, then said, "Padlock on it, but it was open. Guess that was you guys."

"Huh," Ray said.


It was dark and Maggie was gone from the office already by the time they got there. Conversation had not been exactly flowing, although Fraser poked and prodded Sam some about what he knew and guessed about the Farrelly crew, and Sam didn't ask many questions back about what they'd seen, although Fraser would probably have told him. Flipping the lights on, they checked the radio log and locked up the gun as evidence. Ray was feeling that, uh, that incident, fading, smoothing out, until, seriously, it wasn't any big deal. Just another bump in the road of a pretty bizarre friendship. How'd he ever think it was a big deal? Nothing to get worked up about. Nothing happened. Not really.

Sam found a pile of papers with a note on them and his face fell.

"Say no more, Constable," Fraser said. "We'll be at Constable MacKenzie's if you finish tonight."

Not looking up, Sam made a salute-y motion with one hand as he was sitting down, pulling up a chair. They left him to his fate in triplicate and headed home.

Ray managed not to bust out with it as soon as the door shut, but waited, because he knew how to be discreet, until they were far enough away that the sound wouldn't carry (uh, probably.)

"That gink's in it up to his eyeballs."

"You really think so?"

"Didn't tell Maggie? Who goes sneaking off to check things out on their own? Just so they don't look stupid if they're wrong? Who wears a tie if no one knows they're doing it?"

"He knows," Fraser said reasonably. "Besides, it's natural to want to impress your commanding officer. It's quite common to develop a personal admiration, strong feelings, even. It's a sort of transference, in which your passion for duty and service is concentrated in the form of someone who represents those qualities. I remember when I was a young recruit, I had a similar reaction to one Constable Devreaux, at the Depot. It inspired me to enormous amounts of boot-polishing and drill work."

"Frenchie, huh? Sounds hot. So, wait, uh... this transference stuff. Is that only for officers, people who're above you, or would it happen with someone who's more, like, your equal?"

"Oh, I wouldn't think so, Ray. I mean, you'd have to have very low self-esteem."

Ray took that in, and Fraser gave him the perky "uh-huh" expression.

Nice.


After stopping by to see that Diefenbaker and his team were fed and leaving them enjoying a good evening howl in their insulated pens, Fraser proceeded to brief Maggie on their investigations of the day. They had found her, tired and with her hair tied back, eating cold stew from a plate. On their arrival, she had gotten up, embarrassed, and heated the rest of it.

"Caribou. Yeah." Ray seemed resigned.

"You know, it's a well-known saying up here that caribou stew is always better the second day."

The old joke amused Maggie, enough that she laughed and heated up what remained of her own serving as well. Ray eyed them with suspicion - he often didn't seem to grasp the local humour, must remember not to make him feel excluded - but pulled his hat off and tucked in with his usual appetite.

It was... difficult... not to look at him, at his smallish ears, protruding defiantly, pink with cold, at the animal abruptness with which he addressed each bite or shifted in his chair. At least he seemed to be recovering from the awkwardness of their enforced contact in the shed. Although the admission that Fraser was affected by his innocent squirming had clearly troubled him, he must have put it down to Fraser's general peculiarity and moved on. Their friendship would be undamaged.

"Axel?" Maggie chewed and wiped her mouth thoughtfully. "Don't believe I know him. Farrelly's a local."

"They seem to be planning an operation for tomorrow night. Transporting something, probably. Space was cleared against the walls. I think we should investigate."

"Right you are." She gave a small smile, grim and content. "I knew they were up to something. Get me used to them moving through town, carrying innocent cargo, until I got tired of crying wolf. It's an old smuggler's trick," she told Ray. Ray grunted and reached for the salt. "But we've got 'em now, on illegal weapons possession alone."

"Apprehending them may be difficult with only four."

She nodded slowly, acknowledging it. "I'll radio for backup from Inuvik tomorrow morning." Her back straight, she patted her holster, absently, the way someone else might bite his nails, and watched Ray slurp. "The only locals I'd consider deputizing will have left for Tuk this afternoon. I was down by the river road today, organizing the relief party, and I can tell you it won't be driveable much longer - a day or two at most."

She turned her head and looked at Fraser. "The tundra's very dangerous north of here. Once the ice on the river melts, you can't get back except by air. If you're determined to keep going on this quest for Franklin, you should probably leave tomorrow."

"Oh, we wouldn't dream of leaving with a case in hand, would we, Ray?"

"Ga huff nugfh," Ray said, his mouth full.

"In the meanwhile... well. That puts me in mind of something my old instructor at the Depot, Constable Devreaux, used to say. If you're on duty tomorrow, your duty is to rest tonight."

Maggie nodded. "Wise man."

"That he was."

Ray choked on his stew.

"Sorry. 'Scuse me." Shaking his head repeatedly and fending her off, Ray went to the sink.

"Oh!" Maggie's face brightened, and she got up. "That reminds me. You'll want your mail, eh?"

"I want a beer," Ray said, his head down.

Briefly taken aback, Maggie regained her heartiness and said, "As a matter of fact, I can provide that too."



Fraser unfolded the letter and spent a minute just looking at the handwriting, as strange and familiar as a photo. He'd read the official missive about the plans for Muldoon's trial, praise for his part in it, the planned awards ceremony, even Buck Frobisher's personal good wishes, without much interest. As long as they didn't let Muldoon escape, Fraser had closed that chapter. And he took no pleasure in the prospect of promotion, or his choice of posting, at the moment. Putting it back in the envelope, he'd set that letter aside and turned to this one.

Hey, Fraser. So, we didn't have long to catch up, huh. We've got to stop meeting like that. (You know, in hospitals.) I heard you're going to stay up there.

There was a subtle change in the ink width between one stroke and the next, as if Ray had stopped, somewhat uncharacteristically, to choose his words.

That's cool. You must be having a great time. Enjoy all the permafrost and fur hats, ok? Bet Kowalski looks like a moron.

Fraser looked up. Ray was sprawled in the corner chair, low on his spine, reading his own letter - a surprise, as the former Mrs. Kowalski had never shown much desire to contact him while they were in Chicago - frowning, his face shadowed and his hair golden in the flat electric light. He was already on his second can of beer. His knees were wide apart, and his hands were restless on the edges of the paper.

Fraser breathed out sharply and looked back down. Now that he had grown used to Ray's appearance in full winter gear, the sight of him indoors and shoeless was downright erotic.

I know I always did. So, listen. I'm not in Chicago right now either. I got married. Yeah! Stella Kowalski, believe it or not. Say what you will about that guy's taste in clothes, he's got great taste in women. No, seriously, Benny. She's really something. Exquisite. We met, and it was just, I finally got that sign. So I didn't wait around, because when it's really right, you shouldn't wait for it to get more right. I guess I finally learned that.

"Ah - Benton? Would you... would you like some tea?"

Fraser didn't look up. "No. No, thank you. I'm fine."

The mob's on my tail, though, because of the Bookman not having finished some deals when you blew my cover. So I've got to drop out of sight til the heat cools down. Stella's coming with me, she's one gutsy lady. If anyone asks, you're supposed to tell them we moved to Florida and opened a bowling alley. I can't tell you where we're really going, but let's just say the Feds are footing the bill for the honeymoon.

"A bowling alley?" Ray said from across the room. He jolted upright in the chair, feet slamming the floorboards.

You know what? I'll send you a postcard.

"What the hell kind of story is that? Who'd buy that?"

Fraser folded the letter shut on "Good luck, Benny. Hope you find what you're" and said, "Ray often talked of moving to a warmer climate."

"Yeah, well he may have often talked of that, but Stella did not often talk about giving up her career, believe me. She wouldn't do it for my kids but she would for his bowling balls?"

Maggie ducked her head tactfully and poured herself tea.

"I'm sure no one will take this as a comment on the relative devotion of your previous spouse-"

The lid of the teapot chinked out from under Maggie's fingers and fell to the floor. "Sorry," she said, looking startled. Fraser got up to retrieve it for her as she reached for it as well.

"Of your former spouse, I mean, to you, her previous spouse, as opposed to... Ray Vecchio... oh dear." They'd bumped heads and the inevitable spill of tea was going everywhere. Ray moved to help, and by the time towels and diligence had been employed, both of their letters were thoroughly stained.

"I'm so sorry," Maggie said, offering them more rags, but Ray shrugged and crumpled the damp paper into a wad of pulp.

"Eh. We'll keep in touch."

Fraser dabbed carefully at his, preserving what he could of the writing, and hung it over a fireplace scraper to dry. Ray watched him with a scowl.

Ray watched him with jealousy, to put it plainly. Fraser noted that. It was plain, and yet meaningless. Ray had shown some anxiety before over Ray Vecchio's place in his life, their friendship, although Fraser had done his best almost from the beginning to make it clear that he'd accepted the substitution in good faith. The jealousy was merely an expression of Ray's insecurities, it didn't imply any stronger attachment. Still, he noted it. He'd noted so damned many things over the last year.

He noted, he questioned, but logic always won the day. Whatever Ray's unconscious leanings - whether he was as unquestionably heterosexual as he presented himself, or not - logic required that Fraser take him at face value, at the most consistent evaluation. Anything else was mere fantasy, and Fraser's ability to distinguish in such a case was suspect. It was a case for Occam's razor. Ray indicated no interest in a change in their relationship, therefore he had none.

Ray pushed open the tab on another beer can with one hand and dropped down on the arm of Maggie's chair, causing her to lean forward in surprise, then slowly settle back.

Fraser returned to his own chair, rubbing his shoulder, which seemed to be sore, and watched as Ray drank and tried to draw his sister out, asking questions about life in Inuvik and Trapper's Rest at random and laughing ingratiatingly at her stories whether he understood them or not. In a way, it was... pleasant.

Maggie seemed to think so. Ray could be very charming with women, although always a little out of place in a setting like this, a little too rough and self-conscious for a civilized home. This afternoon in the storage shed, though - spurred by danger, moving sharp and fast, pulling out the unfamiliar assault rifle and spinning it like a knife, hands controlled, eyes wild-

It reminded Fraser of Chicago. Undeniably stirring. He'd almost come to forget what Ray looked like on the offensive. Shouting, shooting, drubbing a heavy bag...


Panting, leaning on the bag, covered in sweat, bare arms knotted with muscle and frustration. "You want to make me feel better?"

He did, indeed, with few limits, and for one delirious moment, he'd thought Ray might see that and press him on it. It seemed to be there in his eyes, a recklessness, a yearning for violent comfort. There was the weight of meaning in his voice. Fraser had almost mistaken it for promise.

What if he hadn't been wrong? In the warmth of the fire, Fraser drifted, a dreamland of the mind, no consequences. This time, Ray understood, Ray was ready, Ray would take the offer. This time, Ray said what was in his eyes.

"You want to make me feel better? Go ahead."

Fraser licked his lip. "Meaning..."

Ray laughed, an aggressive noise, without humour. "You know what I want, you know what would work. What every guy wants. Just do it." He hooked his arm up over the top of the punching bag, the heat of his body burning across the inches between them. His voice was rough and low. "Just give it to me, just drop and give it to me."

Part of Fraser's mind split off at that point and was shoving Ray up against the desk in his office at the Consulate, stripping him furiously, but the rest remained here, holding the side of the bag steady under Ray's weight. The other fighters in the gym were irrelevant, a mere asteroid belt, spinning grey and distant around this central pole where Ray burned hot on Fraser's face, on his body, a cold and stubborn orbiting satellite.

"This won't be a problem?" he asked, intrigued. "It won't... change anything?" A tempting prospect, that he could do this, that Ray would accept physical satisfaction, but without damage to their friendship, their respect, their working relationship, anything of value.

"Huh. Nah. It won't change anything. Won't make a difference."

Fraser's eyes tracked down his chest: the hollow of his throat, the sharp pectorals, the sweat-marked undershirt. "In that case..."

"It won't make a difference." Ray said again, his voice getting louder, working himself up. "It won't make a difference, Fraser, because you're already crazy about me. You think I don't know that? You can't stop looking at me. You're hung up on me every second we're together."

Fraser stood rigid as the words began to land like blows, left and right. "You think no one knows because you think you're outside it, above the law, no one can pin it on you. You make like you're up there in the - the little fluffy white clouds, but you're not, you're thinking about me."

It was accusation, frustration, but triumph as well.

"Oh, you want me, you know it, everyone knows it. It's written all over your face. You know you want to get your hands under my shirt, you want to grab my ass, get in my pants. You want to pull my pants down to my knees and fill your mouth up. You want to suck me down till you're not hungry any more, you want to feel me go down in your mouth, go down your throat. You want your tongue to go places-"

Fraser found himself gripping him, the bag, voice rasping. "Let me, let me-"

The contact down the left side of his body was almost unbearably intense; where the bag held them apart was almost a relief, a hard barrier between them. He rubbed against it for the pressure, shameless. Wrapping a hand around the back of Ray's neck, dropping his head close, he said, "Let me give you what you want." He lowered his head closer still, turning it, so that his mouth was almost against Ray's ear. "I can make you feel good. I know I can." Didn't he watch Ray constantly, didn't he feel him with every inch of his skin, every minute, how could he not know how to please him, how to find his desires? "I want to have you, let me do this for you, let me..."


"The roaring Fraser, huh? Ha, yeah! Roooooar! 'Chase the roaring Fraser to the sea.' We got a good laugh out of that one." Ray finished his choking snicker and added more diffidently, "We used to sing that Northwest Passage song a lot, back on the trail."

Disoriented, Fraser rubbed his shoulder again and took stock. Maggie had retreated to a spot near the wall, and Ray was leaning in the doorway, a can in his hand. He was thinner and more weather-worn than in Fraser's fantasy, but the tense vitality, the casual hunch of his back, the way he led with his chest and his head, were the same. Although somewhat - ah, that explained it. Four empties had collected on the low table. After the intense metabolic demands of their journey, Ray had probably overestimated his current tolerance for alcohol.

"The roaring Fraser. And the Mackenzie, right? You're both rivers."

"I suppose so." She looked over at Fraser, with a hint of wry smile.

"And, what, you both roads too?"

Maggie and he traded infinitesimal eyebrow raises and shrugs, and Fraser said placatingly, "I suppose it depends where you're trying to get to."

Ray leaned further against the wall and grinned down at Maggie. "I could think of a few places."

Maggie looked blank, then tried a polite smile and edged away a few inches, and Ray slumped forward against his arm to pursue. His eyes were black, his lips wet. He looked sexually aroused, slovenly, drunk, obvious. Fraser loved him with all his heart.

He'd known that for some time, of course, but moments like this still seized him with painful force. He should be making a move to distract, to restore his sister's composure, but he stayed immobile. There was perhaps no explaining it. That he respected Ray despite his foibles was understandable, but that this fierce yearning, if anything, grew stronger when its object was making a fool of himself, that was... curious.

He recalled himself with a shameful start when Maggie finally asked for his help, as Ray's drunken attentions were growing increasingly difficult to deflect with grace. He wondered if she would have had a different response were he not here as well, if she might have invited Ray into her bedroom, given him what he so clearly wished, but there was no point thinking about that. Occam's razor again. She seemed to want Ray to let her be, so presumably that was what she wanted.

The riot in his body having quieted by then, he stood and took over the task of putting Ray to bed, and she retreated to the kitchen while he guided Ray to the sofa and convinced him to drink a few glasses of water.

"No hangovers. I do not get hangovers," Ray insisted.

"That's good. All the same, we've got a lot to do tomorrow. Up with the sun, and just think about all those automatic weapons going off."

Ray winced. "Oo. Okay." He finished the glass.

Half-dropping it onto the table, he started fumbling with his sweatshirt, pulling it off, then a sweater, stripping with glassy-eyed determination as Fraser stood ready in case he was needed. Down to his thermal henley, Ray pulled the suspenders off and faltered at the waist of his snow pants, struggling with the side zipper. Fraser took a step forward, Ray lurched back into the table and he started to fall, Fraser catching him around the waist instinctively.

"Hey. Hey!" Ray pushed at him, getting his balance back as he shoved, slapping him away. "Hands off!"

Fraser recoiled.

Ray panted, not exactly upright, but in no further danger of falling. "I can do it," he said. "I can do it, I don't need your help."

"Right," Fraser said. He backed away, around the end of the table, pressing his hands on his thighs. "Just so."

Ambushed by his nightmare, he fled the room, Ray turning with him as he left, still ready to fight.

Fraser didn't want to fight. He didn't want to hurt Ray, he didn't want anything. Only to be free of guilt, free of desire, to never be looked at like that again. He collected in the far corner of the kitchen, leaning on his hand.

After a while he heard Maggie's voice, realizing she was standing behind him, a light touch on his back. He turned around.

"More tea?" she said brightly and rather helplessly.


They shut the door and talked in low tones to give Ray time to settle. Maggie told him about the snowmobile accident north of the fish camp - two injured, repairs needed - and how such things weren't uncommon here. The terrain to the north was treacherous, she said, and that led to more questions about their journey, whether he meant to take them north or not, whether he understood that the road was about to close.

Finally she put her hand flat on the table and, with an air of taking the bull by the horns, said, "You are planning to come back. Aren't you?"

Fraser took longer to answer that than he should have. "Of course. ...I suppose." At her expression, he qualified, "Perhaps not this way."

"Then..." She shook her head. "I'm sorry. It's just you seem - different, than when we met before. And - not that you'd endanger Ray..."

"You don't think I'd allow Ray to come to any harm."

"No, no. Of course not." Maggie struggled with it, then proceeded, her concern overpowering her reluctance. "But he'd do anything, for you, and you... there's just something strange about you two now."

Fraser rubbed his forehead, feeling strangely distant, or perhaps dizzy. "Well, that could just be..."

"I don't mean-" she said at the same time.

"Ah."

They looked near, but not quite at each other, and Maggie coughed. "So you've, er... you're..."

"Oh, no, no."

"Ah." She blinked and straightened her jaw out, smiling politely. "I just thought - you seemed-"

Fraser nodded and shook his head. "There's a certain, I - we have a - it's - I can see that."

"Then why-" She pulled back and waved, attempting to withdraw the question.

"Well, you see, he's- he doesn't- " He gestured vaguely.

"Oh!"

"But we're - good friends."

She frowned. "Oh. Oh dear."

"Yes."

They sipped their tea. Fraser started to relax. It felt good to have talked it out with someone.

"But, Benton," she said finally, her voice soft. "Something's wrong. Isn't it? When you were talking about our father..."

Fraser opened his mouth. He looked at the tea, familiar from his childhood, the homey table cloth. He thought about the letter, the voice of his friend, so well remembered, so suddenly removed, the beginnings of all his doubts and confusion. Finding his courage, suddenly, he asked her, "Maggie. Is this real?"

She tipped her head, waiting.

Having said the words almost seemed to answer the question, but he pushed on - embarrassed, but, having come this far, wanting desperately to be reassured. "None of this... seems very likely, to me. My dead father speaks to me, walks around and speaks. More than he ever did when he was alive. I find a friend, a good, true friend, who then changes into another man overnight. And that man... is willing to leave his family, leave his home, his work, and come with me, here, because I'm home again. Almost everything I could want. Just because I wanted it. I don't know what comes next. I can't imagine it. It doesn't make sense."

Confession made, he looked at the mug of tea and pushed it away. He'd forgotten how sick of the stuff he got when forced to drink it constantly. "Diefenbaker thinks this is real, but I'm not sure I trust his judgement on the matter."

Maggie didn't laugh at him. That made it easier. "For what it's worth, I think it's real too," she said, a sensible tone in her voice he didn't recognize. Maybe she'd gotten it from her mother. "I remember an awful lot of years of getting up early in the morning, mucking out the kennels. Splitting firewood. Skinning muskrats, tarring the roof. All that trig in school, all those laps I ran at the depot." Her mouth twisted and she added, "Losing my mum, losing Casey. If that was all just part of your dream world, well, we're going to have words."

It made sense. She was right, of course. And it made sense.

But in that case... what on earth was Ray doing here? If Fraser hadn't dragged him by some strange magnetism of the will, if this was truly voluntary, why had Ray ever suggested this peculiar outing? That Ray, at his point in life and with his dreamer's soul, might seek some kind of spiritual quest, was believable. That he would seek it here, in an unknown country, in conditions he could barely survive, was hard to understand, except as a means of remaining with Fraser, his partner, when their work no longer justified it.

But that he could understand. Hadn't he chosen to stay in Chicago for friendship, too? They both led isolated lives, their partnership was very valuable to him, as well.

"I'm sorry," he said. It seemed too small, so he took another breath, and said, "Thank you."

For his freedom. If this was real, not a mere product of his insanity, then... he was both relieved and frightened at once. The insulating, suffocating layer of doubt was gone, and he would still have to choose where to go next.

"You're a good man, Benton Fraser. You'll be all right."

"I'm glad to know you, Maggie."

Looking at her, he felt a smile, a real smile, creeping up his face and spreading out, as the slow realization that someone cared settled in - someone who didn't need anything from him, didn't want much, but simply cared. It was... wonderful. "And we will come back. Some day."

They said their goodnights with an awkward hug and then took turns brushing their teeth, trying not to wake Ray, who had made it into his sleeping bag and was immobile, breathing loudly through his mouth. Maggie gave him a funny little grin and then ducked into her room and shut the door.

Fraser located a change of clothing by touch and stripped, folding the day's discards into a neat pile to be taken care of tomorrow, and slipped into his own sleeping bag, resting his head on the pillow. The blankets were a nice touch. He felt increasingly relaxed, the weight of his realization, his confusion, the interesting events of the day, all conspiring to bring him under. The sound of Ray's heavy breathing was a comforting counterpoint, reminding him of Ray's closeness, his loyalty, his...

Heavy breathing...

Fraser remembered his thoughts of earlier, the desk, the punching bag, Ray's challenging eyes, and sleep seemed suddenly farther away. His body responded eagerly. Again, then, like last night, quickly and quietly, with the sense memory of being trapped between the boxes together to speed his way. Fraser located a clean handkerchief, pulled it down into the warmth of the sleeping bag and began undoing buttons. Aaah, there, leaping into his hand -

"Fraser?"

Fingers tightening in a painful spasm, he choked out, "...Yes? Ray?" He could hear that his voice sounded strangled, pompous. Slowly, he started letting go of his erection, trying to keep the motion imperceptible, flattening his hand.

"Uh... nothing. Just. Uh. Good night."

Ray sounded tense, and not very drunk, and definitely not asleep.

Fraser cleared his throat and brought his arm down to his side. "Good night."

They lay side by side, separated by the width of the floor, for a long time. Eventually, he slept.


Ray wasn't sure when he drifted off. It wasn't easy, after a day like that, and a night. After a while, though, he was struggling up a hill, following Fraser, orange sherbet sunset light above and around them, arguing all the way. "Yeah, but the thing is..."

"This way."

"The ice is going to be gone, right? Like - gone." He waved his hands uselessly and kept climbing, chasing Fraser, who never had to rest. "Do you see the problem here?"

"Oh, there's no turning back, Ray."

Fraser had stopped at the top of the ridge and was looking out at something.

"What... what is it?"

He was expecting to hear "the Northwest Passage," but what Fraser said was, "The road back home again."

"Yeah, but if we can't go back, how can we-" Ray caught up to him at last, puffing. "How can we go home? See what I mean?"

Fraser nodded, his eyes remote and bright. "That's a very good question, Ray. Let's find out."

He turned his head in slow motion and there it was, laid out below between the mountains, a big shallow dish of light, sunset reflecting off land and ice and water.


Ray's eyes opened. It was dawn, early morning grey coming in the windows. Fraser's eyes were open too and they were looking at each other.





Part III: Subatomic Particles


The roar of the snowmobiles made it hard to hear anything but shouting. But that was fine by Ray, he was in the mood to let 'er rip.

Eyes mostly shut against the force of the wind, he yelled at Fraser, "Remind me what I'm doing here again?"

"Well," Fraser yelled back, "I believe you took a bus, walked down a street, turned a corner..."

"Huh." Well damn. Ray raised his voice again. "You remember that?"

"Your way of expressing yourself is very," of course the guy could do the meaningful pause thing even at top volume while steering a bucking bronco of an engine-with-handles, "memorable. It's very vivid!"

"Oh, yeah?" Stupid to be so pleased about that, but let's face it, he was stupid about anything to do with Fraser, or he wouldn't be here, 2,500 miles north of his apartment. "Yours is very... smooth. Yeah! Smooth!"

"Why, thank you!"

"Okay, so let me get this straight!" Ray took a minute to enjoy the power of the ride, the tundra whipping by, that he hadn't fallen on his ass or his face yet. Kinda like being Batman. Except still no cape. "We're heading north to check out why everyone who comes up here has accidents, like sled or snowmobile accidents or they just disappear!"

"Right!"

"And we're on snowmobiles."

"To cover a larger search area than we could have by sled, and to recreate the circumstances of the accidents!"

"So what's to stop us from having an accident too?"

Fraser started to raise a hand, then snapped it back onto the grip bar. The ancient Snow Cruiser grumbled and settled back on course.

"Good question. As always... watchfulness! A keen sensitivity to local conditions – fine changes in the appearance of the terrain ahead. The fact that we, unlike the locals, are expecting trouble! And possibly good luck."

Ray snorted what he thought of that, but he'd survived this long working with Fraser, maybe he was right: Ray had to be either the luckiest or the unluckiest guy on the planet.

"And may I say!" Fraser got going again, after shutting his lips and building some spit back up. "You've picked this up very rapidly!"

They went over some moguls or something, and Ray rode it back down to the ground without a hitch. "Lot like a motorcycle!" he said, when he was sure his teeth hadn't pulverized. "No problem!" Which reminded him of something. "Hey, don't I gotta have a license to drive this thing?"

Fraser was watching the horizon for signs of trouble. "What's that? I can't hear you!"

Ray shrugged.

The thirty-year-old RCMP Cruisers were incredibly loud, front skis plowing up the snow in puffs, shaking under them like motorized steamboats. "Bet Dief's sorry he missed this, huh?"

Still keeping his eyes ahead, Fraser moved his ear around a bit and managed to hear that one. "Oh, no, he wanted to stay with Maggie at the shed stakeout. Very protective! And he hates snowmobiles."

"Yeah? How come?"

"I believe it's the environmental impact!"

"Oh, what next, muscle cars are bad?"

"Well, as a matter of fact, Ray...!" Fraser turned to look at him, ready to give a speech, and Ray had an instant sense of doom and whipped to look at the snow ahead himself, so he was the one who saw it first.

"BAIL!" Just a break in the white, a subtle line, maybe just a shadow, but call it a hunch, right? And give him credit, Fraser was already throwing himself off the seat of the buggy when it hit something and went spinning up in the air, tail first, oh, and Ray's right next to it, like a couple of dolphins goofing around at Sea World.

More like Ice World. Ray was picturing a row of kids in fur hoods watching a perky trainer trying to get a polar bear to go through a flaming hoop when the words "ay? Ray? Ray?" finally got through.

"Oh. Yeah. Sorry." He pushed himself up off his elbows, shaking his head. Okay maybe a little dazed there. But he was good. Nice landing, nothing broken, didn't get the hat soaked. All good. He pushed back to his feet, get the snow off, got it, punch-drunk but game.

Fraser was still lying down for some reason, but when Ray came over he rolled and got himself up on his knees and then his feet.

"You okay?"

"Oh fine, fine. I just seem to have-" he lowered his hand and winced - "landed on my bad shoulder. It'll be fine in a minute."

"You sure." Ray watched him put his chin up, start to lean like he was going to walk, and then Ray was planting his hand on Fraser's chest and going, "Whoa, wait, what? Bad shoulder? Since when do you have a bad shoulder?"

Fraser knew he'd been caught. He got that face, but he tried to brazen it out. "I think I must have wrenched it when we were - ah - when we were hiding, in the warehouse yesterday. When I pulled you in next to me."

Ray shuffled, shooting dirty looks down at his elbows, because that was not a subject he wanted to have a real heart-to-heart about, but then he breathed in deep and got back up on Fraser's case. "You didn't say nothin'."

"Well, I didn't know it was injured at the time, really. It was only a little sore. When I woke up this morning - well," he paused, Mountie guilt all over his face.

"Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-uh," Ray said. "You knew this morning. Swelled up in your sleep, right? Yeah, I know. Done it boxing. And once climbing a chain link fence. But did you tell us? Did you say one word to me or your sister? No."

"Maggie had a lot on her mind, and it's really a very minor strain, and there wasn't time to ice it..."

"And you're the Lone Ranger and it's only a scratch. Right? Yeah. That's bull, Fraser. What's the one thing you kept telling me while we were on the road?"

"Never urinate upwind during an ice storm?"

"Uh, no, no, the other thing."

"Oh! It's... it's your duty to guard your safety at all times..." He started to hang his head.

"Because once you're injured you get more injured. See? Like that. And then you can no longer effectively look out for yourself or your partner. You shoulda said something!"

Fraser nodded, checked the horizon for exit signs, then suddenly looked Ray right in the eyes, focusing, like he hadn't for a while. "So you admit we're still partners."

"Huh?" Ray pulled his mitt off Fraser's chest, little statute of limitations thing there. Hands did not stay on Fraser for more than 30 seconds, that was a rule. "Admit, nothin'. We're explorers."

"Partners."

"We're just two guys..."

"Who are partners."

"In a voluntary whosis, association..." Fraser had that bit of the devil in his eyes, and Ray's own bit wanted to come out and play. Sometimes you just give and take, you just bing and bang, you just work. "Of being partners. Fine. But I tell you this, Fraser. No more mister invulnerable crap with me. No more getting us in a bad situation because you did not see fit to admit you got hurt, or you're tired, or you bleed. You pull this stuff again and so help me I'll pop you one!"

Fraser raised a hand to his bad shoulder ('you wouldn't hit a man in glasses, would you Ray?') and stared. "Did you just offer to pop me one?"

"Uh. Yeah." His stomach dropped out suddenly, as he remembered Fraser's face the last time they did this, his eyes. He swallowed. "S'that a problem?"

Fraser was still looking at him, not just near him, right at him. Down into his soul where he didn't know what he kept there. Similar to that other time, but... not the same. "Actually I'd say it's rather encouraging."

Huh.

Ray shook himself out. "Okee..."

"All right."

"After you, partner."

"Partner." They sparked at each other, and then Ray jerked his head toward the crash site and Fraser nodded once and they started walking, a circuit flowing, good and solid again.


Hey speaking of circuits. "Is that electrified?"

Fraser hunkered over the low cable, closer than Ray would have gotten, poking at the snow on either side. "I don't think so. At least, not at present. The power costs would be enormous. But an unexpected obstacle under the runners would probably have been enough to precipitate an accident, especially if it had guided our vehicles at an angle to each other." He tasted the snow on his fingers - probably the least gross thing Ray had ever seen him taste - hmmed and stood up. "I'm guessing we'll find more of these as we get closer."

Ray stepped well over the trap line, just in case, and Fraser started heading north again, Ray wallowing in the snow next to him rather than let him break a trail. "Closer to what?"

"Whatever it is they're trying so hard to protect. I..." He shook his head.

"You okay? Shoulder?"

"No, I... it's... my head." He shook it again. "As I was saying, if this Axel and his crew are smugglers, using the former mortuary storage shed as a transfer point, they must be getting the goods from somewhere. The least accessible..." He covered one of his ears with his gloves, then the other. "Hm. Uh, the concentration of the greatest number of accidents, seemed the logical... do you hear something?"

Ray checked, willing. "Just... wind, maybe."

"Odd." The small line above his nose showed up and stayed there, as they went plodding on. He let out a sigh and said, "Ray, may I ask you something?"

"Sure thing, partner."

"What are your intentions towards Maggie?"

Uh-ooo. Blindsided again. Ray stammered, and Fraser went on.

"Because you seem very taken with her, and, well, I suppose that if any man were to court my sister, I'd want it to be you."

Which. Yeah.

Kind of answered that about his chances with Fraser.

Because, after that whole Constable Frenchie thing, he'd started to wonder, if maybe it wasn't totally crazy, but he'd thought it all through and Fraser never said the word 'crush', did he? Never said nothing that couldn't just be, well, Fraser didn't realize how things sounded, he was innocent like that. Yeah, but, maybe he just didn't know. Right? Maybe he was so innocent he just didn't know. Maybe he just needed somebody to suggest it to him? Naked? Somebody who wasn't... married to his sister.

So, fine, that was out. Fraser didn't go that way, and he didn't want a map. Ray could deal. He'd been dealing for a long time now. All he had to do was stop thinking about it. Just go back to how things were before, for the rest of the trip, keep it light, and then, a firm handshake and he'd be on a plane back home.

Except. A really horribly tempting vision swam up, like a mirage. Him and Maggie, hitched, him a citizen, Fraser coming over for dinner, the three of them going old and grey and cranky together, down through the years. Because then he'd have a reason, an excuse. He'd have a lock on Fraser that no one could blame him for. No explanations, no leaving... But he was already telling the truth, he heard himself doing it. He wasn't that crazy, or that low.

"No intentions, no, sorry, I was just, uh..." jealous, scared, confused, drunk, horny, but the only parts of that he could say were kind of, how do you explain to a guy that you wanted to do his sister? Politely? "Sometimes you just want company, you know? Like, a woman."

The silence was too long.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I, uh, look, I respect the hell out of Maggie, you gotta know that..."

"It's fine," Fraser said. "I mean, it's good to know." He didn't sound pissed. He sounded... hard to say. Dull. Flat, like he'd been, when they first came into town.

Or relieved, maybe, a little. Kind of zen. "My father used to say that it's much easier to get where you're going if you know the direction."

Ray went through it a couple times and then said, "Isn't that kind of stupid?"

"Well, my father's sayings often weren't as helpful as you might think."

"Oh." They trudged a bit more, aiming for some low hills that were in the right direction. Ray felt edgy and strange. "Hey. You think Maggie would really marry me? If, uh, if I asked?"

"Honestly? No."

"Oh."

"Not remotely."

"Yeah good okay."

The going was rough, but not too rough. Guess he'd gotten used to it. Not so much of the ice fissures thing here, but big pits, more up and down curves of hill, that you didn't even notice were there until you realized you couldn't see very far, and a lot of iced-over channels hidden under snow crusts that Fraser could spot and haul you back from. No wonder people didn't drive up here except on the river. Even a serious off-road vehicle would be upside down by now unless, maybe, the driver knew exactly where he was going.

Fraser wasn't wasting his energy with warnings and instructional lectures on terrain any more, he was just gritting his teeth and hauling at Ray's arm sometimes, so finally Ray gave in and walked really close to him, letting him pick the safe path.

"I don't wish to alarm you," Fraser said after a while, "But either something is seriously wrong with my hearing, or..." He didn't finish.

"No, no, I got something. Like your teeth are all on edge, right? It's not like, I don't hear nothin', it's just... a feeling."

"Aha!" Fraser said, speeding up. Thighs burning, Ray kept pace. "Of course. A white noise generator. But adjusted upward, tuned just above the range of most human hearing."

"Oh, so like one of those whistles only dogs can hear."

"Exactly. Like a sort of sonic fence, if you will. It would keep sled teams away from this area, as the dogs would naturally avoid it, and if forced to enter, they might run mad. Trappers out on foot would avoid it as well, with a subliminal sense of discomfort."

"This here is some pretty liminal discomfort if you ask me." Ray tried covering his ears, felt better for a second, then lowered his mitts to ask, "So that's what's keeping the birds away?"

Fraser grunted. "Quite possibly. The migratory patterns are determined to a large extent by... magnetic..." His head hanging further, he pushed on, like a mime Walking Against the Wind. He really looked miserable. Ray was reminded of his old dog on bath day.

"Hey, is this gonna go on much longer? You don't look too hot."

"Don't feel too hot, Ray. But, logically, we must be close to the source of the... to the generator. It would take too much power to... cover... We're looking for a building large enough to house a substantial... " He oofed as he walked into Ray's arm.

"You mean like that?"

The ground dropped away at their feet, and hidden in a dip between hills was a long, low building, no, a set of buildings, all quonset huts and concrete, rounded grey roofs and tire tracks.

Fraser was so happy to see it he nearly walked right off the edge anyhow, and Ray had to block him sideways until he got with it and started looking for a way down. After a lot of hauling and slipping and nearly imitating snowballs, they got most of the way down the slope, then all the way, and no one had shot them yet.

No cover, anywhere in sight, so with another look at Fraser's grey face Ray got them running across the open field, waiting for the machine guns, like something out of The Great Escape, but they got to the other side and they were under a catwalk for a roof and their boots were slapping on concrete, and still not a shot fired. Not so much as a yell. Maybe no one was home. Ray hit the wall and rolled with his back to it, panting in relief.

"It's off," Fraser said. He dropped his jaw, and Ray did too, popping his ears. "Oh, my, that feels good."

"They turned it off? Someone's here?"

"Possibly. It may simply not cover this area. I suggest we reconnoiter." He pointed up the catwalk stairs and they got going, bang, bang, clamber, on the rickety metal, not the quietest, but it held together.

They came out higher up along the outside of a building, and checked the place out, as best they could see under the snow and ice. It looked old, dead, and military-ugly. Some lichen and small bushes were growing up against the walls and even on the roofs in a few places, that's how old it was. But. Fraser pointed, there, there, and there. The only motion on the deserted base: small clouds of white coming up from vents, at the sides and bases of two of the buildings. "Occupied."

"So either someone's here, or they're keeping the heat on." Ray looked around again, making sure there weren't more vents going. It was weird being in a dip when everything was snowed over, how you couldn't see this place walking up, and now they were in here, they couldn't really see out. Like the horizon was really close, or something. Messed with your sense of distance. "This is what, like, a secret Mountie base? Canadian army?"

Fraser shook his head. "It's not any of the standard layouts for a near-arctic installation. The pattern of the pipes, the angle of the - well, the details aren't important, but no, this is not Canadian."

"Russian? Like, Russky spies? This stuff looks kinda '50s."

"Agreed, but it would be difficult for a foreign power to construct such a thing here undetected, even in a stretch of land that's generally considered impassable. Although you can see where a channel was once cut to running water to the northeast..."

"Oh yeah." Actually he almost thought he could.

"No, at a guess, I'd say this base was probably American. Constructed to keep an eye on Russian activity, then abandoned. Let's investigate."

"Right. Uh. Fraser, do you see that?" Ray waved south, not really pointing, in case not fixing the spot would make it less real. That funhouse horizon wasn't smooth and curved any more. It had a bump on it, a cloud, low and wide and getting bigger. "That look kind of like a, uh... white wind? To you?"

"It does rather, yes." Fraser angled his head. "But what it sounds like is six or seven approaching carbureted two-stroke Yamaha snowmobiles, overloaded for passengers. I suggest we hurry."

They were pelting down the catwalk steps before Ray had gotten his head around that. "That's all it was? And people thought it was a spirit?"

"Oh, I doubt anyone really thought that, Ray. As Mr. Nungak told us, the story was a metaphor, a way of warning the young folk to avoid this area. Now I suggest we split up for the search, we may not have long. I'll take the east quadrant, you take the west, we'll rendezvous back here in fifteen minutes. Oh, and try not to draw attention to our presence; we need to learn as much as we can before alerting the gang. So if you do run across guards, do your best to neutralize them without gunfire."

Ray paused with his hand inside his opened coat, mitten dangling from his teeth. But... but he finally had his gun, and... but Fraser had a point. "Okay, I'll try. But you know I get a little excited when the whole danger thing gets going and bad guys are trying to smash my head in? Bang-bang, self-defense, it's just a reaction."

"Ah. Well then, perhaps a mnemonic, to help you focus. How about: 'Fire no guns, shed no tears.' Mm?"

Yes, Fraser really did just sing a few bars of some old sea song right in the middle of sneaking around a secret army base, because that to him was like, logical. Ray shook his head. "I wish I was in Sherbrook now, all right."

But he didn't, you know? That was the thing. He'd never been too good at normal. Always felt like he was passing, waiting to get busted, somehow. Might as well just run off and join the circus and get it over with. Of course he never thought he'd end up in the freezer of the world, with a crush on his best friend, starring in some weird-ass nature special by Gilbert & Sullivan, but it was... kind of fun, or something. "Okay, let's rock and roll."

"Fifteen minutes. On my mark. Mark." They sprinted in opposite directions across the roofed courtyard, keeping low. Ray was around the far side of the big tall building, alone with the tundra going on into forever on his left and the wall on his right and checking for vents, before he remembered his watch had broken somewhere back around the 49th parallel.


Fraser took a deep breath as he rounded the corner of the ordnance shed. The air from the vents smelled odd, a little tainted, but the wind was fresh, blown in from the distant bay. With an ear to the thin but growing buzz of the oncoming snowmobiles, he hunted.

All things considered, he felt strangely alive. This was real. This was familiar. All his illusions, his fears of madness, of strange power, even his long-cherished secret hope that Ray had some leanings toward men, might even one day accept him as a romantic partner, all gone, left behind in the snow. Instead, he was pursuing what he was meant for, made for: not love, not family. Justice. It felt good.

He heard it then, the slight bang of an unplanned motion, a raspy slide of cloth, the hint of a human presence. He approached the next corner slowly and peered. A burly man in a snow parka was standing by a sheltered doorway, rubbing his arms.

The guard's head was turned away: he didn't see Fraser coming.

The concrete wall had no give as Fraser tackled him into it, hard enough to stun. Arms flailing, the man let out a cry of pain and gaped at him.

Fraser kept him pinned, feeling the man's muscle mass against his body with a mixture of interest and distaste. "Tell me," he said. "Would I be assuming too much if I-"

The man drew air into his lungs to shout and Fraser pulled back and punched him across the jaw.


Working his way back south on the other side of the hangar building, Ray tiptoed around a corner, nearly right into a guy in a big coat taking a pull from a flask, and backed up again. Staring out into the white, he took a few deep breaths, pulled his gun, and then dived around the corner again, cracking the guy across the base of the skull with it. It... uh... worked.

Ray caught the guy as he slumped and tipped him back against the wall, chin on his chest, so it wouldn't be too hard to go through his pockets. The flask spilled and bumped its way to the ground.

Mittens hanging, working with just gloves on, he patted the guy down, starting with the coat. Contents of pockets: pack of smokes, cheap, mostly empty; after a brief fondle, Ray left them. Matchbook, keys - wallet, here we go. Ray pulled it out and started looking for ID. Canadian, natch. Josiah Sanders. He started flipping through the billfold: some pretty high denominations of the funny-money, a punch card for the local Booze R Us, business card for some strip club with 'Call me, Andi' written on the back-

"Who the hell are you?"

Ray looked up slowly, the wallet clearly open in his hand. Two guys stood there, covering him with the big guns, one of them pulling out a walkie-talkie.

Casually lowering his hand toward his pocket, Ray began, "I was just, uh, out for a drive, and I stopped for a smoke, and, I see this guy, and I think, hey, maybe he'll gimme a light, and..."

"Drop it! Arms up!" The wallet fell at his feet on the concrete, and he stood and let them grope him over, find his gun, and take it away. Damn.

The walkie-talkie went down again. "Axel says to bring him in."


The unconscious man was heavy. Fraser deposited him on the floor behind some crates, secured the outside door, came back to monitor his pulse - acceptable - and set out to find out what he had been guarding. The odd smell was stronger in here. Finding a stash of metal canisters and some pasteboard stencils, he identified it: spray paint.

Locating a crowbar, he set to work on one of the crates, Ray's voice in his head. "What, they're some kind of secret Canadian graffiti gang? They sneak through town at night and spray 'Wayne Gretsky was here'?" He smiled a little as he popped the bolts. Right now Ray would be creeping along a wall, perhaps approaching a guard, pistol at the ready - although he would probably remember not to fire it - his mouth open, his slim legs braced -

No. Fraser paused to clear his mind completely, picturing a pool of still water, and went back to work. For the future stability of their partnership, he could no longer allow himself the luxury of such thoughts, even the most innocent. Now that there was reason to believe that he still had his sanity, he would try harder to protect it.

With an ominous roar, the Yamaha snowmobiles pulled up outside, in rough coordination. Six. Their arrival masked the sound of the crate lid sliding off, and Fraser stared down at the contents, horrified.

Of course, he hadn't really been expecting to have children, at this point, anyway.



"He says Josie was passed out when he got there. Moonshine all down his coat."

The blond Yank with the weird accent grinned like a weasel and did a full-body shrug. "Asked him for directions, no dice, no nothin', so I just thought, hey, while he's sleepin' it off, he won't be using that wallet."

Axel's arms were folded. He was playing it still. The stranger was doing the moving thing, fill your space, walls of danger, look bigger, and Axel was playing it I am stone, I do not need to move, I am just that big.

"I was gonna get him inside so he didn't freeze, that's the next thing I was going to do."

"Yeah? Out for a drive in the country, huh?"

"Extreme sports and stuff, yeah. Impress the girls, right? Maybe shoot a moose or something. But I got lost. There was this weird, uh, this weird noise. I got all confused. Then my Ski-Doo's tipping over and bam, I'm out in the snow. Lucky I found this place." He started to run a hand through his punk hairdo, shifted again, grinning at the hulking thugs around him. With his coat and hat dumped in the corner so he couldn't run, he looked scrawny, but mean.

"You always roll drunks when you find 'em?"

He showed his teeth and put his hands up. "Hey. C'mon. I said I was sorry."

Axel looked over at his boys. "Where's Joe now?"

"By the trailers," Frank said, talking slow enough to piss you off, but at least what he said was usually right. "Little guy helped pull him. Stronger than he looks," he added approvingly.

"Hey! Who you callin' little?"

Ebbott closed in next to Frank. "You got a problem with that, junior?"

"You got a problem with my fist in your face?"

"Hold it." Time to cut in. Four to one and the stranger was ready to go, tense as a spring coil, going to get pounded to a pulp and he didn't seem to care. The boys held, uncertain.

"Tough guy, huh?" Axel took a step toward the Yank, looking him over with the eye of a connoisseur. "What would you say if I said your mother was a two-bit drunken syphillitic whore who blows sailors for chaw?"

Pale eyes turned on him, still glowing like they had a lighter behind them. His heaving chest might have been slowing down, then there was the start of a grin again, and he shrugged. "I'd say, didn't know you knew the old bat."

"Then what would you say to a couple hours' work? I need some crates moved, and, guess what, one of my biggest guys is out cold. There's a twenty in it for you."

The Yank put his hands on his skinny hips. "Sounds good."



Fraser's attempts to return to the rendezvous point were frustrated repeatedly by the movements of the gang, who were removing crates from the storage hall under the direction of one of the smaller thugs, the one with the bad case of post-nasal drip, who alternated helping to carry, sniffing, shouting verbal abuse and consulting a walkie-talkie. Moving from cover to cover, Fraser kept out of sight and thought furiously.

Ray would adapt to a change of plan; he could take care of himself. But the unconscious guard was a problem. Fraser had no way to transport him back to Trapper's Rest. So. Step one: locate Ray. Step two: make sure the man's body had been found, step three: gain access to the snowmobiles and -

A shout from directly behind him let him know that step two had jumped ahead in the queue; the plan would need some adjustment. He crouched and spun, lunging, catching the first man soundly around the waist and bearing him down even as his eyes lit on Ray, standing in the middle of the group of thugs like a dog in a wolf pack, looking panicked. He shook the first man off and said, "Do you fully understand what you're transporting h–" before another man tackled him, bore him back against the crates. Fraser heaved him off and took a swing at his jaw.

He could hear Ray saying, "Uh, you realize if you shoot a Mountie, they'll hunt you forever, right? Not a myth."

As he turned for his next grapple, by unlucky chance he caught a punch soundly on his injured shoulder and in a blinding flare of pain lost his grip and slid down the man's chest to the floor.

His face touched concrete. Sound penetrated the haze, and he fought to retain concentration. Axel's voice on the walkie-talkie: "Pinter's out cold? Leave him. The Yank can take his ride."

"But, boss, you know he'd freeze to death before we could come back for him."

"Fine. Bring him, strap him to the hood or piggyback, just don't be late. We're on a schedule here." Crackle. "But leave the Mountie."

"Yes, boss." An appalling explosion of static built up before being switched off - interference from the white noise generator.

Aha. This was their moment! The gang was separated, reduced in number, unable to communicate; he and Ray had a tactical advantage. He rolled to catch his partner's eye and telegraph that now was the time to strike, and one of the miscreants kicked him viciously to keep him still, then again, catching him the second time on the collarbone. The pain went through him again and everything went black.

Curious sensation.



Maybe it wasn't really, like, necessary, to be holding onto Fraser, but he'd started with the more strictly man-to-man arm-shaking and yelling and eyelid-pushing-up, and grabbing him and holding him up so he wasn't all the way on the freezing cold floor just kind of was what happened next. Because Fraser wasn't supposed to lie there, all white-faced and limp. Fraser wasn't supposed to pass out. He wasn't supposed to get hurt. He wasn't even supposed to get dirty. Even when he was dead he was faking it. He wasn't...

Fraser twitched in his arms, all up and down his body, then suddenly thrashed free and jumped to his feet, spun around, raised his fists, straightened up stiff and put a hand to his head, then relaxed and looked normal. "Status?"

"Uh... we're locked up. It's cold. We're, uh, goin' to die."

"Ah." Fraser looked around the room, some kind of sunken bunker, his head turning from the single exit to the one high window above ground level to the ceiling vent to the empty floor back to Ray. "More or less what I expected."

"Then you've got a plan?" Ray said.

"-No."

"Right." Ray stood up too and didn't go closer, feeling awkward. "How long we got before we freeze?"

"How long have we been in here?"

"Couple minutes. Tried to stop them, so they pushed me in too and took off."

Fraser nodded and tugged at his coat sleeves, like a dog shaking his fur into place. "I would guess, a little under an hour, then. How did you manage to infiltrate the gang, by the way? And so quickly?"

"Oh, uh... just did my thing, you know..." Ray wasn't sure whether to be proud or ashamed. "That guy Axel. Guess he liked my face."

"I thought your thing was 'shake, bad guys, shake.'"

"Hey, I still made 'em shake." He didn't want to say how much he'd enjoyed it, palling around with guys who weren't that sharp, not having to play nice or rein himself in. Been a while. "I coulda gone that route, if things had been different. Or, dirty cop. Lots of those, too. Especially once you start undercover. You end up like who you're around, you know? Could have been me."

"I sincerely doubt that." Fraser gave him a sharp look, then turned away. "Your sense of self, of your values, is very strong. You have a projective imagination, that's all. It's an asset."

Ray didn't like the sound of that as much you'd think. Because, yeah, he'd been projecting some things.

Fraser was running his hand up and down the crack of the door, testing the lock. "No exposed hinges. Pity." He pulled off his glove and produced a round tin of something from his pocket, like chapstick.

"What are you doing?"

"The lock appears to be rusted. If I oil it, I may be able to get it open."

"And you just happen to have your special lock de-rusting goop on you."

"This salve has many uses, Ray. It's a popular local recipe. It works as a balm for chapped hands, keeps sled runners smooth, doubles as an emergency snack for the dogs - although I believe the Inuit use it primarily as a sexual lubricant."

Ray choked. He could not have heard those words. "Excuse me? You're carrying lube in your pocket?"

"I told you, it has many uses. Like a hunting knife." He whipped the blade out from under his coat and twiddled at the lock for a few minutes before stopping. "Oh dear."

"Won't go?"

"The problem isn't the lock," Fraser said, putting the knife away, then - Ray's eyes tracked it in fascination - the lube. "They've blocked the door on the other side. With the base of an industrial-grade forklift, unless I miss my guess."

"Oh. That's not good."

"No, it really isn't." Fraser sighed and got to his feet. "Well, perhaps the situation isn't as dire as it appears. With ingenuity, and luck..."

"Our luck? Our luck sucks, Fraser."

Fraser looked at him, his face... something, something strange. "I think that's debatable."

What was... Ray turned away and faced the wall. He couldn't keep looking at Fraser. Why Fraser couldn't even get angry, couldn't even be scared, couldn't even hate that they were in this situation... he couldn't face that, that almost soft look, couldn't stand any comradely bonding right now, he –

Warm bare hands closed over his ears.

Ray went totally still.

Fraser was standing right behind him. What the... what the hell...

"Ray," Fraser said, his voice quiet and warm, coming from close, really close behind him.

Ray's breath went somewhere else. His eyes, just, he looked all over the wall, couldn't focus. What was... "Yeah?"

"Your ears are cold."

"They... they... took my hat."

"It's sticking out of your pocket." When Ray didn't do anything, Fraser let go of one of his ears and started to reach for it. Ray hurriedly jammed his own hand down there instead and grabbed it, and Fraser's hand went back on his ear, cupping it, his thumb lying along the back, the edge of his hand down along Ray's face, his cheek. Warm. Big. Still.

"They gave it back, but, uh, I forgot to put it back on."

"Well," Fraser said slowly, "judging by the color and the-" he moved his thumb, rubbing against the back of Ray's ear, and Ray sucked in some cold air - "texture, of the skin, I think you've escaped frostbite."

Frostbite. That's what this was about. Ray suffered a sudden, really strong urge to punch his forehead right through that wall.

Dammit, how could Fraser not understand what this did to him, how - weak and - and crazy he felt. His whole body was shaking with reaction and Fraser was just standing there like a rock. Forever on the far side of the line, where the waves didn't hit, safe in the Dominion of Canada.

"Fraser," he got the words out, fighting to not sound like a complete idiot, drowning. He'd lost whatever ways he used to have for dealing with the guy, it was too intense now, he couldn't keep him out, everything was going haywire. "I don't think frostbite is really going to be a big deal when we're about to be dead." He started to try to shake his head away, push himself free, but Fraser's hands tightened.

"Hold still. You must let me do this. Ray. Ray! You have to trust me."

Fight or flight, but Fraser's hypnotist voice was getting at him, Fraser's chest just on the edge of touching his back, and he slowed down, stopped moving.

"If we give in to panic or meekly accept our deaths, then we will die. Do you understand? Our only chance is to prepare for success, not failure."

Fraser had the kind of voice that gave orders, and made you do stupid things, made you believe them. It was like that poem, Charge of the Light Brigade. Onward into the valley of death, something, something. Fraser would say 'charge' and they'd ride in, all six hundred. And Ray was getting a shot of that voice right up close.

"Now, our goal is survival. Granted, that may not be possible, but if we are to make it out of here, alive and unharmed, we have to work together. Don't fight me."

"Yeah," Ray said helplessly, thinking about hypothermia and what they might have to do and... "Okay." Anything you say, Fraser, anything at all.
Fraser gave his ears a last squeeze and let go.

And stepped away.

Ray stared at the wall some more, then dropped his forehead to his hand, decided to forego the slamming of his head into the wall this time, and spun around. Fraser was over by the window, examining the casing. He'd put his gloves back on. As Ray watched, he pulled his knife again and started prying at the frame. Slowly, Ray pulled on his hat.

"Any luck?"

"No. Unfortunately... no. If this had been a Canadian base - but I can't open this model from inside. In fact..." Fraser lowered his hand. "I've just dislodged some of the insulation."

"So it'll get colder faster."

"Yes, I'm afraid so."

"Great." Ray roamed around, checking the walls for hidden passages, girlie calendars, anything. He went over to the window. It was colder over there already, unless that was just in his head. He slapped his arms and tried the other side of the room, as far as he could get, and sat down, sliding down the wall. His knees sagging out, he stared at Fraser, who was still prowling, eyeballing the ceiling vent.

"We're gonna die, right?"

Fraser looked down. "Not necessarily. We may be able to come up with a way to escape from this bunker... although I must admit at first glance it doesn't seem likely. It may be that Maggie and the detachment from Inuvik will apprehend the gang and learn our location in time to rescue us, although – well." He coughed. "It's possible that Diefenbaker may have sensed something amiss and tracked us – he's very intuitive – and is bringing help. That's probably our best hope at the moment..."

"We're gonna die, right?"

"It's a possibility, yes."

"Okay." Ray locked his fingers around his knees.

"The important thing is to stay calm. Perhaps we should pass the time with conversation, or, ah, a word game. Word association?"

"Sure."

"What do you think of when I say 'warehouse'?"

"Death."

"Snow?"

"Death."

"Environmental protection."

"Death."

"Closet."

"Not–" any more. Not any more.

Fraser frowned. "'Not'–?"

"Not important right now, Fraser."

Ray rolled his head on the wall and watched his breath puff out into the air. That was his life, going. One, two, three, four... He could hear Fraser deciding not to ask. Fraser was why he was here, about to be dead. Why he'd made a wrong turn somewhere that ended things like this. Because it didn't make sense, right? He was still young - kind of... still in shape, still got it. He could still have kids, or make it big, buy a house, get famous, something. Except he was just going to be wasted instead, turn into an icicle in a basement, his folks would probably never even know what happened to him. That couldn't be right.

So where'd he make that wrong turn? He should have... no, he had to come north with Fraser, help him catch Muldoon. Vecchio was in the hospital, Fraser needed help. No matter how jealous he was, he couldn't have said no. There's no way he could have let Fraser down, or let go while he still had something he wanted so bad. So yeah, he'd had to ride that plane.

But he shouldn't have suggested the adventure, right? That was the wrong idea. He should have just gone home. Just, see ya, it's been swell, we'll keep in touch, and they could have... phoned each other sometimes... he really sucked at writing letters. He hadn't written a letter since high school. It took too long to write the words down and he could never think of anything to say. And it's not like they'd be on the horn every night. Maybe once a month? Couple times a year? So saying goodbye to Fraser then would have meant no Fraser, a Fraser-less life, and he hadn't been ready for that. And Fraser wanted to take this trip too, he'd thought it was a good idea, he'd gotten that smile. It felt right. That couldn't have been a mistake.

So... when. He should have told Fraser to turn around on the trail? Punked out, gotten cold feet? He should have stayed in Trapper's Rest with Maggie? That first night, when Fraser asked if he wanted to go home. He should have said yes. They could have turned around the next day and headed back. But he was handling this, he was making it, he didn't want to go. He was getting tough enough. He could handle Canada. Fraser clamming up on him made it harder, but he could handle that too. Too quiet, too cold, nothing to grab onto, but just don't leave him alone. It wouldn't have made any sense to give up yet.

Or after... after the night when... that night. When he realized it wasn't just thinking Fraser was hot. It wasn't just a stupid crush kind of thing, it wasn't... uh... transference. It was all of the above plus he was kind of sort of in love with the guy. His best friend. His ex-ex-partner. Maybe that's when he should have run. But that was when he knew for sure where he was supposed to be, and that was wherever Fraser was. And there was Fraser right over there.

So Ray had taken the right turn at every step of the way, the only turn he could take, and this was where he'd ended up. About to freeze to death with Fraser, because he'd been too damn stubborn to let go.

That's when it hit Ray - the really gut-wrenching thought. Fraser wouldn't be here if it weren't for him. If Ray hadn't wanted to go on the adventure, Fraser would just have gone back to work somewhere. Or even if he'd come up here to visit Maggie still, they'd be together, probably never have gotten caught, or they'd have figured out how to bust out of here with two knives and some string. He'd done this to Fraser. He'd gotten him killed.

They were both going to die because he'd been too scared to make a move. Tagging along like a kid instead of just asking, going for it, trying to get what he really wanted. Trying to make Fraser really listen to him for once in his life, to just... find out. Something simple. Jesus, what a stupid waste.

"Hey. Will you, uh–" Ray heard himself talking and choked. But that didn't stop the words from coming out. "Kiss me?"

After a heart-stoppingly long minute, Fraser unstiffened and gave a polite laugh. "I'm sorry, could you repeat that? I heard – well."

"You heard me," Ray said. Or, choked some more. But the least Fraser could do is admit he'd heard the question. "I said kiss me. Mouth to mouth."

Fraser went still, then dropped to his knees at Ray's side and placed a strong hand around his neck, thumb under his chin.

Coming in close, he looked into Ray's eyes and said, "Are you hallucinating?"

"Huh?"

"Pupils are the same. How many fingers am I holding up?"

Ray batted away the fingers (three) and pulled at the hand on his neck, which was feeling, he now realized, for his pulse. "Hey - hey - no, stop that, stop it. I'm fine. I'm fine!"

"Do you remember what day of the week it is? Oh, no, of course, you never do," Fraser added to himself. "Ah. The name of your current President."

"I do not want to talk about politics, Fraser," Ray said, his voice shaking with weak hatred of dragging this moment out any longer. Death was going to suck. Dying was going to suck. All the long minutes leading up to that when they thought they weren't going to, but they got colder and colder and more and more uncomfortable, and then they started not being able to look at each other because they hated that the other one was going to die, and then Ray might panic and start screaming and trying to punch the window out and Fraser would try to calm him down, but he'd be wrong, because they'd dodged their last bullet and hitched their last free ride and wiggled their toes for the last time, and pretty soon they'd have to just believe it and be dead - all that was going to suck.

So seeing as how he was going to hate the next forty-five minutes anyway, he figured, there wasn't any reason not to finish the job.

"What I am talking about," he said, as clearly and aggressively as he could, "is you kissing me. Look. It's not like you never did it before."

Fraser looked startled, then blank, his eyes moving up and to the right as he tried to - oh, jeez, he didn't even - then looked back, still balanced easily on his knees, face firm again, and said, "No, I believe I'd remember that."

Great. Ray hit his head lightly against wall, at least he thought it was lightly, he couldn't really feel it. Probably a bad sign. Or maybe just the hat. He pulled it off. "Okay, so. It wasn't a kiss. But you put your mouth." He chopped his hands forward, a couple more times, helping the concept along. "On my mouth. And don't tell me that was worse than electrical sockets."

Fraser frowned and started to-

"And do not tell me it was grosser than the bottom of someone's boot. Because it's not. I don't even smoke any more. Nobody licks boots, Fraser. You got no argument there. You put your mouth on my mouth once when we were going to die, and I'm asking you," he said painfully, and took a last stab at distraction, "as, like, a tradition, to do it again."

"I'm not sure I'm following the full - range of your thinking," Fraser said, "but if you're referring to the incident when we were trapped underwater on the Henry Allen-"

Ray started to issue the rapid and blanket reminder that he, too, had been there, and did not need the introductory recap, thank you kindly, but Fraser was already moving on - "That was a standard lifesaving technique. As I told you at the time. Buddy breathing is a means of transferring oxygen from one person with excess to another in need-"

"Through the nose," Ray nearly shouted, jerking forward, which pitched him almost into Fraser's chest, and making his point with both hands. "Real buddy breathing is done through the nose, Fraser. Mouth-to-nose! I looked it up! You thought I wasn't gonna look it up, right? You thought I never crack a book."

Fraser steadied him with fast, worried hands, like they weren't both about to freeze to death.

"Okay, so I had Frannie look it up for me on the computer. Didn't tell her why. The point is..." He'd sunk back on his heels, his voice had sunk down in his chest, he couldn't look at Fraser's puzzled face any more, too bright, too square, too close. At this distance even Fraser was real. That... that sucked. But it gave him a chance, too. "You didn't have to do that, but it's what you did."

"Well, Ray, I wouldn't want to question the accuracy of Francesca's research..." Fraser was still holding onto his arms, like the big No wasn't coming, moving off the siding and coming slowly down the track.

"So I'll take you at your word, but I must say I am somewhat surprised to hear that. Of course-" He tipped his eyes off into the distance again, checking that invisible hovering freaky Fraser library full of classical music scores and binary code and everything he'd ever done. "We did learn the technique from a visiting trapper, Three-Skins Bart, as part of a survival course, and it's possible he'd adapted it to be more effective. You see his nose was, although large, rather hirsute, and when the moisture from his breath combined with subzero temperatures, the nasal passages tended to freeze over into a solid—"

He yakked on, interlacing his fingers to demonstrate, and Ray watched him, feeling the cold air bite in through the top of his head and his ears and stinging his eyes and down his neck, watching Fraser waste their last half hour. Because if he thought he could turn Ray off by being gross and weird, he could give that one up right now, because it hadn't worked the first time and it hadn't worked the other times, or even that one time.

He interrupted, finally, loud. "Fraser. You. Me. Try it once. So you're not curious - even a little. What'll it cost you? We're going. To die."

Fraser stopped talking abruptly – he'd been, he'd been babbling, hadn't he? Nervous. But he stopped. He shifted around on his knee and looked at Ray again, and said, slow and grave, "You know... this may sound strange, but I have some reason to believe that there may be life, or, at least, consciousness. After death."

Ray got it then, sickening and true. Fraser really thought they were going to die. He believed it.

And he was still dodging. "You mean like, harps, clouds, the works? Well good, because I would hate to not have a way to be embarrassed about this later. Are you goin' to kiss me or not!"

Fraser frowned and shook his head, but just in a - in a dealing with things way, not a no way, because his body was already saying - hey, wait a minute, it was saying YES.

Fraser was going to kiss him. Ray was hyperventilating. Everything was slowing down. Fraser was tipping forward, tipping towards him. Hand going back on his neck - no, nearly touched then pulled away, moved down to just the tip of his chin, held him still. Fraser was going to keep it all business, simple. Just a touch. Just to humor him. Just two faces touching, just –

There. Jesus. It zapped all through him, he nearly jumped away, but he couldn't kill this, couldn't let Fraser have a reason to stop, so he locked himself down and held still. Only his heartbeat jumped, battering, pounding all through him, thumping in his neck and the insides of his arms, and god, yeah, right there.

Just. Two. Mouths. Fraser wasn't cheating him either - he wouldn't - it wasn't just a peck, there was some pressure going on, they'd both opened up, natural, not wide and sloppy, but enough to feel it. Ray's world narrowed to where they met, to that one place, where they crossed the border.

And it was warm in here, the only place anywhere that was warm. There weren't any other places in the world, just here, just - was that Fraser's tongue? - and Ray's eyes flew open as a jolt shot through him and his mind went wild and there were a few other places in the world, and then, with a shower of snow, the roof caved in.



Metal was clanging, rattling. Cold air was sucking life away. Fraser was rolling on the floor, rolling away. Ray was crouched on his feet, ready to fight, because someone – oh, okay, a big thug in a parka, had dropped through the big hole in – oh, through the ceiling vent – right – rolled up to a squat – pulled his ski mask up off his face –

...It was Sam again. God, Ray just hated that guy.

The grate stopped banging on the floor, settled down. So-called Constable Sam Grant was on his feet, a gun in his hand, pointed at them. He might still have a tie on under there, but no Stetson.

Ray got ready for one of the more satisfying tackles of his life, but he smacked into Fraser's arm before he'd had a chance to get going.

"Grant?" Fraser said warily.

"Fraser." Sam looked around the room, then lowered the gun. "Premises looked empty, but you never can tell."

"Yes," Fraser said. "People will often surprise you when you least expect it." He sounded edgy, kind of pissed. Ray grinned to himself: finally, Fraser was starting to not swallow the guy's Perfect Mountie act. He looked over and Fraser whipped his eyes away, short and sharp.

Wait, wait, ...

"Anything you want from here, or should we get going?" Sam reached back and tugged a rope that was hanging from the ceiling. "Got this braced on the Jeep. Should hold."

"And here I thought you were one of the bad guys for a minute there," Ray said. He packed a lot of meaning in there, or at least, a lot of mean. "Lose your hat?"

Sam looked surprised, then, a little embarrassed. "I was hoping they'd mistake me for one of the gang at a distance."

"Oh, yeah? Big thug? Nice cover."

"Not everyone has your facility for undercover work, Ray. Your comfort experimenting with different identities."

Ray shot him another look. Fraser still looked blank, and, like, bitchy.

Huh. "But you're not. In the gang," he said to Sam, who frowned and holstered the gun.

"Nope, I'm the cavalry. I was back in town checking the radio to see what was keeping the Inuvik detachment. Saw the white wind going up – that's what the townsfolk call the gang when they're on the move, kind of a local code here – parallelled 'em on the river road. Nearly sunk in cutting over here, but I think we'll get out again."

"If not, we have a pair of snowmobiles we may be able to revive," Fraser said. He got an experimental grip on the rope and tugged, grunted, then shimmied right up like a monkey on a Jacob's ladder.

Then it was just Sam and Ray, eyeing each other up. So he wasn't going to die, but it looked like Fraser was pissed at him for talking him into the kiss thing, and Ray'd just gotten his chestnuts pulled out of the fire by a big handsome Canadian jerk. The one he didn't want to make out with. "After you."

Sam shrugged. "You're lighter."

"Oh, no, I insist. I always say it only takes a minute to be, uh, thing. Courteous."

"Gentlemen, I believe we're on a schedule," Fraser called down through the hole in the roof.

They played chicken for a few more seconds and then went for the rope at the same time, bouncing off each other, then Ray jumped and caught it and pulled himself up by sheer force of will – he'd always been pretty good on the ropes but his hands weren't bending right from the cold – and then he was throwing himself over onto the ground, rolling through the snow. When he sat up Fraser was already giving Sam a hand, a whole manly hand clasp thing going on with them, strong jaws, secret messages, so Ray beat the snow off his coat and got in the front of the souped-up offroader.


Riding shotgun with Sam Grant over almost-impassible arctic tundra was a lot like being in an Indiana Jones movie. He mostly stuck to his tracks from before, and made like the plan was to miss the ice fissures and rocks by flying over them. He kept the accelerator down flat, his jaw tight, and his hands loose on the wheel, and Ray had this suspicion he was having way too much fun.

That left Ray and Fraser as the sidekicks. Since Fraser was a sidekick too, Ray didn't mind so much. Ray had the passenger seat, Fraser – who hadn't wanted to squish in next to him this time – was sitting cargo, hanging off the headrests between them to keep in on things.

"Hey, how come we can drive? I thought this place was supposed to be impossible."

"Impassable," Fraser said.

"Whatever."

"For all practical purposes, it is," Grant said, all thin lips and look-at-me steady voice. "This is very difficult, and we're being very lucky."

"How'd you know where to find us? Since you're not in the gang."

They lurched over another bump in the tundra and slid a few feet. "I told you. I was checking the status of our backup, and saw Farrelly's snowmobiles on the move north. I called in to report, Maggie – Constable MacKenzie thought you two might need some assistance, so I took my own vehicle. When I couldn't see the snow cloud any more, I cut east from the river road. Finding the base was mostly a matter of pushing on through the worst of the static." He indicated the dashboard radio with one knee, keeping his hands working the wheel.

The noise generator, right. Ray rubbed his jaw. The painful edgy feeling hadn't gone away yet. "Hey, Frase, you all right back there?"

Fraser didn't look too good. He kept his eyes on the road. "Perfectly, thank you, Heinrich."

Sam raised an eyebrow. "Blow to the head?"

"It's the white noise, the fence, it messes with him. Fraser's ears are tuned to the silence of the northern forests. Wait, you mean you can't hear it?"

Sam paused. A couple degrees less smug, he said, "I'm from Edmonton."

"Oh!" Fraser said. "I'm... sorry."

"It's not as bad as you'd think. But I always loved the wilderness. Camping, going on hunting trips with my pop. Felt more myself out there. I volunteered for a northern posting, where I could get some snow-shoeing in. I didn't know it was going to be this far north, but–" He shrugged. "Duty."

"You've adapted very well."

Ray choked on that one. So adapting was good when Sam did it? Why, because he was a real born Canadian? He gave both of them the evil eye, but they didn't notice.

"Well, it wasn't easy, I'll admit that. It took me most of a year just to get my feet under me. My predecessor was killed in a hunting accident, and my superior officer went on sick leave unexpectedly four months ago, but aside from that it's been real quiet."

"And when did you start to suspect something was wrong?"

"Oh, some time before they sent Mag- Constable MacKenzie up to take over. Something about the dust on the stack of 041-As."

"Violent crime reports, Ray."

"Constable Finisterre kept saying it was nothing. That I'd seen too many movies in that big old city Cineplex." The struggling engine gave an extra roar.

"So, Farrelly, his bunch, you think they're leaning on people."

"Doing our work for us, the bastards. Making sure no one fights or steals or does anything that'll draw attention from down south, get more enforcement sent up here, start a big investigation. I'm sure of it, but the locals won't talk."

"Mr. Nungak did," Fraser said.

Both Sam's beetle brows went up that time, as he kept the jeep aiming steadily for the flat wavy line cutting the snow up ahead. "Grandpa Nungak? Is that why he wanted to see you and Maggie?"

"That wasn't just about homework?"

"Education is very important, Ray. A sound mind in a sound body."

"Very true, as my Nana used to say."

"Yeah, mine too," Ray said. "What's the deal with our backup? When's it going to get here?"

Sam clicked his tongue and two-wheeled them around another white tuft of bracken. "Now there - is - a problem. The ice road closed today. Inuvik offered to send some officers by sled, but it'll take them hours to get here."

"Hours? But Axel's guys are on their way to the shed now. They're probably already there."

"And so is Maggie."

Silence fell in the cab of the jeep, leaving only the shooshing and rattling of the chassis and the subliminal vibration of the white noise generator.

"I'm sure she'll do the sensible thing and wait for our support rather than investigate or try to neutralize the gang on her own," Fraser said.

"Right," Ray said.

"Right," Fraser said.

Sam grunted.

"Because that's what you'd do," Ray said.

The not-sound scraped away at the back of his ears.

Fraser hauled himself further forward so Sam could see him gesture. "Constable Grant, I believe if you turn into your tracks at a more acute angle and accelerate when we hit the ground, you might gain a slight improvement in speed. Just a suggestion."


For some reason Ray remembered the river road for the rest of his life.

It wasn't what he expected. Or it was, but he hadn't expected it to be. It looked like a road, and also like a river. No fences, no signs. There were tire ruts, it was flat and the snow was dirty, but instead of concrete, underneath, there was blue, dark, blue ice.

It creaked as they bumped out onto it. It sank a few inches, he swore he felt it give. After a wild look around, though, since Sam and Fraser didn't seem disturbed, unless they were playing their own brand of chicken with each other, he hunched forward in the seat and tried not to chew his lip as the jeep headed south.

No one was talking any more, so after a while he couldn't keep from busting out, "You said this thing was closed, right? So, we shouldn't be driving on it?"

"We shouldn't," Sam agreed, tearing down the straightaway. "The Jamboree group shouldn't have dodged the official notification this morning and come home, either, but they made it. Of course, that was several hours ago."

"Sometimes it's necessary to take a chance on risky terrain," Fraser said, slowing down at the end.

"Well, we're explorers, right?" Ray shoved his hands between his knees to keep warm and looked out the window, talking to himself. "That's what we do."



They ditched the jeep as close to the mortuary shed as Sam thought they could get away with, and made an approach with all due sneakiness. No time to head back to the depot and rearm. There wasn't a lot of cover, and they had to go bellying through the snow a couple times, which would have put Ray in a bad mood, if he'd had room for that. He did not like the look of things. The big gate opposite the roll door was open, gaping back against the fence, and the snowmobiles were lined up outside. A black long-bodied truck was backed up to the shed, rear out of sight. No sign of Maggie.

"Guards." Fraser and Sam made smooth 'go!' gestures at each other, then shrugged and reversed. Sam pulled his ski mask down and crab-walked around out of sight, aiming for the far side of the truck. He looked goofy, and also, kind of badass. Maybe it was a Mountie thing.

"On my mark," Fraser said, eyes on the guy smoking behind the snowmobiles.

"Why's it always your mark? Don't I have a mark?"

"Oh, I'm sorry. Did you want to say something?" Fraser whispered, the hissing making him sound angry. "If you feel you can signal in a clear and predictable manner, go ahead."

"Hey, I'm always clear. Just sometimes people aren't listening. Three."

Fraser hmphed and got ready to move.

"Two. One. Go."

They hopped the one-person break in the fence as quietly as they could, but it was enough noise to bring the snowmobile guy. He found out a couple things about being around a cop and a Mountie who are partners except they aren't except they are, and are in a pretty bad mood besides. They left him curled up on a snowmobile seat and moved on to the corner of the wall, where they could hear voices from inside and see stray flashlight beams cutting through the late afternoon fuzz. Lot of clanking going on in there.

Nodding at each other, they got low and poked their heads around the corner. Cover. A big loading ramp sticking up above the back of the truck, going into the shed. Looked like it doubled as a false bottom for the truck, maybe. They hunkered low and followed it down as far as they could, then ducked under it.

"Most of the men seem to be busy transferring the crates. I don't see Maggie."

"Look, if you're mad at me about the kiss thing, it was no big deal."

"Oh, really."

"I was just curious. Nothing to get excited about. Axel's standing over by the AK-47s."

"We won't be able to secure those, then. We'll have to try for cover behind the crates against the near wall. Unusual sort of curiosity, for you, I'd have thought."

"Eh, it seemed like something to try once. See if that made things make more sense, you know? Like, hey, what am I doing here? But you're right, not my thing. Too weird. You figure we should throw a pebble or something?"

Fraser pondered. "A distraction could backfire. Hm. But so could the direct approach."

"Yeah, you're telling me. So are we cool?"

Sam crawled in from the other side, flashed a pocket light at them and made a big shushing face. He couldn't get in as far as they could. Fraser raised a hand and nodded. Sam jerked a thumb over his shoulder, lifted one finger, then two; Fraser signalled one back and then did something more complicated that looked like he was asking for a low fast ball with plenty of spin. Sam did a salute and started to back out from under the ramp, but before he was all the way gone a man shouted.

"There! Told you!"

Ray didn't need Fraser's swat on his shoulder to tell him it was time to take the chance. He flattened up against the wall and crawled like an Olympic swimmer to behind the nearest stack of boxes, not even looking to see if they'd been made. Fraser collected in next to him and they waited, listening.

Voices kept going, shouting and milling around. No shooting yet, so they must not have gotten a good look at Sam. Ray's eyes started roaming. At least they had more room to move back here than last time. Shelves, beams, the edges of boxes, potato sacks against the walls and piled up on the floor. The tip of something the wrong color caught his eye, twitching. He nudged Fraser to have a look, ducking so Fraser could put a hand on his back and lean over him.

"Dief, with Maggie," Fraser breathed down at him, mostly just mouthing the words. "He'd have attacked otherwise."

Huh? No way. Right out in the middle of the room? Ray bent sideways as low as he could go until he caught the lumpy shape of a crouched body under the piles of burlap. When the bad guys moved in, she must have tried to make it out the back, got stuck instead, hiding under a tarp with Dief and making a sound like a potato. Or maybe they'd already... Ray's heart raced offbeat, but no, no way, because if they'd killed her, Dief wouldn't just be lying there too, he'd be howling and chomping on people.

There was a bang from the yard outside, and a lot of cussing, with Axel's voice from much closer yelling, "Shoot AWAY from the TIRES." Fraser tapped Ray's back again and pointed and, swallowing, Ray did another crawling sprint through the danger zone. The shadows left him alone, though. Nobody in this half of the warehouse. All the goons were loading the truck or chasing echoes outside.

There was a ripping sound. He turned to look: Fraser was cutting into the rough sacks with his knife and sticking his hand in, feeling around. Potatoes; potatoes; potatoes. Ray pantomimed a big why, and Fraser subliminal-whispered, "Not ordnance. Just a cover." Ray shrugged at him, and Fraser moved on to working at the top of a big crate, unfastening the lid and sniffing.

A racket by the door: the bad guys were crowding back in on either side of the truck, shrugging and laughing at each other.

Fraser was craning his head up like a crazy person, scouting their next cover. "Must get closer. Warn her."

Ray pulled him back down. "Warn her what?" he hissed, trying to do the mouth thing. "I think she already knows the bad guys are here."

Fraser gave him that look - the serious business look. "Not to fire."

Ray pulled down again as the rest of the goons came in, his fingers clenching in Fraser's coat as he saw the last one looming in the back, his ski mask shoved up to above his nose.

Knew it. Knew it. Hadn't he said it all along? He hit Fraser a couple times to get his attention, looking daggers at Sam 'Constable' Grant, double-crossing thug of the year. He could tell when Fraser saw him too, because he let himself be held back from trying to charge over to the next pile of boxes and just watched, frowning, as Sam moved over to the wall and started hauling sacks.

There was a faint whine and a thump - kind of a thumping noise. It happened again and kept going. He'd heard it before, it was... oh, yeah, that was it, there. Diefenbaker's tail, beating flatly against the ground.

"He knows I'm here," Fraser subliminal-whispered against Ray's ear. Ray didn't jump, almost. "My scent."

"Tell him to–" Ray mimed zipping his mouth.

"He can't hear himself, he doesn't know he's–"

Fraser picked the wrong moment to defend the dog. Thump, thump, thump. Ebbott and Frank weren't the brightest, but they weren't deaf, either. Boots were on their way across the floor, parkas rustling. Ray's guts curled at the onrush of that moment he hated, the moment when he went from safe to maybe about to get shot. But you get used to it, get to want it, too. Like the pain of a tattoo.

The tarp over the potatoes shifted, Maggie getting ready. Her leg was clearly visible now, bent knee and winter boot against a background of Diefenbaker fluff. Ray could see her without his glasses, so no way they'd miss it. Christ, even if she got the drop on these guys, she'd never make it to the rear door – but if Ray jumped up, if Fraser got in the way, that wouldn't go much better, they'd still have every goon in the place on their heads in two seconds, but he was already getting ready – Dief growled. Loud.

Ray was still holding onto Fraser's coat. Fraser's hand wrapped around his and pulled it loose, firmly. Then he... sort of held it for one minute, pressed his forehead to it, one of those weird things your brain doesn't know what to do with and two seconds later you've almost forgotten it because it never could have happened, and then he whispered, "Stay here, wait your chance," and then he was up and gone. Straightening and stepping out with his hands up, one higher than the other. "Excuse me," he said, out loud.

A whole lot of guns swung toward him, like to a magnet.

Now, a little dizzy and confused Ray might be, but he knew what he was doing. Call it instinct or logic, or call it what you will, Ray might have a chance to argue it later, but he just knew it made more sense for him to step out there. How much help was he going to be, hiding in the dark too scared to move a muscle? Waiting for an opening that never came? No, right there with Fraser, bullets or freezing or ice crevasse, any way they were going to go, that's how he'd go. He'd already worked that out. So he stumbled out too, hands kinda going up, then putting them down again when nobody shot him. "Hey," he said, half-heartedly defiant. He didn't bother looking at Fraser. Partners. Fraser would understand.

Axel, over by the crates where they'd been keeping the stash of AKs last time – even though he was just holding a regular piece himself, a bit smaller than Ray's, which he really wished he had back right now – made a sharp noise and lowered the gun, then stepped closer, raising it again to a nice easy ready position. He picked Fraser first, a bad sound in his voice. "Yeah. The son of Bob Fraser just had to step into my operation. The man who outsmarted Muldoon." There's a look in the eye of a guy who's deciding to kill you. When that goes on the table, something human turns off inside. "So it's true – freezing doesn't even slow you down."

Fraser said, "I find the cold invigorating," polite, but in his lower and slower action voice, not the telling-bullshit-stories one.

Axel moved on to checking out Ray. "You're on his team, now?" Axel didn't hate him, execution order wasn't signed, but Ray getting gut-shot was definitely on the table here.

"Hey, he gave me a ride home, that's more than I can say for your guys," Ray whined, automatically falling back into his street voice, changing around on his feet. "What can I say, I go where the heat is."

"You sure have this time." Axel's mouth straightened out and his arm went up, sighting on Fraser, and he took a step.

With a growl, Dief burst out from under the tarp, leaping over the boxes and landing low in a clatter of claws. Cover gone, Maggie popped up to her feet and drew on the nearest guy, levelling the gun on his gut before he'd figured out that she wasn't potatoes. Axel spun left to aim at the wolf as Fraser shouted No, down, and slashed his hand down through the air to catch Dief's eye.

"Diefenbaker!" Dief crouched, growling, his lips curled back.

Axel looked back at the wolf eyes, cold, the gun steady on the center of the low furry chest. "Diefen-? The Prime Minister? You're kidding." He moved the mean look up and over to Maggie.

"So you're MacKenzie. Drop the gun."

She laughed, the short fuck-you kind. "I don't see a reason to do that."

"How about I shoot you after the dog? Is that a reason?" Dismissing her and turning back to get a lock on Fraser's attention, aim steady on Dief, Axel cocked the pistol, click-click in the quiet room.

Fraser breathed out. "I wouldn't do that."

"No kidding," Farrelly said, snorting it from behind them to the left, where the pack of goons was coming up. Fraser ignored him.

"Diefenbaker knows you for an enemy. He has no mixed feelings, no chivalric impulses where you're concerned."

Axel frowned at him. "Yeah, why should he? Where..."

"I don't know if you're familiar with his breed. Their tenacity and ferocity are unmatched. Even if your shot was perfect, and he died... within seconds." Fraser paused, swallowing each word, hard and steady. "He will savage you to his last breath. I guarantee you will find yourself permanently damaged. I wonder how much you'll enjoy your ill-gotten gains when you're maimed, or disfigured."

"Yeah, how'd you like to be rich with no nose?"

"Thank you, Ray."

Axel kept the gun where it was, maybe swallowing a little for his own dry mouth, but suspicious.

"Fine. You don't want me to shoot him, call him off."

"I can't do that. He's deaf." Just before Axel had had enough time to work through that and come up with his first Fraser-induced 'Are you unhinged?', Fraser was turning the high beams on a closer target. "I suggest you give me that gun, Mr. Farrelly."

Farrelly guffawed. "Yeah, and why would I do that?"

"To help end this situation with a minimum of violence?"

A snicker went around the goons like a common cold. Ebbott sniffed. Farrelly weighed Fraser up with his eyes, and didn't exactly laugh again, but he wasn't scared either. "Axel's boys said they took you down pretty easy last time."

Fraser nodded. "It's true, I am not armed, and my injured shoulder is a handicap." Great. Ray resisted the urge to smack his own forehead. "But I'm not here to tussle with you, Mr. Farrelly. I'm here to appeal to your better nature."

Funniest thing the goons had heard all day. Ray could see Sam chuckling in the back.

"What are you going to do, tell my mother?"

Fraser shook his head and shifted into the next gear, moving on into the lecture voice. "No; no, I wasn't. I was simply going to ask you, all of you," he swept his gaze around them all briefly, gathering them in without bothering to try, saving the big hit for Farrelly: "if you fully understand what it is you're transporting here." With one smooth, swift move, too fast to trigger a warning, he turned and booted the top of the crate they'd been hiding behind, the one he'd been prying at, sliding the lid clean off.

A blobby grey metal object with fins, maybe two or three feet long, lay webbed in the packing material, looking fat and military. Well, torpedoes or something, they'd known it was army gear, nothing to get excited about. But there was something about the thing. It made Ray's back crawl. It just looked wrong.

"Projectiles carrying the W54 warhead, gentlemen. Developed for use in a type of mounted rifle called the Davy Crockett, the smallest nuclear weapon ever deployed by the U.S. military. Now, although, as you all know, Canada has renounced nuclear weaponry, it's less well-known that we entered into an agreement with the United States during the Cold War..."

When Ray could make more than scattered huh-buh-huh noises, he cut in, "That's a nuclear missile? A nuclear missile. A nuclear missile, Fraser. By your foot."

Fraser's boot was still up on the edge of the crate, and he leaned on his knee, then pushed away. Ebbott flinched. "Each device weighs less than 36 kilograms, or about 80 pounds, and is capable of destroying an area the equivalent of two city blocks. At minimum." He said it with a little too much grim relish, watching it sink in. "As it happens they turned out to be very difficult to aim, but were successful as a means of irradiating the contested area. Perhaps too successful. Rumour had it no one could fire a Davy Crockett... and survive."

"We ain't firing them," Farrelly said, and Axel cut in fast and hard.

"They're safe."

Fraser raised his eyebrows and shifted to the next gear. "Perhaps. You may be quite certain that impact won't set them off – were your truck to throw a wheel, or run off the road, or hit a stray moose in the dark. It's quite likely you'll transport these few without any accidents. But have you considered this."

Ray couldn't take his eyes off the creepy grey thing in the crate, looking like something out of a cartoon, like something the Coyote would order from Acme. He backed up a couple steps. Farrelly waved with his free hand and a couple guys stepped forward to slide the lid back on.

"These weapons have been in storage for decades, under less than ideal conditions. Your buyers may be expecting modern missiles smuggled in from Russia, to fill the gap left by Muldoon's old network – oh, well, it's just logical," he said, seeing their expressions. "The Cyrillic stencils you were using, and the freshly sprayed paint, if nothing else."

Superstitious chatter from the background thugs.

"But what they'll be getting is old, possibly damaged, possibly dangerous goods. These missiles could be leaking unsafe levels of radiation even as we speak, and if you have no qualms about possible damage to the environment – to the water, the plants, the animals and air of your own native land – or to your friends, and families, and neighbors, and their children – then I'd think you'd at least be a little worried for your own safety."

Fraser was winding up for the clincher, but Axel cut in. "There's nothing to kill out here."

Thrown, Fraser stopped, then said, so shocked there was almost a squeak in his voice, like a twelve-year-old, "You must know that isn't true."

Axel twisted and made a sharp gesture with the gun, triggering another growl from Dief. "Fine. It's not dead, but it's dying. The Territories are dying, the whole damn place. You see a future here? Maybe you think the Inuit are going to take back Canada? Look around you. It's a wasteland. A little burned-out permafrost is just a drop in the bucket. You grab what you can and get out, go south, that's how it works."

Fraser looked at him like at a fallen angel or something, mouth open just a little. Sometimes it seemed like the wronger they were, the more he wanted to dive in after them and taste it.

Farrelly shifted, disturbed. "You said there probably wouldn't be any radiation problem."

Axel snapped it back on him, the laser beam that made him the boss. "There won't be."

"Oh, it's not likely," Fraser agreed briskly. He cocked his head and considered Farrelly again, moving closer. "Neither is it likely that your hands are sweating," he said. Purred, almost. "Nor is it necessarily true that your damp palms would affect your grip, or that I would charge you in an attempt to wrestle away your gun, or that you'd miss me from such a short distance in an enclosed area. No, it's not likely at all. But I'm not sure that makes it nothing to worry about."

Farrelly didn't say anything, but he took one of his hands off the gun and rubbed it against his leg.

Axel said harshly, "Do 'em."

Over the general rustle he added, "Not here! Take 'em outside. Her too."

"Uh..." Ebbott said. Maggie gave a glitter-eyed grin and kept the gun squarely on Frank, daring him. Ebbott tried moving towards her, and Dief let out another low, rippling growl.

"She's half your size, pansy," Axel said patiently, dismissing that little standoff for now to move over to the bigger one. "What are you morons waiting for? Afraid they'll talk you to death? I said take them–" He stepped up and shoved the nearest guy through the invisible wall of Fraser's challenging, innocent stare. "Outside!"

No wild shooting in a room full of ammo, that was the only thing that saved them. Ray pulled every dirty trick he knew, biting and ear-boxing and hitting below the belt, while Fraser threw punch after square-knuckled punch and shoved them into each other like dominoes. Sam never got in close, but Ray could see him back there sometimes. Yeah, he better hide. Ray bumped into Fraser, and that was all it took to get him smiling again, fiercely, as he swung and missed, then swung and hit. He heard Fraser taking a break and threw a look at him, just making sure he was okay. Fraser was wiping his lip. Looking tough and clean and fantastic.

Hell, forget the crush, forget the wanting to do things. He was Fraser's partner and friend, and that was better than anything he'd had. Even Stella, back when he'd been sure of her - he didn't have to try to keep Fraser, hold onto him, they were two halves of something. Even now, a change in his eyes there looking at Ray and Ray knew, just knew, what it meant, and he threw his elbow back and it landed smack in sneaking-up bad guy gut. A thing of beauty. In the middle of the riot in the dead-guys shed, near boxes of bargain-bin nuclear weapons, he grinned his uncomplicated pleasure at Fraser. Who sort of sighed and shook his head.

Yeah, they gave it their best, but seeing as how they were outnumbered, it wasn't much surprise when they ended up cornered, grabbed, shoved up against the side of the truck. Ray bit his lip as they patted him down for the gun he still didn't have, out of breath, out of time. Cold air was coming in the open wall. Maggie was watching them, still holding off her two guys with a gun and a wolf, her face strained. Fraser shook his head at her and they stared some more, a quick goodbye or a tactics consultation, who knows. When they started to drag Fraser away, she didn't move.

"Her next, but get them now. Don't take 'em far, we'll need to move the bodies." Axel had shoved up next to Farrelly, directing traffic. One of the guys in the pack around them was Sam; he got a solid hold on Fraser, gripping him from the back. Creep. Ray tried to kick him, managed to connect a little before the guy holding him pulled him aside and knocked him against the flatbed to settle him down.

"Hey." Axel was frowning. He turned to Farrelly. "You brought a new guy? I said no surprises tonight."

Farrelly blinked, trying to get a look at Sam, who ducked his head and started to move faster, shoving Fraser along. "I thought he was one of your guys."

A big silent penny hovered and dropped. Axel cursed and drew again. Sam tried to break for it, but come on. Not a chance. There was a bark and a yell and a scream, and then Dief was streaking past the truck and Frank was bleeding against the wall and Maggie was running up the loading ramp like Errol Flynn, Ebbott on her tail. She backed up all the way to the top of it and braced herself, ready to fire. "Let them go," she shouted. "Reinforcements are on their way. You've heard what happens if you kill a Mountie, boys. Don't hurt anyone and we'll go easy on you."

"The road's closed, sister," Farrelly called back. "By the time they can sled here, we'll be long gone."

"Forget her. Who's he?"

Farrelly shrugged and turned back to where Sam was standing, backed up against some crates with his hands in the air. "Oh, it's Grant," Farrelly said, pulling the ski mask the rest of the way off and dropping it on the floor. As an afterthought, he stepped on it. "The junior Mountie."

"I thought you said you had him sewn up."

"Could have sworn he didn't know about this, boss. None of the townies were talking, we made sure of that. He's not smart like MacKenzie." Farrelly turned his embarrassment on its source, getting up in Sam's face. The goons moved back to give him room to work. "Are you, Grant? Or maybe you're both just as dumb?"

"...You bastards," was all Sam had, but he gave it the goods. The grim John Wayne drawl wasn't as convincing in a Canadian accent, but it still worked. He looked like some kind of WWII recruitment poster.

Farrelly laughed and slapped him. Just a quick backhand. The kind that hurts all right, but doesn't make you cry tears unless you bite your tongue. Sam rocked with it, then faced front and braced again. He checked Farrelly out slowly like he was trying to figure out a universe where the goons make the rules. Then he made a break for it.

He was going low, turning and bending at the waist already before Farrelly hit him for real this time, a solid pistol-whip that smashed him off his balance and down to the floor, arms and elbows smacking the wrong directions.

Farrelly did his stupid laugh again. The other goons did too and closed in a step. It was several hoarse breaths before Sam got to his hands and knees and looked up. Ray winced. He was looking at something he'd never wanted to see.

It was an action hero that got hit. When Sam lifted his head, he was just an ordinary guy in a lot of pain. A civilian.

Just some scared, shaken guy who used to be a kid named Ulysses growing up in the suburbs. Some overachiever preppy Boy Scout type, good at sports, tops in debate club, who set his sights on being Yukon Sam because he liked camping better than strip malls. He'd never been a skinny kid dodging the wrong crowd after school, learning to get mean for those times being fast didn't work. The really big guys don't have to fight, Ray remembered, they get by on bluffing. Maybe Sam had never been in anything rougher than a shoving match.

Kind of reluctantly, Sam pushed up on his heels, eyes on Farrelly's gun. Then he swung his square shoulders back toward the wall and – and Ray saw it, finally, the dark diagonal on the floor by the nearest crate, a crowbar lying in the shadows.

That's what Sam was going for. It wasn't going to work. Even if he got to it, they'd shoot him down before he'd finished the first swing.

Farrelly was getting bored with the game now, stepping back and pointing the gun, setting his feet apart and checking his gang for support. Smiles all around. Like some kind of bear-baiting thing. Shoot the big kid from Edmonton. They were nowhere near the nukes, be a simple shot, no wild firing. He'd really do it. Ray was tense as wire, pulling against the arms that held him, hardly noticing. Sam's chest was heaving, slowing down. His muscles were gathering, Farrelly was cocking the pistol. Something was going to happen here, and Ray wanted to get in the way but then he'd be the spark that set off the room, didn't dare, couldn't–

Sam lunged again, got a hand on the crowbar, was up out of his crouch and spinning. As he threw it.

Yeah, Sam had been good at sports, football or baseball. That crooked piece of metal was going right where he wanted it to go. You could see by the way it cut the air, spinning end over end, the way his eyes tracked it even as the walls echoed the bang and he fell back against the crates with a new black-edged hole in his parka.

Farrelly was looking where he'd been shooting, but everyone else saw the crowbar slice neatly out of the air above the ramp and smack into Maggie's hand. Her fingers wrapped to welcome it home and then set it moving again, almost too fast to follow, letting the momentum swing it under the guy standing next to her and pull his legs out from under him. He toppled off the loading ramp as she jumped and hooked the bar into the pull handle overhead, and the roll door - freshly greased and ready to go - came ratcheting down.

As she rode it to the ground, she pushed her boots against the underside of the ramp and sent it up, up, and with a final swing and kick, toppling over.

Over, onto them. Onto their heads. Time started again.

With a simultaneous "Oh, crap," "Oh, crap," and "Oh, crud," two crime bosses and a Mountie threw themselves east to protect the radioactives. Other than that, it was every man for himself, scrambling and pushing and yelling in a mess of toppling boxes and crates and a rain of potatoes in sacks or ripping out to tumble free, and the wide metal plank tipped over them like the sky falling down.

When the dust cleared, it was pretty much a disaster scene, bad guy legs and arms moving weakly. Fraser and Farrelly had gotten the biggest crate pushed free, and Axel was partly trapped under the plank, Fraser standing with his boot holding it down in Cocky Arrogant Bastard position. With a yelp and a clatter, the last couple guys from the yard ducked through the gap under the door by the truck, Dief nipping at their heels, and Maggie got them both in an efficient headlock. There was a support beam nearby. She had cuffs. Sam, still slumped against the crates and clutching at his brand-new gunshot wound, was watching her like a heavenly choir had just descended bearing a silver platter of really good steak.

Ray had to agree. "I love you, Maggie!"

She looked up, eyebrows climbing. Fraser interjected. "He doesn't mean, literally."

"Ah."

"Right, right," Ray reassured her. Heh, Fraser sounded so reasonable, soothing it over, like up here Ray was the eccentric freak. Once that might have bugged him, but right now it made Ray want to laugh. Why not? Go with it. Maybe he could come up with some really weird habits to start doing, like 'Oh, in Chicago, we always put stuff in our armpits if we're curious about it. You know, like licking, but not so personal. What's that? You want your sandwich back?'

Fraser was giving Maggie a meaningful look. "Neat and efficient," he said: big brother approves.

She finished snapping the cuffs on the second guy and then looked at him wryly, as small and pretty and sleek as a tough little bulldog. "The right tools for the job," she said.

"Always."

Ray smelled an old conversation, Fraser family business. He backed off and did a status check all around everywhere else: most goons still down for the count, Dief growling at Farrelly like he hadn't had enough chances to bite people today and he'd really like another one. Axel, keeping an eye on Dief, pulling himself out from under the ramp and reaching for his gun, which was lying on the ground not far away.

Ray trotted over and put the kibosh on that maneuver. Nice to finally hold a gun in his hands, even if it wasn't his own piece (have to make sure he got that back.) He checked it out, loaded, of course, seemed to be in good shape. Yeah, he felt good.

"Hey." Axel kept his voice down.

"Hey, what?"

Axel was measuring him up, giving him a look like a pat-down, checking the odds. "Lot of cash in arms smuggling."

"Yeah?" Ray put on his interested face. No reason not to be polite, right?

"All I need's a minute to get out the back door."

Ray felt bad all of sudden, guilty, even though hauling boxes for a couple hours didn't mean he really worked for this scumbag. He flipped an invisible badge and said, "Ray Kowalski. Chicago P.D."

Axel punched the floor. "Fuck," he said. His eyes were trying to gimlet right up into Ray's soul, but it only went the other way. "I knew you were too smart to be one of my boys." He settled back down, some fight going out.

Smart? Freezing his ass off on an impossible quest in the world's most boring foreign country with a guy who made him feel like a kid locked out of a candy store?

"Thanks," Ray said. "No, I mean that."

"Ray? Some help here?" He stood another minute, thinking, until he heard the strain in Fraser's voice. "Ray! Your assistance, please?"

He left Axel with Dief, glad to forget him soon, and went over to help get Sam's coat off.


They did the whole goodbye thing with Maggie on the steps of the depot – quick, but wanting to drag it out. The detachment from Inuvik had finally shown up, just in the nick of too late, and Maggie and Sam were going back with them to help move the prisoners in a motley collection of sleds, snowmobiles, and one obnoxious but sturdy off-roader. "You going to be okay out there?" Ray asked her.

Maggie shrugged. "Twilights are getting longer. Sam needs better medical care, and I don't think we'd get a lot of sleep anyway until they're properly behind bars."

Fraser chuckled with her. "Our father once went four days without sleeping because he'd arrested a pugilist for illegal gambling and didn't have his cuffs with him."

"He must have been exhausted."

Fraser scratched the side of his neck. "Well, he said he'd never felt more alert and rational in his life, but he did lose forty dollars at poker."

They laughed like that was the funniest thing they'd heard all winter, Fraser modestly smug with it and Maggie sounding more like her real age for once. It hit Ray for the first time that this really was Fraser's little sister. He felt weird for having kissed her.

"So you boys'll be gone by the time we get back."

Sam, standing a few steps below Maggie, his arm in a sling, might have perked up a little at that – hard to say.

"I think so." Fraser hesitated, and all the things they weren't talking about were suddenly right there, thick like wadded-up t-shirts in the air between them, enough that other people could see and maybe read the writing. Ray shifted uncomfortably. Fraser, not looking at him, carried on, "We still need to discuss matters, and... plot our route."

Ray tried to chime in there, but couldn't think of anything, so he just swallowed some spit.

"Well," she said. "Good luck, you two." She looked back and forth between them, then at Fraser again. "Be happy, Benton." And then the two of them were hugging, Fraser moving down a step, Maggie clutching onto Fraser like she couldn't stand to let him go, then pushing him away.

"You too, Maggie," Fraser said warmly, but a little sad or guilty too, his voice already further down all the miles that were going to come between them. "I'm sorry. We'll come back when we can."

She smiled up at him, still tired and stamped with long nights, like Stella, but straight-arrow as always. "Oh, don't worry about me. I'm better than I've been in a while. Still on the Force, proud of my town, and, well..." She threw her stiff Fraser-ish chin left to indicate the broken snow, the neat buildings, the puttering swarm of Mounties, the big souped-up jeep waiting for her to drive it. "I'll always love Casey, but after getting through this winter... This is what I want, peace and quiet. My own life again. Maybe that sounds strange, but right now, it just feels really good to be alone."

Sam, standing quietly behind her, didn't move exactly, but he might have gotten just a little taller, his face a little tighter. Heh. Ray still didn't like the guy, but for one minute, he could relate.

"I understand," Fraser said. Maggie moved over on the step, reached up to Ray.

"You make your own path, Ray. I hope you'll find it."

"I know." He grinned down at her. He felt good. Normal. Him and Fraser were partners again. He'd even slipped up bad enough to plant one on Fraser and gotten away with it, because Fraser's powers of ignoring people who dug him were just that advanced. They'd endangered their lives, found some bad guys doing some freaky bad guy things and busted them. Fraser hadn't licked anything grosser than moose stew, but aside from that? Normal day.

He reached down to hug her, telling himself he was like a brother to her, and when that didn't fly all the way, pretending he was like a... brother-in-law. Okay. His face was getting hot. But nobody knew what he was thinking, so it was all right, and he held her a little harder imagining it. He'd kissed them both. No comparison.

When he let go of her, Fraser was shaking Sam's hand. Fraser was trying to do the secret messages thing again, but Sam was holding back, defensive, maybe. The action hero who'd come looking for them was gone, this was just the blank-faced big guy they'd met the first day, Maggie's backup man. So Fraser just nodded at him politely and said "Constable," and Sam did the same back, and Ray did a fake salute and said it too, just to get it over with, and then Maggie was leading the way down to the truck.

Ray watched them drive away; Fraser was watching them too. They were standing side by side, shoulders touching, as it went quiet. "Well," Fraser said. His legs were spread, like it was a parade review. Ray was fiercely aware of the stiff side of his face, fixed in place like a fence. The big vehicle turned into a black blot in the distance, trailed by sleds and the last roars of snowmobile engines. The dark grey of evening was falling down with a dusting of snow, and the tiny tail of sound just made everything else quieter. So now they were... you know, alone. Yeah. Really, really alone.

Fraser cracked his neck and cut a sharp turn into the depot.

Ray followed.


Fraser was laying it all out on the table, everything they needed to decide where to go next. His maps, his charts, log books, references, scratch paper for calculations, stuff. They'd done it before, back at the start of all this, but something was different. It took Ray a minute to be sure, but yeah: Fraser was nervous. His face was pinker than usual, and he was picking things up and putting them down too many times, too fast.

What was biting him, Ray didn't know, but he was still on a high, himself – the kind you get after, you know, heroically cheating death – and he wasn't ready to worry about it yet. So maybe Fraser was going to tell him their vibe was getting weird and they had to call this off, or they'd keep going but Ray had to promise and swear no more kissing talk, or something like that. Maybe that's why he was staying on the far side of the table, keeping the top of his head pointed at Ray, pretending to read maps he already knew in his sleep. So what. They'd figure it out. They were a hot team. Ray paced around and watched the overhead light swinging yellow on Fraser's hair and made conversation.

"What I don't get is Axel thinking I'd help him with a getaway. Seemed like a smart guy. I mean I'm good, you know, undercover's my thing, but not that good. He shoulda known I wouldn't sell you out."

"Some people have a hard time believing in the truth," Fraser said. He straightened a map and adjusted the big office lamp clipped to the table. "Or maybe it was your personal charisma."

He said it in the same flat, matter-of-fact tone he said most other things, like, "Pass me that log book, would you?" He'd said stuff like that before.

"Huh, yeah?" Ray said, pushing his hands through his hair.

There was a time when he would have thought Fraser was kidding, and would have gone around high on himself the rest of the day anyway, cocky and thrilled like a high school kid. Right now he was just watching Fraser's fingers do a quick fumble on the protractor and wondering what it could get him.

Ray could work it, sometimes, he knew that. Charm was good for stuff: getting women into bed, getting favors, getting witnesses to open up. Now he was alone in a locked office with a guy who was nervous. Anything he could work with, there? Anything loose enough in Fraser's buttoned-up mind to get swayed?

He'd felt Fraser's mouth. There was no room for that in their normal give-and-take, but the memory, strong enough to make him sweat, had played over and over in his head the whole drive south back to town, until it started to seem like something out of a movie, he wasn't sure it had happened any more. He remembered Fraser playing along, giving it a fair shot, but he didn't know if he was imagining the rest, the part where Fraser got into it. At the time it was just a feeling, an overwhelming rush, no details, so now Ray couldn't say why he'd thought that – was it breath, was it pushing back, was it the tightness of the hand on his arm, had he really felt Fraser's tongue touch his, he didn't know.

What he did have now, what he kept seizing up on, was the moment in the shed when Fraser had rested his forehead on Ray's hand. Held Ray's hand there, like it was something special. The whole world had stopped for two seconds, gone quiet as an early morning. Then Fraser let go and stepped out for the showdown and they'd gone back to doing what they did. But it was still there, back there, like a bubble. He was afraid to touch it but he couldn't stop staring.

Was there any way – Fraser always knew what he was doing. But was there any way maybe this time he didn't? Could he want Ray and just not know it?

Because he couldn't want him and know it, because otherwise, it made no sense. If he wanted Ray, he had him, Ray was there. Hooked, cooked, booked. On a plate with an apple in his mouth, in a box marked Property of Benton F. All Fraser had to do was crook his pinkie and Ray was there to try everything he'd never had the nerve for, all those things he'd lied to himself about.

He didn't have any no for Fraser. Not any more. Never would. That's what scared him so bad last night, why he'd gotten drunk and made a pass at Maggie, of all the stupid things. So, yeah, he didn't know what was going on with Fraser, but it couldn't be that. He rubbed his lip.

"Ray, do you–" Fraser said, putting two fingers on the paper. He stopped.

"Yeah, I still want to do this."

Fraser was keeping his eyes on the table. He always had a reason to be looking somewhere else – scanning the maps, checking the weather from last year, looking up elevations – but with all the places his eyes were going, they never hit on Ray, even when they should have. "You understand that with the river road closed, our journey north will be far slower and more challenging. In fact, we'll probably have to detour east, through some truly unpopulated areas."

Ray shrugged. Not like the other way would have been easy. If Fraser thought they could do it, all the same as far as he was concerned. "Swell. I'm not adventured out yet."

"I'm glad to hear it."

Fraser drew his finger along the map to the latitude and scribbled on a pad. All business, serious calculations, like it didn't always end in Ray putting a finger down on the map and saying "This part looks fun." And then Fraser would navigate them there by dead reckoning and the seat of his pants, like he always did.

"So, you're not sorry you came?" Fraser said.

Fraser was worried he didn't want to be here. Mr. Big was worried. Ray's heart thumped in sympathy. "Nah." Here made sense; it was where Fraser wanted to be. And Ray wanted Fraser to have the things he wanted. Maybe he was the only one who did want to make sure Fraser got those things - who wanted it in a fierce, personal way, wanted that to be his job. Not something he could talk about, but it made sense to him.

Fraser flicked his ear, casually moving his weight around, still facing down at the maps. You'd almost think he was working on a witness. "I'm surprised, to be quite honest. I had thought you'd regret it."

"Same way you're sorry you ever went to Chicago, huh?"

"Hm? Oh, not at all. No, I quite enjoyed my time there."

"You did?"

Fraser put a hand to the small of his back and stretched, distracted into loosening up. "Certainly. The museums, the opera, the libraries... the variety of cuisine... and the chance to really do some good. People were so, well, if you'll forgive me, so easy to help."

One thing about Fraser, he kept the curveballs coming. "You're kidding me. In Chicago? We don't exactly have that love-thy-neighbour thing going on."

"In a sense – that's exactly what I mean." Fraser started waving his hand around, caught up in the question. "Here, there's a social net. People take care of each other. Anything that can't be helped is generally... too big. Poverty. Environmental destruction. The encroachment on native lands. Look at Minnie Nungak. Once she goes south for schooling, statistically speaking, she's unlikely to return. Neither will her children. Her parents know that; they've traded a chance to live a lifetime with their daughter, to pass on their traditions and have her help in their daily tasks, so that she can have the education she deserves."

He looked so earnest that Ray felt guilty that it took him a minute to even place Minnie to the last few days, the cute girl with the schoolbooks. Fraser, like always, just assumed he was following.

"They won't ask for help, and the simple fact is there's no way to help them. Those are the everyday choices we live with, in the Territories. In Chicago, people's problems tended to be so... perhaps not simpler, but certainly more soluble. And they were so eager to share them. It was really rather fulfilling."

Ray snorted. "Eager to share 'em, all right." Seemed like half the city lined up with their hands out asking for Super-Mountie to help them, sometimes. And Fraser thought that was easier? But if he liked it like that... well, okay. "So you didn't mind living in a city. But you like it better out here."

"It is my home."

"Would you have to... I mean... does it have to be full-on tundra? Could you live some place that was more like... someplace that had plumbing, and supermarkets, and maybe a sports bar, but there was also a lot of nature going on? Where you could drive to a big park or... Or live part of the year in a city and part of it out here. Could you deal with that? I mean, like, be happy?"

"I... expect so."

Fraser sounded like the 'happy' concept was giving him some trouble. And, yeah, even when they were having a pretty good time, he didn't laugh much, did he? But that's what Ray had to offer, more of that. So his place was next to Fraser, that didn't mean it was doing Fraser much good. He backed up a step.

"And what about you?" Fraser said. He did the ear thing again, even faker. "What would make you happy?"

Huh? "Oh, you know, what we just did. I mean, this is it. Adventure, right? Take care of the bad guy. Get the girl. Ride off into the sunset." He heard himself talking, and corrected, "Only, uh. No girls."

"I'm sorry I can't provide a girl for you," Fraser said gravely.

This was just embarrassing. "Oh, hey, no, that's okay. I'm fine. I don't need women."

That got a huff so dubious he would have thought it came from Diefenbaker, if the dog weren't off in his kennel already.

"Hey, hey, it's true! Hey. I can live happily ever after with just - gettin' the bad guys, and - the sunset, and... and you." His voice wanted to quiver, let him down, but he kept going. "My buddy, my partner. And friend." He had a right to say that, it wasn't too bad. Mushy, but nothing queer. Fraser had to let it pass.

Fraser folded his arms and looked skeptical.

"Okay, well, yeah, there is the one thing. The, uh. The sex." Instead of looking shocked and confused like an old auntie, Fraser started nodding, so Ray kept going. "Yeah. I can live without it, you know, for a while, but if I never get any again, probably go out of my mind."

Fraser nodded again. Then he stopped and took a deep breath. Then with a hard sharp movement he put his hand down and swept everything to the side, knocking pens and books on the floor, scooting the paper over. "Ray, I'll be frank."

Ray stared at the bare spot. "Yeah?"

"For some time now - as a matter of fact, I believe I can trace it to the day that we first met, our first encounter, even, so unexpected, when you... you lit up, you greeted me with an open smile, as if you knew me, as if we shared a joke... and at the same time, there was something in your eyes, your stance, a hesitation, a sort of feckless courage – well, perhaps this level of detail isn't necessary just yet." He put the big speech on hold for a minute and checked Ray for reactions.

Ray was, maybe flattered, not sure yet, but still pretty lost. "What are you talking about?"

"Sex," Fraser said, banging his fist on the table.

The clip light shook.

"No, let me speak. I've kept silent about this a long time, despite temptation, and proximity, and a – well, a certain amount of provocation I'd almost have to say was deliberate – but the time has come to address this once and for all. We're both adults, our partnership has remained strong under a variety of adverse circumstances, and I think a certain directness is in order."  He sat down in the chair and folded his hands on the table, looking stern. "There's no reason we can't have a brief, straightforward dialogue on matters like these that are close to our hearts or awkward or otherwise delicate. And if you're uncomfortable with the concept, well, then, we simply won't mention it again."

"Uh... mention what?"

"Exactly. Silent as the grave. Well!" Fraser stood up. Popped up, really, like someone had pulled his string. He swept the maps up under one arm and started to go.

"No - wait - wait! I can't tell what you're talking about."

Fraser slowed down, surprised. "You can't?"

Ray stuck his arms out to the sides, desperate enough to start getting angry. "Not a mind-reader, Fraser."

"I'm suggesting that there's an obvious solution to your dilemma. I'm proposing a physical relationship." He licked his lip. "Between us."

Ray ran through the words again, one, two, three... "You – are you serious?"

"If you think you could respond to a man. I don't want to presume, but your suggestion that we kiss... suggests at least an openness to the idea that's unusual."

Ray sucked in and said it – out loud, first time in his life. "Yeah. It doesn't take a girl to flick my Bic, Fraser. I guess you might have noticed." His face shook a little from nerves, from the false bottom officially dropping out of his life, but that was just noise in all the other stuff going on. Fraser went still all over. Slowly, he nodded.

"Then, the question becomes whether you could find me personally attractive. I can assure you that I would do my best to... well... provide a, er, satisfying, and, considerate... well." Fraser seemed to have hit a wall as far as that line of talk went, and backed up to the other thing. "But. I may simply not be your type. I recognize that. The women you're drawn to tend to share certain characteristics that I do not. Ultimately, the question must be, what have I to offer?"

Ray gibbered, just a little.

Fraser straightened his back and touched his hand to his chest, that old-fashioned speechifying thing, kind of like he was pledging allegiance. "I realize that I'm not now the man I was when we first met. No longer a uniformed Mountie, no longer projecting an image of authority, unspotted virtue, patience... The day to day realities of our journey haven't left much room for illusion."

That was crazy enough to finally shake some sense out of Ray's mouth. "You think I'm turned on by unspotted virtue? If I went for that I'd date nuns, I – I mean you're a good do-right guy, I like that, but–"

They stared at each other, words dropping off left and right as things clicked into place, gears started turning, the world made sense and dropped away, invisible. He saw the exact moment when Fraser got it too, Ray wants me, if he's crazy I'm crazy, we're already there. Their duet blew up into the 1812 overture with the cannons going off and maybe Ray didn't mean to do it, shouldn't have, but there his hand was at his collar, and then Fraser's eyes lit like a flare and he was pulling open his own jacket, nearly ripping the sleeves.

With the short side of the table between them Ray was fumbling, clawing at his shirt, and Fraser was popping his own buttons and stripping off layers with brutal speed, never taking his eyes off Ray. Who managed to get mostly down to an undershirt and start working on the zip before his stumbling took him close enough to Fraser to grab at him, so he did, they both did, and then there was just...

Grabbing, crushing, groping. Arms. Mutual strength, weight shoved back and forth, hands roaming in a wild rush for new territory. An open-mouthed kiss that charged right in because it had been years coming on, Ray throwing himself into it again and again, Fraser grunting and moving his jaw, pressing in curves, as if even now he was trying to say something important.

When they did break the lock and gasp at each other the words that came out weren't any big speech. Just a stupid mixed-together rush of "Oh god. Fraser... Ray... Fraser... God, god, Ray... Frase... The maps... the maps..." That was new. "Maps, maps..." The table was taking some of their weight, they were leaning on it, pushing and rolling against the unfolded, overlapping papers. Ray tried to pull back and Fraser put a hand down to shove the charts away without tearing the worn-out fold lines but they couldn't remember, couldn't stop, and next they were sinking to the floor, pulling the maps with them, getting them all torn and crumpled under the table.

Wood floor: not the best place to get naked. Ray shoved Fraser against the piles of discarded shirts, mouth all over him, biting his shoulder. Ray's hands felt like they were magnetized, sliding over Fraser's smooth skin, every curve screaming at him to touch it again. He forgot to be careful, forgot that Fraser was hurt. Fraser was working at his waist, pulling Ray's last undershirt up, strong warm fingers going inside the coverall and feeling for the zip, sending prickling jolts through him that pushed them both onto the maps again in a flapping rustle of damage. "Ripped..." Ray panted, lifting his head to see what he'd done in the swimming vagueness that was the world beyond Fraser. "Ripped it, sorry..."

Fraser was working his fingers, concentrating on Ray's zipper. Ray was straddling him from above, rock hard rubbing against rock hard, Fraser mumbling downward, dreamy and dark. "That's okay, I don't think we'll need them." With a sharper sound of satisfaction he got the pants shoved down and his hand in, curving around to palm Ray's ass and squeeze.

Ray moaned and let his head fall, stupid and helpless, his arm shoving against the floorboards. The grit against his skin was proof this was happening, the smoother paper of the maps felt... wait. What had Fraser said? In the grinding emergency of the moment, it was hard to chase it back, but it nagged at him. "This was it?" he panted then, though he maybe didn't get all the words out like words, wasn't sure Fraser even heard him. It could have just been blood roaring in his head. "This was the quest?"

He knew he'd been reaching, the whole time, scratching for something, fingers against glass, something big. A dream, a far-off shining – but was it only simple as this – as simple as fucking?

He ground against Fraser again because his body had to and then he pushed himself up, trying to see better, pushed Fraser's shoulder down onto the pile of flannel shirts. Fraser blinked up at him against the harsh overhead light, heavy-eyed and balked, as full-mouthed and serious and criminally hot as he'd ever been in any fantasy. Maybe this was everything. Maybe everything turned into more down the road. Who knows. Ray moved his hand onto Fraser's bare chest again and Fraser's eyes fluttered shut as Ray let out a helpless sound and fell onto him, chests touching, sinking into some cloudy, electrified future.

His eyes were closed. He had a flash, as Fraser kissed him again, their mouths finding each other naturally in that self-made dark. Something far away that never happened. Somewhere, mountains were pulling back to let them through, and the sun reflected on a frozen ocean. A sense that he'd crossed a line, no going back. He didn't know. Fraser's tongue tasted so good. He kept his eyes closed and rolled with Fraser on a field of torn paper that led north.

His body was here, though, wound up and beyond ready. Fraser was bulky under him, tense and moving just right, keeping him going while Ray sucked at the skin he found everywhere, wanting, sloppy, hungry, starving, had to. First time in a long time, but he didn't have to think twice about it, no questions. Fraser's dick in his hands, hot and full, felt like he was touching his own with every move, it was that good. The noises went straight through him. He had to look. He heard himself panting out, "But we're still going to keep going, right? The quest, it's not over."

Fraser lifted his head, eyes opening again, a tiny grunt of denial escaping. "If you like," he said then, panting too.

"Well, what about you, don't you want to-?"

"RAY."

"Oh, right." Ray went back to what was doing, and Fraser's eyes rolled up and his head hit the floor.

That's how it was with them, push-pull, back and forth. Just like always but a million times better. He might not be some big hero but he should be able to make Fraser look like that, because he was an expert on making Fraser crazy. And Fraser made him crazy too.

And that's how he let the room roll again and found himself underneath, Fraser lying on mostly top, holding him up, heavy and hot. His hands were going at it and his mouth... he was nibbling Ray's ear and rubbing his lips against the back of Ray's neck, ruffling the short hair, and he was giving Ray some needed relief lower down. Yeah, Fraser was good with his hands. He would be. He did everything else right. He was giving Ray the treatment and it had Ray without shame, letting out a noise with every breath, every time he felt Fraser's tongue on his neck or his hands moved again, doing that thing he was so good at.

Ray thought a few times about trying to push them over again, get his turn back, but it was no good while Fraser was turning him inside out, pulling at him, and all he could do was tighten an arm around Fraser's neck and hold on.

Then Fraser's fingers started going where nobody's fingers had been in a long time, pushing and burning and Ray ground his teeth and begged and gloried in it because this was the real thing and he was getting it, the wildness between them was going to turn into fucking, if not now, later, and it was more than he could handle and he had to have more of that now. Now, Fraser. Now. There was... now.

Yeah. New maps. Whole new territory.



April slushed off and turned into May, which wasn't all that warm up here, but it was nice. Sort of like spring in Chicago. It was still cold, and weirdly foggy a lot of the time, but other times the sun came out and there was grass and flowers and all those clucky little hens hiding in the shrubs and that kind of thing. The mountains were black and white with snow but there was plenty of life all around them, mostly plants and the occasional lost bee, dazed and freaked out by all that area to cover. Ray wished them luck. Suck it up, little bee. All those flowers just for you.

They'd come a long way – a long, long way, in a couple months. The hardest part was the first stretch up east of Tuktoyaktuk, where you never knew if you were walking on land or ice. It took a while. They sold most of the dogs to passing hunters and trappers, hitched rides in sleds and boats and once a sea plane. Ray'd forgotten what it was like to eat normal food. He lost track of when he stopped being cold.

The one thing about warmer weather was the mosquitoes. Fraser warned him about them, back when they started this trip, although he'd done Ray the credit of assuming it wouldn't change his mind. (Which it maybe would have, if Fraser hadn't been sitting there acting like of course, Ray didn't mind being eaten alive by blood-sucking bugs, if it meant he'd get some adventure out of it, so what else was Ray going to say?) They were everywhere, and they were huge. The worst were these blackfly things, because they were sneaky. They hit you with some kind of anaesthetic when they bit you, so you didn't feel a thing. You'd just see them flying away carrying a piece of your skin, your first warning when it was too late, and that meant you'd be itching like fire soon, and you never had a chance to stop it.

But that's what it had been like with Fraser. You know? He'd met him, and then by the time he knew who he was talking to, he was already there in his pocket, getting carried away. Man, he was lucky that worked out so good.

Yeah, even with the bugs. He was lucky, and, he was happy. Happy a lot, as a background thing, like he hadn't been for a long time. Ray was a big sap. Love was every day, for him. It was this constant bubbling-up dream, just kept coming around and around again, like one of those spinning windmills. He used to think he was put on this earth to love Stella, and maybe he was back then, but now it was Fraser, and it ended here. His dream used to be in the body of a blonde girl, delicate and strong, gutsy but not crazy, smart, she kept his feet on the ground for him. Fraser was crazy. With Fraser he'd jumped off a cliff. And he didn't want back, and he didn't see down.

Just an instinct, but Ray's instincts were pretty good. He'd be like this forever, they'd be cranky old men together someday, crazy old bastards with a talking dog. He hadn't tried to talk to Fraser about it yet - he couldn't see getting past the part with the windmills - but he knew. This was epic. They'd make history, and if it wasn't by finding Franklin, then some other way.

And he knew Fraser felt the same. Or, like... Most of it? Fraser knew they belonged together. He had to feel some of this, this roaring chasing destiny. This was just too far gone to be there alone.

Fraser made the dirtiest, most desperate moans you ever heard a guy make.

That was something else he'd learned on this jaunt. Fraser moaned like a porn star. Go figure. And oh, god, maybe there was some reason Ray shouldn't fuck him as often as he did, but how was he supposed to hold back when the chance was there, and he knew what it was going to feel like? Gripping his shoulders, riding his back, slamming into him – losing control of his body, losing it, until the whole world was Fraser, and Fraser was losing it too.

"Next time," Ray would gasp out afterwards, and Fraser would pretend not to know what he was talking about.

Fraser's thigh muscles were like rocks. You couldn't nudge them apart with your knees, he was determined to get done his own way. And he didn't beg - as such. He'd suggest, ask, convince, use a bedroom voice that stunned Ray rigid the first time he'd heard it, so Ray was always already there, and by the time Fraser got to asking they were more like orders, Now! or Harder. And Ray gave it to him, all right, just like that.

That wasn't all Fraser wanted. It would have been hard to believe if it didn't keep happening, but about the fifth time Ray saw his dick getting taken into Fraser's mouth he started to get it, and about the twentieth time he started to get how much. Fraser wasn't just willing, no. It was more like he was hungry for it. He wanted Ray in his mouth, all the time, wanted to suck him, lick him, work it and taste it and get his mouth fucked, as many times as Ray could get it up.

They'd be walking along quietly and then Fraser would be up behind him with one hand on his chest to stop him and the other hand moving down the front of Ray's leg and a deep voice in his ear going, "May I?" Knowing the answer before Ray could give it to him. And then Fraser would be kneeling in front of him and he'd be bent with one hand on the sled, shaking, trying to stay upright.

Or they'd be setting up camp or stopping for water and Fraser would just look over him, something in his eyes, and then next thing you know Ray would be lying on his back on the ground, Fraser's head moving up and down, before he really had a chance to figure out how he got there.

Not that he was complaining. No, no, not at all.

Eventually Fraser learned to beg. Not often, just, some nights, soft and deep and desperate, as naked as a tightrope walker without a net, just putting himself out there, and Ray caught him, Ray knew what that was like. He never wanted Fraser to think he was alone out here, not when it was this easy to show him he wasn't.

Sometimes Fraser lay there just kind of studying him, with this... this look, until Ray had to close his eyes on how much he didn't deserve it. Sometimes Fraser still talked like Ray had a screw loose, but then Ray still talked to him like that sometimes, so that was fine.

They still had arguments, usually for hours since they had nothing else to do, niggling about small things. Sometimes Fraser talked about going back to Chicago or Ray talked about a cabin. They still weren't mind readers. This whole thing wasn't under their control yet, just sweeping them along, and maybe they weren't the two best guys to try and steer something like that. Ray had plenty of time to think about nothing as they hiked along, watching the mountains take up more of the sky, watching the flowers stay open longer as the nights got shorter, stretching into a kind of permanent early evening that made you dreamy and stupid.

He'd fantasize about long and slow and relaxed, with a bed and some music, about gentle nervous kisses, about slow, sweet necking until he forgot what his name was. But when it happened it still happened like a bomb going off. Grabbing and humping, mouths going everywhere, in a race to the finish line.

It wasn't perfect, but it was close enough to scare him, and sometimes Ray wanted to fight more, to really argue about something that mattered, to hurt and get hurt. To test this. Make sure it would still be there when he turned around. A couple times he started to push Fraser, really going to piss him off, but as soon as he heard himself doing it he stopped and backed off, scared out of his wits. He would not lose this. He would not be the one to break it. No matter how restless or...

yeah, so they ended up fighting anyway the third time, because it was a long, long way to walk and eventually you give in to every impulse you've got. Fraser seemed to know what Ray was doing, though. He let himself get riled up, not too much, but enough that they could let off some steam. Ray wanted to fight and Fraser let him get it started – they took their shirts off for later and started shoving and shouldering and ended up wrestling on the ground, in the grass by the side of the river.

After some decent serious sweating and bruising, Fraser decided it was time to start yapping about Greco-Roman ways (and demonstrating, starting with unfair holds, and then. Well. Those Greco-Romans knew how to party), and they lay in the grass afterwards thinking about how sorry they were going to be because of the mosquitoes, but it was worth it. It was harder to tell time with the days lasting longer and longer, but Ray thought it was afternoon, and he lay there and listened to the sound of the river, all wet and moving and definitely not a road.

Everything seemed really far away. Ray said, "Tomorrow, okay," and Fraser started to sit up and Ray grabbed his hair gently and pulled his head back down to the ground and climbed onto him and got right over his face and said "Tomorrow. Okay?"

Fraser was hot and nervous the next day, watching Ray out of the corner of his eye. He swallowed whenever Ray talked to him. Ray had thought he'd be scared on the day they finally tried it, but watching Fraser trying not to watch him all morning, trying not to touch him, got him going like crazy, so in the end Ray jumped him, no more waiting. It wasn't like they hadn't done the fingers, not like there hadn't been tongue, not like he didn't want it.

Yeah, so, Fraser fucked him. Finally.

Not the easiest thing he'd ever done, but Jesus. He didn't know he could feel like that. It was different. Yeah. Different. But definitely still sex. Sex with Fraser, which he was having. Sex with Fraser being had by him. That was hot. That was hot enough to hit some kind of button in his mind that he couldn't shut off. They'd already been going at it for a couple months, but now the incredible hotness of having sex with Fraser was coming at him from a new angle, and the whole thing exploded and dragged him off with it again.

He turned into the hungry one, couldn't seem to stop tackling. There was a stretch of about a hundred miles between Eskimo Lakes and Paulatuk that Ray could never remember afterwards. Just a few blurry glimpses of distance out of squinted eyes and Fraser in him, on him, around him, and the earth moving under his hands. When he staggered to the river in the mornings, yawning and rubbing his hair, it was turning into summer.

"What are we doing here, Ray?" Fraser asked him one day, sitting on a rock by the stream and mending a strap on his pack. Ray looked over, with a surprise visit of some of the old panic, but Fraser didn't look like he wanted to go anywhere, sitting there with his sleeves rolled up and the wind ruffling his hair a little bit and two days' worth of stubble that was going to burn Ray's face later.

"I dunno," he said, shrugging and feeling himself smile.

Fraser nodded, the smile mostly just in his eyes, but there. He looked a little crazy, but happy. There was something about him, like he'd just woken up and found himself here – maybe amused, maybe a bit startled, but happy all the same. Like he had to argue with someone about it, but he was starting to believe it himself.

Ray almost couldn't believe it either but at the same time he had to, because this was them, and if Fraser wanted him, even only half of how he did, then he wasn't crazy for wanting back.



They'd been hiking up the hill for hours.

The sun had been setting for about that long, as much as it ever did these days. Fraser said soon there'd be no nighttime at all. Too bad, but Ray was pretty sure he'd be able to sleep anyway.

It was steep, and all he could see was dirt, head hanging as he climbed. The pack was heavy, with a fair share of their stuff, and he hoisted it behind his back to help himself go. Dief ran up the hill like it was nothing, playing tag with his lady friend (they'd sold off all the other dogs by now, but Dief wouldn't be parted from her, and who were they to tell him it didn't matter?) Fraser and his long shadow had gone up ahead too, scouting. Ray slapped a mosquito bite and shook his head at a strange feeling that was overtaking him, just something in the air.

"Ray! Come here!"

Where else did he think... Ray shook his head again and tipped his head up, ignoring that funny chill again as it swept over his arms. There was something strange about the sky. Storm coming in? He hurried to catch up.

He was out of breath when he hit the top and had to wait for a minute, doubled over, until he could look.

...

"Wow."

"Yeah," Fraser said.

"That's..."

"Yes."

"Yeah," Ray said. And then, "What is that?"

"The Beaufort Sea," Fraser said.

"Yeah, no, I know that, I mean the other thing."

"Hm?"

For one scary minute Ray thought maybe he was hallucinating the whole business, the part that was happening up where the clouds would have been. Huge folding waves in the sky, light trailing across light like something out of Star Trek, like an LSD trip by Disney, hard to see clearly but hard to miss.

"Oh, that. The aurora borealis. Commonly known as the Northern Lights." Fraser's voice was slow, quiet. "It's very rare to see it this time of year. In fact, if we'd gotten here much later, we wouldn't have been able to see it at all."

"So, it's like a miracle."

"Well, it's unlikely, anyway. We should be honored."

Dief settled down over to Ray's right with his chin on his paws to admire the view, the nameless husky sighing as she got comfortable beside him.

Ray looked at the dogs as they rested their heads together. He looked at the dark glowing twilight, the icy ocean, the crazy transparent swirls of light in the sky, looming overhead like they might topple down at any minute. Nothing he could have imagined. And he was here, deep in unfamiliar territory, tough as wire and knowing what he was doing, with this handsome genius freak who'd wanted to come with him. The whole thing was crazy. Or maybe he was.

"Fraser," he said, heard himself asking like a dope, but he had to check. "This is real, right?"

It was a minute before Fraser answered. "It's understood by science, Ray. Charged particles colliding in the atmosphere... there's a perfectly logical explanation." Was his voice choked? Ray snuck a look at him: he could swear Fraser's eyes were wet. "But... it is real."

Ray looked back out at the light show. He was an explorer – he was getting used to this stuff. He got his courage up and reached over, Fraser met him halfway, and for the first time since Chicago, they held hands.






END

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