Thanks: Many sparkly grateful thanks to both eledhwenlin and Miriam for helpful, thoughtful betas
Notes: For the Date challenge on ds_flashfiction
The tent smelled of old sweat and wool and dogs and paraffin. It was a pinpoint in a huge white world that was dark more than half the time and didn't smell of anything much.
Mostly Ray tried not to think about how big it was out there, how empty. Mostly he focused on today and here and Fraser and the dogs. The creak of the harnesses and Dief baying at the moon. Stars so bright they looked like you could stretch up and touch them (he thought that if he did, they'd prickle like socks just out of the dryer). But tonight his thoughts kept coming back to Chicago, and he didn't know why.
"Uh," he said. In Chicago he would've said hey, Fraser, or Yo! or something else loud and listen-to-me. Here, in this small space, even with the gusty wind buffeting the tent, he barely needed to grunt to get Fraser's attention.
"Mmm?" Fraser didn't turn around or even stop writing. If Ray held his breath, he could hear the pencil whispering across the pages of his logbook.
"What day is it?" Ray's voice sounded crackly and faint like an old record. He cleared his throat. "I mean, date. What's the date?"
Fraser's pen stopped scratching and he rolled onto his front, up on his elbows, and looked at Ray. "Friday," he said. "The seventeenth."
"April." Fraser's mouth tightened at the corner. "Why?"
April 17. Huh. He blinked up at the tent and rubbed his thumb across his bare wrist inside his sleeping bag.
Why are we even doing this? It's not too late to change our minds. Think of all the things we can do with the money if we tear this up.
Ray, we're adults. Adults own houses.
We're not even thirty. Come on, Stella, live a little. Let's take a cruise instead — you, me, Acapulco, tanning lotion, fresh coconuts— Or, uh, hey, we could buy you a fancy car.
We already talked about this. The longer we put off buying, the more it's going to cost.
Okay, okay. You'd look cute in a Pontiac, though. Remember the GTO? I can't believe I let my Dad take it to Arizona.
Ray, would you focus? We're gonna have a home — I thought that's what you wanted.
Okay, you're right. You've convinced me. Here, give me that pen.
The keys had come on a ball chain, and when Stella transferred them to her keyring and his, Ray'd snapped the chain around his wrist and worn it every day until about six weeks ago, when Fraser'd pointed out that metal jewellry and sub-zero temperatures were not a good mix. Ray sighed.
Fraser sighed too, and rolled onto his side facing him. "Ray."
"Mmm?" Ray was drifting a thousand miles away and eight years back.
"Ray," repeated Fraser seriously. "We can turn back if you want to."
Ray came back to the present with a thud. He looked across at Fraser. "Yeah? And then what? We hand over the keys to the dogsled and go our separate ways? Hasta la vista, Ray, no hablo Espaņol, is that it?"
Fraser looked taken aback. "I didn't mean—"
Ray pulled off his hat, scrubbed his hand through his hair, and jammed his hat back onto his head. "No, I know. Forget it, Fraser. That wasn't you. It wasn't about you. Old stuff."
"Ah." Fraser lay down again, his sleeping bag rustling against Ray's. Outside the wind picked up. "Still," Fraser added, "if you don't want to continue—"
"No!" said Ray, harsher than he intended, but if he didn't put the kibosh on this, Fraser would ruin everything. "No, do not do that! Do not make every day a choice for me, okay?" He rolled onto his side and met Fraser's eye fiercely. "I signed up for this, I chose to come here, it's done."
A couple of frown lines showed up between Fraser's eyebrows, and he opened his mouth, but Ray pointed at him to stop him.
"I mean, I just mean, you know, when I'm mad at you, when things aren't going so good, when I'm tired and pissed and all I can think about is a beer and a hot bath — times like that, worrying, 'hey, am I doing the right thing?' don't make a guy happy, Fraser. Day after day of checking the same box on the same one-question multi-choice exam. Who needs that?" Ray rolled onto his back and looked up at the tent again. "Not me."
"I understand," said Fraser, softly.
Ray shook his head at the tent and smiled. "You don't understand zip. I want to be here, okay? I want this. It's just it gets hard, you know, and I'm kind of dumb sometimes, so I don't always keep that in mind." He snaked an arm out into the chilled air and patted Fraser's sleeping bag. "Like you. You're kind of dumb sometimes, too."
He tucked his arm back into the relative warmth of his bag, tugged at his hat where it felt crooked, and snuggled down. Eight years back he'd bought a house and now he was sleeping every night in a tent. He wondered where the hell he'd be in another eight years. Igloo? Bivouac? Log cabin? Or back in Chicago, in his crummy apartment with all the stuff he'd been carting around since they sold the house.
Fraser cleared his throat. "In what sense?"
"What in what sense?"
"The sense in which I'm dumb sometimes," Fraser said mildly.
"Oh, that." Ray rolled his head to the side, studied Fraser's face for a minute, and then winked. "That'd be telling." He closed his eyes and imagined a log cabin built for two, preferably with a woodstove keeping the place toasty warm — one big enough to cook pizza in.
"I see," said Fraser. "So?"
"So it's better if you figure some stuff out on your own," Ray said sleepily. "Turn out the light, would you?"
The color behind his eyelids went from red to black.
"Ray?" Fraser's voice was warm in the dark. The warmest thing in the world, maybe.
There was a rustle and Ray felt a couple of soft pats on his chest. "Thanks for choosing to come with me."
And maybe if Ray weren't so tired, he'd've grabbed Fraser's hand then and given him a clue what he was dumb about. But it was late, they had a long day ahead tomorrow. He'd tell him next time — if Fraser didn't figure it out for himself first.