Thanks: Many thanks to sprat and mergatrude for beta
Notes: For the Shed challenge
By the time I get into Tuktoyaktuk, I feel like I've been driving through snow with zero visibility for sixteen weeks solid. All I want to do is find Fraser, eat something hot, and shut my eyes somewhere warm and stationary. Somewhere there's no chance of a moose galumphing out of a snowdrift and slamming into the car. Oh yeah, and tell Fraser I can't live without him no more, though I get a squirmy feeling in my gut whenever I think about that particular conversation (which has been a hell of a lot of times over the last couple of months), so maybe that can wait till after the food and the sleep. We'll see.
Nothing much has changed in Tuk since the last time I was here, after the quest. Most of the stores are shut for the afternoon in Tuk township on account of the weather, but Jo Cottle at the Co-op lends me her snowmobile and a compass, and tells me the blizzard won't hit big time till tomorrow afternoon. Fraser only lives fifteen miles out, so I've got all the time I need. "Keep an eye out for moose," she tells me.
I spare a thought for all the wild animals wandering around homeless in this empty icy world, with guys in vests taking pot shots at them given half a chance. I know how it feels.
She promises to take care of the rental car, and I load my rucksack onto my back and wind another scarf around my neck, and then zip up my parka, snap on some goggles and head off. It kind of makes sense that I have to get through all this cold to get back to Fraser. It's like poetic justice, or that old Greek guy who went to hell to get his wife back. Though from what I can remember, that didn't turn out too good, so I let that thought drift away and focus on not driving into any ditches.
The easiest way to Fraser's cabin is to follow the river—and at this time of year, that's literally follow the river. I take the trail down toward the summer fishing hole and then ease down onto the ice. It's kind of a spooky feeling, knowing it's only frozen water that's holding me up. All I can hear is the wind whistling past the goosedown hood of my parka, but I'm warm enough to make it, and when you're on a river, at least you can't get lost.
I have no idea how long it takes me to get there and it's pure luck that I see the sign for Stavros' Footwear and Fishing Supplies in the gathering gloom. I hang a right and inch my way up the hill, knowing there could be anywhere between two and six feet of snow under me. Won't be able to tell until I see how deep the cabin's buried.
I haven't been in Canada for over eight months, but everything feels familiar and right. When the wind drops and I hear barking coming from the shed, it makes my throat hurt. The squirmy feeling disappears completely. I figure even if Fraser says "No" I'm gonna settle down in Tuk. Maybe if I don't screw up too bad we can still be best buds.
I think about his handwriting, strong and black on the thin blue paper. The loops and angles look like his voice sounds. It gets me every time—just my name and address on the back of an envelope can get my pulse going. Who'm I kidding? Best buds ain't nearly enough.
I park the snow mobile in the lean-to next to the shed, shake the cold cramps out of my wrists, and wade knee-deep through the snow to the door of the cabin. There's a light on in there, at least. Good sign. I can already taste the walrus stew. Caribou, moose, whatever. When it's this cold out, all I want is that it's hot and it won't kill me.
Stomp my way onto the porch, kicking the snow off my boots and dragging off my goggles, and I'm just about to knock when the door pops open. I get halfway into some stupid line about being in the neighborhood before I realize it isn't Fraser standing there. Doesn't help that I'm looking anywhere but at the guy's face.
"Christ Almighty," he says in a booming voice. "It's another one. What the hell are you doing out here?" I can't see his mouth through the Grizzly Adams beard, but I think he's smiling.
"Uh," I say weakly. All of a sudden, the journey up here settles on my shoulders like a lead balloon and I have to grab the doorframe to stop from falling over. "Fraser?"
"The Constable's making tea," says the guy. He's gotta be six foot six at least.
"You're letting the heat out!" yells a crotchety grandma voice from behind him.
Grizzly Adams grabs me and yanks me inside. "Come in, come in!" He slams the door shut.
I trip over a pile of boots and land face down on the rug. My rucksack slams into the back of my head, scrinching my hat over my eyes, and for a minute, I don't even care. It's warm and I'm horizontal. Maybe I'll just stay here for a bit.
The cabin smells of dirt and woodsmoke and stew and moose goo and leather and dog—
Then I get an earful of wolf spit and I'm wide awake again. "Furface!" I roll onto my side so I can get an arm free, and I sling it around his neck and pull him into an upside-down hug that makes him growl.
"Ray!?" Fraser sounds gobsmacked. "Good God, Ray, what are you—? How did you—?"
I shove my hat back hastily. From where I'm lying, I can only see as far as his waist (mukluks, thick socks, jeans, and that ratty old cream sweater he's so stuck on). I let Dief loose and try to roll onto my back so I can look him in the face but the couch is in my way and the rucksack on my back means I can't roll. I'm trapped like an upside-down turtle in a shoebox.
Someone I can't see, maybe Grizzly Adams, pulls my rucksack off of me—none too gently, but I'm grateful anyway. Fraser reaches down and helps me to my feet.
"Ray!" he says again, warmer, delighted, still flummoxed, and he pulls me close and hugs me tight.
'Course, I'm wearing sixteen layers of wool and goose down so it's not the most intimate hug you ever had, but he's there and solid, and there's pressure on my back from his hands, and I think hey, maybe I can sleep like this, standing up, if he'll just stay still.
He lets me go, though (that's a bad habit of his; I'm gonna have to break him of it) and steps back. There's a yelp behind him—human yelp—and he apologizes quickly to whoever it is and then to me. "I'm sorry, Ray. As you can see, we've got something of a full house."
Which I know, I'm supposed to look around now, say hi to all the nice folks, but I can't take my eyes off Fraser. He's pink-cheeked from the stove and his hair's a little longer. He's got more wrinkles around his eyes—I like that. Makes him look less perfect, and less perfect means more attainable. Or, at least, I hope so. Plus he's wearing his hat, which makes me grin.
"Hey," is all I can manage.
He holds my gaze for a long moment, something warm flickers in his eyes, and then he claps me heartily on the shoulder. "Take a load off, Ray. Stay a while."
Dief barks and a couple of people laugh. Jeez, how many people are there here? I do a quick headcount and make five. Seven counting me and Fraser. The cabin hasn't gotten any bigger since I was here last, so it's pretty damned crowded. There's Grizzly Adams and a young mopey skinny guy with his leg in a home-made splint. There's a gray-haired old lady dressed like a hunter, and there's a couple of teenagers—a guy and a girl—playing backgammon in the corner by the fire. And there's Dief.
The old lady hands me a mug of tea, and I take a mouthful and swallow it quickly. Too hot. Burn my tongue. I pass it on to Fraser and then manage to struggle out of my parka and my boots and the two outer sweaters without standing on anyone's feet and without tripping over anything. My trousers are soaked from the knee down, but I figure they'll dry pretty quick—it's warm enough in here—and it's not like there's anywhere private to get changed.
Fraser conjures me up a cup of thick sweet instant coffee—God, I love him— and makes my tea disappear, all the while asking me questions about the trip and what the hell I think I'm doing here. I try to answer, but I've got a lot of questions too that I can't keep from asking him—how's he been? what's going on?
"Did you miss me?" slips out while I'm unwinding my scarf.
"Every day," he says simply, and you know what? I believe that. We had a thing between us that was like magic, give and take, ebb and flow, one in a million. You don't just walk away from something like that.
Still, it throws me that he said it so plain in front of all these strangers. I blush and inch my way between the couch and the gun rack full of hunting rifles to get to the stove. There's a pile of old newspapers stacked neatly on the table. Top one's a two-week-old copy of the Trib. He missed me.
"Those days are over, Benton-buddy," I tell him. I can't meet his eye or I'm gonna lose it. Eight freakin' months with both of us going crazy. Like my grandma used to say, sometimes I can be a real dope.
"Help yourself," Grizzly Adams says, handing me a ladle and a bowl. The food smells like heaven but I try not to go overboard. We've got a lot of mouths to feed.
I fish in the drawer for a spoon and turn back to the room. Everyone's looking at me like I just flew in from Jupiter. "So," I say around a mouthful of the best stew I tasted in my life, "you going to introduce me?"
"Oh, of course." Fraser smacks his forehead lightly. "Sorry. Ray, this is Edna May, Steve Stevenson, Jenny Larsen and Milo Cabarossi, and Earl Beechwood." He gestures in turn at the old lady, Grizzly Adams, the teenagers in the corner, and the gloomy guy with the splint. "Everyone, this is my ex-partner, Ray Kowalski of the Chicago Police Department."
I wave a general greeting and they smile back at me, except for the guy with the splint who looks like he's having a really crappy day.
I go lean on the table where I can see everyone but I'm not in the way. It's maybe the only square inch in the whole cabin where I can stay out of underfoot. "So, you all just figured it was such a nice day, why not take a stroll and drop in on Fraser, huh?" I say around my next mouthful of stew.
There's general laughter and Fraser pauses in the act of handing out mismatched mugs—and one sugarbowl—of tea to say, "Actually Ray, it's rather more complicated than that." He gives Earl the last mug and perches on the arm of the couch. It's as close as he can get to me without being obvious about it. I stare at my food because I know my heart's on my sleeve and maybe he's okay with that, but maybe the entire population of Tuk don't need to know about it. Yet.
"Okay," I say. "So what's the deal?"
Fraser licks his lip and pushes his Stetson back a little, and then he folds his arms and starts talking. His voice is like chocolate and I'm tired enough I'm having trouble staying upright, so I kind of tune in and out, but I get most of the story straight, I think. They're all listening in, of course, even the backgammon twins. Maybe they can tell there's something going on with us or maybe they just want to hear what Fraser's got to say about them. Either way, privacy is not an option, so I get the polite version of events.
What it boils down to is that Grizzly Steve is under arrest for poaching deer, Earl broke his leg practicing for the Iditarod and his champion dogsled team saved his life by dragging him here, Edna's snow mobile broke down on her way back from hunting—"The caribou stew is all thanks to her."—and Fraser caught Jenny and Milo sneaking out of town to elope.
"Eloping, huh? Your parents must be worried sick," I tell them, trying to get over the fact that they're just kids. Stella and me were tight around their age—why should they be any different? 'Course we were a lot smarter than these kids seem to be. "Where the hell did you think you were going to run to?"
The girl scowls and hunches over the backgammon board so her hair hangs over her face. The boy, Milo—who can't be more than sixteen or seventeen—says they were going to break into Barrett's cabin a few miles west of the township.
"They got turned around," Fraser explains.
I nod. "No compass, huh?"
Milo sighs long-sufferingly. "I dropped it in a snow drift, okay? My hands were cold!"
He sounds like he's already been given plenty of grief about it. I decide to go easy on him, play good cop for a change. "Tough luck, kid."
Fraser clears his throat. "You still haven't said what brings you north, Ray." He says it like a challenge, and I think, okay, you want to do this in front of God and witnesses. That's okay by me. I ain't got nothing to lose up here in the back of beyond, except for the wishing star I haven't caught yet.
"What brings me here?" I say, like it's a riddle. "I'll tell you what brings me here—eight months of trying to adjust, never settling in, getting back on track only to find the rails have shifted. Missing the snow, missing—" I swallow. That's too soon, too much. "What brings me here," I say again. "I took this plane, I rented this car, I borrowed this snow mobile. You gotta go back before you can go forward, Fraser. You taught me that. You got to go back to understand."
"Back," says Fraser, and I can't read him, and the gang of five's listening, and all of a sudden I get déjà -vu and I think maybe he does too, so I go for it.
"Yeah, back," I say. "Tell me something, Fraser." I shove my hands in my pockets and face him full-on. "Do you find me attractive?"
Earl chokes on his tea but Fraser doesn't look away from me for a second. His gaze doesn't so much as flicker. I can feel the whole cabin waiting for his reply. Even Dief is holding his breath.
For a long moment the only sounds are the fire crackling, the wind whistling in the eaves.
Then Fraser tilts his head a little and scratches his eyebrow like he does when he's stalling, but there's a kind of—laughter, maybe?—tugging at his features. "As a woman?" he asks.
I keep a straight face. "No, you freak," I tell him. "As a guy. As you. Do you find me attractive?"
Now Fraser darts a look around at all the riveted faces. Better than TV, I'm telling you. We're practically a cop show right here. He looks back to me. "Very much so."
I nod and, you know, I'm not even that surprised—surprised he said it, maybe, but I knew it was there all along. I just didn't know I knew until I heard the words come out of his mouth—again. After all this time. The relief makes me light-headed. I'm flooded with warmth and I want to share it with him.
"Me too," I say, low, pitched just for him, and then I laugh and say out loud, "I mean, jeez, I'm not blind!"
Grizzly Steve snorts with laughter and I glare at him, but he's got forty pounds on me, easy. And anyway, it's hard to intimidate anyone when I can't keep from turning red as a union suit.
There's a rustle from Romeo and Juliet in the corner and the next thing I know, the girl's playing Here Comes the Bride note perfect on a harmonica. I reach for the nearest soft thing—a dish towel—and bunch it up and throw it at her. It twists in the air and falls on Dief, who doesn't seem to notice.
Under the girl's oven-baked-cookie exterior, I think she's pleased for us, but to be honest, I don't give a shit. It's nice if they're on our side but if they're not, fuck 'em.
"So you came all the way from Chicago," Edna May says, "to see if Constable Fraser would—would say yes?"
"Yeah." I mock-glare at her. "Why, are you saying he ain't worth the trip?"
Edna May shakes her head, smiling. "Not me."
"Why didn't you just call, stupid?" says Jenny from the corner.
I look at her. "Sometimes you gotta take a chance. Work with what you got and go for it, you know?" I point two fingers at the backgammon lovebirds. "I'm not talking about you two. You two gotta do what your parents say for another few years yet. But me—I'm gonna be forty next year. I had to carpe the diem."
"Sometimes you have to take a chance," says Earl. He adjusts the splint on his broken leg and sighs.
Grizzly Steve throws him a pack of cards. "Want to beat me at crib?"
Fraser's sending me some kind of secret message. I brush my thumb against my nose and he does it too, and it's like old times, gives me a buzz.
"Well, then." Fraser claps his hands and rubs them together like he's trying to start a fire. "Edna May, I'd like to deputize you to keep an eye on the others."
Dief looks up and barks.
"Yes, and you too, Dief. Make sure Steve doesn't make a run for it."
Dief turns his steely gaze on the mountain man and Steve puts his hands up in surrender. "Christ, given the weather out there, at the moment I'd rather be under house arrest."
"All the same." Fraser gives him a stern look, and what had felt like happy families a few minutes ago turns into more of a cop-detainee vibe. Funny how that works. "Edna's in charge."
"Fine by me," says Edna, reaching for her hunting rifle and digging a box of slugs out of her pocket.
Fraser takes the weapon off her and puts it back in the gun rack. "I doubt you'll be needing that. You'll find Diefenbaker's rather effective at keeping people in line."
Dief obligingly growls, the wild creepy kind of growl that makes my skin crawl.
"Ray," says Fraser. "Why don't you come and help me feed the dogs?"
Jenny catcalls from the corner but I ignore her. "Sure." And I drag all the clothing back on, the parka and the scarf and everything. My boots are still wet. "Got any boots I can borrow?"
Fraser pulls out my old sealskin boots from the quest as if they've been sitting in a closet waiting for me all this time. Maybe they have.
I shove my feet inside and we head out there, into the blistering cold. Fraser's got a lantern so I just follow the light. The wind's died down which helps a lot, and the snow is soft and powdery like confectioner's sugar. It's tough going though—after twenty minutes or so warming up in the cabin, being outside feels like torture. My skin burns with the cold.
I don't care.
Fraser bangs the door of the shed open and shuts it again after me, and he hangs the lantern on a hook. The dogs go crazy, of course. I recognize most of our guys from the trip, and I figure most of the strangers are Earl's.
"Hey, keep it down!" I tell them when they start howling in harmony like a freakin' canine barbershop quartet.
Maisie, our lead bitch, barks excitedly and strains against her chain. "Good to see you, too, girl," I tell her, and I ruffle her ears before grabbing a bucket and scooping some kibble out of the bins.
The shed is the same old shed. Fraser and I camped out here for a couple of months while we rebuilt his dad's cabin. I know this shed probably better than I knew my apartment in Chicago. I know where all the holes are where the cold drafts come in. I know where the spiders nest and when to duck so I don't brain myself on the low beam by the ladder to the loft. In some ways, it's like this is my shed too.
Fraser finishes feeding Earl's dogs about the same time I finish up ours, and then we both put our buckets away and wipe our hands on our thighs. I feel short of breath, and I could blame that on the cold except I know the cold has nothing to do with it.
"Idiot," I manage at last. "Why didn't you tell me?"
The corner of Fraser's mouth twitches. "I could say the same." He takes a step closer. "I suppose I didn't know if you—and even if you did, I didn't want to pressure you." He's close enough now that I can feel his breath on my lips. "You belong there."
I shake my head and rest my hand flat on his chest, over his heart. "I belong here."
He anchors my hand there with his own and bends his head forward to kiss the corner of my mouth. My heart starts pounding wildly. "Yes," he says. "Stay."
"Was that hard to say?" I ask, half joking, half needing to know.
He shakes his head. "Not at all. Not now you're here. Stay with me, Ray."
"Christ, I thought you'd never ask." I push him back against one of the vertical supports in the shed. It takes him by surprise so he goes nice and easy, relaxing into it, trusting me. I follow and lean against him, pushing in as close as I can. I yank off one of my gloves with my teeth and trace my cold fingers around the curve of his ear, and then cup his rough jaw and I kiss him.
First time. First kiss. I barely notice the dogs barking excitedly or the wind howling. None of that matters. What I've got here is Fraser, his breath harsh and quick, his hands clenched in my parka, now, and at my waist. I've got his tongue licking into my mouth, eager and hungry, like he's thought about this as much as I have. Like he don't have any doubts at all. It's a no-holds-barred kind of kiss, and if circumstances were different I'd be ripping into his clothes about now, enrolling for Gay Sex 101 and heading straight for the advanced tutorials. But it's still freakin' cold out here and it may be clean but it stinks of dog. Besides, we've got a criminal in custody and I'll bet you anything that if we got distracted now, someone'd come and interrupt us and tell us how Steve tried to escape through the chimney and burned the cabin down in the process.
I kiss Fraser again and try to tell myself I can wait for the rest. The bone-deep exhaustion helps. "How long till we get the place to ourselves?" I murmur into Fraser's ear.
He leans his head on my shoulder and catches his breath. "A week at most." His hands are gripping my clothes so tight, I wonder if he'll ever be able to let go.
"You want to elope to Barrett's cabin?" I offer, thinking maybe Romeo and Juliet had the right idea.
Fraser chokes out a laugh. "As appealing as that sounds—" He brushes his lips against mine, soft and luxurious, like he's forgotten it's twenty below. Then he deepens his voice and says, "Ray," and I snap to attention, all ears, all his. My tiredness forgotten.
"That's me." I close my eyes as his icicle fingers explore my face.
"Can you—do you think you can be happy here?" he asks quietly, like he doesn't even want to say the words but he has to, he has to know.
"Are you kidding me?" I tell him. "The stew is better than pizza, your house guests are better than TV, the air is clean." I wrap myself around him harder and kiss him deep and sweet. "And I got you."
He smiles, a soft lopsided smile. "You do." He feels good in my arms, even through all the damned clothing. I imagine the months and years ahead of us, slowly peeling Fraser out of his layers. If it weren't for how wiped out I am, I wouldn't wait to get started, cold or no cold.
"Give me a couple of days' sleep and my life will be complete," I tell him. It's the truth. This is a far cry from any life I ever expected, but it's the life I choose. I rub my bristly cheek against his and shiver with happiness. The next big adventure starts here.