Rating: R
Pairing: Fraser/Kowalski, Kowalski/Vecchio
Thanks: Huge thanks to sprat and sage for beta
Notes: For the Cheating challenge on ds_flashfiction and for aerye, because apparently the moon was full

This Here Now

by china_shop


Prologue

I made my way to Chicago as soon as was practicable after my return to Western civilization. Of course, I considered calling Ray the moment I set foot in Inuvik but I didn't know how to explain over the telephone. There was simply too much to say. So I reported to the RCMP outpost, had a bath, saw a medic, and visited Diefenbaker's grave. Then I slept for thirty-eight hours, and boarded a plane to O'Hare.

Chicago was an assault upon my senses: the constant clamor of car horns and cellphones, people shouting and children screaming, engines everywhere. It smelled terrible, and I had an uneasy fear that Ray, now returned here, would be unwilling to ever leave again, and that I could no longer bear such an existence. I stared blankly at the rows and rows of cars lined up at the traffic lights, belching exhaust and focused fury. I felt bone-deep tired. My stamina was still well below its usual levels.

I went directly to Ray's apartment of course. The familiar brick facade shook me from my stupor and I remembered everything—his laugh, his intensity, his passion. The question of where we'd live ceased to bother me. We'd manage.

But when I entered, there was a different name on his letterbox. Perhaps he was undercover as—I looked closer—Mr. & Mrs. T. Masters. It seemed improbable. I knocked on the landlady's door instead.

It turned out that the landlady was out for the evening, and her babysitter was unable to give me Ray's forwarding address. I decided to find him at work the next day. I would have preferred to stage our reunion in private, of course. I had no idea how he'd take seeing me again after all this time, but I could quickly bundle him out of the station if his reaction warranted it.

I found cheap lodgings in my old neighborhood, and went straight to sleep.

 


1. Ray Kowalski

It had been one of those days, one of those weeks, one of those years. I had a case with no leads, and another lead from Louie the Snitch with no obvious crime attached but the lead kept nagging at me anyway like there was something I was missing. Plus the station was short-staffed so I kept getting grunt work and dumb cases about animals, and the air conditioning was on the fritz so everyone was cranky and ripe. I thanked god that at least fish-stinky Dewey wasn't working here anymore—though if he had been, I could've handed off Mr. Tetchison and his missing purebred Persian cat. In the absence of Dewey, I shoved the file down to the bottom of my in-tray and went to the breakroom to see if the vending machine had gotten restocked yet.

No such luck. It was all curled-up sandwiches with wilting lettuce. I got a Snickers and some coffee instead of food and headed back, still trying to make sense of Louie's phone message. It was itching at me, so close I could taste it, and I stopped and leaned one hand against the wall, hanging my head down, trying to get a lock.

Got distracted by the sweat trickling down my back, though. Jesus, this was no way to work. I was seriously considering relocating my desk to a nice, properly ventilated diner as I walked to my desk, and then time stopped, my heart stopped, and the coffee fell out of my hand and splashed all over the floor.

"Fraser?"

He was standing by my desk, looking around like he expected that nothing had changed. He was wearing hiking boots and carrying his old leather jacket—the one I left at the Detachment—and jeans. No dress reds or Stetson. Just Fraser. Just—

Our gazes locked and his face lit up like Christmas. The ground swayed, and I grabbed a chair and sat down, my feet slipping out from under me because of the coffee all over the floor.

"Fraser?"

His smile faded, and he came over, worried and fussing. That's my Fraser. As though I was the one—as though nothing had—He was thinner, and there was gray in his hair. "Ray, are you all right?"

"Am I—? You're alive. You are alive, right?" I couldn't get my head around it. All this time. All that hurt.

"Ray?" It was like we weren't speaking the same language, like we were in different time zones. He grabbed my hand though, and his grip was hot and solid and a little sweaty from the heat. He put the back of his other hand against my forehead, and then shoved my head down. I struggled for a bit before I realized what he was doing. Guess I must've looked pretty bad.

"Thought you were dead," I told my knees, squeezing his hand tight like I wasn't ever going to let go. "Thought I'd lost you for good."

"I know," he said in my ear. "But I'm here now."

I wrenched free from his hand and sat up. He was crouched beside my chair, eyeballing me like I was the back-from-the-dead one. I tried to speak and choked. Coughed till my eyes watered. Finally managed to get his attention on me instead of my state of health. "You know about Dief?"

He nodded, and his mouth got pinched in at the corners. Jesus. Fraser.

"He fell down a canyon," I told him. "A crevasse—and, you know, we tried to—but—" No need to give the grizzly details.

But it was like Fraser already knew. "He was tracking me," he said. "Inspector Carlson told me."

"We were trying to find you, Fraser. You got wiped off the face of the earth or something?" I touched a new scar, high up on his cheek, and ran my fingertips over his eyebrow.

He cleared his throat and looked around. Right. We were in the middle of the station. Two guys in gang colors were watching us while Sandy booked them, and everyone else was firmly averting their eyes.

"Let's get out of here before Welsh—" I said, and then of course, speak of the Devil, Welsh turned up.

His eyebrows went through the roof. "Constable Fraser," he said. "Long time no see. Welcome back to the land of the living."

Fraser stood up straight. "Thank you kindly, sir. In fact, I've—"

"I've no doubt," he interrupted, and clapped Fraser on the shoulder, "and I'm delighted you haven't shuffled off this mortal coil, but you see, things are a little delicate right now with the people upstairs, and I can't help thinking it would be best if nobody were to see you on the premises. Canada is not exactly in the Chicago PD's good books right now."

"I'm not sure I follow—" Fraser seemed confused.

I cut him off. "It's a hockey thing. Don't worry about it." I struggled out of my chair, grabbed his arm and hauled him out of there, leaving someone else to clean up the spilled coffee. "Let's get out of here. I need a drink."

Fraser nodded. "Tea."

"Are you kidding?" I stopped and stared at him. "I am talking whisky at the very least. You have been dead, Fraser, and now you are here. That's a big adjustment. I need alcohol to help my braincells, uh, tune into this new state of affairs."
 

* * *


"—so the Tribal elder allowed me to stay, which really, was remarkably generous given the state I was in. I could've been anyone: bank robber, Customs official. They were very kind to look after me. My head injury healed over time, and I grew fond of many of them."

"Yeah?" I took a slurp of beer—the compromise between tea and the hard stuff. "How fond?"

He blinked at me, and flushed. "Ah, well, nothing untoward, of course. They treated me more as a pet, really, until I regained my memory. For a long time, I was known simply as Nanook and it was my job to guard the fishing holes from seals."

"Jeez, that sounds like the Consulate all over again." I shook my head. "You got a weird destiny there, Benton Fraser—all that watching and waiting for things that never happen."

"As a matter of fact, there were a number of seal attacks. That's how I got this scar." He pulled up his shirt sleeve and showed me a long pink mark up the inside of his arm.

I ran my thumb up it, feeling the rough skin, the heat underneath. My gut tightening. Fraser, here. Fraser.

He pulled away sharply, staring at my hand. "You're—you're married?"

"No!" I started, feeling guilty as sin even though I had nothing to be ashamed of. Okay, so he'd seen the ring, but— "No, I—we just—I thought you were dead, Fraser. Two years. That's a long time."

Something was hollowing me, from the inside out. I felt like I was gonna be sick, and put my head down on the cool slightly sticky wooden table top. "Couldn't stand it. Couldn't miss you forever."

His hand brushed through my hair briefly, then went away. "I understand."

Jesus. "You're here. Okay. You're here, and that's a good thing, Fraser. Christ, it's—" I sat up again and checked him out. He looked like hell. "Come home with me."

Fraser used to be like Superman—always strong, always polite. Now he was pale, his hand pressed to the side of his head like it hurt. "I need to, ah, I need to lie down."

"Yeah," I said, and I touched his wrist. "That's what I'm saying. Come home with me. We'll figure something out. You have to see Vecchio anyway. You can't leave Chicago without seeing Vecchio, right?"

 


2. Ray Vecchio

"Home schooling? You?" I snorted into the phone while I ironed my shirt one-handed. "Frannie, you gotta know math for home schooling. Anyway, you're what, going to home school him from the bowling alley? Why are you worrying about this now, anyway? The kid's only eighteen months old."

"Nineteen and a half," she corrected me, sniffing. "And he's real smart. He's going to be like Edison when he grows up."

"Okay, nineteen months," I said, putting the iron down and getting the shirt onto a clothes hanger. "So why not save the arguments with Ma until he's three or four? A lot can change in a couple of years. Who knows where you'll be." In the distance, out the front of the house, I heard Kowalski's car pull into the drive and looked at my watch. Still early. I switched off the iron. "Is Ma okay?"

"Yeah," said Frannie. "She's fine. She won at Bingo last night and she's been singing all morning. You want to speak to her?"

"No," I said quickly. Me and Ma weren't really on speaking terms. Frannie kept trying to patch things up between us, but I knew that every time Ma talked to me, she'd cross herself and light a candle afterward, and it pissed me off. "No, I gotta go." I heard voices in the hallway and latched onto that as an excuse. "We got company."

I hung up as Kowalski came into the kitchen. "You're early."

"You too," he replied. Something in his voice made me look at him. He was a little wild around the eyes, a little pale.

"Yeah, the Feebs are running some kind of internal training course. Doesn't include contractors, so we called it quits at lunchtime. I'm back in on Monday." I stepped forward. "You okay?"

He nodded convulsively, and looked over his shoulder. "Yeah, uh—"

I heard the bathroom door in the front hall close, and footsteps, and then Fraser was standing in the doorway like a visitor from another planet.

Jesus. "Fraser?" I said it half to Kowalski, checking with him that I wasn't imagining things.

Kowalski nodded again, his ears going pink, and then Fraser had his arms around me in a bear hug. "Ray!"

"What—?" I hugged him back, and then pushed him off of me, keeping hold of his arms. "Jesus, you're alive!"

He smiled. "So people keep telling me." There was something off about his smile.

I studied him. He looked good. Older and tired, but still Fraser, still the guy I'd followed to the ends of the earth more than once. The guy I trusted instinctively. "Where you been?" Christ. "It's been two years, Benny! What, you've been living in a snow cave all this time, and you only just decided to make contact with the outside world again now?" I tightened my grip, remembering the Memorial Service: tears in my own eyes, and Kowalski a complete mess—gray and hollow, and skinny as a stick figure. My jaw clenched and I stepped back, letting Fraser go. "We grieved for you! You couldn't have called?"

"I—" Fraser went pale, and swayed a little.

"He had amnesia," Kowalski defended him, and helped him to a chair at the table.

But I couldn't stop. "So you forgot about us, and the walruses and the caribou adopted you and brought you up as one of your own, is that it?" I hardly knew what I was saying.

"Christ!" Kowalski got in my face. "Back off! He's tired and he's still not—"

"Okay, okay, I just—" I took a deep breath and ran my hand over my head. "I'm sorry." I didn't know who I was apologizing to. Both of them, maybe. "It's a shock. It's—it's good to see you, Benny, but—" I sat down at the table across from Fraser, and then got up again and put the kettle on to boil. "Jesus, I just never thought—"

"No kidding," said Kowalski. He dumped his jacket on the side-table and sat in the same chair across from Fraser, and fidgeted with his keys.

Fraser's gaze darted from the keys to me, then down to my hands. He blinked, then looked back at Kowalski. "You live here? You're—?"

Kowalski lowered his eyes to his keys. "Yeah."

I came over, still holding the three mugs I'd taken from the cupboard. I put them on the table, took Kowalski's arm, and marched him into the utility room and shut the door. It was cluttered and stuffy, and smelled of fabric softener. I put my hand on the back of Kowalski's sweaty neck and shook him a little. "You brought Fraser here, but you didn't say, 'Oh, by the way, Vecchio and me, we're together now.'" He'd been surprised to find me home, too. Suspicion rose in my throat and I struggled to push it away. "Did you have amnesia, too?"

He put his hand on my chest and rested his forehead on my shoulder, and I wanted to hold him, Christ, I wanted to. So I did.

"I couldn't—there was too much," he muttered into my shirt, like he was talking to himself. "Two years of too much. I couldn't just spring it on him like that. He—it's not his fault." He leaned back and looked at me fiercely, and held up his fist between us, showing me his ring glinting in the late afternoon sunlight. "I'm not going to fuck this up."

I kissed him hard, lips on lips. "It's already fucked." I knew how much he loved Fraser—and I didn't know if what we had, this life we'd built, could compete with that. "It's not your fault, either. But now everything's—" I swallowed. "It's gonna change everything."

He shook his head. "No. No, don't do that. Don't make it about me. He's your friend."

I pulled away. "There's three of us, Kowalski. Somebody's gotta be in the middle."

 


3. Ray Kowalski

Fraser stayed over, of course. Vecchio was torn about it, I could tell, but he'd come around. It was Fraser, alive and flown twenty-five hundred miles to see us. It's not like we could turn him away, even if we wanted to.

I drove him back to his fleabag hotel to pick up his stuff, and we hardly talked the entire drive. Well, I told him about work, and how Frannie and Mrs. Vecchio had moved to Florida, and Maria and Tony had moved out with the kids (though I didn't say it was because they refused to bring up the kids with a couple of queers). I said how Stella had moved to Boston, and Huey and Dewey's club was still limping along, but I didn't say a single word about Vecchio or us. Maybe because I didn't know what the hell to say. Maybe because I didn't want to hurt him. When I was looking at the road, driving, I could almost pretend it was like the old days: the two of us on a case, hanging out, the easy give and take, and always always wanting him. But if I glanced at him, my stomach lurched and I had to grip the wheel tight not to reach over and touch him, to make sure he was real.

I knew he felt the same.
 

* * *


Dinner was like one of those awful plays Stella used to drag me to, where the lines of dialogue don't quite match up and everyone's made of cardboard and sometimes the lights come up and everyone freezes while one person talks to the audience.

Fraser excused himself before coffee, pleading tiredness—which was not hard to believe given the strained look on his face—and Vecchio and me did the washing up to the sound of the radio, and we went to bed.

He got undressed while I was brushing my teeth, and I came back in thinking yeah, we should fuck now. Not just because I had something to prove—though that was part of it—but because I needed to feel Vecchio, connect with him, and remember why we'd ended up here. But he'd already turned the light out, and was lying on his side facing the window.

"Hey," I said, sliding up behind him, winding my arms around him and pulling him back against me. "Hey, Ray."

He was tense as hell, but he turned to me straight away and kissed me, his mouth forcing mine open, hard and desperate. I pulled him on top of me, hot and heavy, and I tried to soothe him with my hands, and he rubbed against me like he was going to come that way.

I grabbed his head in both hands and whispered, "Fuck me."

"Jesus, Kowalski," and he sounded like he was breaking inside.

"Hey, I'm not going anywhere," I told him. "It's okay. Come on, fuck me."

And he did, hard and fast. I could tell he was staking his claim, and I wanted that too. Wanted to keep what was between us special. I pushed back against him, jacking myself off at the same time and straining to support myself on one arm, gasping, gasping, my heart hammering in my chest, my balls tight, and Vecchio inside me again and again—

—and I started to flash on that first time with Fraser, at the Consulate. The way his hands had smoothed over my skin like he couldn't believe I was letting him touch me—

—and I shoved back, pushing Vecchio off me, out of me. He growled, but I groped on the nightstand, knocking some stuff onto the floor before I managed to turn on the light. Then I flipped over. "Jeez, I just gotta see—"

He wiped the sweat from his face.

I put my ankles on his shoulders. "Come on. I fucking—" And grabbed his arm to pull him forward, and yeah, he went with it, he did it. He rammed back inside me, hard and sure, and fucked me till I was digging my fingernails into my thighs and gritting my teeth to not come, to not shout out or whimper. It hurt, but it hurt good, exactly how I needed it. And I didn't take my eyes off him. But when I came, I could still feel Fraser's hands on me.

We lay together, panting and sweaty, and I tried to get my head together. "You okay?" he asked me, like he knew.

"Yeah," I lied. It hurt—I hadn't lied to Vecchio for a long time, we were a team—but I couldn't tell him this even though I knew he knew. This morning we'd been sweet and safe, something I could count on. Vecchio and me—it was the connection that put a spring in my step, that let me put myself on the line at work, again and again. Because I knew he was there for me, smart and loyal and passionate. I needed that. And now—now my heart was breaking into two.

I kissed Vecchio's mouth, his shoulder and rolled over to go to sleep.

I couldn't sleep. I lay listening to his breathing even out and deepen, and I stared into the dark and tried to figure out how to feel what I wanted to feel. I wanted Fraser to be an old friend, someone special but not my whole world like he used to be. I wanted to love him like a brother. I just didn't know how to get from here to there.

Vecchio started snoring, a familiar sound that should've been comforting but just made me restless. I got up and stared out the window at the yard. A cat jumped off the neighbor's roof onto the fence, and then stalked over to the elm tree—where Fraser was lying on the ground.

At this distance, without my glasses, I couldn't tell what he was looking at—the sky, maybe, or nothing at all—but it felt like our eyes met. I felt it in my gut. I pulled on shorts and a t-shirt, and headed outside.
 

* * *


"Hey." He sat up as soon as I stepped outside. I handed him a glass of lemonade. "Too hot to sleep?"

He looked away, distant and mysterious, his skin white in the moonlight. "Something like that."

All of a sudden it hit me that he must've heard me and Vecchio fucking. With his bat-ears, he couldn't have helped hearing. Jesus. And now he could probably smell it on me, too. I squirmed with guilt, which was retarded, but Christ it was a complicated situation.

I sat down beside him with my back against the tree, and tried to breathe.

"Have you been together long?" he asked quietly.

Was he trying to make me feel guilty? What was the accepted mourning period in the Fraser family, anyway? His dad had given him a step-sister not that long after his mom died, even if Fraser hadn't found out about her for another twenty-seven years. "Fraser—"

"No, I'm sorry. I understand." He backed off straightaway. "I'm just trying to—"

"I know." He was trying to get a picture. I rested my elbows on my knees, and picked at the dirt under my thumbnail. "You've got a lot of catching up to do, huh? How's Maggie?"

"I couldn't say. I left a message with her CO, but I was in a hurry to—" He fell silent.

I dropped my head into my hands. "Fraser." I knew it was coming out muffled, but I couldn't look at him. "Okay. Here's what happened. You disappeared, and then Dief went down. I was alone—I—up in the cabin, no idea what to do with myself. I think I went a bit cuckoo. Kept thinking you were gonna walk through the door with snow on your boots, like nothing had—Every day I—I was—"

I heard him take a deep breath and let it out. His hand settled on the back of my neck, heavy and hot, and it felt safe.

"That was about three months. I got kind of sick. Sam Cook brought me into town to the doctor, and the doc sent me to Yellowknife on a stretcher." I shrugged. No need to relive that: I didn't remember much anyway. "Once I got out of the hospital, there was the Memorial Service, and then I came back to Chicago."

"Of course," said Fraser. "I'm sorry."

"Christ, Fraser! It's not your fault. I knew you wouldn't leave." I swallowed. "That's how I knew you were really dead, because if you were alive, you'd have come back."

His hand tightened on my neck, but he didn't say anything. I guess he didn't have any caribou stories for this.

I blinked to clear my vision, then continued. "Vecchio came to the Memorial Service, of course. He'd just ended it with Stella, didn't know what to do with himself, either. And I guess he—we got each other. We—he was the only one who got what it was like, losing you. No one else knew." Fraser took his hand away, leaving me cold. I kept going anyway. It felt good getting it out there. "We—we, uh, fought for a while, and then we were friends, and then—" I shrugged. "It's good. It's not—I mean, it's not what—"

"Ray." His voice sounded like a crack running through a piece of glass. "I'll go."

"No!" I looked up, caught his gaze, and he was so close to me, and all the years peeled away so it was just the two of us again. "No, Fraser. You can't—I don't—" I lurched forward and kissed him, all teeth and lips, tasting him, tasting blood. I felt the ache of losing him well up inside me like it had never healed, never faded. "Don't say that!" And I buried my fingers in his hair and kissed him again. It wasn't even a good kiss—just desperate.

He grabbed my wrists and pulled me away. "Ray, you've made a commitment."

I shook my head. I wanted him. In that moment, I'd've done anything.

"Ray!" Insisting I come back to here and now, and I didn't want to. The old pain was easier than this, was clean and brutal and uncomplicated. This here now was just a big fucking mess.

 


4. Ray Vecchio

Things were different the next morning. Fraser had a cut on his lip that hadn't been there the night before, and Kowalski was pale and tense, not looking at either of us. I'm such a chump, I'd thought that last night's sex had meant something—that he was choosing me again, reaffirming our partnership. Now it seemed it was all back up in the air. Maybe he'd been saying goodbye.

Well, there was no way I was taking that lying down. I ate my cornflakes and drank my coffee, and reminded myself this wasn't anyone's fault. And Christ, I wished I could be glad to see Fraser. He'd been my friend—my best friend—and I'd been cut to pieces by his death. Now he was back I should be throwing him a party, but instead I was being cut to pieces all over again, because he and Kowalski had history, it was plain as day they still cared about each other. We all knew it. Just no one was saying it.

I rested my elbows on the table and clasped my hands together, and rubbed my ring on the underside of my chin while Fraser tried to make small talk, telling us about the Eskimos who'd taken him in. Sooner or later, even he was going to run out of stories.
 

* * *


Kowalski had to go to work, and Fraser wasn't allowed in the station. "I'll call you if something comes up—we can go investigate together," Kowalski told him, like I wasn't a cop too. Like I didn't count.

He clasped my shoulder as he left but he didn't kiss me.

I was over-analyzing, and I knew it. Once the front door had shut behind Kowalski, I turned to Fraser where he was drinking his tea and studying the headlines. It was like a lifetime ago we'd been partners. When I looked at him now, I couldn't see a scrap of that idealistic young Mountie. All I could see was a rival. "So," I said, laying my cards on the table, "I guess it's you or me."

Fraser dropped the paper and met my eye, and the mask of politeness he'd been wearing fell away. He looked serious and pale, and I knew I couldn't fight him, but I knew I had to. "He's asked me to stay."

"Maybe he did," I said, trying to smile, "but that's not what I'm talking about." If I lost Kowalski—See, if Fraser lost out, he'd still be Fraser, just like he'd always been. Alone in the snow. Alone in the snow. He might not be happy, but it wouldn't be the end for him. He knew how to soldier on. There'd be another wolf, maybe, or his sister to turn to. I'd be the bad guy, but hell, I've done that before.

But if Kowalski left me—Christ, I didn't even know where I'd start. Alone in my Pop's house, outcast from most of my family, picking up work here and there with the Bureau. That was no kind of life. Or I could go groveling to Ma, pretend like it'd all been a mistake, and spend the rest of my life lying about who I was, who I'd turned into. Trying to forget the way Kowalski's eyes lit up when he laughed, the feel of his body shaking against me.

Fraser was watching me through narrowed eyes.

I leaned forward over the table. "I'm asking you as a friend, Benny. Don't fight me on this."

"I have to." He frowned. "Ray has the right to—"

I slammed my palms flat on the table and shouted, "No, you don't! You don't have to! I know your motto, Fraser, and it's not 'get your man'. You don't have to do anything here but maintain the right. Me and Kowalski, we're right. We're good. Please, Benny, don't fuck that up."

Fraser stood up, shaking but stubborn. "Ray, I'm not trying to disrupt your life. But Ray is—important to me. You must know that. And I can't just leave when he wants me here. You're not being fair."

"Yeah, maybe I'm not. But maybe I remember a certain dark-haired bitch, and how you were prepared to throw my reputation and my house down the toilet so you could be with her—" I broke off, gasping. Christ, I couldn't believe I was saying these things.

Fraser's face was shuttered. "I'll endeavor not to inconvenience you again, Ray."

I walked the length of the room to steady myself, then turned to him, holding my arms up in apology. "Aw, come on, Benny, you know I didn't mean it like that. It's just—Christ, he drives me crazy, and I can't—I can't live without him. I don't know what I'd do with myself."

"It's not a question of that," said Fraser. He folded the newspaper so it looked untouched by human hand, and left the room. A second later I heard the door bang shut.

I went to the community center and worked out my frustrations playing pick-up basketball with some of the guys I'd gotten to know. Lost 53, and tried not to take that as an omen.
 

* * *


I got home around seven after a long drive. Fraser and Kowalski were together in the kitchen, cooking and teasing each other. "—tubers and lichen, I bet," Kowalski said as I walked in.

"An old family recipe," Fraser agreed, serious but with a twinkle in his eye.

Kowalski finished chopping an onion, uneven like he always did, and then looked around at me. "Hey, we were wondering where you'd gotten to."

He turned back and started dicing a bell pepper, so I came up behind him and kissed the base of his neck. "I'm here now."

"Hey, watch it! I've got a knife." He stopped chopping for a second and leaned back on me, then straightened up and shrugged me off. "We're making, uh—" His forehead wrinkled and he looked to Fraser, but Fraser just laughed. "—stew," Kowalski finished, vaguely. "Some kind of a stew."

"No lichen," Fraser assured me, meeting my gaze for a split second, and then turning back to the stove.

Fuck. "Smells good," I said, as cheerily as I could. "I'll go wash up."
 

* * *


That night Kowalski fucked me, slow and deep. Afterward, I touched his face and found it salty wet. Maybe just sweat—I didn't know for sure. I held him while his breathing calmed down. "I love you," I told him. "Whatever happens."

He buried his face in the side of my neck and didn't say anything.
 

* * *


I woke up at two-thirty and he wasn't there. I waited ten minutes, thinking maybe he'd gone to the can, but he didn't come back and he didn't come back. I slung my arm over my eyes and tried not to think anything of it, tried not to picture the two of them together. And Kowalski still didn't come back.

I got up and pulled on my robe—the one he'd given me for Christmas—and I happened to glance out the window. Maybe it was fate. I looked down, and Fraser and Kowalski were sitting side by side on the lawn with their backs against the elm tree.

I opened the window a crack, and strained to hear what they were saying. I thought I heard Kowalski say, "We have got to stop meeting like this," but I might have heard wrong, and after that I couldn't make sense of the low murmur of their voices.

What the hell was going on? I opened my mouth to shout down to them, wanting to hurl accusations or at least interrupt them, but I didn't know what to say and I was terrified I'd piss Kowalski off. That was how much he mattered—I'd rather have had him cheating and with me than have lost him altogether. I didn't have any pride when it came to him.

Kowalski finally came back to bed at four. I grunted and wrapped myself around him, too worn out to say anything, too wrung out to ask. I was overwhelmingly relieved he'd come back—I hardly cared what he'd been doing.

Of course, the next morning, all I could think about was what they'd been doing. I couldn't find a way to ask that didn't sound like I was jealous, and we were still pretending we were all adults here, so I kept my trap shut and waited to see how things panned out, while uncertainty gnawed on my guts.

 


5. Ray Kowalski

Fraser only stayed the two nights. On Saturday morning, while I was doing laundry and Vecchio was out buying milk and bread, he tried to help out by fixing a few things around the house—little bits of home maintenance I'd been meaning to get around to but had never found the time. He oiled the rollers on the pantry door and somehow managed to stop the floorboard halfway along the hall from squeaking. He filled a couple of screw holes on the windowsill in the living room, and lathed a bit off the bottom of the back door where it'd been sticking in the heat. He was still doing odd jobs when Vecchio got back.

"Where's Fraser?" He put the milk in the fridge and the bread in the pantry.

I sorted socks into pairs and shrugged, trying to keep it casual. "Upstairs somewhere, fixing stuff."

Vecchio stilled. "What kind of stuff?"

"Does it matter? His hourly rate is pretty good." I winked and dropped the last of the pairs in a heap, and sauntered toward Vecchio, trying to get his attention, to maybe defuse whatever tension had been twisting him tight since he woke up that morning, but his lips thinned. I blinked. I hadn't seen Vecchio pissed for a good long time, and never this strained like he was one step away from going psycho. "Hey, calm down," I told him, moving in to contain the situation, but he pushed past me, roughly, and strode out to the hall.

"I can't take any more of this." He took the stairs two at a time, and I followed. And, of course, Fraser was in the master bathroom, fixing the towel rail. The exact wrong place for him to be.

"What the fuck do you think you're doing?" Vecchio's voice wobbled with rage.

"Ray!" I tried to drag him away so we could talk this over, just the two of us, but he stuck his chin out, shook me off.

"Ray," said Fraser, getting to his feet. He looked tired—maybe because he'd been up half the night talking to me—and shocked. "Is there a problem?"

"Yeah, there's a fucking problem," said Vecchio. "I don't remember inviting you into my bathroom. For that matter, I don't remember inviting you into my fucking house."

Fraser nodded stiffly, anger and regret replacing his shock. "I'll collect my things."

"No!" I got between them. "Fraser, Ray, we have got to talk about this. This is my house, too, remember!"

"Time's up for talking." Vecchio pointed at me. "Now it's time to choose. You're wearing my ring, Kowalski, but you spend half the night talking—and Christ knows what else—with another guy. You have to choose."

I looked at Fraser, who nodded. "He's right. This—well, it's not fair to any of us."

"Fraser!" I said, because Jesus, I'd expected him of all people to side with me on this: we're all grown-ups, we can talk about it rationally, work something out. But even Fraser was saying choose, like I could pick between them. Like it was easy, when in reality it was like choosing between my right arm and my left leg.

"I know it's not easy," said Fraser, and I had to shut my eyes for a minute. I covered my face with my hands and felt my heart pounding fit to burst. The smooth silver band rubbed against my cheek, and then it wasn't complicated anymore.

"Fraser," I said.

I heard a choked sound behind me, but I ignored it. I had to do this right. I went over to Fraser and touched his face, his familiar face that would always mean the world to me. I brushed his cheek with my thumb, and he looked at me steadily, waiting. Faint hope in his eyes.

So I said it. "I'm sorry."

It took a moment to register, and then the hope vanished like it'd never been. He caught my hand and squeezed it so tight I though my bones would break. "I—I understand." His eyes went dark and brilliant, and tears of sympathy stung my eyes. And not just sympathy.

I shook my head. "No, I—" I still love you, I wanted to say. I hadn't said it to him either night we'd stayed up, and now I'd never get the chance. It was too late.

"I know," he said, and let my hand go. "It's all right."

I laughed, a weird broken noise, because it was as far from all right as I could imagine. "You want me to drive you to the airport?"

"Yeah." But he didn't move—just stared at me like he was memorizing my face. After forever, he cleared his throat. "I'll get my things."

I nodded and got out of his way, flexing my hand to get the blood flowing again.

Behind me Vecchio was sitting on the ceramic rim of the john. The seat was up, but he didn't seem to have noticed. He was kind of gray around the gills like he was this close to puking. I squatted down beside him and put my hand on his knee. "Hey, I'm, uh—I'm gonna take Fraser to the airport."

He stared at me like one of us had lost the plot and he didn't know who, so I said it again. This time he blinked and then nodded. His hand covered mine on his knee.

Jeez, talk about falling apart in a crisis. I wondered how in hell he'd survived Vegas, and thanked my patron saint that I didn't have to go undercover with him. But this wasn't about work—it was about love. I knew I'd made the right choice. The only choice. This was my life now where I belonged. This was my city and my guy. I pressed my forehead to his and rubbed his back. "You gonna be okay? You gonna be here when I get back?"

He found his voice. "Yeah."

"Good," I said, and kissed him gently, saying it without words.

 


Epilogue

I lay my head back against the awkward angle of the headrest and shut my eyes for takeoff. I was exhausted. The last two and a half hours waiting with Ray at O'Hare had been as much a strain as a pleasure, and it was a relief when he said goodbye at the gate. "Have a good life," he'd said, intensely, and then hugged me with all his might.

"You too." The words scratched my throat. I hugged him back, held his body close. "Take care of him."

He pulled away, ducking his head. "Yeah, I will," he said gruffly, and he turned without another word and walked away. The other passengers flowed past me as I stood and watched him disappear into the crowd.

I felt cut adrift, a bruise deep in my chest, but I knew given time it would heal. I'd loved Victoria too, and emerged more or less intact despite everything. At least in this, there was no malice; the wound was clean. I looked at my boarding pass, and made my way to my seat on the plane.

I was going home, and even if I never had the good fortune to find another soul as dear to me as Ray, I told myself I could at least forge friendships, just as I'd developed ties with some of the good people in the tribe who took me in. I looked out the window at the dazzling blue sky and thought about where I'd been not much more than a week ago—content to guard the fishing holes, ignorant of my past—and I realized I was free now. I could go anywhere.

There's a legend Innusiq's grandmother once told me of a man who died in a storm at sea. His family mourned him and his wife begged the gods to bring him back, but to no avail. And then, years later, a distant god heard the wife's lament echoing through time, and took pity on her. He brought the man back to life.

Ten years to the day after he'd left, the man entered his village with joy in his heart, only to find that he'd lost his home, his family, everything. His children were grown and didn't recognize him. His wife had married another man. The man tried desperately to gather together the lost pieces of his life, but—to cut a long story short—in the end, his wife blessed him and sent him on his way.

And so the man stole his eldest son's sealskin kayak. He climbed into it and set out toward the horizon, looking for a new place, a new life. He had many adventures.


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