Christmas with the Vecchios was a luxury Benton Fraser hadn't chosen to indulge for five years. For the first two years, he and Ray Kowalski had spent the holidays gnawing on pemmican and caribou jerky, bundled into a tiny tent staked somewhere between Baffin Island and the Beaufort Sea. After that, he'd occupied himself during the festive season with extra duty and voluntary overtime. Short-handed as the post at Resolute became in the long months of winter, no one thought to question good fortune from any source. Fraser's placid acceptance of hardships, both natural and man-made, discouraged close inquiry.
But this particular Christmas, Ray Vecchio had made a special and particular request for Fraser's presence at the annual Vecchio bacchanalia. Ray would be there, tanned and cheerful, and though his heart and gut physically ached at the thought of seeing Ray again, Fraser obediently agreed to spend the week before the New Year in Chicago, amongst the bustling activity on Octavia.
Before he'd requested this post, as far north as he could get, Fraser had visited Ray in sunny Florida. There, he'd opened his heart to his friend, and expressed a love he'd thought certain Ray would eagerly return.
Ray did not.
Ray refused to even contemplate his suit, preferring to think Fraser's epiphany some kind of middle-aged madness. Despite several entreaties, Ray remained adamant. Unable to refute what were quite logical, if mistaken, extrapolations of his mental state, Fraser retreated into work and the continuous struggle for survival that typified life in and around the Arctic Circle.
Outwardly, little changed. He corresponded regularly and voluminously with both Rays, never mentioning the immutability of his feelings to either man. In return, a few times a year he received long, spirited phone calls from Ray Kowalski and shorter, relentlessly buoyant calls from Ray Vecchio. It was during one of these "sun to snow" calls that Ray invited him to Chicago, and he accepted.
Backpack slung over one shoulder, Fraser paid the cabby and turned up the walk. He hadn't reached the stoop before the porch light clicked on, adding only slightly to the riot of twinkling, chasing, blinking strings that were draped, wrapped, tied, or woven across every square inch of the brick exterior and in the bedraggled trees. There was, he noted, even a relentlessly flashing outline on the clothesline in the backyard. Moments later, he was somewhat surprised to see Ray Kowalski charge through the doorway and down the steps.
"Fraser." Ray wrapped both arms around his sledding partner and playfully tried to lift him, backpack and all. A feat more likely to have succeeded if his feet had been firmly planted on something other than slick ice. Wobbling for balance, they clung together for a few seconds before regaining equilibrium. "How're things in Freezerland?"
"Quieter, now that you're back in Chicago. How are things here?"
"Oh, same old, same old. Been keeping busy, you know how it is." A shadow in the doorway drew Ray's attention. "C'mon in. Things are a little up in the air in there, but what's Christmas without a little family strife?"
"If there's trouble, perhaps I should find a hotel?"
"If there's that much trouble, buddy, you can bunk on our sofa." Ray waved to the shadow. "You remember Stella?"
Fraser remembered a determined, professional Assistant States' Attorney, not the ethereal Madonna that stood before him. His surprise must have been evident, because Ray laughed. "Yeah, it's amazing what a perm and a pregnancy will do, huh?"
Stella smiled and motioned them both inside. "Brrrrr. Ray, it's too cold to be running out without your coat."
"Yes, mom." He kissed her quickly and ducked her half-hearted push. Their play gave Fraser a chance to notice that the noise and motion typifying the Vecchio version of a sedate family get-together was considerably subdued.
The Kowalskis moved into the living room, and sat together on the loveseat, holding hands. As Fraser put his overcoat away, footsteps from the kitchen heralded Francesca. She'd been crying. He stood at the foot of the stairs and touched Francesca's reddened, swollen cheek.
"What's the matter?"
She barely glanced up. "Oh, hi, Fraser. My big brother's the matter. He's totally ruined Christmas."
"I'm sorry to hear that. Is there anything I can do?"
"I don't know. Maybe you can talk some sense into him."
A deeper voice spoke from the top of the stairs. "Fraser already knows, Frannie."
"Hey, Benny. Glad you could make it." Ray walked down the stairs and embraced Fraser lightly. Fraser resisted the urge to clutch, but he allowed himself just one deep breath of Ray's Armani scent. Ray dropped his voice to a near-whisper. "I told 'em, Benny. I came out. After all these years, Jesus-God, it feels good. No more secrets."
For a moment, just a heartbeat long, Fraser imagined his future with Ray. Would they live in Florida, or Chicago? He couldn't see Ray happy in the Territories. Now that he'd told his family, and had no fears of a scrupulously honest Fraser accidentally revealing their relationship to them, surely he'd also see that they were meant for each other. He smiled into Ray's expressive eyes, still wrapped loosely in Ray's bronzed arms, and enjoyed the first purely happy instant he'd felt since he was a child.
A long, thin-fingered hand dropped possessively onto Ray's shoulder. "Hey, babe, who's your friend?" The voice was unexpectedly deep, incongruous against the wraithlike build of its speaker.
Ray smiled wider and batted his eyelashes flirtatiously over his shoulder at the newcomer. "This is my best friend from Canada, Ben Fraser. Benny, this is my boyfriend, Marcus Devereaux. I wouldn't have been able to face the family this afternoon without him."
Fraser's smile felt wooden, but Ray's delight swept everything ahead of it. Like a tidal wave. Or a forest fire. Or any other major natural disaster. He managed to offer a hand to Devereaux, and when he spoke, his voice sounded almost normal. "I'm pleased to meet you, Mr. Devereaux."
Devereaux laughed, a sound that might have seemed brittle in a higher register. "Marcus, please. Ray talks about you so often, I feel as though we're already good friends." He gave Fraser's hand an impish squeeze, and held the contact just a beat too long.
sternly reminded himself to give Marcus a chance, and not let his personal
disappointments affect his judgement of the other man. If Ray had
spoken of him frequently and warmly, it's quite understandable that Marcus
might assume a closer regard than would be proper between new acquaintances.
He could claim no such foreknowledge; Ray had touched on many subjects
during their infrequent telephonic communications, but had not mentioned
having a lover. Admonished into fair-mindedness, his imperturbable
façade suffered another crack when Marcus casually leaned toward
Ray and captured his mouth in a lingering kiss. Fraser nearly tripped
in his haste to give the lovers some privacy, and the snicker he heard
behind him wasn't reassuring.
The whole Christmas experience that year was a rollercoaster of emotional turmoil. Ma Vecchio maintained her composure better than Francesca had, but Ray's news had made the normally loquacious matriarch sullen and her snappish bad humor affected everything from the food to the ceremonial unwrapping of the presents. Francesca recovered quickly, in fact, almost immediately as she realized that Ray's announcement made very little impact on her own circumstances. Maria and Tony fought about what they should tell the children. Despite holding these "family consultations" behind closed doors, maintaining the appearance of discretion, thin walls and loud voices left little of their discussion private.
Fraser felt cast adrift. He'd come to Chicago to spend time with Ray, but Ray spent almost all his time with Marcus and Fraser got the impression he was intruding. He accepted Ray Kowalski's invitation to spend a day at their home, admiring the nursery and struggling gamely to "hang out" without being a nuisance. Once again, he felt as though he was impinging on a happy couple's rare moments alone. He spent a limited amount of time with Francesca, fleeing whenever her camaraderie turned personal or predatory. After three days, he found himself helping Maria scrub floors and do laundry. At least that way he felt useful.
He spent the last night of his semi-decade holiday on the sofa at the Kowalskis, wondering how he'd ever endured four years in the city. Wondering what Ray saw in an inconstant midge like Marcus. Wrestling with knowledge that he'd rather forget, or ignore.
Returned at last to Resolute, he welcomed the clean, cold bite of snow with relief, and buried himself in routine. The rhythms of patrol and post soothed him, comforted him, cradled his battered sense of propriety. Rules and regulations provided a structure from which he could hang his time. Eventually, he was able to return friendly interrogations with equally innocuous pleasantries, and even cultivated a few closer acquaintances among the other officers.
The lengthy summer days were waning again toward winter dark when his visitor arrived. He was just leaving the house to report for work. He had, in fact, called to Dief and opened the door still half-turned from speaking to the half-wolf behind him, and walked smack into the man standing unforeseen on his front porch, hand raised to knock.
Without thinking, he caught the absurdly outsized and multicolored figure by its upraised scarlet and saffron arm, and restored the balance his carelessness had disturbed. Set upright once more, the vaguely man-sized shape obscured by more winterwear than a sensible person could wear in a year shook itself to settle its Gore-Tex feathers, and said, almost affably, "Nice running into you like this, Benny."
"Ray?" It must have been mere seconds, but Fraser got the impression that he'd been standing, mouth agape, on his own doorstep for at least an eternity. His surprise was so complete that it pushed everything else out of his mind, even normally unconscious actions like blinking. And breathing.
Lack of oxygen eventually jump-started his autonomous nervous system, and he gasped and spoke the first incoherent babble that skittered across his synapses. "You hate the cold!"
"Does that mean I can come in?" Ray's amusement didn't entirely cover his uncertainty as well as his clothing covered his expression.
"Certainly, certainly." Fraser stepped aside to let Ray pass, an unfortunately critical error in judgement completely attributable to his confused mental state. When Fraser left the doorway, he gave a certain deaf, donut-stealing, furry dwarf in wolf's clothing the opportunity to launch an enthusiastic tongue-assault on his favorite source of junk food and transportation.
Said provider of empty calories and transport was flung entirely off the porch under the attack. He landed, wolf side up, in a three-foot snowdrift, laughing hysterically and bestowing dire, anatomically improbable threats once he got over the initial shock.
Apologies streamed from Fraser's mouth in a torrent of words and regrets. With help, Ray lurched awkwardly to his feet, brushed snow and hair from his designer snowsuit and parka, and tried to make a joke of it. He said, "Hey, now I know somebody's happy to see me."
Fraser was instantly reminded of his manners. "Both Diefenbaker and I are pleased to see you, Ray. Come inside. Please. Come inside where it's warm." He ushered Ray through the still-opened doorway, and closed it firmly behind him, leaving Dief to sigh and wind forlornly around the Welcome mat.
Ray started to disrobe, fountaining off three pairs of gloves, an equal number of scarves, two hats and a balaclava from his extremities before he accepted the chair his host offered. As his features emerged from the multitude of protective layers, he looked around and commented, "Warmer, Benny, but not warm. Warm is ninety degrees on a white sand beach, tropical drink in one hand, gentle sea breeze wafting in off the waves. This is just 'not frozen'."
"I'll stoke the fire while you take off your clothes. Uh, clothing. Coat. I meant coat."
"All six of 'em. Geez, how can anyone stand to get naked up here?"
Ray was joking, but Fraser reply was serious. "I wouldn't know, Ray."
Ray sobered immediately. "I'm sorry about that."
"It's not your fault." A polite untruth, one Fraser realized was clearly recognized by them both. Off-balance, he found refuge in conventional pleasantries. "How are you? How's Marcus?"
"I'm cold," Ray stated, then relented just a little. "Cold, but okay. Marcus is history."
"I'm not. Tell me something, Benny. Why did you move over to Kowalski's house the last night you were in Chicago? Was it because Marc made a pass at you?"
Fraser chose his words carefully. "I thought he was inappropriately forward, yes. But not so much so that it couldn't be rationalized as the completely innocent behavior of an outgoing and affectionate person."
"And that's why you didn't say anything?"
"Yes. He hadn't actually done anything; I just felt uncomfortable with his proximity."
"I thought so. Bastard was running around on me from the start." Ray barked a raw laugh and concentrated for a few seconds on wrestling his feet out of his boots. Wordlessly, Fraser retrieved a pair of wool socks from the dresser and the slippers he wore in the evenings and handed them to Ray.
"I started doing volunteer work down in Florida. A guy I knew thought I'd be good with trauma cases," Ray resumed. "He said police experience was good preparation. Man, domestic disputes are the worst, and he was asking me to work nothing but, and without a gun. But I'm a sucker for a sad story, and I said okay. Turns out, I'm pretty good at it. I took some classes, went through the mandatory counseling crap, got certified. About the only thing I learned was that everybody makes excuses for their significant other's bad behavior, but I knew that already from Ma always making excuses for Pop." Under all the layers, Ray wore jeans, a black turtleneck, and a mint green sports coat. Fraser thought the jacket was an elegant touch.
"Anyway, I thought I was so smart. At least Marcus wasn't a drunk. He didn't smack me around, like the sorry-assed losers I saw every day. I thought I was lucky. All he did was open his pants for half the antebellum South. And I thought, hey, at least he isn't like those other guys. So what if he's fucked most of our friends? So what if he's come on to everybody else? I can put up with that." Ray smiled grimly. "Notice the phrase 'at least'. Notice that I 'put up' with the way he acted. After awhile, the counseling stuff made a connection in my brain, and I realized that I was going to spend the rest of my life with a man who treated me badly, just because he wasn't AS bad as some other guys. That's stupid, and I'm not a stupid guy. The next day I put him out on his ass. I don't have to take that crap."
"I'm sorry things didn't work out between you."
"Yeah, well, I picked the wrong guy. It happens. But after all that, I needed a change of scenery. And here I am."
"I hope you planned to stay for awhile?" Fraser waited for Ray's confirming nod, then continued, "Good. Make yourself at home. I have to go to work."
Ray shrugged. "I can amuse myself for a couple hours."
"I'm on patrol. I'll be gone for four days."
"A lot of hours, then."
Fraser pointed out the necessities and amenities his small cabin possessed, and encouraged Ray to avail himself of anything he wanted. Ray trailed behind, nodding when appropriate. The 'grand tour' took less than five minutes, and then they were back in front of the door, awkwardly silent.
"Do you remember what you said in Florida? Of course you do, you wouldn't forget. Stupid question. What I meant was, do you still feel the way you said you felt in Florida? Would you still be interested in maybe making a life with me?"
Ray raised his hands, a warding gesture. "I know, at the time, I made it sound like I wouldn't do it because it was taking advantage. Really noble, huh? Truth is, I was scared. I didn't want to be hurt. Which is a real laugh, now that you've seen how I screwed things up with an asshole like Marcus. I wasn't sure our friendship would survive our sleeping together. I mean, what if you hated it, and changed your mind? What if you hated me for saying yes?"
"I couldn't hate you, Ray. No matter what happens between us, I'll always be your friend."
"Yeah, well, I wasn't thinking too clearly at the time. I mean, you're everything I'd ever hoped for, Benny. Honest and handsome and my best friend. I'm just not used to people offering me what I want most, I guess."
Fraser gathered Ray close, and spoke intently into his left ear. "Get used to it, Ray. I plan to offer you everything I can, as often as possible. I've loved you for nearly ten years, and I'm sorry it's taken us so long to recognize our feelings for each other."
Ray rested his forehead on Fraser's shoulder. His arms circled Fraser's waist. The stood that way for a minute or two, resting, each sheltered by the other. Fraser stirred when Dief scratched impatiently at the door. "I could call in sick ... "
"Don't you dare. I know all about Mounties and their duty, and I don't want that kind of guilt hanging over my head. We've waited this long, what's another couple days?" Ray shook his head, amazed. "I can't believe I just said that. I can't believe I meant it. My brain must be frozen. You'd better go, before I come to my senses, nail the door shut, and have my wicked way with you."
Fraser smiled at the nonsense, but the last uncertain place inside him was reassured. Ray wanted him for himself, wanted the dedicated RCMP officer part as much as any other. Whatever else he expected, Ray would accept all the quirks and eccentricities that made Fraser unique.
They kissed, promise and passion in a wordless vow. Ray laughed, and shook, and shoved Fraser out the door, complaining good-naturedly about Mounties and duty.
Fraser was almost fifteen feet from the door before
he broke and ran back for another kiss. Dief snorted in digust,
and ostentatiously went looking for mouse tunnels in the snow.
They were going to be late for work.