Fandom: due South
Disclaimer: due South belongs to Alliance and I’m not making any profit from writing this
Summary: After his divorce Ray is at a loss for what to do with himself. He decides to prove something to himself – he will learn how to swim. How lucky for him that Canadians are weird(ly) friendly and that Fraser has a deep-rooted need to lend a helping hand. A story of self-discovery, pushing limits, and – most of all – chemistry.
“He was a tiny bit disappointed and wondered for a moment if he was really that lonely that he missed seeing an almost complete stranger at a public swimming pool. God, it wasn’t the divorce that was depressing. It was his life.”
Content info: AU, post-divorce!Ray, canon divergence, first time
Kudos: Go to Ride_Forever for one of the most brilliant beta works ever! I swear, she made this story much more--musical--visual--you take your pick! Thank you :)
Notes: This is an age-old project that was privately dubbed the Swimming Pool AU in my head. This is for Surya – to new beginnings and old ones: to one of the first (if not the first?) artworks you ever did for me and the beginning of a wonderful friendship!
The smell of chlorine was thick in the air and every breath he took felt like inhaling a damp towel. When he closed his eyes he could almost pretend he was standing in the middle of a rain forest and that the air was moist from the thick undergrowth and heavy foliage… not that he had ever been to a rain forest.
Ray opened his eyes and sighed. He’d probably never see one either; he just wasn’t the kind of guy who did stuff like that, become an explorer, go on a quest. Which was exactly why he was here, now, at a public swimming pool in the park area.
Nervously, Ray flexed his naked toes against the sweaty tiles. He’d show her, he could do this. Although… he supposed that Stella didn’t care anymore whether he finally followed through with this. Swallowing hurt. It had been months since the divorce had been finalized, but it didn’t feel all that long to Ray. His partner, Paul, over at the 17th police precinct, a brown-haired man of medium build with the beginning of a pot-belly, had told Ray countless times that he should move on; get it out of his system. Well, Ray said ‘get’— Paul had actually said something more along the lines of ‘fucking it out’.
And maybe he was right…but Ray couldn’t help it; it felt like cheating when he thought of picking up another woman. As if he only had to wait patiently and then Stella would come back to him. Even though she had long since had other boyfriends and dates. That was just typically Ray; the only one unable to let go. So Ray figured he needed to do something for himself and he had always boasted that he could learn how to swim if he chose to do so. Truth was, he was kind of scared shitless about it, but you couldn’t admit something like that…not to someone above the age of 5.
This was already the second time he had come here… he hadn’t made it into the water the last time either. Exhaling a defeated sigh, Ray flopped down on one of the stone benches at the side of the pool. It looked so effortlessly when he watched others. Some of the people he remembered from last time; they probably did laps as a regular exercise, always coming here at the same time on the same days…maybe he could be one of them some day.
A dark-haired man who splashed into the water with only a minimum of disturbance caught Ray’s eye. Ray recognized him from the last visit, too. For a while Ray simply watched the man swim. His movements were measured and smooth and it looked more like floating or gliding than actual work the way he cut through the water. He had probably learned how to swim really early. Although he swam like it was natural for him, he didn’t have the body of a swimmer. He was too broad and the muscles weren’t as lean. He looked more like someone who wrestled bears in his spare time. Ray grinned.
The old lady pulling along in the next lane with steady breaststrokes moved like a turtle in comparison. He made it look so easy.
Ray bit his lip for a second and then carefully approached the water’s edge. He felt self- conscious, standing around the pool with nothing but a pair of swimming shorts on— and his weren’t exactly cutting edge either. But they did their job and Ray wasn’t here for a walk on the catwalk anyway. He was pretty sure that everyone could tell that he didn’t belong here and it made him even more apprehensive. It was like going undercover, acting as if he fit in, and Ray could have done without feeling like a perp. For once, Ray would’ve just liked to be plain ol’ Stanley Raymond Kowalski. Stella had always wanted him to meet and greet people she worked with and he had to dress up for it and was supposed to impress them or something. But that wasn’t Ray’s game; he only ended up feeling like a guest in his own skin….but he had tried…it just hadn’t changed anything in the end.
Lost in thought, Ray stared at his reflection in the water as it wobbled with the movement of the passing swimmers. Ray supposed it was meant to look soothing with the blue tiles lining the pool, making the water look blue, too. He thought it looked ominous…and kind of deep. Ray went back and resumed his spot on the bench.
At some point, the dark-haired man climbed out of the water and Ray’s gaze was hooked. He had pale skin, but that only made the hair look darker in comparison, kind of striking. His swimming trunks clung to his body; they were of the deepest black and he seemed quite at ease in them. Ray smoothed his hand over his own red-and-white swimming shorts, feeling even more foolish than before. Stella had never liked the shorts, but Ray thought he looked stupid in swimming trunks, like one half of a chicken wing.
The man smiled politely at him on his way to the showers when he noticed Ray’s look. Ray’s gaze went back to the pool, but watching the old lady fight her way along the lane like some rusty bulldozer wasn’t half as entertaining. Why was it so hard for him to do this? Trying to prove to himself…and all of sundry…that he could do this wasn’t turning out so well. He was rather bringing himself down with his performance or lack thereof.
When he arrived at work the next morning, some of the tightness inside of him eased. He really didn’t know how he would cope without work. Especially since one of his colleagues had taken on an undercover job at another department and the gossip just kept coming. Ray wouldn’t have minded being offered a clean slate either. They might even have picked him, but Ray had been involved in another operation at the time and they had needed someone a.s.a.p., so the role had fallen to Duck Walters. No one was really all that clear on the specifics, but someone had to go undercover to act the partner of some daredevil Mountie— it sounded like the kind of harebrained idea one would concoct under the influence of some hallucinogenic drug, but apparently the story was legit. The Mountie was apparently a bit of an odd-ball so no one Ray knew was actually friends with the guy.
This morning, the whole bullpen was abuzz because someone had news of Duck’s latest case and it involved a— Ray’s face widened with incredulity— a ghost ship? Yeah, right. Stolen gold, of course. Just keep ’em coming. He was pretty sure that the stories were wildly exaggerated, but that didn’t mean they weren’t entertaining. Apparently, Duck had gotten himself handcuffed to a pipe in the hold of the ship when the whole thing began to sink. That Mountie either had superpowers or he was the world’s luckiest bastard because they both made it out of there alive.
Paul only grinned when he saw Ray’s dubious expression. “Sorry you’re only partnered with boring old me?” “Nah, thanks. I’m too old for ghost stories.” “And you wouldn’t cut such a fine figure onboard a sinking ship, now would you? What with all that evil water around.” Paul smirked. Ray glared at him. “Thanks for the reminder.”
The next time Ray entered the swimming pool area, he promised himself to get at least into the water. Swimming wasn’t exactly a skill you could grasp from watching someone else do it. The old lady wasn’t there this time, but Ray recognized a younger woman and the dark-haired man from last time.
Ray only allowed himself time until the man had finished ten laps and then he would get into the water…did the guy have to swim so fast? He counted to ten quicker than he would have liked and shuffled awkwardly to the edge of the pool. Come on, just the shallow end. Afraid of getting wet, or what? Ray encouraged himself.
Scrunching his eyes closed, Ray reached for the railing and moved his foot onto the first step. The water was cold but not freezing and Ray hesitantly moved another step lower, and another, until he was completely down the steps and the water reached his chest.
The ground was hard and real underneath his feet and Ray could feel the slightly rougher texture of the gaps between the tiles. Carefully, Ray moved a little deeper, until the water sloshed against his collarbone. Close enough to the edge that he could still make a jump to grab a hold of it.
Small waves suddenly broke against his skin and Ray looked up to see that the dark- haired man had reached the end of his lap and was about to start on the next one. Apparently he noticed Ray standing there like some piece of decoration because he smiled briefly before he dipped underneath the water again and pushed with strong feet against the wall of the pool to propel himself forward. Ray watched him glide endlessly below the surface. Didn’t the guy need to breathe? He had almost reached the other side before he resurfaced and Ray felt a small burst of relief when he saw him above the water again. Ray watched him turn on the far side and then he vanished from sight again.
Fascinated, Ray watched the body loom closer shortly before it broke the surface. It looked beautiful and daring and Ray wished he could swim like that… or at all. Really, at all would do just fine. The man’s fingers reached the rim of the pool when his look grazed Ray. Confused, he stopped in mid-turn and planted his feet back on the floor of the pool.
“Good evening,” the man smiled. “I’ve seen you quite often lately.” “Hey, yeah… I… you too,” Ray made a grimace at how lame that sounded.
“Are you enjoying the water today? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in the pool before.”
“So what? You saying I only got a right to be here if I do laps?” Embarrassment always made him defensive.
The man rubbed at his eyebrow. “I’m sorry; I didn’t mean anything by it. I was merely attempting a conversation, but I have been told it’s not one of my better skills.”
Ray deflated a little at that. “No, it’s— I can’t swim,” Ray confessed in a heated outburst, wondering if he was telling the stranger just because he was willing to listen and because lately people weren’t all that big on lending an ear to Ray’s whining.
“Oh.” The stranger said, surprised. “That, ah, is a very good way to start. Getting into the water, I mean.” Ray grinned. “No kidding? I had attempted learning it on my living room floor.” The man opened his mouth as if to explain and Ray hastened to add, “I was joking.” Relief showed in the man’s blue eyes and he nodded with a slightly embarrassed smile. “Understood.”
Ray held his hand out. “I’m Ray Kowalski.” The stranger smiled and shook his hand. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Ray. My name is Benton Fraser.”
They looked at each other for a second and, when the silence continued, Benton— what kind of a name was ‘Benton’ anyway— flicked a glance at the other side of the pool. “Well, I should—” “Sure, you need to finish your laps. It’s been real,” Ray smiled. The other man looked confused. “Real as opposed to unreal?” Ray’s grin was actually hurting his face. “Yeah, really real, Benton-buddy.” “Ah.” He had no idea what Ray was talking about and Ray couldn’t remember having this much fun in ages.
If you didn’t do anything in the water it was really freezing, Ray concluded after watching Benton— Fraser, maybe he could call the guy ‘Fraser’? He just wouldn’t be able to stick with ‘Benton’ and keep a straight face. Maybe he had a nickname to go by? Anyway, after watching Fraser do a couple more laps he waved goodbye before his lips could turn blue and took a steaming-hot shower. At least he had made it into the damn pool, Ray thought with a small glow of satisfaction.
The next days were hectic at the station for which Ray was truly grateful, because it gave him less time to wallow in his misery, even though it meant missing one of his regular nights at the pool. When he returned to the pool the next evening, his gaze scanned the swimming pool, but there was no Benton Fraser to be found. He was a tiny bit disappointed and wondered for a moment if he was really that lonely that he missed seeing an almost complete stranger at a public swimming pool. God, it wasn’t just the divorce that was depressing. It was his life.
Getting into the water cost a lot less effort than the last time. He splashed around a little and eyed the bobbing plastic balls of the lane line. He wanted to hold onto them and move deeper, but the lifeguard had no sense of humor as Ray had found out on his first evening when a kid had tugged on the line. Ray figured his ego probably wouldn’t survive it if the lifeguard reprimanded him for attaching himself to the floating bobbles.
A sudden splash behind him caused Ray to turn around and a moment later Fraser shot to the surface. “Hey, Fraser.” The name slipped out automatically. “Hello, Ray.” Apparently, he wasn’t unused to being addressed by his last name. Ray wondered if maybe he wasn’t the only one bewildered by that first name. “You’re kinda late,” Ray remarked with a nod towards the clock hanging on the wall above the pool. “Yes, I’m afraid my duty lasted longer tonight than the accustomed time.”
Duty? What was he, military? Come to think of it… not so unlikely. “What’s your duty?” Fraser looked the tiniest bit unhappy when he answered. “I first came to Chicago…,” Fraser took a deep breath, but seemed to change his mind halfway through. “Well, it’s not important right now, but for reasons that don’t need exploring at this juncture, I stayed, attached as liaison, with the Canadian Consulate.”
Ray stared at him. He was kidding, right? “You’re Canadian?” If in doubt, always state the obvious.
“Yes,” Fraser said in a tone that sounded as if he was used to apologizing for it.
“And you work for the Consulate?” “For the time being, yes.”
“Okay… so, what’s it like? You have to show tourists around town or what?”
“The job consists mostly of, well, actually my work is mostly administrative.”
“Ugh, paperwork.” Yep, Ray’d been there. Fraser’s eyes crinkled. “May I ask what your profession is?” Ray shrugged. “I’m a cop.” And he was still proud of it, dammit, and he didn’t regret his choice even if it wasn’t good enough for Stella in the end…no, that wasn’t true. That was just his bitterness talking.
Stella had never thought a cop to be beneath her and she had never said that it wasn’t good enough for her anymore. But she was meeting all these important people and wearing expensive suits and spending ages perfecting her makeup and then Ray wasn’t allowed to kiss her anymore because he might ruin her efforts. And Ray just wasn’t the right guy for that. He wasn’t cut out to be the society husband and he also didn’t want to be. Maybe they had both changed… or reality had finally caught up with him. His Gold Coast girl…he couldn’t keep on lying forever.
He had wanted them to… hell, he didn’t know. Maybe he had wanted them to stay 26 forever. He didn’t even know if he had really wanted kids or if that had just been a last ditch effort to bind them together or maybe even just one more issue to cause a problem because Ray wasn’t good at leaving an itch alone. He always had to pick at it and tear at it until it broke.
“I’m sure you are a very fine officer.” From anyone else Ray would’ve thought this was just hot air, small talk, and maybe an effort to be nice. Coming from Fraser, though, he really seemed to mean it. Wow, it had been a while since someone else thought Ray was good at something. And Fraser didn’t even know him.
“Know what? Let’s not talk about work.” Ray’s whole life consisted of work these days. It would be nice to have something else beside that. “As you wish.” Fraser’s smile looked a little relieved. Maybe this guy could do with a little less work and a little more life, too.
“Pity my cop skills are not asked for here and I’m not so good at swimming,” Ray grinned self-deprecatingly.
“Everyone has to start with the first step, Ray.”
“Yeah…hey, I’ll just bob up and down here a little, get a bit better acquainted with the wet element. You go do your laps— I don’t want to keep you from your workout.”
“If you are quite certain,” Fraser replied dubiously.
“Sure, I am.”
Ray watched him swim with a touch of envy. It wasn’t all that long before Fraser paused again and swam up to him. “I’ve been meaning to ask you, when is the swim class you are attending? Because you are here quite frequently, but I can’t remember ever seeing an instructor.”
The flush washed over his chest despite the cold water. “Uh, there isn’t a class…or anything.”
“I see,” Fraser said, but it didn’t sound like he was judging him, just thoughtful. “I certainly don’t mean to impose, but if you want some guidance do not hesitate to ask. I have been told I am a very patient teacher.” A knot inside of Ray unwound. Any kind of help was appreciated. “Yeah, what did you teach?”
“Mostly tracking and survival skills, but I did teach a friend chess and, well, I taught Diefenbaker some rudimentary understanding of Inuktitut. However, I’m afraid his interest wasn’t very lasting.”
Did all Canadians have funny names? “Diefenbaker?” Ray asked.
“My wolf; half-wolf, actually.” Maybe Fraser wasn’t as stable as he had seemed at first. “You’re a freak,” Ray said, because, really, there was no nice way of breaking it to the guy. “Understood,” Fraser said with a small smile.
Ray shook his head. His cop instincts were usually pretty good and he had a good feeling in his gut about Fraser… he didn’t seem like a loony— at least not like a dangerous one. Hell, Ray wasn’t exactly prime material for the human gene pool either. They could be freaks together. After all, Ray wasn’t so far away from coming up with an imaginary friend himself.
“So, could you give me some pointers on how to do this?” Fraser rubbed his eyebrow and looked oddly shy all of a sudden. “In my personal experience swimming is better learned with direct assistance than helpful suggestions. But I don’t want to presume—” “Would you help me?” Ray interrupted him. “Yes, of course.” Ray smiled and Fraser smiled back.
For the first time in ages, Ray would have described his mood as ‘good’ when he came in to work the next morning.
They figured out a schedule and Ray felt a wee bit guilty that Fraser was sacrificing his free evenings for him like that. Judging from Fraser’s smile, though, the man couldn’t think of anything he’d rather be doing. Maybe Fraser was just as lonely as he was?
Ray was a little early for their first lesson, mostly on purpose– if he were honest he would have to admit it was just to watch Fraser swim for a little. The man finished his last lap and didn’t even look out of breath. His gaze went around the pool side until his eyes hit upon Ray. He smiled, and Ray stood up from the bench and joined him in the water.
The texture, the strange balance between something you could touch and something you could never grasp, and the feeling of being enveloped— those were all things Ray liked about being in the water. It was just the thought of not being able to breathe, of going under, that made him constantly touch for the ground with his feet.
“It may be best if you simply got a feeling for what to expect first.” “Uh, sure,” Ray shrugged. He was actually nervous about this, but he didn’t want to admit it to Fraser. “Give me your hands. I’ll swim backwards and pull you along so that you can get used to keeping your feet off the ground.”
For a moment, Ray stared at Fraser’s outstretched hands. Wasn’t that kind of…dunno…weird? Ray glanced around, but no one was paying them the slightest bit of attention and Fraser was looking at him all earnest and expectant. Ray swallowed and placed his hands in Fraser’s.
They started in shallow water and Ray thought it felt kind of nice. The water drifted past him as he glided weightlessly through the pool. With the help of Fraser’s hands it was really easy to keep his head above the water.
Slowly, Fraser pulled him into deeper water. Ray thought he felt the water getting colder which was probably ridiculous. It was most likely fear. Ray swallowed hurriedly. He reached down with his foot, hoping to somehow feel the ground somewhere there— he felt his head dip lower into the water as his body strained towards the ground and Ray gasped, suddenly struggling to keep above the water— but there was nothing beneath, nothing to reach for, nothing to— “Ray, Ray, Ray— I won’t let go. Remain calm. It’s just like before.”
Fraser kicked harder with his legs, moving them faster through the water; Ray’s head was pulled up a little by the increase of speed and he stopped struggling for the ground. His heart was going a mile a minute, but true to his words Fraser’s hands were still holding on to him.
They turned around and it wasn’t long before Ray could actually stand in the water again. With a small smile, Fraser released his hands. “Well done.”
Ray quirked a smile. Trust the Canadian to be polite about Ray’s embarrassing display.
During their next circuit, Fraser started talking. And while Ray thought it was mostly for his own benefit it seemed that Fraser could talk for hours… and apparently he didn’t have many listeners either. Somehow, that just seemed wrong. And his friend didn’t seem the divorced type, Ray could smell those by now; this faint veneer of misery and the scent of dejection that hung around them like a cloak while they tried so awfully hard not to be so desperate that it almost hit you right in the face just how desperate they were… yeah, Ray recognized them from looking into the mirror each morning. No, Fraser didn’t give off any of those signals.
“Hey, Fraser, I really appreciate you spending your free time helping me with this,” he said, maybe meaning more by it, but he didn’t want to put the other man on the spot. “It’s my pleasure,” Fraser said as if he meant it.
“What do you do when you aren’t keeping flatfoot Chicago cops from drowning?” A frown graced his buddy’s face.
“I used to spend a lot of time with a friend of mine,” Fraser said slowly. “But for a while now he…” he licked his lips. “He hasn’t been quite himself lately. It’s just not… it’s not the same.”
Ray winced. He knew the feeling, when something long gone was irretrievably lost. “There must be something else that you like to do, right?”
It was easier not to think about the depthless water beneath him when they were talking. Fraser pulled him effortlessly along and, like that, it felt like floating. Really nice, actually.
“Well, I enjoy a good book now and again. My father kept journals for most of his life and I like to flick through their pages every so often. Sometimes, I even join a few ladies for their book club and we enjoy a nice cup of bark tea and discuss something that we all read. And I play chess in the park with Mr. Hanrahan now and again…” he paused and Ray wondered if that was really all he had been able to come up with. A little chess and a book now and again.
“What about you, Ray?” “Uh…” Suddenly Ray couldn’t think of a single thing to say. Everything he could have said somehow also involved Stella, like dancing, or cooking— hell, what had he been doing for the last couple of months? “I have a turtle,” Ray began, thinking that was hardly a hobby. “I grab a game on TV when the Hawks are on…and I, er, like a good game of chess, too.” They were both pathetic. It felt better than being pathetic on his own, though, like maybe it wasn’t so pathetic after all if someone else lived like that, too.
“We could play a game of chess sometime,” Fraser offered quietly.
“Yeah, we should.”
They were quiet for a while. “Ray, I believe your hands are about to shrivel.” “Huh?” Surprised, Ray looked at his hands that were still in Fraser’s firm grasp. He hadn’t even noticed. “Your lips aren’t even blue yet,” Ray pointed out. Fraser smiled. “I have more subcutaneous fat than you do.” Ray couldn’t figure out if that was an insult or a compliment. “…you saying I’m a skinny guy?”
“Well, Ray, by Arctic standards…” “Okay, okay, I get it. Out.”
Fraser kicked them lazily into the shallow part of the pool again. “I’ll do a few more laps, I think,” Fraser remarked. Ray nodded. “I’ll see you again on Thursday, right?”
“Right you are.”
Since he had met Benton Fraser his life had been a whole lot more livable. And underneath all that freakishness was actually a damn nice guy. Of course, the man said ‘thank you kindly’ and he held open doors for just about anyone who wanted to enter or leave the pool, or the showers, or the lockers – everywhere, really – and he always looked preserved somehow, as if not even a nuclear detonation would get his hair to be disorderly. Ray’s experimental hair resembled a drowned rat when it got wet and Fraser simply gave a dark-haired impression of the guy from the Blue Lagoon. It was unfair.
“Your hair looks fine to me, Ray,” Fraser murmured amused once Ray’s grumbling had subsided. Fraser thought that it might be a good idea to take the fear of drowning from Ray. So they had sat on the bottom of the swimming pool in a part where Ray could still stand until one of them –Ray, obviously –ran out of air. “You,” Ray pointed two fingers at him, “are in no position to talk. People whose hair doesn’t dare misbehave do not get a vote in this.”
“Is that another American-Canadian thing?” Fraser asked with a straight face. Ray reached out to shove him and suddenly they were both shoving at each other and splashing water in all directions and Ray had no idea when he had last laughed this much.
“Gentlemen, this is a public swimming pool. If you could desist from your childish behavior— people would like to swim here,” the lifeguard informed them snippily. “Of course, we are terribly sorry,” Fraser responded with an embarrassed look, but Ray was pleased that the smile returned when Fraser looked at him.
Fraser chuckled and then mimed a cough behind his hand to get it back under control; Ray had seldom felt so good as he did right that very moment, just because he had made Fraser let down his hair a little.
“Ray, I don’t think you ever told me why you didn’t sign up for a swimming course.”
“You have to ask?” Ray stopped in mid-motion of shaking water out of his ear. “C’mon, I’m way over 30— can you think of something more humiliating?”
Fraser frowned. “I don’t see why it should be embarrassing to learn something new.”
“Trust me, the only thing more embarrassing than a guy who can’t swim is a whole group of them staying on the surface with the help of these floating sausages.”
“I think it’s admirable,” Fraser said quietly, as if he was saddened by Ray’s attitude. Gee… now Ray felt bad for making him sound like that.
“Well, thanks and everything, but you’re not exactly representative, buddy.” “Why not?” Fraser sounded honestly troubled by this.
“You kidding? You’re the nicest guy I’ve ever met— how many people would’ve helped me when they barely knew me?”
Fraser was quiet and Ray hoped he hadn’t said something wrong, but then Fraser spoke. “Would you like to meet Diefenbaker?”
“Can I?” Ray asked a little startled. Fraser talked a lot about his imaginary friend, but Ray hadn’t thought he would have to pretend meeting him.
“Certainly, he is quite keen to meet new people. Would you like to… well, I haven’t eaten yet and if you’re hungry you could accompany myself and Diefenbaker to dinner?” Ray smiled like a child finding its favorite dish on its plate. He was so sick and tired of eating alone. “Yeah, that would be great.”
Ray felt a little awkward about showering together. He knew there was nothing wrong with the way he looked, but compared to Fraser he didn’t really feel up to scratch. Besides, he hardly knew him. Showers were a weird borderland between intimacy and anonymity. Everyone was equally naked, joined by the rush of the water and the steam coming off the tiles, and yet it functioned like an elevator: you didn’t talk to each other and you didn’t look.
Fraser was already pulling off his tiny black swimming trunks while Ray was still fiddling with the string of his swimming shorts, trying to decide how to play this. It seemed that they did things differently where Fraser came from because he had no such qualms. He reached out and placed warm hands on Ray’s biceps and pulled him underneath the deliciously hot spray.
“You’re shivering, Ray. It’s important to keep warm or you’ll catch a cold,” Fraser explained unfazed, starting the shower next to Ray and working up a lather between his hands. “Uh, thanks,” Ray mumbled, feeling himself blush at Fraser’s unselfconscious display. He turned to the wall and shoved his shorts down. The hot water beat onto his shoulders and only now did Ray realize how tense he had been during his swimming lesson with Fraser.
A low moan, full of gratitude, escaped his lips before he could stop it. He glanced at Fraser, feeling his face heat with embarrassment, and found Fraser already looking at him. His eyes were full of warmth and his mouth pulled up at one corner. “There’s nothing quite like a hot shower after physical exercise.” “Yeah…” Ray agreed, trying not to stare too much at Fraser’s exposed body.
Ray had always liked men. But there had been Stella for so long that it took him by surprise to find that he still noticed when someone else was attractive. And Fraser was attractive, very attractive— not that Ray made anything more of it. He had found a lot of his friends attractive and it had never meant anything more than that back then either.
It was just…shocking…to realize that he could feel attracted to someone who wasn’t Stella. After their divorce, it had been even worse because all of a sudden she was all he could think of and he remembered their good times and how they had been when they were younger and how his whole world had revolved around her, ever since he was a teenager and the divorce had put that into stark contrast.
He concentrated on finishing his shower.
They went outside and Fraser turned to him. “Don’t be alarmed, Ray. I assure you he is very friendly. It’s only his enthusiasm that makes him a little aggressive in his greeting.”
“Uh-huh,” Ray said, hoping he could keep a straight face when he had to talk to thin air. Fraser put two fingers into his mouth and gave a piercing whistle. There was a rustling in the bushes surrounding the parking area and something white shot out in their direction.
Surprised, Ray took a step back, but the white flash had already zeroed in on him and got ready for a jump. In his haste, Ray stumbled backwards and landed with his ass on the concrete. The wolf took that as an invitation to make intimate with his ear and all efforts of pushing him aside were in vain. “Fraser! What’s he doing? He’s doing disgusting things to my ear! Get him off me!”
“I told you he’s deaf. You have to enunciate very clearly.” “GET OFF ME EXCLAMATION MARK!” Ray shouted and the wolf let off with something that sounded like a laugh. Ray wiped at his ear. Urgh, wolf slobber. “Diefenbaker, this is my new friend, Ray Kowalski. Ray, this is my companion, Diefenbaker. He is half Arctic wolf.”
Ray reached out a hand and ruffled Dief’s fur. Okay, so the wolf was real. Didn’t make Fraser any less of a nutcase what with talking to the wolf in public and claiming he was deaf but could lip-read. And what was that about teaching him some Inuit lingo? Ray didn’t even want to go there.
Still, he did feel good for Fraser that he actually had a real friend. Ray supposed Dief was a more enthusiastic companion than his turtle although that was hardly turtle’s fault seeing that it had such a difficult time keeping up with everyone around it. “Nice to meet you,” Ray told the wolf and was surprised to realize that he meant it.
God, maybe it was a Canadian thing? If this continued he might have a few Duck Walters stories of his own to tell in the near future.
A few days later when they were again in the swimming pool, Ray realized that he had seen Fraser almost every other day. “Hey, Frase, how is that friend of yours— the one that’s not been himself lately?”
“He’s fine. Why do you ask?”
“But he’s still not back to normal?”
Fraser sighed. “No, and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.” He forced a smile on his face. “I’m sure it’s all for the best. He’s a good man and I enjoy working with him…but the way things are now simply cannot replace the friendship we’ve had.” Ray studied Fraser’s lost expression for a second. “I know how it is to lose a friend,” he said quietly.
“I’m very sorry, Ray.”
Ray shrugged. “It was over months ago… years ago, really. I just didn’t want to see it.” “What happened?” Fraser asked.
“I dunno,” Ray said and after all this time he still didn’t. “I was married until last November…I was so sure we were made for each other.” Fraser’s smile was commiserating. “Sometimes it needs more than that.”
Thoughtfully, Ray nodded. “Yeah…yeah…maybe it does. I think we grew up to be two different people and then all we did was fight and make each other miserable. And still I’d never have been able to walk away from it, but Stella? She was always the stronger one of us. Sometimes you lose your whole life when you lose someone.” Fraser looked constricted when he said “Yes, sometimes you do.”
“That’s why I wanted to learn how to swim. I wanted to prove something, maybe find something just for myself, but I can’t let go and I can’t stop thinking and I don’t think I’m making much progress here,” Ray finished, frustrated.
“What do you mean ‘hm’? Is that a good ‘hm’ or a bad ‘hm’?”
“It’s just a sound, Ray. I was merely considering the possibility that you need to trust yourself and your own abilities and that it is the lack therein which is holding you back.”
“Uh-huh. And what do you suppose I should do about that?” Ray asked doubtfully.
“Do you trust me?” “Yes,” Ray said without pause; belatedly, he thought he should have at least considered the possibility of saying ‘no’. Fraser’s smile was blinding when he held out his hands. “What now?” Ray responded.
“We’ll practice buoyancy.”
Suddenly, Fraser’s hands were underneath his back and he was maneuvered into a lying position. “Uh, Fraser— ” “Relax, I’ll keep you afloat for the time being. Close your eyes.” And Ray did.
His ears were suddenly filled with white noise as water lapped against them. It was a strange sense of quiet because it was oddly loud. He spread out his arms, letting the water carry them and concentrated on the soft movement of his body, the way it rose and dipped with every breath that he took.
Fraser’s hands were steady underneath his back, their touch barely there at all, just a slight, warm pressure against his skin whenever his body sank a little. Almost as if Fraser was keeping him afloat with some sort of force field coming off his hands. Ray’s lips curled into a grin. He had read too many science-fiction comics in his youth.
With his eyes closed, there was nothing to distract him and because the pressure of the water kept his ears closed he couldn’t hear anything either. It was just him, and the water, and Fraser’s steady presence. The smell of the pool filled his lungs, moist and chemical. Slowly, he felt one of Fraser’s hands shift; it glided gently from the spot between his shoulder blades to the small of his back where Fraser’s other hand rested. For a second, Ray’s body dipped an inch lower. Automatically, Ray took a deep breath and his body rose again.
Safe; he felt safe. It felt almost like a caress when Fraser’s fingers stroked over his lower back before they left his skin. Ray almost expected to sink like a stone without the power of Fraser’s magic fingers. But he didn’t. His legs sank a little lower, but he kept floating, on his own, right at the surface.
Droplets of water hit his skin and then wet fingers touched his temple. Ray opened his eyes and looked right at Fraser’s proud smile.
“You’re doing it,” Fraser said and his voice sounded distorted and dull to Ray’s half- submerged ears.
Fraser stretched out next to him, easily floating on the surface as if he could suspend his body at will. And maybe for the moment Ray looked just as weightless. They didn’t talk; the only thing Ray heard was the lapping of the waves when swimmers from other lanes moved through the water. Sometimes, their fingers brushed against each other.
The whole next day at work Ray remembered that feeling. As if there had been no one else in the whole wide world except for them. If Ray concentrated on it he could even still hear the sloshing of the water, feel the soft rise and fall of his body.
“Ray, are you with me or what?” Ray’s gaze refocused on the report in front of him. God, he hated paperwork. He had simply zoned out. “Yeah, sorry, Paul. What did you ask?”
“Are you all right? You seem kinda out of it today.”
“I’m just not…I’m just not angry today,” Ray said, surprising himself.
Paul stared at him. “What? You found some kind of support group?” Ray grinned. “Oh, you’d like that, huh? Don’t worry, if I’m looking for a support group I’ll ask you to recommend one.”
Paul guffawed. “Sorry, I don’t think you would fit in at Sexaholics Anonymous.” Smirking, Ray balled a sheet of paper up and threw it at his partner. “Doofus, just imagining to have that much sex doesn’t count. You actually have to fuck people to register.”
“Hey, it’s not my fault all the hot ladies are taken.”
“Yeah, I bet,” Ray snorted.
Ray’s day stayed good until an hour before his shift ended. He was on his way to the restroom when the door of the interview room opened. “Stella!” Ray exclaimed with surprise and a skittering heart. “Not now, Ray,” she sighed, making a beeline for the Lieutenant’s office. “How, uh, how are you?” He cringed and fell into step beside her. “I’m fine, thank you, Ray. Can we not do this every time I come to the station? Some of us have work to do.”
“Maybe after work…we could go for drinks— for old time’s sake?”
“Ray, please.” Ray was left standing stupidly in the middle of the bullpen as the door to Lieutenant Brower’s office shut in his face.
God, this hurt. And he didn’t even know why he did it again and again every time she came to the station. Some part of him really had to be getting off on being humiliated.
Paul smiled at him sympathetically. “She’s probably just having a bad day. I heard the guys on that jewelry case forgot to mirandize their collars or something.” “Probably,” Ray agreed, even though they both knew that Stella was always like that…especially since Ray’s little stunt when she had dated that Alderman and Ray had followed them around everywhere. He winced.
He was due to meet Fraser after work, but he wasn’t sure if he was such good company. He would probably just end up depressing his friend, but he was too needy to cancel their meeting. The distraction was also preferable to sitting at home watching turtle feed on a salad leaf— anything was preferable to sitting at home.
The smile on his face was forced, but he didn’t think that Fraser deserved to be subjected to yet another Ray-Pity-Party. He thought his front wasn’t even half bad considering how it looked inside. Halfway through their meal, Fraser suddenly stood up. He had been telling a story and Ray had tried hard to look interested and nod at the right places, but going by the look on Fraser’s face he hadn’t fooled him. “I’m sorry that I am boring you tonight. I know that the significance of caribou fur in such an area as the McKenzie Pass cannot be of much interest to you and I apologize. Please don’t feel like you have to pretend to take an interest in my affairs. I know that I have the tendency to ramble— ” “Fraser!” Ray said louder than he had intended. At least it made him shut up. “I’m not— gee, will you sit down? You’re not boring me, I just— I just had a bad day, all right? And the thought of spending the evening alone at my apartment depressed me so I met you anyway and I’m sorry that I’ve been such an ass tonight, but it’s got nothing to do with you.”
Fraser looked abashed and he dropped to his seat as quickly as he had stood up. “My apologies for presuming too much. You could have told me, Ray. I would have listened.” Ray watched the hurt move fleetly over his friend’s face. “It’s not ‘cause I didn’t trust you…I just didn’t want to drag you down with me.”
Fraser smiled the tiniest of smiles. “Nonsense, Ray. I’m happy to listen. My grandmother always said that an open ear halves most troubles.” As long as he lived, Ray would never get this man. How could a grown man run around quoting his grandmother and not sound like an idiot? “Tell you what, let’s get out of here and I’ll take you to that coffee place I told you about, my treat. And then I’ll talk your ear off.”
“Lead the way, Ray.”
“Sometimes I just don’t know what I am supposed to do with my life now, you know?” Ray admitted after another gulp of coffee. “There was always Stella…hell, for as long as I can remember, and when I look at a calendar now I can’t even imagine what I’m going to do with my time. How am I supposed to face Christmas without everything that made it special for us or— god, New Year’s Eve— can you imagine anything more depressing?”
Fraser bit his lip. His sad eyes were kind and Ray was glad that Fraser didn’t tell him to be a man about it or fuck it out of his system or all that crap his colleagues had been telling him.
“Take it one day at a time, Ray. You don’t have to make any plans for next month or next year. When it’s time for Christmas you can think about how you want to celebrate it. For now, why don’t you try focusing on the immediate future instead?”
Ray took a gulp of coffee and moved that thought around in his head. That wasn’t a half bad idea, actually. “One day at a time, huh?” Fraser smiled. “Or one hour at a time, if a day seems too long to face.”
A chuckle unexpectedly rose in Ray’s chest. “Heh, that’s —that’s good. Hey, maybe my partner was right when he said I was seeing a support group.”
“A support group?” Fraser asked, surprised.
“Yeah, you know, like Alcoholics Anonymous?” “I see.” There went the knuckle over the eyebrow again, Ray thought with a smile.
“Well, there is much to recommend their 12 step program.”
“Yeah? What’s the first step?” Fraser’s lips twitched. “One day at a time.”
“You’re kidding!” Ray exclaimed incredulous. Fraser shook his head. “Well, actually, ‘one day at a time’ is their slogan or mantra, if you will. The first step is admitting that we can’t control our compulsion.”
“Huh….” Ray thought about that.
The waitress came and refilled their mugs and when she had gone Ray finally said, “Like saying that I am unable to control my behavior around my ex-wife and that I am unable to let go of our relationship?” Fraser nodded with a small smile. “Yes, just like that.” Ray grinned wryly. “Well, guess I did learn something over the last few months. Okay, what’s step two?” “Finding a higher power to place your trust in.”
Ray frowned. “Uh, I’m not really religious or anything…I mean, sure I prayed now and again, but…I don’t think I’d go that far.” Fraser smiled. “Then it’s a good thing we aren’t Alcoholics Anonymous. And taken literally, the second step doesn’t say you have to find God, Ray. You only have to recognize a power which you believe is able to give you strength.”
For a long time, Ray stared into his coffee. “I’ll have to think about it.”
“Certainly, Ray. That’s what the steps are about, to think about yourself and your life, to recognize what is amiss and to acknowledge ways to right those things.”
What counted as a higher power? Ray wondered again during his lunch break a few days later. He didn’t believe God would get him through his divorce— what was He supposed to do? Send him a hot supermodel to rebuild his self-esteem? With Ray’s luck God had a sense of humor and would send him Alzheimer’s as an answer to his prayers of leaving it all behind him.
“Hey, Janey,” Ray asked the civilian aid on her way to the coffee machine. “What counts as a higher power?” She didn’t even miss a beat before she answered. “Love, of course.” Er…that was out. “Thanks,” Ray said, thinking ‘for nothing’.
Maybe he should have asked Fraser. Hmm… it wasn’t exactly a higher power, but Ray did believe that his friend would get him through this. Fraser; couldn’t he use Fraser? Not like the real Fraser or anything. Just the sort of moral compass he personified, sort of like asking himself ‘what would Fraser do’ and then acting accordingly to what Ray believed the correct response was. And Fraser did the whole super-ego thing, the conscience thing, beautifully. It would be worse than going to confession— telling Fraser he had fucked up and watching the disappointment on his face.
Yeah, why not? Unless Ray was surprised by some sort of religious episode that could fill the higher power thing Ray might as well consider Fraser's friendship some kind of authority.
The next time he met Fraser at the pool, Ray was already looking forward to their meeting. Until Fraser told him what he had in mind, that was. "I'll drown like a bag of rats," Ray stated. Was that a smile on Fraser's face? "Nonsense, Ray, I would never allow you to drown."
Ray looked along the length of the pool. "You know, I'm not the literary kind and all that, but I remember we read something by some German guy in high-school and even though I don't remember what it was about, one sentence stuck with me: trust is an especially beautiful way to die."
He didn't know what he had expected. Maybe for Fraser to laugh. Instead, Fraser looked at him intently for a moment, almost on the point of asking or saying something. He did the lip-lick thing he did so often and then he said, "That's very perceptive, Ray." Ray's cop senses told him that that wasn't all Fraser had wanted to say.
Somehow, Fraser's quiet and his solemn gaze did more to convince Ray to try this than any form of pleading could have achieved. It was— somehow he just didn't want to let him down. "Okay, let's do this." Ray shrugged in an imitation of a boxer getting ready for the big fight.
Fraser looked years younger when he smiled, Ray noticed. "Think of yourself as a flower that opens by day and then it closes down at night." His arms demonstrated the movement Ray was supposed to imitate. "All right, okay. What do I do with my feet?"
"Just kick," Fraser seemed to search for the right kind of flower to go along with that. Ray hoped it wasn't something complicated. He had no idea how a flower would move if it had legs. "Remember when you told me that it was all about the correct attitude?" Fraser asked abruptly. "Sure," Ray nodded. "Kick as though you were interviewing a suspect." That Ray could picture.
Ray was pretty sure he would drown somewhere along halfway across the pool—and wouldn't that be depressing? Dying in some piss-pool surrounded by good old reassuring Chicago concrete and his body would be recovered by a bunch of five-year-olds who had mastered swimming before they could even talk.
"You're doing well, Ray," Fraser said next to him as if he had read his thoughts. "Yeah?" He pressed out, trying not to panic when water sloshed over his chin and sprayed over his lips. He felt only marginally more successful than a dog, but he wasn't drowning and he could see the stone-wall at the end of the pool come closer with every stroke.
Ray stopped blooming with his arms in favor of reaching for the edge of the pool only to realize that he had underestimated the distance. He began to flounder and now his rhythm was off and he couldn't get his legs and his arms coordinated— damn, he could see the end of the lane! It was almost in his reach— and the ground was forever too far away beneath his feet and his arms didn't hold him up and—
Fraser’s strong hand gripped his biceps and pulled him closer to the edge. "You're fine. You're safe," Fraser said as calm as you please and not as if Ray had been a heartbeat away from drowning. "Thanks," Ray struggled to get the words out over the rapid beating of his heart. He would climb out of the pool now. He had it with the damn swimming. One experience like that was quite enough for one day. No one could make him swim back.
"If you make it back to the other side you can choose the topping on the pizza—," Fraser remarked casually next to him. He would not fall for it. He would not— "You're on. Your favorite topping is probably blubber and lichen." The lines around Fraser's eyes deepened incrementally. "Better safe than sorry, I'd say," Fraser replied gravely.
"Jerk," Ray hissed out of the corner of his mouth before he kicked off— especially before he had any more time to think about how deep the water underneath him was. It wasn't exactly a laugh, but Ray would've sworn that Fraser was enjoying himself. Somehow that made him feel ridiculously good about himself.
This getting something to eat after the swimming lesson had somehow developed into a ritual of theirs. Ever since Fraser had first offered getting dinner together that's what they did. It was probably the high point of Ray's week, those evenings with Fraser, but he didn't want it to sound so pathetic. It wasn't just because he was lonely— he would've enjoyed Fraser's company anyway. It was just that since Ray didn't have anything better to do, these times were all the more significant for him.
They had just ordered the pizza when Ray had a spur-of-the-moment idea. "Hey, Tony, would you make them to go?" Fraser looked at Ray with surprise.
"Do you need to be somewhere? I'm sorry, I had assumed— " Ray interrupted him, successfully drowning out the wolf’s whine at the possibility of ending up without any pizza when he was already that close to getting some. "No, I got nothing better to do. Do you want to come back to my place?"
Tony raised an eyebrow at him as he held the pizza box out to Ray. Ray could feel the blush stealing up his neck. "Thanks," he muttered.
"So?" he asked again. In for a penny, in for a pound. "I'd like that very much." Something in Ray relaxed.
As he opened the door to his apartment he began feeling twitchy and nervous. "Uhm, I'm not sure if this is such a good idea...I have a turtle..." And? Ray wanted to smack himself upside the head. What? Fraser couldn't come in because he had to feed the turtle? "...and the wolf and the turtle are natural enemies, grrr...." he finished lamely.
"I assure you, Diefenbaker has no interest in the turtle." Fraser reached out and pushed the door open. Ray hung his head and followed. He couldn't exactly put his finger on why it was so important that Fraser liked his apartment or at least didn't hate it. …it just was. And Ray wasn't all that much of a house-keeper.
Fraser peered into the turtle tank and took another look around before he turned back to look at Ray. "This is very nice. It's bigger than I had expected." Ray looked around his apartment and tried to see it through some stranger's eyes. Nope, wasn't happening. His apartment was still cluttered and rather small. "Uh, bigger? Where do you live, a cardboard box?"
Fraser took his leatherjacket off while he answered. "I live at the Canadian Consulate since my apartment building burned down."
"Oh, shit, I'm sorry," Ray said earnestly.
"It's not your fault," Fraser reassured him.
Once their pizza was demolished, Ray was rather reluctant to let the evening end. Sure, it was getting late and they both had to work in the morning, but their next lesson wasn't before Thursday and Ray wanted to feel not so alone for just a while longer.
Fraser finished his story about watching an empty cabin while wrapped up in a caribou carcass –and Ray didn't even really want to know— and seemed equally in no hurry to leave.
"Are you up for a game of chess?" It was the first thing that came to his mind. Fraser nodded and even the wolf came over to get a good look at the game's proceedings.
"He just wants to make sure that neither of us cheats," Fraser explained. "Yeah?" Ray asked. Looking at Dief, he could almost believe it. "Yes, he is very definitive when it comes to justice." Look who's talking, Ray thought but didn't say. If he'd ever met someone who could be a live ad for the Boy Scouts it was Benton Fraser.
They played in silence and when Ray captured one of Fraser's pawns he finally asked, "Remember when you told me about this 12 step thing?" "Of course, Ray," Fraser said, momentarily looking up from his contemplation of the board.
"What's the next one?"
Fraser gave his eyebrow a quick polish. "Well, if we don't take the religious approach we can sum the steps up. The next one would then be— " And without ever interrupting his sentence, Fraser took Ray's knight. Ray tried not to let the monumental lapse in his judgment show on his face. Damn! He hadn't seen that opening— “to examine past errors with the help of an already experienced member."
"Huh," Ray answered, to both the chess problem and Fraser's reply. "So...are you? Someone I could talk to, I mean." Fraser seemed so intent on Ray's move that he wasn't sure if he had heard him at all. After a small eternity Fraser's shoulders seemed to slump. His "Yes," when it came, was so quiet that he almost didn't hear it.
Fraser took a deep breath, as if he needed all the air he could get to even manage the first word. "There was a woman once, Ray. I tracked her up above the 62nd parallel to a place called Fortitude Pass."
Ray listened, the chess game all but forgotten. He moved his pieces but it didn't seem as important as was memorizing every bit of that story. When Ray realized that he had actually won, it was a last, and unnecessary, clue to just how important the story was for Fraser. Even after he had left, Ray kept thinking about it. Would Fraser recognize that poem if he heard it again? He tried to imagine her voice, "the most beautiful voice you ever heard," Fraser had said, but no voice seemed to match.
He tried to picture a tragically beautiful woman. Maybe like Grace Kelly with dark hair— because ever since Fraser had talked about that darkness inside of her Ray had imagined her with dark hair and pale skin. But all he ended up seeing was Stella with dark hair and that wasn't right 'cause Stella was always full of light. ...sometimes more of a harsh glare, truth be told, but there was no darkness surrounding her. Ray had brought enough midnight demons for them to wrestle to last them a lifetime.
Maybe they indeed were a support group, Ray mused, watching the closed door of his apartment through which Fraser had vanished more than an hour ago. The Broken-Hearts-Club or something. Maybe Fraser's grandmother was wrong about the shared troubles. Ray certainly didn't feel better that his buddy carried the same kind of shit around with him that he himself was lugging along.
He would've liked to help...but Fraser didn't seem like the kind of guy who needed much. So Ray couldn't really think of anything to give to him to make him feel better. In the end, he entered the pool on Thursday without being any wiser. How did you tell someone that you understood? Really understood? Sure, Ray hadn't had an ex-lover that had tried to ruin his life, but he got how it felt. Losing everything. Being in love that much. Hurting so bad.
"Hey," Ray smiled at his friend. "Hello, Ray."
They did a few exercises — because Fraser was all over doing exercises — sometimes Ray thought Fraser's whole life revolved around practicing stuff to be perfect when it mattered - and Ray was the last person to say 'no' to some human contact.
Was it exploitation if he enjoyed Fraser's hands magically letting his body float? Or the way his smile looked upside-down? Pathetic, he'd told his turtle, that's how low he had sunk— but what if he wasn't the only one? He saw Fraser's lips move, but the only sound he heard was the lapping of the water. Fraser didn't seem to mind that he couldn't understand a word he was saying... maybe he could ask Dief for some pointers on lip-reading? God, he was turning into just as much of a freak as Fraser.
"I would deem it prudent to attend a little more to your leg-work. What do you say?" Fraser proposed, once Ray was vertical again. Somehow, Fraser's ideas always sounded innocent enough, but Ray had figured out pretty early that he should listen up whenever it happened. Most of them had a trapdoor he hadn’t seen coming. "Yeees," Ray stretched the word, making it two syllables. "How?"
Fraser offered his hands, palm up. "You'll push me to the other side of the pool using only your feet." A small smile crept over the corner of his mouth. Ray looked to the end of the pool and back to Fraser. "Maybe my question wasn't clear enough. How?"
The sharp tooth at the corner peaked out as Fraser's lips tried to resist stretching into a grin. "Take my hands; I'll keep you above water. You just kick."
"Just kick," Ray muttered, grabbing Fraser's hands with something akin to bad grace. The fingers were strong around Ray's. He could see the muscles in Fraser's arms bunch as he supported Ray's weight.
His face, however, portrayed nothing but calm. Fraser looked almost serene, he seemed so supremely undisturbed by Ray's potential inability to get them to the other side...or perhaps he simply believed that Ray wouldn't fail. Now, there was a thought. Kinda novel, too. Someone believing he could actually accomplish something.
No. No, that wasn't true...was it? Stella had always believed in him...it had only been Ray himself who'd doubted it. Puzzled, he concentrated on Fraser's face. Fraser with all of his always-believe-the-best-of-everyone and trust-until-proven-otherwise (and when did that ever not happen— that man was a positive scrapbook of times people had turned out to be disappointing) and this whole stick-out-your-neck-for-the-sorry-causes attitude was kind of making him rethink a lot of things.
Ray's best friend at school had always boasted that you only fought for the lost causes— now, Fraser on the other hand...he didn't even believe there was such a thing as a lost cause. It made Ray feel...huh, when was the last time Ray'd actually tried to put a name to his feelings? Anyway, he made Ray feel protective.
"Good job, Ray." Fraser’s voice pulled him out of his thoughts. Confused, Ray realized that they were actually on the other side of the pool. How...when...gee...somehow he was almost sure that Fraser had distracted him on purpose.
Ray had never believed in this stream-of-conscious shit every good book apparently had to have so why did his mind have to play the same tricks on him? He prided himself on staying focused, on being 100% in the game.
"Are you okay?" A frown appeared on Fraser's face, finally pulling Ray out of his stupor. "Yeah, yeah, I am. I was just...amazed." "That you made it?" Fraser asked, sounding equally surprised. "Yeah...." Ray replied vaguely.
A few laps later, they were standing underneath the shower-spray together— Ray carefully not looking at his friend. "Ray, do you know how to play poker?"
"Do you think you can teach me?" Funny, when Fraser asked stuff like that it always sounded like a real question, as if Ray might actually say no. "Yeah, I don't see why not."
Now, he did see it. "Fraser, you stink."
Offended, Fraser looked up from his cards. "Of what?"
"Of the truth," Ray said around a tooth-pick. It was true, too. How were you supposed to play poker with someone who refused to bluff? Fraser had folded more cards than they had games and once Ray had explained that you didn't fold every time you got nothing it was even worse. A lot of the time it actually turned out that what Fraser deemed 'nothing' was actually 'something'. It was indecent and disgusting how much the cards could love someone.
After two hours of being torn between frustration and exasperation, Ray finally remembered to ask. "Why actually do you want to learn poker?" Fraser gave his eyebrow a short rub.
"I promised a friend to help out and I figured that I wouldn't be of much help if I didn't know how to play." Ray nodded his head in assent.
"It's kind of how I got to play poker the first time. A buddy of mine, Jack Spade, he needed someone to fill an abandoned spot on his poker table so I jumped in. Didn't have a clue of what I was doing…." Ray trailed off with a grin.
"So you won?"
Ray's grin widened. "Naturally."
When they finally called it a night, Ray placed his hand on Fraser's while they were busy shuffling the cards. "You'll do fine." He didn't know why it was important to reassure Fraser. Maybe it was a way of paying him back for the way he had trusted Ray. "Thank you kindly," Fraser said, looking a little relieved.
It was funny, Ray thought a couple of days later, how life was suddenly easier to take. This one day at a time thing Fraser had taught him was making it easier to bear; there was no thinking about how empty the apartment would be on Friday evening with no one but his own weary self to dance to the music coming from the speakers. No nightmares about how much of a failure he would feel like one year from now, getting older and still stuck in the same place.
"What are you grinning about?" Ray asked his partner as he dropped a stack of folders onto his desk. Paul said "Did you know that there's a truth behind the saying that red-heads are fierce in bed?"
Ray rolled his eyes. "Nope, that I didn't know— but I'm sure you'll tell me all about it." Listening to Paul brag about his one-night-stand, Ray wondered if that might not be such a bad solution. Just sex. No hurt feelings. No commitment. No expectations.
"So, you're going to see her again?" he asked before he could be made to listen to more of the sordid details.
"What? No...no, I'm more of a, you know, a lone wolf."
"Uh-huh." Ray wasn't born yesterday. The chick had probably left a phony number— if she hadn't been too drunk to even remember the night in the first place. Paul usually made it sound like it was up to him, but Ray was a good enough cop to read between the lines.
"Did you get anywhere with the witness from the robbery?" Paul not so subtly changed the subject. "Yeah," Ray rustled through the papers in front of him. "The store-owner gave a pretty good description— well, as far as witness descriptions ever go." On days like this, Ray sometimes wondered if Fraser really could be any more bored doing his job than Ray was with his.
"Oh, hey, did you hear the newest piece about this crazy Mountie?" Ray swiveled around to look at Paul. "Shoot, what happened this time?"
Paul cackled. "There was an undercover-op, illegal gambling, and the Feds fucked it up— of course they did—" Ray and his partner shared a smirk. "So, get this, Duck was supposed to cover the roof, keep an eye on things through the skylight, that kind of thing. Anyway, the Feds must've overlooked something because when things got hot a bomb went off— taking part of the roof down. Duck toppled down and in all the commotion their main witness— incredibly hot chick from what I've heard— "
"Paul— " Ray tried to keep him on topic.
"Sorry, well, she took off. Out a window!"
"And then what?"
"The Mountie followed her out the window onto the ledge! Can you fucking believe it? Like some kind of balancing artist you’d see in a circus act...and he actually brought her in." Ray whistled softly through his teeth. That guy had to have a few screws rattling around loose in his brain. He couldn't imagine how anyone could work with someone that weird. Then again, apparently almost everyone else thought so, too.
It was a fine afternoon, so Ray decided to actually walk to that sandwich shop a couple of blocks up the street for lunch.
On his way back, Ray sat down on one of the benches in the nearby park. He took a bite and looked around; people walking past, joggers panting along, a few children hooting with laughter somewhere beyond the hill. And then he saw her.
The cafe on the other side of the street. Stella. He could barely make anything out because the hedge was limiting his view, but he would recognize her anyway. Straining his neck, Ray tried to make out with whom she was sitting. She was smiling at something somebody must have said and Ray saw the sunlight glint in her hair.
It was a woman that was sitting with her, maybe a colleague or a client, just as smartly dressed as she was and Ray felt almost relieved.
A bout of shame traveled down his spine as he remembered the way he had followed her around on her dates, almost crazy with jealousy. Heh, almost? Zombies-ate-his-brain-crazy, more like. Wasn't he beyond doing shit like that now?
Ray watched them for a while longer, not really sure what to think or feel. There was still hurt... and he was still very much ashamed of his prior behavior... but there was also something else, something almost wistful. Melancholy? Or maybe it was simple nostalgia. A longing to have his future back, the one he had always envisioned he would have with Stella.
Contemplating his sandwich, he pulled his cell phone from his jacket pocket. It didn't take more than three rings before somebody picked up. "Canadian Consulate, Constable Benton Fraser speaking. How may I be of assistance?"
"Ray," Fraser sounded surprised. Ray hoped Fraser hadn't only given him the phone number of the Consulate out of politeness, like people sometimes did, without really expecting you to call. It was the same with fixing vague dates with people you only ran into every so often. Someone would say 'hey, let's have coffee sometime' and the other would agree and say 'that's a great idea, let's' and in the end no one would call the other and both sides were secretly glad that neither did.
"Is everything alright?" Fraser asked concerned.
"Yeah, no worries. I was just wondering...would you like to come over tonight? We could get Chinese, grab a movie." Feeling all of 6 years old again and hoping the other kids on the playground would let him play with them.
"Should I bring Dief?" Ray smiled and shrugged before he could help the pointless gesture. "Sure, I think turtle likes him."
"Well, in that case I'll ask him if he wants to join us," Fraser said, and there was something in his voice that made Ray wonder. Was Fraser humoring him? He sounded...as if he was having fun.
Of course Dief wanted to tag along. Ray grinned as the two followed him into his apartment.
Between them, the Chinese food vanished quicker than the GTO could get from 0 to 100.
Ray swallowed the last mouthful before the need to get it out there in the open became too much. "I saw Stella today."
"Oh." Fraser placed his carton of fried noodles back on the coffee table to give Ray his whole attention. "Did you...have words?" Fraser asked carefully.
"Nah," Ray waved him off. "She didn't even know I was there. I wasn't…." he sighed deeply and hunched his shoulders, almost as if that made him less receptive to hurt, made him a smaller target. "I used to follow her around all the time, you know? Like some nut-job stalker. I watched her whenever she went out on a date." He flicked a hesitating glance at Fraser, afraid of his reaction.
Fraser looked intent, with a small frown on his face. "...were you trying to protect her?" A short bark of laughter escaped Ray. Here Fraser went again, always assuming the best of people. "No...yes…I mean, I did want to protect her, but mostly...I just didn't want any of those scumbags touching her..."
"...but it doesn't make it okay," Ray sighed again.
"No, it doesn't. But you recognized that yourself." Fraser's hand clasped his shoulder for a short moment.
"It's just— " Ray rose from the couch and started pacing. Dief tracked his progress from the floor, wagging his tail in time to Ray's strides. "How do I stop? I can't really trust myself around her— I'm always making things worse— and I can't help thinking...thinking that..." "What?"
Ray looked at Fraser then. "That things might have been different."
"Ray—" Fraser licked his lips, about to say more, but Ray had a feeling he wouldn't like what he had to say so he just talked over him. "No, I get it— I can't go back in time, can't change how things turned out... but I don't get why— why can't things be different? Why can't I make it work if I want to so badly?"
"Ray, I can't tell you that...sometimes, you just need to let go."
"How, HUH?" Ray flared up and he did realize, in some remote part of his brain, that he was talking way too loud. "HOW DO I STOP?" he shouted, staring wild-eyed at Fraser, who really wasn't to blame for any of this and who deserved better than to be shouted at, but there you go.
"Stop imagining how happy you might have been?" Fraser asked, to clarify what Ray meant, still perfectly calm.
"Hurting," Ray croaked. God, the pressure on his chest was way too tight and his eyes felt as if he had rubbed glass shards all over them. Fraser's eyes went soft. He looked just as sad as Ray felt.
"They do say time heals all wounds," he said quietly, but he didn't hold Ray's gaze and Ray didn't think Fraser really believed that himself. Bone-tired, Ray dropped back onto the couch next to the other man.
"What if it doesn't?"
"It has to."
Surprised by the defeat in his friend's voice, Ray looked over at him. For the first time, he really understood that Fraser was hurting just as much as he was. Maybe it wasn't just the murderous ex-girlfriend, maybe it was also Fraser missing his best friend, who had changed into someone Fraser didn't recognize anymore, and being thousands of miles away from home. It had to get better because you couldn't live like this.
"Yeah," Ray heard himself agreeing. "You're right. It has to." He tried a smile and Fraser looked up from where he had contemplated his clasped hands and nodded.
It was the last thing either of them said for the night. Ray got up and came back with two beers and sat down again, a little closer than he had before. A little closer than strictly necessary. So that their shoulders brushed every so often. They clinked bottles even though Fraser didn't drink from his and they both pretended to watch whatever it was that was flickering over the TV screen.
Looking at the screen was just a pretense. Perhaps even an unnecessary one, but it allowed them to take comfort from each other's proximity without the need to talk. He must've dozed off, for the next thing he remembered was blinking into a dark room with something soft underneath his cheek— Fraser's flannel shirt. The warm smell of skin and fabric softener and something woodsy, an aftershave perhaps or just something uniquely Fraser.
Sleepily, Ray raised his head and squinted at the digital clock underneath the TV, but he couldn't make it out. He felt Fraser stir underneath him. "Mh-wh," Fraser mumbled, apparently just coming awake himself. He turned his head and found himself mere inches from Fraser's face. Soft lips and unfocused blue eyes greeted him and for the first time, Ray wondered what kissing him might be like.
He could see it perfectly clear in front of him. The quiet hum of the TV in the background, just a bit of blue-ish light on Fraser's face, and he'd angle his head and their lips would touch...he could imagine the gentle give of his lips. The soft sound he made as their mouths came together... Fraser's head came infinitesimally closer. And then he woke up fully.
"Ray?" Blue eyes focused on his face before they flicked away to look around. "Oh."
"Yeah," Ray replied dryly though his heart was beating too fast in his chest. The moment so vividly burned into his mind that he didn't know what was more unreal: the fact that it hadn't actually happened...or the fact that he had thought of it at all.
"I should go," Fraser murmured and made a move to stand up at the same time that Ray's arm shot out to pull him down again. A breath escaped him as he dropped to the couch again. "You should stay."
"Hm." Fraser didn't seem particularly concerned either way. Or maybe his brain wasn't all that awake yet. Ray almost grinned.
"It's 0-dark-whatever. Just get comfortable, I'll get you a blanket." He yawned.
"I wouldn't want to inconvenience you." Ray thought that the only inconvenient thing was that he was getting big-ass words thrown at him in the middle of the night. "Friends, Fraser. Buddies."
"Ah. Thank you." Fraser gave him a small smile that somehow got mixed up with the thought of kissing him and Ray threw him a spare blanket before he dragged one of the pillows from his bedroom over to the couch.
"Dief?" Ray asked, stifling another yawn.
"Will be fine," Fraser assured him.
"Good. Sweet dreams," Ray mumbled, watching Fraser get settled. As he shuffled over to his own sleeping quarters, Fraser's "Good-night, Ray" followed him.
When the alarm rudely ripped into Ray's – admittedly – rather confusing dream, he felt momentarily lost. After a moment of inner debate whether having to get up this early constituted a good enough reason for suicide, he dragged his ass out of bed and stumbled into the living room.
He peered at the couch, but it was empty. Fraser's presence, however, was unmistakable. Ray smiled. The blanket was neatly folded, with the pillow placed on top, and a note lying on it that said 'Thank you kindly'. Freak, Ray thought, in a better mood than he had been in a long time, and went to make coffee.
The thudding of his feet on the moist tiles of the pool echoed from the walls as Ray reached the swimming area. It was so stupid...and he didn't know why Fraser sleeping on his couch should've changed anything, but...he was nervous about seeing him again. It was probably just insecurity after having let down his guard. A male thing of keeping face or whatever...yet it wasn't entirely unpleasant and that made Ray even more nervous. If that made sense.
He squinted at the clock and realized that he was early. Approaching the water's edge, he scanned the swimming lanes and struck gold at the second one. He dipped his feet into the water and sat down, watching Fraser glide along with smooth, powerful strokes.
Fraser noticed his audience on his second return since Ray had sat down. His face resurfaced to get some air and even though the moment was only the length of the batting of an eye, he noticed Ray sitting there. A short smile flashed over his features before his face was submerged again. Once he reached the end of the lane, he climbed out of the pool and came to sit beside Ray.
"Hello, Ray. Have you been waiting long?" "Nah," Ray answered without even looking at the clock. Fraser was dripping and Ray was already shivering just from having his feet in the water, but the other man was still radiating warmth. That subterraneous fat had to be a pretty good shield from the cold. With a glance, he gave Fraser a once-over. No idea where exactly all that fat was supposed to be, though.
"Ready for the next lesson?" "Ready when you are."
They were just swimming lanes— and Ray couldn't help but feel a bit awed that he could actually say that about himself "just swimming a couple of lanes". With Fraser right next to him in case Ray developed a spontaneous case of drowning he felt almost safe.
When they took a break, Ray finally found the guts to ask. "So, I'm guessing there's loads more to tell you, but the way I see it you can only dump so many shortcomings on someone else at a time—" Fraser looked about to interrupt so Ray raised his hands, palm up to forestall him. "I know, you would listen until your ears bled. Believe me, I know...but...it's also hard to talk about some of this stuff, you know?"
"Of course, Ray. I understand."
"So, I was thinking, what's the next step? Anything I can work on while I get ready to tell you the next thing?"
"The next step is about making amends for your past errors."
"Exactly." Fraser almost smiled at Ray's plight. How was he supposed to make it up to Stella? She wouldn't even talk to him for more than ten seconds.
Later, when Ray was back at home on his couch, he pondered his newest problem. This 12 steps thing was more work than Fraser had made it sound like in the beginning. Surprise, surprise. Ray almost smiled; Fraser had a gift for understatement.
The important thing was that this wasn't supposed to be about Ray. It wasn't about what would make Ray feel better or how he wanted to atone for past transgression; it was about Stella and how Ray could make it up to her.
Continued here: http://tatau.dreamwidth.org/971.html