Something was wrong with Kowalski. Fraser wasn't sure what the problem was, but Stan had been eyeing him strangely for the past week or so, as they worked their way across the immense valley. They'd been forced to leave their dogs behind several days before, when two of the lead dogs had come down with an infectious disease that he'd feared might spread to the rest of the team. So he'd left the sick ones with a vet in Yaktut and sold the rest. They could pick up a fresh team in a few more days. Once they traversed this valley, there were several small towns at the edge of the mountains where sled dogs would be plentiful. In the meantime, they'd continued on snowshoes.
Fraser wished that the problem with Kowalski could be solved that easily. Up till now, he'd been relishing their adventurous quest to find the Hand of Franklin, but the way Stan had been looking at him was beginning to get on his nerves. Well -- maybe looking wasn't the best word for it, he reflected; it was really more like staring. Flat out, intense staring, which he always stopped when Fraser turned to meet his gaze. He'd ignored it at first, but it had gone on for so long now that it was beginning to seem like it might become permanent. And that was unsettling.
It was, in fact, downright irritating. And getting more so by the minute.
He could feel those hazel eyes boring holes in his back even now. So he whirled suddenly, straight into the path of their gaze, before Kowalski could move. "What?" he asked.
The intensity of his friend's gaze dimmed almost instantly, from hot smolder to casual glance in record time. Stan raised his eyebrows innocently. "What what?"
The analytical part of Benton's brain noted that Kowalski wasn't panting, despite the fact that they'd been on the trail through deep snow for several hours. Nor was he bent under the weight of his pack. He stood straight, breathing deeply but unhurriedly, his pack riding easily on his shoulders. Their time in the Canadian wilderness was toughening him, he thought approvingly. Still, his pretended ignorance increased Fraser's irritation. He'd seen Stan's heated look -- why was he denying it? "Do I have a hole in my pack?" he queried stiffly. "Did I mistakenly lie in moose scat? Or have I sprouted horns recently, without my knowledge? What precisely is bothering you?"
Kowalski blinked, shifting uneasily from foot to foot, and stumbled a bit in the process. He still isn't entirely used to wearing snowshoes yet, Fraser thought, perversely pleased by that fact, and by the small confirmation of Stan's nervousness. "What -- precisely -- are you talkin' about, Fraser?" he mumbled as he righted himself.
Fraser's eyes narrowed. "I'm talking about the way you've been observing me," he said, both angry and a bit uncomfortable at having to put such a strange subject into words. "You've been watching me closely for days, and I don't understand why."
Kowalski grinned broadly. "Watchin' you?" he echoed, as if that were a very good joke. "Well, in case you forgot, I gotta follow you 'cuz you're the only one who knows where we're goin' out here -- but that's all it is. Follow the leader, you know? Like, if I don't watch your back, I get lost in all this snow and ice and never make it back to Chicago. Right?"
Fraser stared at him, a bit taken aback. Was he telling the truth? Was that all that his long looks had been about? Just making sure he didn't get left behind, now that they were on foot? "Well, I just thought -- "
"I think you've been out in the snow too long, buddy," Stan smiled, a bit condescendingly.
Ben blinked in consternation. He'd expected Kowalski to be angry perhaps, or embarrassed when confronted about his inexplicable behavior, but not amused at his expense. Definitely not that. "That's ridiculous! I... I have not!" he stuttered, caught off guard, unexpectedly on the defensive.
Stan just shook his head again. Still smiling, he pushed past Fraser casually. "Sure, sure. Next thing you'll be tellin' me you saw Bigfoot or somethin'."
Fraser stared at him as he moved on down the trail. "Bigfoot is an American legend," he snapped, exasperated. "And he is never seen in snow. The only creature who is would be the Yeti, a kind of mythical snow monster which is only rumored to exist in the Himalayan mountains of Tibet and Nepal!"
Stan just shrugged. "If you say so. You're the expert on snow monsters, Frase," he threw over his shoulder. "But let's keep movin', okay? We wouldn't wanna get caught out in the open here by one o' those Yaki critters."
Fraser's eyes narrowed. Kowalski was grinning, and he distinctly thought he heard him snicker.
"It's Yeti, not Yaki!" he called after him. Kowalski just waved back at him by way of reply. His frustration grew as he watched his partner stride confidently ahead, for all the world as if he were an experienced outdoorsman. Despite the fact that he was the one who'd taught Stan everything he knew about the subject, the sight irked him. "Tenderfoot," he sniffed, when he was sure his partner was too far away to hear him. Then he shifted his pack a little and strode on quickly to catch up.
But when he did, Stan was still shaking his head, still wearing that maddening grin as he muttered to himself. "Snow monsters!" he snickered. "Now I've heard everything. But only in Tibet, not here. Well, whaddaya know? I've finally discovered something the Inuit don't have a legend about! Imagine that!"
Fraser stiffened, insulted by his partner's insinuation that he told too many Inuit tales. "What did you say?"
Stan just shook his head. "Oh nothin', nothin'," he snorted. But he sounded suspiciously like he was barely suppressing a burst of laughter. "But Frase... If ya' do see any large, hairy, snow monster type beasts comin' after us out here, you be sure to warn me, okay?"
Another snicker, even louder this time. Fraser gritted his teeth at the sound. Without a word, he lengthened his stride and took the lead again, charging past Kowalski at a pace he knew the smaller man couldn't possibly match for very long. Predictably, over the next few hours, Stan eventually lagged far behind him.
Which was probably a good thing, because that way he couldn't stare at him.
And Fraser had no intention of speaking to him, either.
Kowalski felt a twinge of guilt about the way he'd teased Fraser, even as he struggled to keep his figure in sight. It had already dwindled to doll size with distance. He knew the Mountie had left him behind deliberately, because Fraser had always been careful not to outpace him before. This was the first time they'd separated even this much since they'd gone off adventuring together, and it both relieved him and made him a little uneasy.
Well... If he stays way ahead of me, at least he can't accuse me o' starin' at him, he thought uncomfortably. He should've known that would happen, that Old Eagle Eye Fraser, the Ultimate Tracker, wouldn't miss something like that... He just hadn't realized he'd let his hunger show that openly. It had embarrassed him so much that he'd teased Fraser unmercifully, both to distract him from the subject and to cover his real feelings. He hoped he'd managed to convince him that he was just imagining his stares. But the truth was, Ben was right. He had been watching him. Watching every move he made, like he was a blonde in a short skirt or something.
And for the same reason. Kowalski groaned again as he slogged on through the snow. He hadn't felt so turned on -- or so frustrated -- since he'd first met Stella all those years ago. Hell, he'd never been so turned on by a guy in his whole life! Sure, he'd done a bit of experimenting when he was a teenager, but it was nothing serious, and he'd written it off long ago. He'd never even thought about men that way again after he met his wife...
But he was thinking now. Boy, was he thinking! About broad shoulders, big, strong hands, pale skin so smooth it was like cream, and blue eyes so clear and deep they were like mountain lakes, so deep you could drownin them and die happy... He understood now why half the women in Chicago were panting after Fraser. He really was outrageously handsome. Kowalski didn't know why it had taken him so long to realize it -- he'd always known Ben was good looking. But lately, wow!
Maybe being home after so long had given the Mountie a kind of glow, or maybe it was just that he hadn't had much else to look at for weeks on end, so he'd really concentrated on him. But for whatever reason, Benny just kept looking better and better to him. And worse than that, he wasn't just thinking about him, he'd started dreaming about him too! Just last night, he'd had this hot dream where Fraser had laid him down on a waterbed and kissed him senseless, used those big hands to strip him in record time, and then --
Kowalski groaned aloud, remembering how incredibly disappointing it had been to wake and find himself in a sleeping bag instead of that bed, and all alone instead of wrapped in Fraser's strong arms. He'd never imagined this would happen, not in a million years, or he never would've agreed to go traipsing off into the goddamn wilderness with the world's most handsome -- straight, oblivious -- Mountie! He ground his teeth together. It had seemed like a good idea at the time...
After the Muldoon thing was over, Ray Vecchio had gone off to Florida with his ex -- wife, so Fraser had lost his best friend and he'd lost Stella(again) in one fell swoop. They'd both needed something to do, some distraction to keep their minds off of that, and the Canadian wilderness had seemed as good a place as any to escape it. So going adventuring with Fraser had seemed the best solution: a way to both avoid his troubles and stay close to the one friend he had left in the world anymore.
But, like most of his bright ideas, it had turned out to be a disaster. Now here he was, stuck out in the middle of thousands of miles of ice and snow, horny as a goat, with no one but the object of his desire to keep him company: said object being a straight arrow Mountie who'd never dream of letting him so much as touch his cheek! He knew all that, but he couldn't help how he felt, couldn't suppress his stupid, impossible, raging desire to get close to him, to jump his bones and make him moan...
He'd even had a dream one night not long ago about being stuck in an ice crevasse with Fraser again. That had been the first time he'd ever been so close to the man, the first time he'd ever felt the muscular hardness of Fraser's big body pressed tightly to his and smelled his scent -- fresh and clean somehow, like flowers or apples, despite the fact that they'd been trekking through snow and ice for hours...
He'd been too scared to appreciate their closeness at the time, but in his dream, he'd grown hard as a rock hanging there with Fraser's groin pressed tightly against his. And Fraser had sung to him again, in his clear, beautiful tenor... Only not the rousing, guy -- type adventure song he'd sung to cheer him up in real life. No, in Kowalski's dream for some strange reason he'd warbled "Feelings". And by the time he'd gotten to "Trying to forget my -- feeeeelliiinggs of loooovvvve..." he'd been so grossed out that he'd had to kiss him to shut him up. But that hadn't been so bad, because in his dream, Fraser had kissed him back. And then...
As he moved along blindly, lost in the erotic memory, his right snowshoe suddenly edged into a deep drift, sinking in deep, throwing him off balance. "Whoa!" he cried, wind milling his arms to keep from falling over. "Jeez -- pay attention here!" he scolded himself once he regained his balance. "Yer out in the wilderness, ya' know, where one mistake could get you killed." He gave his foot an experimental tug, but it stayed buried. He grunted. "Better stop dreamin' about -- the World's Biggest Boy Scout there!" he grunted, tugging harder. "Like he'd ever have sex with you! If he even knew you were thinkin' about it, he'd probably ditch your ass out here in the snow!" He made a real effort, pulled as hard as he could, and his snowshoe suddenly came free -- so suddenly that he toppled over onto his back in the snow.
"Ooof!" But even as he lay there breathing hard, he knew what he'd said wasn't true. Fraser was honorable to the bone, loyal to a degree he'd never seen in another human being. Besides, they were friends. No matter what he did, he knew he'd never abandon him out here. In fact, he'd been taking care of him for the whole trip. He hadn't made a big deal about it, but he'd made sure his pack was always fastened correctly, that his snow shoes didn't chafe his feet and that he didn't get too cold or risk frostbite... And though it had seemed to him that they'd kept up a pretty brisk pace in their travels, he now saw that that was only by his standards. Judging by the way Fraser was zipping ahead now, he obviously could've gone twice as fast, and as far, without him. Though he'd never said a word about it, he'd probably been moving along at what was (for him) mere cruising speed, just so that Kowalski could keep up.
But knowing all that only made his desire even hotter. How could you not want a guy who looked after you without complaint like that, who'd stay by your side no matter what?
Stan sighed to himself. You're just horny because there aren't any women out here, he told himself. Because you haven't been laid in a long time. He'd told himself that a hundred times in the past few weeks, ever since he'd first realized he'd begun eyeing his best friend with something much hotter than brotherly interest.
The only problem was, he didn't believe it. He'd been hard up before -- even during his marriage to Stella, there'd been times when they'd fought so much they hadn't slept together for weeks at a time. But that had never made him long for a guy instead. And since their divorce, he'd gone through an even longer dry spell when he'd hardly even dated, or wanted to. And the one time he had wanted someone, she'd been female: Lorene, Mrs. Tucci's beautiful caregiver.
But his need for her hadn't been anywhere near as deep, as intense as his itch for the Mountie was.
"Oh God," he groaned aloud. "It's not all this snow and ice. It's not the cold, or the isolation, or even that I'm lonely. It's him. It's Fraser!"
But even as he stood there bemoaning his fate, Fraser was charging relentlessly onward. So as the Mountie's figure dwindled a bit more on the horizon, Kowalski yanked his shoe out of the snow drift, righted it as Fraser had taught him, and stumbled on, grumbling to himself. God damn him! Is he superhuman or what? I don't care if he was born here, nobody should be able to move that fast on these crazy shoes...
But Fraser could. Stan suspected that he could probably keep that speedup for hours, even days. He was probably the strongest human being he'd had ever met. And he's damn sure the handsomest... Just watching Fraser moving swiftly over the snow far ahead of him sent a fresh shiver of desire surging through his veins.
"Shit!" he cursed. "Talk about a one track mind... If you were an eight track tape, every track would be the same song: 'I Wanna Make Love to the Mountie'!"
He smiled a little at that in spite of himself. Then watched as his words dissolved in front of him in a cloud of steam that reminded him of just how cold it was. Probably about fifty degrees below friggin' zero, he thought, his mood turning dark again. Kowalski took a deep breath and forced himself to move faster. Despite his confidence in Fraser's loyalty, a tiny part of him was still a bit scared of being left behind in this trackless ice and snow. "Fraser! Hey, Fraser!" he yelled. "Wait up!"
Stan never knew if Fraser heard him or not. But the Mountie didn't turn, or slow his swift pace.
Kowalski didn't get within shouting distance of him until hours later, when he stopped and made camp for the night.
When they sat around the fire later, eating what Fraser (if not Kowalski)euphemistically called "stew", he thought of the time they'd "camped out" like this in that little park in Chicago, and he'd tried to tell Stan a ghost story... He smiled in spite of himself at the memory.
"What's funny, Frase?"
Stan looked at him as if he were eager to talk, and Fraser regretted having been so rude to him earlier. It hadn't been exactly considerate of him, to leave his far less experienced friend toiling so far behind him in the snow. Or very safe, either. He made a private resolution not to do so again, no matter how much Kowalski teased or stared at him.
He's the only friend I have left, he thought with a pang. I'd never forgive myself if I let any harm come to him... Aloud, he said only, "I was just thinking of that ghost story I told you once."
Stan grinned a little. "Oh, you mean 'Looooooooouuuu Skagnetti, the Princess Eater.'"
Fraser smiled back, pleased that he remembered. "Yes. Exactly."
"Yeah... Him and his brown lichen tarts," Kowalski laughed. "That was a tale, all right. Maybe we should try that again, ya' know?"
"Tellin' ghost stories. After all, we are out in the middle of the wilderness this time, sittin' around a campfire, and it is night... The perfect time and place for stuff like that, right?"
Fraser blinked in surprise. He hadn't thought Stan liked his effort at a ghost story that much. Then he realized that maybe he was trying to make up for teasing him earlier by suggesting an activity he knew Ben liked; and the thought warmed him. "All right," he agreed. "I'm sure I can think of something -- "
"No, let me. I wanna do one this time," Stan said, to his surprise.
"All right," he said. He finished his stew and set his plate aside, very eager to hear what kind of ghost story such a child of the city would spin. "What story are you going to tell?"
"I dunno," Stan said, looking a little lost. "Maybe I'll just make one up, like you did."
Fraser nodded. "A fine idea. Go right ahead."
Kowalski hesitated for a long moment.
"What's the matter?"
"Well... Nothin's comin' to me," he confessed, scratching his head.
"Oh dear." Fraser was disappointed, but he tried not to show it. "Well... Never mind. We can try this another time -- "
Suddenly, Stan's face cleared. "Oh, no, wait -- I got it! I got it!" he said excitedly. "I got a great scary story -- "
"Ummm... Okay. Well once long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away -- "
Fraser raised an eyebrow. "Is this a ghost story set in space, then?"
Kowalski smiled. "Yeah. Izzere some rule against that?"
Fraser thought it over. "None that I've ever heard of," he admitted. "Though it is a rather unusual setting -- "
"Yeah well, that's me," Stan said, cheerfully unrepentant. "Mr. Unusual. So -- can I get on with it now?"
"Certainly." Fraser settled back onto the stump he was sitting on, secretly very pleased that Kowalski was so eager to tell him a tale, especially after their little tiff earlier that day. "What's the story called?"
"Ummm... 'A War'. No, 'A War Between the Stars'," he said.
"It sounds intriguing," Fraser approved.
"Okay then. Well like I said, once long ago, there was this huge war goin' on, this galaxy -- wide struggle between good and evil. The head bad guy was Darth Vader, the evil Lord of the Sith. Big, scary guy with a black cloak and a deep voice who was part machine and part man, so he breathed kinda' loud, like this -- " Stan held his hand over his mouth, and made a harsh sound as if his breath were being forced through some kind of mask.
Fraser watched, fascinated by Kowalski's unexpected skill as a storyteller. He could almost see the strange, evil person he was describing. "But who are the Sith?" he interrupted, curious.
Kowalski leveled a look at him. "Bad guys, Fraser. Very, very bad guys. Guys who'd eat their mothers for breakfast, their sisters for lunch, and their grandmas for dinner, and never think twice about it. And Vader was their Lord, so he was a major bad guy. Okay?"
"Now, Darth Vader had henchmen, see. Lots and lotsa' henchmen, in fact -- thousands of em. They wore this white kinda' battle armor, and they were called Stormtroopers -- "
"Hmmm. Rather like the Nazis in World War II," Fraser said.
"Yeah. Kinda' like that. Real mean guys. Now, Darth Vader was the servant of an even more powerful bad guy, the evil Emperor, who wanted to take over the whole universe. And they were overseeing the creation of the most powerful weapon ever, the Death Star, so they could do that. But there was this small, dedicated band of rebels, led by a Princess named Leia, who were causin' them a whole lot of trouble -- "
"The forces of good," Fraser said, his eyes gleaming a bit in the firelight as the story drew him in.
"Exactly. Now, the story begins when Darth Vader kidnaps the Princess while she's on a diplomatic mission... "
An hour later, Stan was still talking. And Fraser was still listening. In fact, Kowalski's story of a brave band of rebels fighting a galactic war had proven so fascinating that he would've willingly listened all night. He'd discovered that Stan's powers of imagination far exceeded his own. He would never have thought of such creatures as Jawas, or Ugnaughts, or many of the other exotic marvels featured in Stan's tale. He supposed he really had been rather selfish, telling his favorite Inuit stories all the time without ever asking Stan to relate some of his. He made a mental note to do better in future. Maybe he could encourage Stan to tell ghost stories every night...
"Why does this smuggler fellow, Han Solo -- why does he fight with the Princess so much?"
Kowalski smiled. "Why dya' think?"
Fraser shrugged. "Is he simply cantankerous?" he suggested.
Stan shook his head vehemently, laughing. "No, no, Benny! You got it all wrong. He's attracted to her. He wants her. Hell, he's probably even in love with her!"
"Ahh. I see," Fraser said. Then he stopped. "No, actually, I don't see."
Kowalski looked at him earnestly. "It's like this. He sees that she's beautiful, he's watchin' her all the time when she's not lookin'--" He caught himself suddenly. Looking away from Fraser, he coughed nervously." And maybe he's a little insecure, ya' know, like he's just this smuggler guy and she's perfect, she's not only beautiful, but she's a princess too. Intelligent, brave, a skilled fighter who's also a diplomat -- "He faltered again, his eyes shifting away from Fraser's.
Fraser noticed that for some reason, Stan's voice had changed; and he was blushing a little. He stared at him, both fascinated and confused. It was as if this story had suddenly taken on some personal meaning for him, or as if perhaps he was afraid it was going to reveal something personal about him; but Fraser didn't see how that could possibly be. It was only a ghost story, after all, although a fascinatingly detailed one. But it bore no relevance to them that he could see. As far as he was aware, Stan didn't know any Stormtroopers, or princesses either. Fraser couldn't understand his strange reaction.
"The thing is, see," Kowalski said quietly at last, "Han Solo's in love with the princess. He tells himself at first that he just wants her, but it's more than that. And he'd rather die than admit it, but he's afraid he might not be good enough for her. That she couldn't really love a little skinny guy like him, with tattoos and all."
Fraser frowned. "I thought you said Han was a big, strapping fellow," he said.
Kowalski swallowed, and shut his eyes for a second with a wince. "Yeah, right! Big guy. That's what I meant," he corrected hastily, turning red again. "He's a big guy."
"Oh. I see," said Fraser, though he didn't see at all. He was, in fact, growing more and more confused by the strange twists in Kowalski's story. If Han was really a big, attractive man, why had Stan suddenly characterized him as small and thin? And if he was, in fact, tall and handsome, why would he be so afraid that the princess couldn't return his feelings?
"Ummm... Maybe that's enough of this story for tonight, huh?" Stan said suddenly, yawning behind his hand though just moments before, he'd seemed quite animated as he spun his tale.
Fraser was disappointed at not finding out how the story ended, but he didn't want to push his friend. "Certainly. That was a fine tale, Stan," he smiled. "Thank you kindly for telling it. Maybe you can finish it for me some other time," he said hopefully.
"Sure, Frase. Some other time," Stan agreed. He looked distinctly relieved, and he rose to his feet and stretched, as if his shoulders had knotted up for some reason. Fraser knew he'd been right about the tension he'd sensed in him when he was describing Han Solo's love for Princess Leia, and it bothered him. Did it have something to do with the way he'd been staring at him lately?
Kowalski's story, and the way he's been staring at me... All at once, with that thought, something clicked in his head. What had Kowalski said about the lovesick smuggler? " 'He sees that she's beautiful, he's watchin' her all the time when she's not lookin' --
'He's watchin' her all the time... ' Suddenly, the parallel was obvious. Dear God! He wasn't talking about some fictional characters in a story then, he was talking about himself -- and me!
Fraser froze where he sat, in pure astonishment.
Several hours later, when they had both piled into their sleeping bags and Stan had already closed his eyes, Fraser was still pondering his extraordinary, troubling revelation about his partner. He'd tried to deny it to himself, but there was only one explanation that seemed to fit the facts: Kowalski wanted him. His heated stares, the way he'd tensed up while talking about that character Han Solo's hopeless desire for the princess -- it all fit the pattern of a man who was struggling, none too successfully, with hopeless desires of his own. Kowalski had even slipped and described that Solo character, at that point, as a "small, skinny guy with tattoos" -- which was just a rather unflattering description of himself!
No wonder he got so embarrassed when I pointed that inconsistency out to him! He must've been afraid I'd discover that he was really talking about himself, Fraser thought, deeply troubled by what he'd learned. And if you make the analogy that Han Solo represents Stan, then I must be the princess! It was all quite embarrassing... What had Stan said about her? "'She's perfect, she's not only beautiful, but she's a princess too. Intelligent, brave, a skilled fighter who's also a diplomat -- '"
My God! Is that how he sees me? As perfect, and somehow better than he is? Stronger, more handsome, etc.? Dear God...
Fraser tensed up, just thinking about it. His breath came faster, and his chest tightened strangely. He's a man! a little voice inside him whispered in panic. And not just a man -- he's my partner and my friend -- and he wants me! Great Scott!
He didn't have the faintest idea what to do. But common sense told him that panicking wouldn't solve anything. He told himself to calm down. He had to think this out carefully and rationally. He tried letting go of the problem for a moment, and concentrating on taking deep breaths instead. When his initial fear faded away, he allowed himself to think about the situation again. He began to analyze both himself and Stan and their current circumstances, in an effort to understand how this had happened.
First of all, he knew that it wasn't unheard of for men in law enforcement to fall in love with their partners. It wasn't a popular subject in the RCMP or the police department, nothing that they would acknowledge openly, but it was nonetheless true. Sharing dangerous experiences formed incredibly strong bonds between people; and tended to isolate them from others at the same time, to create a kind of loneliness that could only be alleviated by the company of a 'fellow soldier', so to speak. Fraser knew, better than most, the psychological toll that loneliness could take on people -- he'd suffered from it himself, and knew it had a great deal to do with the overwhelming power of his attraction toward Victoria. When she came back, he'd simply been too lonely to resist a chance at love with anyone -- even a criminal.
And there was no doubt that Stan was lonely too. He'd told Fraser so himself long ago, when Stella began dating that Alderman. And now that she'd gone to Florida with Ray Vecchio, and he was far from home with only him for company, that loneliness (coupled with the enforced celibacy imposed by their isolation) must've grown more acute; might've become nearly intolerable. Stan might be feeling the way he'd felt walking with Ray that day when he'd glimpsed a familiar face in the crowd and chased after it because there was nothing, nothing in the world more important than ending his isolation and making contact with someone...
All right. So if he was correct about what Stan was going through, it was nothing he didn't understand so far, nothing he hadn't been through himself. That realization heartened him enough so that he could go on with his analysis.
If he was right, if Stan had become taken with him, even to the point where he saw him as being somehow better than himself, stronger, smarter, etc. -- there must be a reason why it had happened now, when they'd actually known each other for some time. So it must have something to do with their sojourn in the wilderness. He'd been so happy to be home these past few weeks that he supposed he'd been a little blind as far as Kowalski was concerned. He'd been so busy breathing the fresh air and enjoying the silence that he'd forgotten about his friend's feelings. He tried to make up for that now, tried to see the trip from Stan's point of view.
Chicago was his turf, the place where he knew the territory and felt confident. In the city, they were equals; but out here in the Canadian wilderness, the tables were turned. He was in his element, but Stan was at a disadvantage. Though he didn't complain, it was a new and sometimes harsh and frustrating environment for Kowalski, in which he no doubt felt out of place, and in which he was dependent on Fraser for his very survival.
So it was perhaps only natural that Stan might experience feelings of inferiority, and that he might turn to him for physical comfort as well as succor, since there was no one else available. He'd heard of many men doing similar things when isolated during long, lonely winters, men who weren't ordinarily gay. Fraser thought, in retrospect, that he should've perhaps even anticipated something like this happening to them, especially when they were both isolated and rendered vulnerable by loss, as they were now.
So... The first step in solving any problem was to identify its cause. He'd done that: Stan wanted him because he was lonely, vulnerable and sexually frustrated, and temporarily totally dependent on him for survival in a foreign environment. The next step was to decide what to do about all that.
Fraser rolled onto his back in his sleeping bag, and watched the stars glitter overhead. So many stars, thousands more than you could ever see in the city... Home, he thought lovingly. No matter what his problems were, the beauty of the Territories soothed his spirit as nothing else could. He drew strength from these cold, open spaces. Which was good, because he sensed he was going to need it to deal with this utterly unforeseen problem. He'd never been good at things like this -- he was as out of his element in deep emotional waters as Kowalski was in a snowdrift. But there was no one else around, and he knew Stan was troubled. So he had to try to help him, no matter how hard that might be.
You have to help him, he thought again, staring up into the night. There's no one else. He's come all this way with you without complaint, been a loyal companion and your best friend... You have to find a way.
The next morning at breakfast, it was Kowalski's turn to feel uncomfortable with the amount of attention he was getting from his partner. He caught Fraser looking intently at him twice while he was drinking his coffee, and he wondered what the hell was up. "Okay, have I got spinach in my teeth or somethin'?" he asked as he cupped his hands around the precious warmth of his mug in the early morning chill.
"Hmm?" Fraser said. That annoying sound he always made, that wasn't quite a question or an answer either. But he'd known him long enough to know that it sure as hell meant something.
"Yer lookin' at me funny," he explained, feeling more than a little stupid to be making the same complaint Fraser had just made about him yesterday. "What does that mean, that 'hmm' look?"
"Hmm," Fraser said again as he started to pack up their camp.
Kowalski sighed to himself. He also knew what two 'hmms' in a row meant: you could shout, scream, or set yourself on fire, and Fraser still wouldn't answer your question. "Okay, fine. Next question," he said. "Where are we goin' today?"
Fraser pointed towards the west, and the mountain range that they'd been traveling towards for days, that never seemed to get any closer. "We're still heading for that pass. It's the only way through these mountains."
"Okay." At least that was an answer, he thought. He stood and stretched, then stowed his cup away and started to pack up his gear the way that Fraser had taught him, the way that was becoming familiar to him now. He found one of Ben's gloves among his things as he did, and walked over to hand it to him.
"Here ya' go," he said carelessly. But as Fraser came close to take it from him with a polite smile, their eyes met for an instant, and he blinked, struck as he always was lately by how utterly, heartbreakingly beautiful he was -- thick dark hair, ice blue eyes, snow white skin -- and how incredibly unconscious he was of it. Seeing Benny's like looking at the Mona Lisa before she was painted, he thought. Pure, raw beauty that almost hurts your eyes.
Suddenly aware that he was staring again, he tore his eyes away as Fraser took the glove; but it was too late. Fraser had seen something, felt something strange in his gaze, and his eyes narrowed. Stan readied a joke in case he asked what he was doing again.
But he just nodded his thanks and turned away instead, stowed the glove in his pack without comment. "We'd better get going," he said.
"Sure, yeah. Just lemme get my gear stowed away," Stan replied, glad that his friend had decided to ignore his mooning looks, even as he resolved to try not to drown in Fraser's eyes like that again. I gotta stop that, he told himself, knowing he probably wouldn't. That he probably couldn't.
Fraser turned the problem over and over in his mind all day, as he and Stan resumed their trek toward the snow -- covered mountain pass. But as many times as he thought it through, he could see only two options, only two actions he could take to solve it.
One, he could tell Stan that his feelings were only temporary, caused by their isolation and pain over his ex -- wife's departure with Ray Vecchio. Assure him that they would ebb once he returned to Chicago and he took up his old life again. Tell him (regretfully) that he couldn't return his feelings, because he was heterosexual and simply wasn't in love with him.
He could, in other words, utterly destroy whatever solace Stan had found so far during their journey, and hurt him deeply into the bargain.
Or he could get past his own fear of intimacy with a man, and offer to --
He gulped nervously at the thought of it. After all, it isn't as if you'd have to worry about... consequences, he told himself in an effort to make the idea more palatable. It's not as if either of us could get pregnant. It really would be the logical solution. I could just -- do it once, and he'd feel better, and...
But a tiny part of him whispered that it wouldn't be that simple. Stan was a man, not a plaster saint, and if he did that even once, he'd probably want him to do it again and again, maybe for as long as their trip lasted...
Dear God. He just wasn't sure he could do that, not even for Stan.
But all that afternoon, as they moved onward, he could feel Stan's eyes on his back, feel the weight of his stare, and the pain and hunger behind it tugged at him until he couldn't stand it anymore. He was his best friend, after all. He decided he'd just have to bite the bullet, so to speak, and do it. They couldn't go on much longer like this, and he didn't see any other way out of their dilemma.
Fraser never even considered the possibility of solving that problem by ending their trip, or by letting Stan return home and continuing on without him. Logically, he knew that he'd lost everyone else in the world who he loved: his parents, and finally even Ray Vecchio. But though he could see the effect Stan's loneliness had had on him, he couldn't face his own losses. So if he had deep emotional needs that factored in his decision to become intimate with his best friend, that made it paramount not to let Stan go, no matter what the cost, he didn't consciously acknowledge them. It was far easier for him to focus on Stan's needs and desires than to admit how terrible his own loneliness would be if he lost him.
He'd been taught stoicism from his cradle; and it had become such a habit for him that helping others was now far easier for Fraser than helping himself.
Tonight, he thought. Tonight when we make camp, I'll tell him. Offer, that is, to -- Sleep with him. Have sex with him.
How was he ever going to go through with this when he could hardly even think the words?
As it turned out, he had a great deal of trouble saying them as well.
"You wanna what?" Kowalski was so shocked by what he'd said that he actually choked on his coffee. He turned wide, astonished eyes to him.
Fraser fought to remain calm, despite a wave of intense embarrassment that followed his friend's shocked reaction. "I said -- "
"I heard what you said! I just don't believe it! You -- you, Mr. Pure, you -- you wanna what?"
Kowalski sputtered to a stop, clearly so astounded he couldn't find the words to express it. He started turning red.
Fraser watched, fascinated as the roseate wave crept up his neck to his chin, then suffused his cheeks. He couldn't tell if his friend was embarrassed or angry. But he thought it likely he was just embarrassed. God knows, so am I! So he forged ahead with his explanation, trying to reassure him.
"Well, it's just that I've noticed that you seem to be -- well, I guess the correct term would be frustrated. In a... sex -- sexual sense. Or way," he stuttered, wondering whether he was blushing too.
"And so I just thought... Since we're all alone out here, there's no one else for miles and you seem to be... well, interested, that I would offer to -- uhh... Aid you in... relieving... That is to say -- "
Kowalski jumped to his feet, his eyes narrowed in his rapidly darkening face. "A pity f**k!" he roared, his fists clenching. "Isthat what you're talkin' about?"
Fraser blinked. It was obvious he'd guessed wrongly about Stan's feelings. He was enraged, not embarrassed; but he didn't understand his reference. At least, not all of it. "What does that -- "
"Oh, no!" Kowalski shook his head, livid. "Don't you dare ask me what that means! Don't you give me that wide -- eyed, innocent look! I can't believe you just said that -- that you just offered me a pity f **k! After all we've been through together -- "
He really is growing alarmingly angry, Fraser thought. As angry as he'd been that day by the lake, when they'd had their one and only serious fight. "Stan, please! Try to calm down -- "
But that only enflamed him further. "Calm down?" he screeched, pacing around the fire, his whole face suffused with blood."Hell, no! I let you drag me out here, miles from civilization -- "
Fraser grimaced, a little stung by that accusation. "As I recall, you wanted to come. In fact, this adventure was your idea, not mine."
"And I've been a good little soldier," Kowalski ranted on, not hearing him. "I've climbed mountains for you, followed you for miles on these crazy shoes... I've learned more about wilderness skills than I ever wanted to know, I ate your bad cooking -- hell, I even learned how to track animals from their footprints for you!"
"The correct term is paw prints," he interrupted, wincing at his friend's estimation of his cooking skills.
But his elucidation didn't seem to mollify Stan in the slightest. "Not to mention listening to all those goddamn never -- ending Inuit stories!" he snarled.
He sounds amazingly like Ray Vecchio, Fraser thought, doubly stung by the memory of his loss and Kowalski's obvious rage. "I thought you liked them," he protested.
Kowalski stomped his feet, making an angry gesture with both hands. "No, I don't! I don't like them, Fraser! They're boring!"he yelled. "Nobody likes those damn stories except you!"
"Then why did you listen to them?" he snapped back, getting more than a little angry himself. "You could've asked me to stop. Why didn't you?"
"Because you're my friend!" Stan shouted, and suddenly there was an ache in his voice that Fraser had never heard before. "Because I -- " He stopped short all at once, and swallowed hard. He looked away.
"You what?" Fraser asked quietly. "What are you trying to tell me?" He suddenly sensed there was something more going on with Kowalski than just raging male hormones; something that had made his offer of casual sex seem incredibly insulting to him. Fraser searched his eyes, trying to discover what it was, but all he could see was intense emotion that had turned his light brown eyes to molten gold in the firelight. What the source of that meltdown was, he couldn't be sure.
And Kowalski wasn't going to tell him. "That I don't want you to, okay? You don't have to sleep with me! I ain't no charity case!"he yelled.
"All right. I withdraw the offer," Fraser said stiffly, mystified and deeply chagrined by his extreme reaction to his suggestion.
"Good! Fine!" Kowalski swallowed hard, in an obvious attempt to regain control. "Just don't ever say that again, okay?" he said, his voice rough with pain. "Just don't."
Fraser looked away, disappointed that what he'd seen as an eminently logical solution to Stan's problem had instead hurt him deeply. "I won't," he said. "And I'm sorry. I didn't mean to -- "
Kowalski waved a hand in a weary gesture. His face had returned to something like its normal color, so Fraser knew his rage had ebbed, but his mouth had tightened with what looked like pain nonetheless. "Save it," he said, as if no words could repair the damage Fraser's misguided offer had caused. "Just forget it, Fraser. You don't have to sacrifice your virtue for me."
"I didn't mean to suggest that -- " But he let it go, because he suddenly realized that that had, in fact, been his attitude. He'd tried not to show it, but some part of him had shrunk from the idea of intimacy with a man so much that offering to sleep with Kowalski had seemed like a sort of sacrifice to him. And some hint of that martyrdom must've leaked through to his perceptive friend. "I didn't phrase it very well, I guess," he said awkwardly, trying to apologize.
But Kowalski didn't hear him. He stood staring off into the night, and Fraser could see that he'd gone a million miles away in his mind. So Ben stopped trying to explain. Though he felt miserable, and longed to repair the damage he'd unwittingly done, he knew better than to try and call him back.
Ray was like that, he thought with a pang. Quick to anger, volatile in the extreme; and when he really got angry, Fraser had learned it was better to let him alone for awhile. Trying to reason with him at such times was useless. And he was beginning to see that Kowalski was very much like him in some ways.
Maybe that's why I like him so much, he thought. He suddenly realized that he hadn't felt as much for anyone since Ray's departure as he did for Stan. He would never have made such an offer otherwise. It hadn't exactly been an easy thing for him to do, and there was no one else on the planet he would've done it for, since he viewed having sex with a man with no little trepidation. Far from trying to insult Kowalski with the idea, he'd suggested it out of a genuine desire to ease his suffering. He wished Stan could understand that.
He got to his feet, feeling very awkward at the strained silence that had fallen between the two of them. "I'm going to go collect some more wood. For the fire," he added, then realized he sounded like an idiot. He lapsed into silence again, waiting for a reply, but Stan only nodded his head distantly. He didn't say a word.
"I'm sorry," he said quietly once more. Then Fraser walked away into the darkness of the trees surrounding them, wishing desperately that he understood people as well as he did this land.
Two days later, things hadn't improved much between them. Kowalski either maintained a sullen silence or bickered with him, no matter the subject. So they'd pretty much both lapsed into silence as a result.
"Where're you goin'?" Kowalski asked at their midday break.
Fraser did his best to ignore the truculence in his friend's voice as he picked up his rifle and loaded it. "We haven't had meat in two days," he said tersely. "I'm going to get us some." He didn't add that their sudden need for meat was made all the more urgent by the sudden approach of a rather nasty storm he'd detected to the west. Once it hit, they might be snowed in for several days, so fresh game was essential. But he didn't bother explaining all that to Kowalski, since he hadn't been in the mood for rational discourse for several days now.
Ever since I offered to sleep with him, Fraser thought morosely. Far from easing Kowalski's tension as he'd hoped, it had exacerbated it to the point where Stan now quarreled with just about everything he said.
Stan stepped in front of him, blocking his way. "Oh, yeah? Why does it have to be you?" he demanded.
"I said, why do you always have to be the one hunting? Why can't I do it for a change? God knows, I've watched you enough to pick up a few pointers. And it isn't like I don't know how to shoot. Besides, I know a bit about hunting, I used to go with my Dad sometimes -- "
"This isn't the same," Fraser said, trying to be patient.
But Kowalski wouldn't let him. "What, you think I can't do it?" he demanded, thrusting himself close to Fraser, so close that their faces were suddenly only inches apart. His eyes were cold, and his anger, which was always so close to the surface lately anyway, was obvious. Fraser knew he wasn't really challenging him out of any real desire to hunt, he was just being spiteful; and it frustrated him. He was so tired of their constant fighting lately, their pointless bickering... He longed for a return to the easy comradeship of the first month of their trip, but had no idea how to get it back. He bit his lip and tried to stay calm.
"It's not that at all," he said evenly. "But it will be dark in a few hours, and -- "
Stan snorted derisively. "Dark? What're you talkin' about? It's only two o'clock!"
Fraser swallowed, feeling his own anger rising despite his best efforts to suppress it. "There's a storm coming," he gritted impatiently, swinging about a bit to point due west of them, where a dark cloud swam at the edge of the sky. "See it? That's a snowstorm. A big one. It'll be here in two to three hours; maybe less."
Stan squinted at where he was pointing. "I don't see anything," he snapped.
Fraser gritted his teeth. "Well I do, and I'm telling you -- "
"No!" Stan spun around again to face him, and grabbed the gun out of his hands. "I'm tired of you tellin' me everything, Fraser! You got that?" he snarled. "This time, I'm tellin' you. I'm gonna take this gun and go get as a caribou, or a fox, or a beaver -- whatever I can find! You're not the only one capable of shooting a gun around here, you know. I can get us dinner just as easy as you!"
"Kowalski!" Fraser called, exasperated. "Wait! You shouldn't go off alone -- "
But Stan ignored him. He stalked off determinedly towards the woods, the rifle cradled under his arm. Fraser felt a twinge of foreboding. Part of him was happy to let his irascible partner go and work off some steam, but the other half of him worried. He'd taught Stan some elementary woodlore, certainly, but he didn't know nearly enough about the wilderness to go off on his own yet. Not by half. It took years to truly understand the land and its various inhabitants: bears, wolverines, foxes, caribou -- and then, of course, there was the snow...
"All right, but be back in two hours!" he yelled after him. "We need to be settled in before that storm hits!"
Kowalski still didn't bother to reply, just kept walking towards the woods.
"All right. Be that way!" Fraser puffed out a breath of exasperation, and then turned to begin building an ice cave for the two of them to shelter in once the storm hit. Worrying all the while.
Some hours later, Kowalski staggered along through the woods, bowed down by the sheer weight of the little deer he'd slung across his shoulders. Luckily, it was just a youngster, probably not more than 2 years old, otherwise he'd never have been able to carry it alone at all. He was inordinately pleased with himself for bagging it, though -- This'll show Mr. Great White Hunter! -- -- and determined to carry it back to camp, just like Fraser always did. Because anything he can do, I can do better!
He frowned a little as he stumbled forward, wondering why he felt the need to turn everything into a contest lately. It suddenly seemed stupid, even juvenile. I mean, granted Fraser is a bit of a know -- it -- all,but he did grow up here after all. He knows more about livin' out here than I'll ever learn...
Fraser knew a lot about a lot of things; but not nearly enough about him. Maybe that was the problem. Yeah -- that's what's really bugging me, he thought. It wasn't about who could kill a deer the fastest. That wasn't why he was out here, or why he'd been sniping at Ben for days. It's because Fraser's such a jerk! How can a guy who's so smart be dumb enough to offer himself up like that, like some kinda' virgin sacrifice, to satisfy my animal lust! How the hell did he think that would make me feel?
The truth was, it had made him feel lower than a dog. The shame of it still burned, low in Kowalski's belly. Not only had Fraser figured out how much he wanted him, but he didn't want him back, and had only offered to sleep with him out of pity, to ease his sexual frustration. No feelings involved, just totally casual sex. Hell, worse than casual -- medicinal!Like he was some kind of sex therapist, giving him a prescription to take for frustration... He hadn't said so, of course, (at least, not the pity part) but it was obvious how he felt. He'd stuttered so much while making his stupid offer that it was clear the very idea of touching him was repugnant to him. That had hurt, more deeply than he'd believed possible; because what he really wanted wasn't just Ben's body, but--
Forget it,he told himself morosely. You're never gonna get it. You're never gonna hear that. Not from him.
He shifted the burden on his shoulders with a sigh, and glanced up at the sky. He blinked in consternation. He didn't think he'd been gone for even two hours, but it had clouded over completely in that time, with thick, dark, nasty -- looking clouds. And he'd been too busy struggling through the deep drifts with their dinner to notice before, but he suddenly sensed that the temperature had dropped quite a bit, too. And he was still a long way from camp...
Maybe Fraser was right about that storm.
A little voice inside him jeered, Of course he was right! He's always right! And it only increased his nervousness. He looked around uneasily. There was no shelter here, not really, just winter bare trees and rocks, and some low hills a ways off. What if the snow started falling before he got back? Falling hard, the way he'd already learned that it did out here sometimes, so hard that you couldn't see two feet in front of you. His snowshoe prints, the trail he'd been following back to camp, would be covered in minutes.
I'd be lost, he thought uneasily. I could die...
He swallowed hard, suddenly aware of how alone he was, and how vulnerable. Fraser was the only friend he had, and he'd done his best to push him away -- to the point where he might've endangered himself. Kowalski hung his head. He deeply regretted his stupid pride, and the frustration and pain that had driven him to challenge Fraser about hunting in such an idiotic way. He hadn't really been fair to him at all. Sure, Fraser had made a mistake, but knowing him, he'd done it because he really wanted to help; and he'd crucified him for it. He'd acted like an ass -- screamed at him then proceeded to punish him for days, just because he'd offered to sleep with him for humanitarian rather than lustful reasons. He resolved that, if he did make it back to camp safely, he'd apologize, and stop torturing Fraser for being unable to give him what he wanted.
For not loving me the way I love him.
The thought filled his mind, touched him with a kind of wonder; but it also made him sad. Why hadn't he realized that before? Why only now, out in the middle of a wilderness, when it was probably much too late?
There's something about this place, he thought suddenly. Something about the silence that makes everything so clear...
But he didn't have time to dwell on that particular mystery. For even as he stood there, a tiny spot of coldness touched his nose. A snowflake. A storm's coming, just like Fraser said. Shit!Frightened, he hung on tightly to the deer on his shoulders and spun in a circle, trying to spy some shelter he could head for, trying to remember what Fraser had told him to do in situations like this.
Fraser followed Dief at a run, his heart thumping from more than just the exercise. Why the hell did I let him go? he wondered for the thousandth time. But deep inside, he was afraid that he knew very well why: because he'd been angry with him. In a moment of pique, he'd let an inexperienced man go off into the woods alone, in the dead of winter; and there was no excuse for that. Out here, you had to lookout for your partner, and he had to know he could trust you completely as well, or neither of you would survive. Out here, there was no room for anger or pettiness; and in giving way to it, even momentarily, he'd failed his friend.
And nature would not forgive that lapse. Now the storm he'd sensed was already upon them, and Stan still hadn't returned. He'd thought he'd heard a shot some time before, but it had been far off, and he couldn't be sure. They were deep in the woods now, and the snow was falling harder, obscuring the tracks Kowalski's snowshoes had left behind. But that didn't really matter. Dief could track him by scent alone, thank God...
"Find him, boy," Ben panted as they ran on.
If they didn't find him soon, it would get too cold, and the snow would become too deep to plow through...
And Stanley Kowalski, alias Ray Vecchio, would die.
In the end, Kowalski took a chance and headed for the low range of hills he'd spotted in the distance. The snow had already covered up his tracks, and every tree out here looked the same to him; so he'd lost his chance to make it back to camp. And if he stayed out in the open under the trees, he'd freeze to death. So he headed for the hills, hoping to find some kind of shelter there. He took the deer with him, because even if he got really lucky and found a cave ahead in which he could wait out the storm, who knew how long he'd be stuck there?
Fraser will just have to find me, he thought grimly. Please, Frase. Come and find me...
All at once, Dief came to a halt in a clearing where the remains of Stan's tracks could still barely be seen beneath the blowing snow. He sniffed at the prints excitedly for a moment, then took off in a new direction, toward the nearby hills. He would find Ben's packmate for him, the little one with yellow hair and a scent like cinnamon. He was getting closer...
By the time Kowalski finally found a cave, he was exhausted and shivering, despite his heavy clothing. Snow had frosted his hair and eyes, and his hands were beginning to numb. But just when he'd been about to give up hope, he spotted the hint of a dark curve beyond some snowy brush in a gentle hollow. He stumbled towards it with the last of his strength, and pawed the brush away from the dark opening with hands that shook.
It was a cave, all right. And by the looks of it, it was big; big enough to stand up in. He staggered into its entrance, panting, and dumped the deer carcass off his shoulders and onto the leaf -- littered floor with a sigh of relief. The cave had a strange, rank, musty smell, but its mouth was angled out of the wind, so the snow was blowing past it instead of directly inside. And right now, that qualified it as a palace.
Shelter. He'd found shelter. He was going to live!
"Just call me Daniel Boone," he crowed, so giddy with relief that he laughed out loud. "Yeah!" He stomped his feet and stuck his hands under his armpits like Fraser had taught him, to warm himself. Then he stood stock still. "Fraser!"
Guilt swept over him. It was hours past the time the Mountie had warned him to return to camp; and knowing Fraser, he'd be frantic. He must be out looking for him even now -- in this terrible storm.
"Jesus," he breathed. What if somethin' happens to him? It'll be because o' me. It'd be my fault. My fault...
His smile disappeared.
Fraser pushed on through the steadily deepening drifts, despite the increasing wind that blew snow in his face, and turned the dark woods bitterly cold. Diefenbaker had pulled far ahead of him, and he took some comfort from the fact that his wolf was obviously hot on Stan's trail. He moved on, trying to hope that nothing had happened to him; and that they wouldn't find him too late. Though Stan was normally a very brave man, he tended to panic sometimes when faced with the unknown, like he had in that ice field. And out here, there were so many unknowns that even seasoned outdoorsmen were sometimes killed.
Keep your head, Stan, he prayed. Remember what I taught you...
Geesh, it smells like some kinda' animal died in here! Stan thought. He was huddled miserably in a corner of the cave beside the deer carcass. He longed for a fire, but didn't have any matches, or even the flint rocks Fraser had taught him to use to start one. As a result, though the cave was sheltered from the wind, it was still really cold. It was big, this cave, far larger than he'd realized at first: the passage behind him widened and curved back a long way into the side of the hill. Out of curiosity, he'd followed it for about fifteen yards, feeling his way in the blackness, until it occurred to him that he should really stay near the cave mouth so Fraser could find him if he came looking.
"When he comes looking," he said aloud, to cheer himself up. "When." He moved back to the cave entrance and gave a yell, just in case. "FRASER!" But his shout just echoed hollowly in the chilly darkness, and he subsided again with a shiver.
"Come on, buddy," he whispered to himself, wrapping his arms around his chest for warmth. "Don't you Mounties always get your man?"
Fraser had struggled on through the growing darkness for what seemed like hours when he finally heard Diefenbaker howl in triumph. "Thank God!" he breathed, knowing what that howl signified: he'd found Stan. And that excited sound had echoed from the base of the nearby hills, if he wasn't mistaken. He headed for them with renewed energy.
Stan amused himself for a time with walking up and down in front of the cave mouth, calling for Fraser, stamping his feet and clapping his hands to keep warm. But after awhile, as it grew darker, he sank to the floor again, suddenly aware that he was very tired.
He told me never to go to sleep if I was too cold, he reminded himself. It's dangerous...
But after carrying that damn deer all this way, he was ready to crash. After a few minutes, his eyelids started to get heavy. "Fraser!" he yelled into the cold twilight one last time. But the wind whipped his name away and there was no answer, though he thought he heard a wolf howling in the distance. The sound only made him doubly glad he was safe in the cave, because he couldn't be sure that was Diefenbaker, and he wasn't real anxious to meet up with any of his Canadian cousins anytime soon. Ben had told him that wolves never attacked human beings in the wild, but Kowalski didn't care to test that theory. He'd seen too many movies...
"Fraser," he yawned, his eyes closing. "Come 'n get me... "
Several minutes later, despite the cold, he fell asleep.
But Kowalski wasn't alone in that cave. And without knowing it, he'd awakened its other occupant with his shouts. That occupant was large, odorous and decidedly unhappy at being jarred out of its winter sleep. It roused itself, stretched, and sniffed the air angrily. It caught the scent of freshly killed deer, and was suddenly aware that it was very hungry.
Then it smelled the scent of man, and let out a growl. It had been shot once by such a creature, and black hatred filled its heart at scenting one again. It padded down the cave's passageway, bent on dinner and revenge.
Kowalski wakened with a start. The hairs on the back of his neck had risen, and his heart was beating fast. It was pitch black and cold -- where was he?
Oh, yeah -- the cave.
But remembering his location didn't make him any less uneasy. In fact, it made it worse. The fact that Fraser hadn't come for him made his heart sink. Worse yet, he felt he was in danger, though he didn't know why.
Then he heard it again: the sound that had jolted his sleeping mind awake. A deep, dark, snuffling sound coming from behind him, from somewhere down that long, unexplored passage that curved into the hill. He froze.
For a moment, he didn't hear anything, and he convinced himself he was just scared of the dark, and imagining things. He smiled nervously.Whaddid you think it was, anyway? One of Fraser's Yaki Yeti whatevers? he scolded himself.
But then he heard it again: an unmistakable, incredibly deep, nightmarish growl, that sounded like it came out of a very large throat. Something big was in here with him, all right -- and coming lickety split down the passage towards him, from the sound of it. The sound of big claws clicking rapidly over stone terrified him.
He erupted out of the cave screaming, burst into a dead run -- and promptly tripped over his snowshoes in the twilight, and sprawled headlong into a deep drift of snow. Holy shit, he thought in a panic. I left the gun in there! But he was far too scared to go back in after it. He lay where he was for a second, listening frantically for any sounds of pursuit. But his heart was beating so hard that for a moment, he couldn't hear anything else, couldn't tell if the monster was still after him or not.
Then a voice rang out, clear and strong through the frigid air. "Kowalski! Where are you?"
He lifted his head, trying to see around him. That's Fraser! Thank God! But I can't tell where the hell he is. Or if the monster's still behind me... "I'm over here!" he yelled breathlessly, too scared to stay quiet. "Over here, by the cave!"
He tried to scramble to his feet again, but floundered in the deep snow. He couldn't get his damn snowshoes under him properly --
"Stan! Keep shouting, so I can find you!"
It was Fraser again, closer now. He took a deep breath and yelled out, "I'm here! Over here! And hurry, Frase! There's somethin' after me! Somethin' big! And I lost the gun -- "
"Hold on! I'm coming... "
Come on, Fraser, come on! He heard the sound of something moving toward him fast. He heard the snow crunching under its feet, closer and closer, and prayed wildly that it was Fraser or Dief coming his way, and not...
Wham! He saw a pale coat flash in the dimness to his left, then something warm and hairy slammed into his chest, knocked him over onto his back in the snow again. He screeched in terror -- then a warm tongue licked his cheek, and he heard a familiar whine, saw the gleam of ice blue canine eyes. "Diefenbaker!"
The wolf gave him another lick for good measure, barking with excitement. He hugged him, shaking with relief. "Good wolf," he managed to croak. "Good wolf... "
The next thing he knew, a strong hand gripped his shoulder. "Stan! Are you all right?"
He turned his head to see the Mountie looming over him, covered with snow, a rifle in his right hand. "Fraser!" He'd never been so glad to see anyone in his life.
But even as Fraser started to haul him to his feet, Diefenbaker snarled loudly, a vicious sound that Kowalski had never heard before; and something charged at them with an ear -- shattering roar. Fraser started to turn, but never made it.
A very large brown bear suddenly rammed him, sent him flying through the air past Kowalski. After that, time slowed to a crawl for Stan. In an endless second, he saw Diefenbaker leap snarling at the bear. Before Fraser even hit the ground, he was at its throat. Stan turned his head to see what had happened to his friend, saw him trying to crawl up out of a deep snowdrift -- and not far away, just a few feet closer to the bear, lay the rifle he'd dropped.
I have to save them, Kowalski thought. If he didn't get that gun, the bear was going to kill Fraser and Dief, and he couldn't let that happen. He never knew how he made it to his feet so quickly, but somehow he was moving, plowing through the snow as horrible snarls and howls filled the air around him. He jumped on the gun, turned and aimed it at the bear just as it knocked Diefenbaker away with one swipe of its huge paw. He cocked the rifle and fired three times in quick succession, until the hammer clicked on an empty chamber.
He knew he must've hit it, because the bear screamed with rage and pain, a sound so loud and hideous Kowalski felt it right through to his bones. But then it came straight for him.
Fraser rapidly deduced what must've happened. Stan had yelled something about a cave, so he must've unwittingly taken shelter in one nearby that contained a hibernating bear, and somehow woke it from its winter sleep. The bear had attacked them because it was undoubtedly both angry at having been disturbed, and hungry from its long winter fast. Which makes it one of the most dangerous creatures alive, he thought grimly.
Just as he regained his feet, Fraser saw Stan take a flying leap onto the gun. Then, keeping himself between them, he aimed and fired at the bear, all in one smooth motion. Fraser felt a flicker of admiration at his courage, at his coolness in the face of danger. And his aim was amazingly good, considering the fact that he wasn't wearing his glasses. He saw his three shots pump into it -- but realized with a sinking heart that they weren't going to be enough to stop it. Enraged, it dropped down and barreled towards his partner with unbelievable speed, its fangs bared, ready to devour him. Kowalski lay prone in the snow, helpless, with no time to even get to his feet as it bore down on him.
"No!" Without conscious thought, he ran forward, yelling as loudly as he could, and waving his arms madly in the air. The bear hesitated for an instant -- just long enough for him to run up beside it and fling himself onto its back. He dug his fingers frantically into its thick, dusty pelt as it tried to swipe him off. It roared with rage, and twisted under him with such incredible strength, despite its wounds, that he could hardly hold on. Diefenbaker charged at it again, worrying at its right leg. Distracted by that new pain, it stopped trying to dislodge him and turned its head to snap at his wolf instead.
In that instant, Fraser took advantage of the opening Dief had given him. He reached down, pulled his knife from his boot, and drove it down into the bear's shoulder with all of his strength.
Kowalski watched, both terrified and amazed, as Fraser tore past him and leapt up onto the bear's back. Jesus -- that's like somethin' out of a Tarzan movie, he thought, awestruck as the Mountie clung to the huge, enraged animal despite its vicious efforts to claw him off its back. He saw Fraser raise his right arm, saw the flash of a knife -- and suddenly the bear screamed again, and then fell sideways --
Right on top of Fraser.
He heard someone screaming. "FRASER! FRASER, NO!"He realized dimly that the terrified sounds were coming from his own throat, as he fought through the snow to reach the downed animal. The bear wasn't moving any more, even though Dief was pulling at it frantically, so he assumed it was dead. He should've been relieved, but right then, he didn't really care. All he knew was that it had fallen onto Fraser, that it must be crushing him...
He threw himself onto its rank carcass and pulled for all he was worth, swearing viciously the whole time because it was like trying to move a furry wall. Dief sank his teeth into it and pulled in the same direction, for all the world as if he understood that Kowalski was trying to free Fraser and he was trying to help him...
"God damn fucking sonofabitch pukingstinkingrotten-- " He shoved harder at the huge carcass, almost sobbing, until the bear's body suddenly slid a few feet on the snow. He peered around it, desperate for any sign of his friend, but all he could see was a sort of trench in the snow beneath where its shoulder had lain--
"Oh, dear! Language, Ray," a deep voice said primly from the depths of that trench.
Kowalski's eyes filled with tears. "He's alive," he whispered, as Diefenbaker barked excitedly beside him. "God dammit, yer alive!"
"It would seem so," the Mountie said calmly. "Though it was rather hard to breathe, until you shifted the bear off me. Thank you kindly."
"No problem." He flung himself past the bear and saw Fraser lying on his back in a deep hole in the snow. He'd been shoved several feet down into it by the force of the bear's collapse and his immense weight, and his hair was white with it. But he still had all his limbs, fingers and toes, and Kowalski was speechless with delight.
Fraser lifted a hand, and he dragged him up out of there gladly.
Once they were both above ground, so to speak, they looked at each other for a long moment. "You've got snow in yer hair there, Frase," Kowalski said.
"Mmm. Well, you've got blood on your face," he retorted.
Then they both laughed helplessly.
Stan sat beside him, laughing until the tears came while Diefenbaker danced around them, barking wildly, delirious with victory. Fraser laughed just as hard. It was one of those moments that was so intense, so wonderful that he knew he'd always remember it. Fifty years from now when he was old and gray and most of his memories had faded away, he would still see this: Stan sitting beside him covered with snow, with his hair standing on end, one of his snowshoes broken, and a streak of the bear's blood on his face, laughing out loud for the pure joy of being alive.
The happy moment finally ended when Stan's laughter died away. His changeable eyes narrowed suddenly, as if he'd just remembered something that made him furious. To Fraser's surprise, he pounced on him before he could move, grabbed his coat in both hands, and bore him down on his back into the snow. "You idiot!" he yelled, so loudly that Ben winced. "How could you do that? Jump on a bear like that? Are you crazy? You coulda' been killed!"
Fraser pursed his lips. Kowalski's hands were shaking -- either with anger or leftover adrenaline, he wasn't sure which -- and his heart was pounding so hard he could feel it right through his coat and all the layers of clothing beneath it. Regardless of the cause, he was very upset. A delayed reaction, no doubt, to their close brush with death. He decided it would be best to humor him. "Well yes," he agreed, "but there didn't seem to be much choice. That bear was about to eat you, and I could hardly allow that, could I?" he pointed out mildly.
Kowalski shook his head. He was shocked to see the sudden glitter of tears in his hazel eyes. "Oh yeah. Yeah, you could've," he breathed. "I'm surprised you didn't, the way I've been treatin' you lately. I'm sorry, Frase," he said quietly. "Sorry I left in a huff like that... and for that stuff I said about your cooking and -- the stories and all. Thanks for comin' after me. Thanks for jumpin' that bear to save me. Even if it was crazy."
Fraser smiled, feeling warm all over with the sudden return of his affection. "It's all right, Stan," he said softly. "Any time. And thank you for saving me, too. If you hadn't made those three shots, I couldn't have finished him off."
Stan shook his head again. "Aww, that was nothin'. But what you did... That was the bravest thing I've ever seen!" he breathed, his eyes filled with admiration. "It was awesome, it was incredible, it was... Somebody should write a song about it or somethin'... "Then suddenly, he faltered to a stop. His eyes shifted, dropped to Fraser's mouth.
Ben froze, hardly daring to breathe...
And Kowalski kissed him. Lightly, gently, his lips warm in the biting cold, his slow caress conveying a tenderness that he'd never expected from such a blunt, edgy, restless man. He felt him tremble. And coming hard on the heels of the bear's brutal attack, his gentleness seemed exquisite in contrast. It touched him so deeply that he had no words to express it. So though a small part of him was nervous at the strangeness of being kissed by a man like this, it also sent an unexpected thrill all through him as he laid there. The kiss was surprisingly pleasant, and he was aware of his friend's body as he'd never been before, of the wiry strength pressed so close to him. He decided that Stan must've made up his mind to accept his offer of sex after all. So despite his nervousness, he didn't move, was prepared to let him do as he willed because he knew his friend needed this --
Or is it just what he wants? he thought, shocking himself.Do I --
Stan's mittened hands framed his face for a second, and he could feel the warmth of his skin through the coldness of the knitted fibers. Then he let go and jumped to his feet, his hazel eyes hooded, his face unreadable. He smiled a little, just a flicker that was quickly gone. "Sorry," he said. "Guess I just forgot myself for a second there."
Fraser levered himself up onto his elbows, more than a little surprised. He wasn't sure if he was relieved or disappointed that Kowalski hadn't tried to do more than just kiss him. "It's all right," he said again as he sat up and dusted himself off.
"No." Stan shook his head with unexpected decisiveness. "No, it isn't. Won't happen again," he added. He turned away, and moved back up the slope a little. "Come on, I'll show you where my cave is. I guess we'll have to spend the night here -- it'd be dark before we made it back to camp. I hope you brought your flint though, Fraser, 'cuz there's no central heating. But I brought a deer, so at least we won't starve."
He sounded cool and casual again, and flashed a small smile over his shoulder as he moved. It seemed like the kiss had meant little to him after all, that it was already forgotten. Fraser got to his feet slowly, more confused than ever by his partner's radical mood swings; and by his own equally confusing responses to them.
A few nights later, in their camp by a frozen river, Fraser stared at Stanley Kowalski's sleeping face. He'd kept his promise not to kiss Fraser again. In fact, in the past few days, their relationship had returned to what it had been before their fight: one of easy comradeship. Stan laughed easily again, and was his normal talkative self. But Ben was unhappily aware that one thing hadn't changed: his desire for him was still strong, and still troubling him. When he'd touched him once without thinking, Kowalski had tensed instantly, his eyes going dark with a longing he couldn't repress.
His friend had turned away quickly, in an effort to keep him from seeing it, but Fraser had already caught the telltale hunger in his eyes; and the unhappiness that went with it. So now he studied Kowalski while he slept, trying again to figure out what he could do about it.
Stan looked deceptively fragile wrapped in his sleeping bag with only his head poking out of one end. But it's a very handsome head,Fraser reflected. He had nice eyes of an unusual warm amber color that matched his spiky, wheat blond hair. His cheekbones were sharp, almost angular, and his lips were ruddy, the lower one full, almost pouting. Something stirred in him at the memory of those lips pressed against his when Stan kissed him.
And he suddenly knew what that feeling was. And he knew what he had to do.
He reached over and gently touched Kowalski's shoulder. He groaned a little, but didn't stir. He shook the slender shoulder in his grip a little harder, until Stan's eyes finally opened. He blinked a little, then turned his head to look at Fraser. "What? What's up, Ben?"
"I think I saw a Yeti," he said solemnly, unable to resist.
Kowalski grinned. "Aww, no sweat," he yawned. "Between you, me and Dief, we'll handle him. No problem."
Fraser was suddenly aware that his heart was beating faster at the sight of his partner's sleepy smile, at his nearness.
Kowalski blinked a little. "No... What is it really, Frase?"
Fraser knew what he wanted. Stan lay very close to him. His hair was slightly tousled, his eyes glittered gold in the firelight that created intriguing shadows on his face. And he wanted to be even closer to him yet. But his throat closed up so that he couldn't speak, couldn't say the words. "I -- "
Stan smiled just a little. "Come on, out with it! Did you wake me up to tell me another Inuit story, or what?"
His gentle teasing loosened the knot in Fraser's throat as nothing else could have. He shook his head, smiled back at him. "No. Nothing so horrible," he said wryly. "I just... I just thought that, uhh... I mean, I wondered if -- That is, if you'd -- "
Stan's smile grew wider. "Please! Before I get old and gray here, Benny."
Fraser blinked, stunned by his use of that name. Stan had never called him by Ray's old pet name for him before, never. It gave him the courage he needed to go on. "I wanted to know if -- you'd consider kissing me again," he breathed in a rush. There! Thank God it was out, he'd actually said it, actually put the forbidden desire he'd been feeling for days into words.
All that remained was to see how Stan would react to it. To Fraser's surprise, he closed his eyes for a second and muttered something that sounded like, "Finally! Christ on a crutch, I thought you'd never... "Then he opened his eyes, raised himself up on an elbow and stared at Ben intently. "I'll consider it," he said, with that same lazy little half smile. It suddenly seemed oddly delicious, even a little wicked.
Fraser held his breath, waiting. But the seconds stretched on and on, and Stan didn't move, he just lay there looking at him. He grew a bit impatient. "Before I get old and gray would be nice," he teased back.
But his friend hesitated. "I'll consider it," he said quietly, his smile disappearing, "if you look me in the eye and tell me you really want me, that yer not just askin' 'cuz you feel sorry for me."
Oh dear, Fraser thought. That again. Still, that particular misapprehension was his own fault, so he supposed he'd have to make up for it. He took a deep breath, feeling his whole body tensing with the effort of putting his feelings into words. "I... I'm sorry I made you feel... that I was offering to sleep with you out of pity," he managed huskily at last, looking directly into Stan's eyes as he did, so there would be no question that he meant it. "I... That is, I liked your kiss. So much I haven't been able to stop thinking about it, and I... I want you to kiss me again," he whispered humbly, his heart beating painfully fast.
A smile slowly broke over Stan's face, a smile of genuine happiness, that warmed his golden eyes. But then he looked down at his hands. "You sure about this, Benny?" he asked.
"Yes. Aren't you?" Fraser frowned a little, confused by his friend's reluctance. It seemed like Kowalski was having second thoughts at the eleventh hour, when he was the one who'd started this whole thing!
Kowalski looked up and saw the frown, and understood it instantly. "What I mean is, I don't just wanna kiss you," he said at last, reddening a little. "So once I get started, it'll be hard for me to stop. I just -- want you to know that."
Fraser blinked a little at that. He supposed it was naive, but he'd been too nervous to think that far ahead. He must've blanched a little, because Kowalski smiled again, this time with real tenderness, and reached out to touch his hair.
"I don't mean I'd rape you or anything," he said, his voice very low. "I just want you to know how much I -- " he stopped again, and swallowed hard. "You've probably never done this before, am I right?"
"Okay then. I promise I won't do anything you don't want me to. And if you tell me to stop, I will. Okay?"
Fraser nodded, once again so touched by his friend's gentleness that he couldn't speak. He watched spellbound as Kowalski pulled his sleeping bag over until it lay against his. His heart was beating fast, so fast, and he wondered if Stan's was too.
He got the answer to that question as Stan slid his arms around him. It was. If anything, his heart was outracing Fraser's, thumping so hard he could feel it right through his sweatshirt. "Nervous?" Kowalski breathed.
"No," he lied.
"Yeah right," he smiled as he bent his head. "Just remember, Benny -- you're a lot bigger than me. You can always trounce me, if I get outta line."
Fraser nodded, mesmerized by the sight of his soft, red lips moving down, down towards his. His eyes, amber in the glow of the fire, reflected the same desire he felt. "I'll remember that," he tried to reply, but then Stan was kissing him, and all thought of speech was instantly forgotten.
His lips are warm, he thought. So warm... They met his gently, ghosting over his mouth in the cold darkness as if learning the shape of it. He lay still for a moment, letting Stan kiss him lightly, savoring the sensation. It felt even better this time than it had before. He wasn't surprised or distracted now, but he was stirred. Definitely stirred. Slowly, hesitantly, he reached up to touch his shoulder, to draw him closer. Kowalski sighed deep in his throat, as if he realized he'd been given permission to go on.
He shifted his weight forward a little, until he was half lying across Ben, and parted his lips with his tongue. He tastes like cinnamon,Fraser thought, surprised and pleased. Their tongues met, and Stan made a soft sound in the back of his throat. His slight beard was another new sensation, a kind of warm friction against his skin as their kiss deepened. Fraser decided that he liked that too, and pulled him closer still...
When Stan finally raised his head, he was breathless, his eyes shining. "You okay so far, Benny?"
Fraser pulled him down again, wanting his mouth so much it amazed him. "Oh, yes... "
I'm dreamin', Kowalski kept thinking. I'm dreamin', and any minute now I'll wake up and this'll be over... Because Fraser would never touch him like this, kiss him like this, want him like this... Yet these were Ben's lips, warm and full against his, that was his tongue moving gently against his as he pushed deeper, deeper into his hot, wet mouth... I can't get enough... And that was Fraser's arm around him, his big hand spread out across his back, digging into his muscles as he devoured him.
I can't get enough... He pushed still deeper, ravenous as he could never remember being before, until Ben moaned suddenly, and shivered. Kowalski wasn't sure if he was turned on or protesting his feverish kiss. He lifted his head and gulped cold air, trying to control himself -- and was suddenly frustrated to see that he was still wrapped in his sleeping bag. He kicked out of it, despite the cold.
"Let me in," he demanded hoarsely, tugging at the zipper on Fraser's bag, desperate to get closer still, wanting to eliminate all barriers between them.
Ben opened his bag wordlessly, and drew him inside.
Kowalski crawled on top of him, took that gorgeous head in his hands and sought his mouth again, insatiable.
Fraser had never dreamed of anyone doing such things to him. Even Victoria's lovemaking had never been so wild, so passionate, so... consuming. Stan alternated between devouring his mouth while rubbing gently at his nipples, and then caressing his tongue gently while he swiftly ravaged the hardening nubs on his chest with his nails and thumbs. Ben was overwhelmed by the differing sensations, by the strength of the wiry body in his arms. His heart hammering, he started writhing under his friend, moaning in helpless pleasure at his sensual onslaught.
When Kowalski finally lifted his head, Ben was panting helplessly beneath him. Stan's eyes glittered with satisfaction. "Like that, do ya' Benny?" he breathed, his lips still wet with Ben's kisses. He slid down Fraser's body even as he spoke, until their groins pressed together, and they could feel each other's erections.
It was a curious sensation, one he'd never felt before -- but it was thrilling nonetheless. So arousing that it was all Ben could do to croak, "Yes."
But that was enough. Stan grinned, and this time there was no mistaking the wickedness in his smile. "Good. But don't get comfortable yet -- the party's just starting."
With one strong jerk, he pulled Fraser's long johns down over his shoulders suddenly, partially baring his chest, then bent his head and kissed his left nipple. The contrast between the cold air on his upper body and the erotic heat of Kowalski's mouth on his already aching, sensitized flesh wrung a groan from Ben. His chest was heaving, his heart pounding, and he was hard as a rock already, so aroused he could hardly breathe. He wanted to be more active, to make love to his partner too, but Stan was exciting him too much.
He'd never expected, somehow, that Stan would be so expert at this -- or so commanding. Once again, their roles had reversed. Kowalski was now the leader, the expert, and Fraser the green beginner. And after such a long period of celibacy, his hungry mouth and expert hands were too much, too fast. Ben couldn't respond -- he was overwhelmed, drowning in erotic sensation. He could hardly remember where his hands were, all he felt was intense surges of pleasure where Stan was caressing him, as if his hot mouth was sending jolts of electric current through his body. It was all he could do to hold onto the smaller man's shoulders as he hungrily devoured his nipples.
Stan moaned softly as he sucked, pinched, and lightly bit at them, and the sight of Kowalski's golden head sucking feverishly at his chest, the knowledge that his body was giving him such pleasure, increased Fraser's already intense arousal. He cried out, starting to spiral out of control, unable to stop it. "Oh God. Please!" he heard himself cry, not even knowing what he was praying for. "I -- "
But Kowalski didn't let up. He sucked his other nipple into his mouth, rubbed it against his teeth while he squeezed the other between his thumb and forefinger. Fraser arched under him like a bow, in pleasure so sharp it was like agony.
Then Stan reached down, took him in his hand and began to squeeze him, right through his long johns. Fraser could feel the heat of his hand like a brand through the soft wool, and he cried out hoarsely. Beyond words, the last of his self control shredding, he bucked under him, almost screaming as Kowalski closed his fist around his aching cock. He bit his lip, knowing it was far too soon, that his friend couldn't have gotten much satisfaction out of this yet... He groaned as he tried desperately not to come, shuddered with the effort of holding back the climax that was rising in him on a delirious wave of pleasure.
Kowalski kissed his chest. "Don't hold back," he said hoarsely. "Give it to me, Benny. Come for me!"
Even as he spoke, he began fisting Fraser hard, and the combination of his erotic words and caressing hand pushed the Mountie past his limits. He came with a hoarse, savage cry, writhing and shuddering convulsively in Stan's arms as the ecstasy took him.
Stan bent over the man who'd just become his lover, shocked by the force of his climax. "Wow," he said softly, shaking his head. Fraser lay sweating beneath him, his eyes closed, his cheeks wet with tears, his big, muscular chest half -- bared and heaving. Stan had never seen anyone come like that, with such incredible intensity -- and the cool, calm, logical Mountie had been the last person he'd ever expected would lose it so completely.
"Hey Benny," he breathed, a little scared that Fraser's intense reaction might've been caused by fear or disgust as much as arousal. After all, despite his good intentions to be gentle, Fraser had felt so good that he'd lost his head, and gone after him with all the restraint of a wild animal in heat. He pulled his long johns back up over his shoulders, covering his still shivering body as best he could.
"Benny! You still with me?"
Blue eyes opened slowly at that, and blinked at him for a second, as if Fraser was dragging himself back from someplace far, far away. Stan wasn't even sure he recognized him. He waited, holding his breath, more than a little frightened that he'd gone way too fast, pushed him too hard, because he wanted him so damn bad. He knew that even the fact that he'd come so hard didn't necessarily mean he'd enjoyed it. People were just wired like that. Enough attention paid to certain parts of the anatomy and wham! Most anyone would come. Hell, even rape victims sometimes did. And for all he knew, Ben might very well consider the feverish way he'd just tried to devour him as rape.
Stan cursed himself. He'd meant to be gentle, and instead he'd rolled over the Mountie like a bulldozer. Jesus -- what if I put him off? What if he says he never wants to do this again? I'll probably die...
After a few more seconds of silence, Stan shook his friend a little, near panic. "Frase! Are you okay?"
Fraser sighed softly. His eyes opened and focused on him at last, those beautiful eyes that were bluer than any summer sky Stan had ever known; and he smiled. The happiest, sunniest smile Kowalski had ever seen. "I'm fine, " he said, his voice still deliciously husky. "Thank you kindly, Ray."
Stan started to smile back -- then suddenly realized what he'd said -- the name he'd used. It hit him like a blow. "What? What did you call me?"
"Ray," the Mountie repeated, a tiny frown gathering between his brows at the angry note in his friend's voice.
"You didn't mean -- him, didja'?" Stan ground out at last, trying to keep the red, raw pain he felt from leaking out into his voice. "I mean... You weren't... thinkin' about him when we -- "
Fraser put a finger to his lips, very gently. "No," he said clearly, his eyes direct and honest. "He's not -- I mean, we never... I just got used to calling you that," he went on softly. "The name seemed to suit you, and... I like it. That's all. If it bothers you, I won't-- "
"No, no. It's okay," Stan said hastily, trying to choke down the lump that had formed in his throat. I shoulda known, he thought, embarrassed. He said he'd never done this before, and he never lies... "I don't mind, it's just that... you haven't called me that in awhile, so I umm... I wasn't sure--"
Fraser smiled again, very slightly. "It's all right, Ray," he said gently, and his eyes were that deep, clear blue that they got when he was speaking from his heart. His understanding touched Stan; and the knowledge that he and Ray Vecchio had never been intimate, that he really might have a chance with him, eased a pain he'd been carrying around deep inside for a long time. He'd always felt second best with Fraser until now. After all, he'd known Ray Vecchio far longer, they had a history together, and a love so obvious even he could see it. He'd just never known what kind of love it was: a brother type thing, or a sexual one. Or where that all left him, no matter what they'd felt. Because even though the real Ray Vecchio was gone, he'd worried that if he ever changed his mind and came back from Florida, Ben would drop him in a second, and go off with his old partner. He'd tried to ask him about it before, that night by their campfire, but Thatcher had cut Fraser off before he could answer the question; and he'd never dared bring it up again, for fear of what the honest Mountie would say.
"I know that it hurt you very much when Stella left you," Fraser said very quietly, surprising him. "And I know what that feels like. I won't do that to you, Ray."
Stan stared at him, stunned into silence by his uncanny perception; and by his loyalty. He'd guessed just what he was thinking, and known just what to say to ease his fears. It reminded him once again why, out of all the people on this planet, he'd somehow fallen in love for the second time with a man. Because this wasn't just any guy, this was Fraser: the gentlest, kindest, bravest man he'd ever known. Probably the most honest, too.
He nodded, trying to think of a way to repay Fraser for his understanding, his generosity. For some reason, his mind went back to the time when they'd first met; and he winced at the memory. "I'm sorry," he mumbled.
Fraser blinked in surprise. "For what?"
"For the freak thing. You know, how I... When I first met you, I called you a freak. And I'm sorry."
The Mountie winced a little; and for the first time, he let down his guard so that Kowalski could see a trace of his own insecurity reflected in his eyes. "Oh, that. Well... it's okay," Ben shrugged. "That was a long time ago, and besides... I've been called worse things."
But that doesn't make it right, Stan thought, shamed by the realization that his former thoughtlessness had, in fact, hurt the seemingly impervious Mountie. He'd hidden it from him so well that he'd never guessed, but he hadn't mistaken the pain in his eyes just now. "See, it's just that -- the hat, and the wolf, and you knowin' everything and tastin' everything else, well... Yer so different, it just threw me at first, that's all," he went on. He wasn't sure if he'd explained it very well, but he wanted to take away that old hurt, wipe the slate clean.
"Understood," Fraser said quietly.
"And I'm... sorry I socked you that time, too," he mumbled.
"Ahhh, that," Ben said. "Well... I know I can be very irritating at times. Ray Vecchio used to tell me that, too. Besides -- in light of the fact that you allowed me to 'sock' you in return, I think we're even Steven."
Stan blinked. "Even Steven?" He laughed. "That's a good one, Benny. Haven't heard that since I was a kid."
"Indeed." Fraser smiled, his eyes a bit misty, as if he were remembering something.
Stan's heart lifted. In Fraser's own unique way, he'd just forgiven him for the worst things he'd ever done to him; and it felt really good. Not nearly as good as what they'd just done, mind you, but good.
But then he wondered if he'd just acted like a jerk to him again. He squinted down at Ben anxiously, knowing he was too polite to ever complain. "Ummm... I didn't... hurt ya' or anything, did I? Just now, I mean. 'Cuz I know I got a little carried away there," he finished awkwardly.
Fraser leaned up suddenly and kissed him, very tenderly. "No. You didn't hurt me at all," he breathed. "You were wonderful, Detective Kowalski."
Stan smiled, the lump in his throat washed away by a wave of pure happiness. He was still a little awed by the fact that he'd made Fraser, Ice Prince of the Yukon, scream out loud. "Well... I just wanted to make sure, 'cuz you got pretty wild there yourself, Frase."
"Did I?" the Mountie asked innocently, laying back down again.
Stan grinned, knowing full well that he was being teased. "Oooohhh, yeah. You kinda' yelled a little there, at the end," he said, playing along with it.
Fraser shook his head. "Impossible. That must've been a wolf howl you heard," he said with a straight face.
Stan grinned, and laid himself happily down on his best friend's big, broad chest again. "Well, it was loud enough -- it could've been, "he teased back. "Or maybe it was a Yaki," he grinned, pressing his still erect hardness into Fraser's thigh.
Fraser rolled suddenly, so that Kowalski was beneath him. "That's Yeti," he corrected, as Stan had known he would. What he hadn't expected was that Fraser would grab his wrists and pin him down, settling his weight over him so that he couldn't move. Or that he'd lower his head and start kissing his neck slowly, inhaling deeply as he went.
"Whatever," Stan said, suddenly a bit short of breath. "Umm... Benny? Are you -- tasting me?"
"Mmhmm," Fraser muttered dreamily, sucking at his skin. "And learning your scent... You smell wonderful, Ray."
Kowalski shivered. He'd always deplored Fraser's obsession with tasting and smelling everything -- until now. He supposed he should object to being treated like a really interesting bit of evidence, but he could hardly object when Ben's warm, seeking tongue felt so incredible. Hell, just being pinned under his big, muscular body felt incredible... Better than any of his erotic dreams about him.
"Do you mind?" Fraser whispered, as he sank his teeth ever so lightly into the sensitive spot where his neck joined his shoulder.
"Oh, no," he said, trying not to pant. "Not too much... "Jesus, you can lick me all over like an ice cream cone if you want,he thought, reveling in it. I won't stop you... Then Ben licked the spot he'd just bitten. "Ooohhhh, yeah, that's good, Benny," he moaned aloud, before he could stop himself. He tried to gather his wits, determined to be cool, and not to betray how much Fraser's close inspection of his body was turning him on. Not just yet, anyway. Being with Benny felt so good he wanted to drag it out as long as he could. "Umm... Don't you think we should... post a guard or something?" he teased, trying to distract himself with humor. "Just in case one o' those Yeti things comes by?"
"Dief will warn us," Fraser breathed against his neck, amused, "if anyone comes."
"Oh, I think someone's gonna come," Stan grinned. "Probably real soon, in fact."
Fraser lifted his head then, and stared down at him with the wickedest smile he'd ever seen on his handsome face. "Your turn, I believe. "Then he kissed Kowalski firmly, until he was moaning.
When he finally came up for air, Stan grinned even wider. "Ya' know, I think yer right."
Some time later, Stan lay in Ben's arms again, warm, tired and vastly content. They both began to drowse off. Then suddenly, Stan smiled to himself. "Hey, Benny," he whispered.
"Ya' 'member how this whole adventure started? How I wanted to find that hand, that reaching out hand?"
"Yes." Fraser caressed his shoulder gently, his voice sleepy.
Stan caught that hand in his gently and kissed it. "Well, I think I found it. Right here," he said huskily. "That reaching out hand that I wanted." He was really saying 'I love you', though he couldn't form the words. He wondered if Ben could hear them anyway.
Fraser gathered him closer. "I'm glad," he whispered. "So have I."
Stan smiled to himself in the darkness. Oh, yeah, he thought happily. He heard me.
And then they slept, curled up happily together in Fraser's sleeping bag. No longer alone.