Red

The knife blade made an arc across the pad of Ray's thumb, leaving behind no pain at all. Fraser kept the blades sharp. In his intake of breath, Ray heard the rasp of the blade on the stone as Fraser honed the knife with patient, regular strokes, as close to mechanical time-keeping as this place ever got. The days were getting longer and longer, and they were sleeping less and less, and everything expanded to fill the time. A ticking clock would take days to make it through a minute. Even bleeding happened slower now. The pain came with the blood, though, and his breath rushed out as a hissed curse that seemed to sizzle away across the grey-brown grass toward the lake. Crouched at the edge where the ice had backed off enough to leave a ribbon of open water, Fraser raised his head.

Ray put his thumb in his mouth and watched Fraser crunch across the pebbled beach and onto the grass. The sound of his footsteps was swallowed up by the pale sky.

When he sat down on the rock next to Ray's and pulled the thumb gently from Ray's mouth, the blood welled up again immediately. Fraser's own mouth turned down on the ends, not disapproving or even sympathetic. Assessing.

"Bad?"

Fraser shook his head, once, sharply. "No."

Ray waited with his hand open on his knee while Fraser rummaged in the pack for the first aid kit and walked back down to the lake to scoop up some water in his tin coffee mug, came back and arranged his materials on the dry grass between his feet. Ray let Fraser take his hand into his lap. Ray could do this himself--he even opened his mouth to say so--but Fraser's head was bowed, his eyes the only shadows in the endless, shadowless evening, so Ray let him work.

The square of gauze came away from Ray's thumb red and Ray wondered for a second if this was the first red of the season. It was so garish in the colourless light that it almost seemed to make a sound, cymbals crashing, or the wail of a siren far off, or that keen, falling whistle hawks made when they turned spirals on updrafts.

Fraser's hands went still.

"What?"

Nothing. The day kept on stretching on, thin and practically translucent.

"What?" Ray ducked his head but couldn't see Fraser's eyes. "I'd say a penny for your thoughts but I don't got any change on me."

Fraser's cheek creased with a smile and he started working again, bending down for the antiseptic gel. "That's just as well. A penny isn't worth much up here."

"Okay, then. Two fish hooks and a darning needle." An offer nobody would refuse. Ray'd been in the Northwest Areas long enough to understand the real currency.

Fraser's tilt of the head was familiar. Not quite a shrug. Giving in. Deflection. "I was thinking about flowers."

"Flowers. Okay." Ray drew the last word out a little so there was no chance it could be taken for acceptance. Over the weeks, they'd learned to hear all kinds of extra things in words. They'd had whole conversations in single syllables. Words tended to disappear into the silence so it was best, Ray had learned, to use them sparingly and aim them carefully. Fraser started to wind a clean strip of gauze around Ray's thumb, but Ray watched his face instead: the wind-burned brow with a notch of concentration in it, the tongue darting out across his lip. He could wait. The day wasn't ending any time soon.

Fraser finished with the bandage and fastened it with tape. But he didn't let go of Ray's hand. When he raised his head, he looked out toward the lake, and the ice was reflected there in his eyes. It took Ray a second to realize it wasn't a trick of the light, but tears. He didn't move, although his fingers twitched in Fraser's lap, threatening to curl around Fraser's hand. But he didn't do it. He waited, feet planted flat and solid against the snow-flattened grass and the stone underneath, his heel braced against the side of Fraser's boot.

Fraser cleared his throat and spoke to the lake. "On the tundra, flowers are pollinated by flies, not bees. This is why they--the flowers--are mostly yellow or white. Flies don't distinguish by colour the way bees do."

Ray stole a glance down at his thumb, where the gauze was spotted with red. Maybe this was the only red of the season. "Okay, yeah, sure. Makes sense."

Fraser shook his head. "No." Then a laugh gusted out and he blinked so that the tears fell. "It doesn't, really. Or it does. Really." Another low, laugh. "I always see them as red, in my mind. I look at them and they're yellow or white, but when I close my eyes they're red."

"Red's nice." Even as he said it, Ray knew it was the wrong tack. He braced his heel harder against Fraser's boot to keep him from sliding away. Out on the far side of the lake, the ice sheet cracked and the pressure wave rushed past them with a wh-wh-wh-whooooooooom. Ray couldn't stop his fingers from curling then--even though he knew it was safe, what with them being on dry land right then, but the ice-talk still made his muscles twang, flight response. Fraser's fingers returned the pressure, though, automatically reassuring. Forcing himself to relax, joint by joint, Ray went back to stillness, letting Fraser's attention turn away from Ray and back to himself. "Or, not," he prodded.

"I was six when my mother died."

"Oh." This was like that first day of the long hike over the mountains, when they'd crested that ridge and looked over the other side and ahead there was just the Northwest Areas, Fraser territory, blank and waiting.

"We found her. Dad and I. I saw--" Fraser swallowed. "Muldoon...."

"Yeah, I know." No need to walk that ground.

Flicking him a quick glance that managed to signal gratitude without actually risking real eye-contact, Fraser nodded. "I don't remember. I know that I sat outside with the stringer of fish while DadŠ while heŠ" He let go of Ray's hand to swipe his thumb across his eyebrow, but when his hand fell, he let Ray grasp his arm. Ray's thumb throbbed in time with the pulse in Fraser's wrist. "I cleaned the fish. I'd never cleaned fish on my own before. You'd think I'd remember something like that. I suspect I didn't do a very good job."

In Ray's mind's eye, Fraser's six-year-old hands moved with adult dexterity, like Fraser was never without the knowledge, like he was never a kid. At first the thought was reassuring--Ray depended on those hands--but then the thought felt mean. Ray squeezed his arm a little tighter.

"There were flowers--mountain avens--tiny, white. They grow in stone. Roots patiently work the stone into soil. I know they were white. But in my mind they're red." He blinked slowly into the light. "Until that day in the mine shaft, with Muldoon, when I thought of my mother, all I could see was red mountain avens." The bitter huff of a laugh again. "They don't even exist."

"And after?"

Fraser's faint smile said he wasn't going there. Instead, his voice was thin, distant, spiraling off in a different direction. "I don't much care for red."

Somewhere on the ice sheet, something gave way and the pressure wave rolled toward them like a monster groaning itself awake. Fraser's free hand closed over Ray's. His calluses were rough against Ray's knuckles.

"Some red things are good," Ray said. "The red Mountie suit. That's good. If red's good enough for SantaŠ." He shrugged.

"It's very uncomfortable."

"The Santa suit?" Ray followed that up with a grin.

Fraser looked at him sidelong. "The dress uniform." Deadpan. Playing the straight-man.

Ray let his fingers loosen just a little around Fraser's wrist. "Well then I guess next time you're in it, I'll have to help you out of it."

At that, Fraser turned to look at him full on, and it was just like that time by the lake when Ray'd hauled off and punched him in the mouth, and the way Fraser's head had snapped away and when he'd looked back again, on his face there was no surprise at all. And Ray's heart was galloping inside his chest just like it had then and he knew his own expression said he couldn't believe he'd done it but he wasn't going to take it back.

The evening kept slipping onward, going nowhere. The ice shifted again and sighed. Fraser's fingers were still and warm on the back of Ray's hand and Fraser's pulse felt just like the throbbing in Ray's thumb.

And then Fraser smiled. "That's very kind of you, Ray," he said, and the smile got a little wider, maybe wider than Ray'd seen since the moment Fraser stood up on the ice field and declared himself home.

Ray shrugged. "I'm a kind kind of guy."

"Yes, you are."

"Don't spread that around, though. I got my reputation."

"Of course."

"Can't get a rep as a kind kind of guy. Perp's'll take advantage."

"I'm sure they would."

Ray got up off the rock and followed Fraser into the tent. "Hey, is that true, about the flies?"

"Yes, Ray."

"No bees?"

"No."

"That's weird."

"No it isn't."

They took their time, because Ray had a sore thumb, which made buttons difficult, but it was okay, since the day wasn't going anywhere anytime soon.




Notes:  I thought that Fraser's postsecret maybe had a story attached. Maybe there's a story for each of the Rays, and Welsh, too, actually, but I won't have time before the deadline and besides, I have graaaading to do, so, this little bit o' nuthin' scribbled while invigilating an exam.

Feedback welcomed at troyswann@yahoo.ca.

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