This Is Your Life
Author's Notes: All-encompassing thanks to Mergatrude and Sageness, whose betas made this vastly better, and who put up with me with amazing cheerfulness.
For a moment, when I wake up, I'm sure I'm dead. It's dark and I can hear the echoes of my father telling me how to catch an elk with a fishhook.
Then the darkness lightens and I know I've fallen asleep in a snow drift (my foot is cramped, my shoulders and ribs ache, I need to urinate), but I'm not cold.
Then I smell starch and hear the bustle of nurses and the distant beep beep beep of a heart monitor.
I force my eyes open, command them to focus: a standard issue hospital bed, salmon-colored curtains, my hat on the table by the bed as though it's keeping watch over me. I sit up, and wait for the room to stop spinning before kicking free of the blankets and swinging my legs around. I put my hat on.
Nearby Ray is talking to someone, presumably a doctor. "Next of kin," he says. "Ray Kowalski."
Disoriented as I am, I know he mustn't say that. He's breaking his cover, and whatever has happened, whatever has happened to me, there's surely no excuse to put Ray Vecchio's life at risk. "Ray," I say, pushing the curtains aside. "Ray, I'm fine."
Ray is there in an instant, his hands on my arm, my shoulder, my back. "How's your head?"
"Fine." I stare at him. There are new lines on his face, his hair is faded, and his olive-green sweatshirt has a stain on the cuff. He seems to have suddenly aged. I swallow the lump in my throat. "Is everything all right? Where's--"
"He's on his way," Ray interrupts. "He'll be here soon." He glances over his shoulder at the door, as though he expects Quinn to appear right on cue.
I follow his gaze, but the doorway remains empty. I retrieve my clothes from the bedside cabinet. "Did you recover the jewels?"
"Jewels?" says Ray, his eyebrows coming together. He takes my shirt from me and pushes me down to sit on the bed. "What jewels?"
"From the robbery." I can't remember the name of the store, and I don't want to say too much and inadvertently implicate Quinn. But Ray is shaking his head. He sits down and pulls the chair closer.
"It wasn't a robbery, Fraser. It was a hit and run." He touches me--strokes my hand, my arm. "You saved a kid. Don't you remember?"
He must be mistaken. The last thing I remember is Ray flying through the window on a patrol bike, rainbow shards of glass exploding in every direction, and the malfeasant who was holding Quinn and me hostage being knocked off his feet. I do my best to explain. "You rode the motorcycle. Rescued Quinn and--"
"Quinn?" He looks at me with concern, and holds up three fingers. "How many fingers, Fraser?"
"Three." I meet his gaze. "Why? Is Quinn all right?"
"Last time you heard from him, yeah." Ray stands up, jittery. "I gotta call the doc. This isn't--" He runs his hand through his hair, and I'm momentarily distracted by the movement, by his grace. Then he steps forward. "Something's hinky. What's the date?"
"Yeah, what day do you think it is? What year?"
"September 30th, 1998," I recite. "Or, I suppose--how long have I been here? October 1st."
Ray's shaking his head. "It's 2001, Fraser. We--"
"No." I laugh in disbelief. It can't be.
He reaches for the call button.
Doctor McMurphy--a short, stocky man with sparse ginger hair--runs scans and asks me questions, which I do my best to answer. Ray is always there, arms folded tightly across his chest, guarding me.
I am explaining to the doctor that I first came to Chicago on the trail of the killers of my father when someone bustles into the room in a flurry of umbrella and brown great-coat.
It's Ray Vecchio--thinner and with slightly less hair, a little older, but unmistakable.
I gape at him, astounded. "Ray? What are you doing here?"
He hurries over, unwinding his caramel-colored scarf as he moves. "Jesus Christ, Benny! Are you okay?"
He doesn't wait for my answer, instead turning to the others. "Is he okay?"
It takes me a second to realize he's addressing Ray Kowalski and not the doctor, and when I do notice that, it makes no sense. They've never met before, and Ray is hardly a medical expert.
"He's all in one piece," says Ray, "but he thinks it's 1998."
Doctor McMurphy chimes in. "He appears to have retrograde memory loss. There's no organic cause that I can ascertain."
"Amnesia?" says Ray, bunching his scarf up in one hand. "Again?" He clasps Ray's shoulder in a gesture that startles me, and their eyes meet, and then Ray turns back to me and takes my hand.
"Ray!" I blurt out again. "What are you doing here?"
He looks at the others over his shoulder. "See? He knows me. That's not amnesia--" He turns back to me and grimaces. "I'm sorry, Benny," he says. "I came as fast as I could--Detroit airport was snowed in and I had to drive."
"Detroit?" I can't be hearing him correctly.
He glances at the doctor and lowers his voice. "Yeah, you know--Detroit. The Bureau called me in to brief that guy, remember?"
My head aches. None of this makes any sense. It's good--and startling--to see Ray. His hand is warm and strong, and there's an old scar on his knuckle that I remember, but-- "You're supposed to be in Las Vegas."
He stiffens and a shadow touches his eyes. "You don't remember?"
"I told you," says Ray, coming over to stand behind him. His hand falls on Ray's shoulder. "He thinks it's 1998."
"Remember what, Ray?" I examine Ray Vecchio's dear face, absent so long. Confusion shakes me. Ray and Ray, here together. Both of them in one place--it seems paradoxical. "What?"
Ray hunches over our joined hands, but when he speaks, he's obviously addressing the doctor. "What's going on here? Last time he forgot everything."
"Last time?" Doctor McMurphy comes over to the bed. The light winks off his stethoscope. "Corporal Fraser's had amnesia before?"
Ray nods. "Yeah, he fell off the back of a car while in pursuit of some jewel thieves. Didn't you read his medical history?"
"Constable," I say, but no one's listening. "Quinn?"
"Quinn's home in the Northwest Territories," Ray Kowalski tells me. "You want me to call him?" He pulls a silver object only a few inches long from his pocket and flips it open to form--a miniature telephone? It's barely an eighth the size of his cell phone.
"No," I say, diverted. "No, that's all right."
"It's highly unusual," says Doctor McMurphy. "It's like lightning striking in the same place twice."
"That's our Fraser," says Ray, winking at me. "Ol' Lightning Rod." There's something in his eyes. I wonder if he's aware he's flirting with me.
"Whatever," Ray cuts in, "it's different this time. He knows who he is, he knows us, he's just forgotten--"
"Us," finishes Ray.
I look from one to the other, but can't fathom what they're saying.
The doctor butts in. "Since Corporal Fraser doesn't appear to have a concussion, the best thing you can do is to keep an eye on him and expose him to familiar people, places, things--see if that jogs his memory."
Ray Vecchio nods. "Okay, Fraser. We're taking you home."
"Home?" I think fleetingly of the Northwest Territories, then resign myself to the pomp and formality of the Consulate.
"Our home," says Ray Kowalski. "Come on, you can discover the twenty-first century all over again."
"Your home?" I raise my eyebrows in surprise. "You two live together?"
"No, Benny." Ray helps me into my clothes. "Our home. We three live together."
"Oh." I'm nonplussed. "We three?" I can't imagine what circumstance would have inspired such an arrangement, nor why I was apparently promoted and yet still in Chicago.
"We three men of Orient are," says Ray. "Come on, Fraser, chop chop. We got a star to follow."
It's mid-afternoon by the time we finally leave the hospital, and it's not until we're negotiating the Christmas traffic in a classic black Pontiac GTO--Ray Kowalski at the wheel; Ray Vecchio, to my surprise, apparently content to sit in the backseat--that I think to ask how I ended up in the hospital. My head has been full of Quinn and jewels and Ray riding a motorcycle through the window. I try to put that in the past. "What happened?"
"Yeah," says Ray Vecchio. "What happened?"
Ray puts on the windshield wipers against the snow and glances at me. "Hit and run. There was a kid on the street outside the Consulate, a gray sedan going way too fast for the conditions. The car tried to swerve and it skidded. You saved the kid, but the car clipped you and knocked you into the gutter. You were out cold."
"Did you get a plate?" Ray asks, grimly.
"Yeah. The driver got stopped a couple of blocks away. Told the cop she was in a hurry to get home to her family."
"Jesus." Ray reaches forward and pats my shoulder with his gloved hand. It occurs to me that neither Ray has any qualms about touching me. I feel warm at the thought--confused, too, but for the first time, the solitude of the far North loses its luster. I close my eyes and enjoy having my two good friends close by. Then my eyes fly open.
"Is Diefenbaker--" Still alive? I can't form the words.
"He's at home. He's fine." Ray indicates right and turns off the freeway. The roads are icy, and even he is driving slowly, carefully. "Hang on, we're nearly there."
It's a suburb I'm not familiar with, lined with well-established trees. The houses, trimmed with Christmas lights, are set reasonably far apart, their snow-covered lawns and hedges sloping down to the street. "Why do we--?" I clear my throat. "That is, how did we come to--to decide to move in together?"
Neither man answers right away. They exchange glances in the rearview mirror.
"Uh," says Ray Kowalski, "we thought--I mean, when we--"
"Wait till we get home," Ray interrupts. "Maybe you'll remember for yourself."
I nod reluctant agreement and struggle to recall any detail of the last three years, as Ray turns off a main road and takes us up a winding driveway. The house at the top is a small, secluded bungalow. At least, it seems small. With three of us living here, I imagine its proportions must be deceptive. It's dark except for electric candles glowing in the window, but as we get closer, we trip a motion sensor and light floods the yard.
"Home, sweet home," says Ray Vecchio, and I can't help but agree. It's a far cry from my office at the Consulate and Racine Avenue.
"Remember anything?" Ray Kowalski presses a button clipped to the car's sun visor. The double garage door opens, revealing a large maroon four-wheel drive on one side, space for the Pontiac on the other.
I shake my head, get out of the car before Ray parks in the garage, and look around the yard. Snow dances in the air and the house looks like something out of a fairytale, with its red front door in the center and a red-trimmed bay window on either side. The garage is to the right of the house, and a woodpile is stacked neatly in an alcove under the left-hand bay window. I wonder who chopped the wood.
"How long have we been here?"
"Four, four and a half months," says Ray Vecchio, but I hardly hear him because Dief has come bounding out of the garage to say hello. I crouch down and greet him, rubbing his neck and relieved beyond measure to see him. He hasn't changed, and it's a comfort to find him constant--no puzzle, mystery, or strange undercurrents. He licks my face and I let him, despite his terrible wolf breath.
He pointedly tells me it's cold out and that now I'm home, I might as well feed him. "In a minute," I say, and ask Ray to give me a tour first.
"Yeah," Ray Kowalski intervenes, with an odd inflection. He's shut the garage again and tromped over leaving boot prints in the snow. He sounds nervous. Does he think I'll disapprove of our house? I can't imagine why: it's cozy and homey, and I feel at ease here already, although I don't recognize a thing.
Pink-cheeked, maybe from the cold, Ray Vecchio unlocks the door and ushers me inside, reaching past me to switch on the lights. The promise made by the house's exterior is fulfilled inside: there are two comfortable-looking couches (the brown one I recognize from the Vecchios' parlor; the other, which is tan, is unfamiliar) angled towards a television, a fireplace with knickknacks and photos on the mantel, and a beautifully decorated Christmas tree with presents stacked beneath it and a golden-winged angel on top.
"You decorated the tree last weekend," says Ray Kowalski, helping me out of my coat and scarf, and hanging them on a hook.
"I helped," says Ray Vecchio.
Dief woofs impatiently and disappears through a doorway, I presume in the direction of the kitchen. I go toward the fireplace instead and look at the photos: Frannie smiling down at a small baby swaddled in a pink blanket--I raise startled eyebrows at Ray Vecchio, and he grin and nods; Ray and Ray standing in the snow--in Canada, I suspect, given the flora--wearing thick parkas and snowshoes; Ray Vecchio, not much younger than he looks now, standing on a lawn beside a 1971 Buick Riviera, grinning jubilantly--
"Another Riv?" I ask, wondering why it isn't in the garage.
Ray's face tightens. "Yeah, and you want to know why I don't have it anymore, Fraser?"
"It wasn't his fault," Ray Kowalski intervenes. "Fraser, don't mention the Riv."
I scratch my eyebrow, as much surprised by Ray's role as peacemaker as by the intelligence that I've apparently cost Ray yet another Riviera. It's 2001, I tell myself. A lot has happened. I turn back to the photos.
There's a photo of me standing in the front doorway of this house, leaning one arm high on the doorframe, with Diefenbaker at my side looking off to the left. I pick it up and study it: I'm dressed in jeans and my old blue sweater, and wearing my hat. I'm radiating satisfaction. Three years of my life. "Have I changed?" I ask, still looking at the photo.
"Yeah," says Ray Vecchio.
I look at him questioningly.
"You're happy," he says, simply, and yes, I can feel that. There's something solid about the dynamic between the three of us, something I can count on. It feels like family.
"More in touch with yourself," Ray Kowalski elaborates. "More relaxed."
"And still more irritating than is humanly possible," Ray Vecchio tells me warmly, and I know he's forgiven me the loss of his car. The look in his eyes takes me back to a long-ago diner, when he first invited me home to meet his family and I lost my heart to him.
"You've stopped pining for the fjords," says Ray Kowalski. "And you--" He moves toward me and for a moment I think--I think he's going to kiss me. My face heats up. I glance back at Ray Vecchio to see if he's noticed, unsure whether my imagination is running amok, and I turn away quickly to place the photo back on the mantelpiece, between the brass clock and a polar bear Christmas card addressed to the three of us and signed Maggie.
My guitar is propped against the wall beside the Christmas tree, and there's a folder of papers beside it. Ray Kowalski must follow my gaze--he says, "You were playing carols night before last." His voice sounds strained. I can't look at him.
"Uh, please excuse me a moment," I say, awkwardly and move toward the door. Then I stop and turn on my heel. "Where would I find the bathroom?"
"First on your right past the stairs," says Ray Vecchio.
As soon as I leave the room, I hear them start to talk. I don't eavesdrop.
The bathroom is clean and modern, with white tiles and dark blue walls. There are three toothbrushes on the rack by the basin: one green, one blue, and one red. I wonder which is mine.
I use the facilities and wash my hands, looking at myself in the mirror. Like Ray and Ray, I've aged somewhat, but the years have been kind to me. The smile-lines around my eyes have deepened. I have a small scar on my jaw that wasn't there yesterday--or what seems like yesterday. Despite my current memory-loss, I look happy, confident. I wish I could remember.
I raise my hand to the bathroom cabinet, and hesitate. It seems rude to go through their belongings--and yet I live here, too. Presumably I look in this cabinet every day. I hold my breath and open the door:
There's nothing particularly out of the ordinary: razors, including my own straight blade; soap, an orange tube of hair gel, Tylenol. I pick up a small bottle of aftershave and sniff it, curiously. My heart thumps. I grasp the edge of the sink and try to make sense of my reaction: blood racing, adrenal jolt. I put the aftershave back and scan the other two shelves: soap, an unopened jar of lavender bath salts, a first aid kit, an opened packet of condoms and a half-empty tube of lubricant.
Instinctively, I crack my neck. I don't know why it surprises me that one of us is sexually active. We are three single men in our early forties. Of course Ray--or Ray--would have a girlfriend.
I shut my eyes and recall the look on Ray Kowalski's face as he came toward me--the glint in his eye, his softly parted lips. I imagine that I didn't turn away, that instead I took him in my arms, held him hard against me. Saliva pools in my mouth as I imagine kissing him, our tongues stroking against each other. His taste. I think I know how he tastes.
I swallow hard and blink my eyes open, staring at myself. Are Ray and I--together (and, if so, what of Ray Vecchio?), or is my desire for Ray--for both of them--hidden, as I have always kept it hidden? I don't know. I can't tell fantasy from memory. I only know I must tread warily--not give myself away, for fear of disrupting the life we have built here together. If our household is based on our mutual friendship, then I must school myself to want only friendship.
And if not--God help me, have I chosen one Ray over the other? I can't imagine it. Perhaps it was they who did the choosing.
I wash my face and dry it on a wine-colored towel, then leave the solitude of the bathroom to uncover the mystery of my life. There's no way to ask what I need to know. I'll have to deduce it myself.
The hallway is narrow and uncarpeted. There are three artworks hung on the walls: a painting of a man standing beside a stormy lake or inlet, looking out across the water; a framed poster of a black Pontiac--the same make as the one Ray was driving; and a pencil sketch on creamy parchment of Ray Vecchio and Diefenbaker, bearing my signature. I look at the last one critically--the perspective is slightly flawed--and wonder when I drew it. There's no date.
The stairs are situated beside the bathroom, and the pine banister is worn, polished smooth by the years. A door stands ajar across from the stairs, and I poke my head into the room, hoping for a clue: it's a small office, which houses my desk from the Consulate (did Inspector Thatcher let me purchase it?) and shelves crammed with books--including novels, poetry, and several reference works. There's a stack of mail on the desk, which I leaf through to no avail--bills and a few cheery Christmas cards. The window looks out on a small elm tree. None of it is familiar.
I go back to the living room. Ray is there alone, fiddling nervously with the decorations on the tree.
"Vecchio's feeding Dief," he says, giving me a small, tight smile. "Impatient mutt. Did the bathroom ring any bells?"
I shake my head.
He nods and touches my shoulder. "Hey, don't worry--we'll think of something. Come on, I'll give you the tour."
He smells warm and sensual. His hair is mussed--more than it was--and his lips--
He's been kissed. I'm sure of it. An unwelcome third possibility occurs to me: that Ray and Ray are a couple, and I, their oddball roommate. Yesterday--three years ago--the notion of Ray and Ray together would have been laughable. They hadn't even met! But here, in this home they've made together, it's depressingly credible.
And the tour of the house confirms it. "This is, uh, our room," says Ray, slanting a quick sidelong glance in my direction. It's a spacious, well-lit room across the hallway from the living room, in casual disarray. The closet door stands open, showing Ray's suits hung neatly and Ray's sports jackets and mismatched formal wear. Motorcycle boots, sneakers, and leather loafers lie jumbled together on the closet floor. There's a profusion of pillows on and beside the king-sized bed. The rumpled bedcovers are blue plaid.
I look away. So this is how it is: I live with them together. I wonder how it came to this: did I remain reticent too long? Did they decline my advances? For a moment, I'm furious with my former self for not winning Ray or Ray--either one, for I love them both. It seems a cruel joke to have effectively traveled through time and found both of them receptive to a male embrace, both spoken for.
Then resignation sweeps through me. It's obvious they're happy together--I must let go, and find it in me to be happy for them, too. I'll do all right alone.
Ray shifts his weight as I scan the room in silence: the charming clutter of personal effects, the bright cluster of ties draped over the closet door. I pick a wheat-colored sweater off the floor and fold it, absently. It smells of Ray Vecchio, but even with all this sensory information, nothing raises a glimmer of remembrance in my mind. It's infuriating.
I put the sweater on the foot of the bed and clear my throat. "And the rest of the house?"
He shows me the office, the hall closet under the stairs, stacked with towels and linen, the utility room, and the small attic room with my twin bed, a shelf of books, and my father's trunk. It's pleasant enough, if Spartan. I go to the window and look out at the trees and the red tile roof of the house next door.
Ray comes up behind me. "You don't--" He stops and I feel the warmth of his breath on my neck.
I grip the side of the window to keep from leaning back against him or moving away. It's harder than usual to manage my impulses, perhaps because of my disorientation. I pinch the bridge of my nose.
"Headache?" asks Ray, at once.
"It's nothing." I try to smile. "It's fading. Show me the rest."
"That's, uh, that's all," Ray says after a moment, "except for the kitchen." So we go down to the kitchen--
The wall paneling and benches are varnished rustic beech. Ray is chopping cilantro and fresh vegetables. He looks up and meets my gaze. "Anything?"
"No." I swallow my disappointment and try to smile. "Perhaps once I've had some rest." I open the tall doors of the pantry and catalogue the spices to avoid the thought of sleeping in that cool quiet room upstairs while Ray and Ray lie entwined beneath me. I can do this. I do do this--every day. I've just forgotten how. "Why are there four jars of oregano, three unopened?"
Ray Kowalski laughs dryly. "Because someone--" He nudges Ray with his hip as he moves past to fill the kettle. "--kept writing it on the shopping list without checking to see if we'd already bought it last time."
"Ah." I watch them grin at each other, teasing and mock exasperated, respectively. "I--I think I'll lie down for a while."
Ray scrapes diced tomatoes into a bowl, puts down his knife, and wipes his hands on a hand towel. "You okay?" he asks, seriously, coming over to me. He stands close--I can smell cilantro and the faint tang of his aftershave, the same aftershave I smelled in the bathroom. Once again my pulse rises, my gaze leaps to the soft curve of his lips.
I pull myself together and touch my forehead ruefully, feeling foolish. "Yes, of course. I'm sure it's only a matter of time."
"It better be," mutters Ray Kowalski, emphatically.
I nod. It must be frustrating for him to have me, their roommate, needing constant attention. "I'll be fine," I tell them both, and I go upstairs to my room.
I run my hand up the banister as I go, hoping the presumably familiar sensation will rouse a tactile memory--but memories elude me.
The pale blue sheets on my narrow bed are fairly new, the pillow soft. I lie down for half an hour and browse through one of my father's diaries--familiar entries I've read hundreds of times before. The rhythm of his words comforts me, helping me pull myself together, but they don't hold my interest. I stare at the ceiling instead and remind myself that the need for self-sufficiency is nothing new.
I wonder if Dad still visits me from beyond the grave. I haven't seen any indication, but that's no proof--he often disappears for days, weeks, only to return at the most inopportune moment. All the same, I get up and check the closet in my attic room to see if he's relocated his office. There's only two red dress uniforms, my brown uniform, and a selection of shirts in my usual style. The drawers reveal underwear, jeans, a dozen pairs of black socks, and several volumes of my father's diary.
I pull out the drawer of the small table beside my bed, and blink in confusion. Condoms, lubricant--the same brands as in the bathroom downstairs. Perhaps I'm seeing someone. Perhaps there is someone else for me--I try to imagine it.
I find another diary, too--my own. I flick through the pages, choose one at random:
except for Dief, of course. RK assured me that Canada is still an option, but the flash of doubt on RV's face didn't escape me. It hardly matters: Chicago has become my second home, and why should I not love two places? My heart has a capacity I'd previously not suspected.
In truth, I do miss the arctic, but I think I'd miss Chicago, too (how RV would laugh if he read these words--his own preferences vindicated!)--the Lake, the parks, the NHL live, the fascinating interactions between so many people--all so different, the cheer and heat and ridiculous preoccupations with motor vehicles and coffee and appearances and money. It sounds strange, but the longer I spend here, the more I'm moved by the triumph of civilization over self-interest. Millions of people living in such close proximity, generally kindly and with a measure of grace toward each other hidden under their abrasive exteriors. So I suppose now I'm damned to be always home and away from home at once, geography being less accommodating than people.
Regardless, the more I let myself love, the richer life becomes, and Chicago or Tuk, it hardly matters. I'd like to visit mum's grave, though. I'd like to tell her. Perhaps next summer we
I glance up, startled. Ray Vecchio is watching me from the doorway, a look of such tenderness and concern on his face that it takes my breath away. Although it feels like I haven't seen him in years, and although until "yesterday" my attention was focused, partly through proximity, on Ray Kowalski--despite these things, the air between us is charged, sexualized. I remind myself firmly that they're a couple.
I close my diary and place it neatly in the drawer with the nonsensical condoms. I might as well ask. "Am--am I seeing someone?"
He opens his mouth to speak, but no words come out.
"Come on, Benny. Dinner's on. We can talk about this later."
I study him. He's hiding something, but why? I stand up and fold my arms. "What's going on, Ray?"
Ray's gaze slides to the window. "Trust me," he says. "It'll come back to you. It has to. It did last time."
I'm baffled by his evasion but it's obvious he doesn't want to talk about it. Perhaps he disapproves of--whoever he or she may be. He must have his reasons, I suppose, and--well, his nervousness is contagious. I nod and decide I'll have to figure the mystery out for myself. "Okay."
Over a delicious dinner of sauted beef and vegetables, Ray and Ray tell me stories of the last three years, tales of myself that raise more questions than they answer, mixed in with current affairs. They tell me, solemnly, of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington only a few months ago and, after a moment's quiet reflection, they change tack entirely and inform me that I have a sister, Maggie.
"Don't you remember?" Ray Kowalski asks me.
I search my memory, and shake my head. "Are we--does she look like me?"
"No--well, maybe a little around the eyes." He grins, teasing. "But she acts just like you: stubborn as hell."
There's a flutter in my memory--Ray calling me stubborn. I twist my head to the side, trying to lock onto it. "Ice fields?" I blink, and stare at Ray. "We went camping in the snow?"
His smile fades, replaced by an expression of earnest hope. "Yeah--for three months! We went looking for the Hand of Franklin. You, me, Dief and a team of dogs."
I stare at him. "You wanted to go?" I can't imagine why he would have subjected himself to such hardship. "Did you enjoy it?"
He looks proud. "I cut it, Fraser. I was looking for an adventure and it was. It was a hell of an adventure. We slept under the aurora borealis and I got real good at driving the sled."
I'm impressed, moved, but this exchange is somehow too intimate. I feel uneasy talking about this in front of Ray Vecchio--as though we're excluding him--so I turn to him. "And you, Ray? When did your assignment end?"
"When you broke my cover, you big lug," he says. "I was in Chicago, setting up a deal, and you knocked on my hotel room door! You nearly gave me a heart attack." He touches my hand, where it lies on the table.
I smile at his tone, and say, "Sorry, Ray," and I wait for him to withdraw his hand. When he doesn't, I flush from head to foot and pull away. Perhaps, to them, a touch is merely a casual gesture. Perhaps they don't mean anything by it. I can't tell, and my longing--to be held, to belong--threatens my composure.
I push my plate away and get up from the table. "I'll make tea."
Ray Kowalski follows me into the kitchen a moment later, his arms laden with dishes. "Fraser, would you stop freaking out? It's going to be okay. We love you. And you remember about the Quest--your memory's coming back!"
I nod. With the return of my memory will no doubt come the wisdom to appreciate my blessings, rather than yearning for what I can't have.
Ray piles the plates on the counter and comes over to me, frowning. "Hey, what's the matter?" He takes me in his arms and rubs my back, but that only makes it worse. His scent overwhelms me, the warmth of his embrace. I lean on him. With his arms around me, my self-control evaporates. Desperately, I press my mouth to the side of his neck.
He draws a sharp breath, but rather than pulling away or scolding me, he holds me tighter. His hand slides up to the back of my neck, and I shut my eyes, let my life come crashing down--turn my head and meet his lips with my own. My heart's hammering at the base of my throat, in my temples, as we kiss. His mouth is sweet, his stubble rough. I open to him helplessly and he pushes his tongue in to meet my own. We can't! I start to shake.
We can't. Ray Vecchio-- I summon all my strength and wrench myself away, apologies already on my lips, their austerity replacing the heat of his kiss. "I'm sorry, I--"
He scrubs both hands through his hair and clasps them behind his head. "No, no, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have--when you don't--I didn't mean to, uh--" He takes a deep breath and lets it out, then smiles sadly. "That wasn't buddies. Come on. Let's make coffee."
Ray Vecchio doesn't seem at all perturbed by our extended absence in the kitchen. When we come back bearing mugs of coffee and tea, he's made a fire in the grate and is sitting on the brown couch by the window, watching the news. Dief is sprawled in front of the fire. Ray smiles up at us as we enter.
I swallow my guilt--I can't confess my weakness, not here and now with Ray Kowalski behaving as though nothing has happened. As though we haven't violated Ray's trust and turned my world upside-down. I put on my poker face and nod towards the television. "What's going on in the world, Ray?"
"Nothing." He darts a look of disgust at the screen and mutes the sound. "Lots of snow. Big surprise."
I nod, and then scratch my eyebrow. "Well, I suppose-- Ray, what have I been doing, just in the last few days? Perhaps if you tell me that, it will get my marbles rolling again."
"Yeah, okay. Good idea. Let's see--you organized the Consulate Christmas party on Saturday." Ray rubs his chin. "The Chilean ambassador complimented you on the punch and then fell down the front steps of the Consulate, and you had to put your moose goo on his cuts. And--oh, yeah! You and Ray visited that guy in the nursing home."
"Hanrahan," explains Ray Kowalski. "He still beats me at chess." He gives Ray his coffee and sits beside him.
"Mostly you've been throwing yourself into the holiday spirit, Benny--buying gifts, decorating the tree. You said you wanted a real Christmas this year, so we've been going all out. That help?"
I shake my head, further discouraged, and remain standing with my tea, knowing I'll have to sit on the empty couch, but not yet able to settle. The memories in my head are seamless and vivid, but they don't include anything about Christmas. I try to explain: "I know the past, and the present's staring me in the face, but I can't make them--"
Ray Vecchio looks up at me, eyes wide. "Hey, that's it! That's how we can jog your memory!"
"How?" Ray and I ask in unison.
"The presents!" says Ray triumphantly.
Dief raises his head and Ray Kowalski slips him a cookie, meeting my eyes with an impudent glint.
I smile slightly, still drawn to him but knowing I must keep myself in reserve. We've already betrayed Ray Vecchio once--I decide then and there that I can only keep our lapse a secret if, after Christmas, I move out. The prospect saddens me--the thought of leaving this warmth, this fellowship--but in good faith, what else can I do?
"What's the plan?" asks Ray Kowalski, and I nearly spill my tea before realizing he's talking to Ray Vecchio.
"What if we make Christmas come a few days early? If Fraser sees the presents he bought us--" Ray points toward the Christmas tree. "--maybe it'll help you figure it out."
I raise my eyebrows, wondering how the presents will make a difference when we're already surrounded by the abundant evidence of our lives--the house and all its furnishings--but I decide to trust to Ray and Fate. "All right."
"Christmas come early. Okay, then. You do the honors," Ray Kowalski says to me, so I turn to the tree and assess the piles of brightly wrapped gifts.
"We'll just open the ones from the three of us," says Ray Vecchio, hastily, as I reach for a bottle-shaped package swathed in red cellophane and tagged in Francesca's handwriting. "We can save the family ones for Christmas Day."
"As you wish." I sort through the boxes, and find five that we've apparently wrapped for each other. I can't find the sixth. "Ray," I look at Ray Kowalski over my shoulder, too aware of his hand on Ray Vecchio's knee, "I can't find your present for Ray."
"Oh." Ray slaps his forehead and looks rueful. "I haven't wrapped it yet. Uh, that one can wait."
"Hey, no way! If you two are opening two each, I want both of mine." Ray shoves him lightly. "Go get it."
"Jeez, you're impatient! I thought this was supposed to be for Fraser's benefit." Ray laughs at him, and drifts--taking his time, overtly provocative--to the door, where he pauses. "Don't start without me."
"We won't," I promise. I study the parcels from me to each Ray, trying to remember writing their names on the wrapping, trying to guess what's inside. The parcel marked RK, with love from BF is about the size of a video cassette but it doesn't rattle, and the gift for RV, in restitution, with love from BF is smaller, about three inches square, and two inches deep. I wonder about the in restitution, and can't help thinking of that illicit kiss with Ray Kowalski in the kitchen. Ray Kowalski's spirits seem unaffected by the infidelity, but I can't ignore my own shame. "Ray," I start, my conscious too insistent to ignore, "I--"
But then Ray comes back with an envelope, and I fall silent--I've not only myself to consider. "I was gonna disguise it," he says, "so pretend this is a big shiny box full of nothing, okay?" He sits back down next to Ray and gives it to him. "Merry Christmas."
They kiss, their lips lush and sensual, and I feel my cheeks burn, a bitter taste in my mouth. I take a sip of tea to hide my confusion, and look at Dief who's watching me quizzically.
I nod wry acknowledgement. My wolf knows my weaknesses far too well. I wonder that he isn't more disapproving, but then his morals have never been beyond reproach.
Ray Vecchio tears open the envelope and examines the contents: a card with a snowy landscape on it, and two slips of yellow paper. "Just two?" His shining eyes belie his teasing tone.
Ray Kowalski puts his hands up. "Hey, you're not dragging me to the opera. Fraser'll go with you, won't you Fraser?"
"Tosca," says Ray, displaying the tickets.
I force a smile. "I'd be happy to. I haven't been to the theater since I saw Lucia di Lammermoor with Mort."
Ray Vecchio shakes his head, and smiles affectionately. "Yeah, you have. Lots of times."
"Ah." I don't know how to respond. "Well, then." The pile of presents before me wavers. "Do you--?" I select the smaller of the gifts from me, and present it to Ray Vecchio. "Merry Christmas, Ray."
He stands up as if to embrace me, but I am already stepping back, too full of love and longing and guilt to accept his gesture with equanimity. I hold out my hand awkwardly instead and Ray hesitates, then shakes it. "Thanks, Benny." His voice is soft and husky, his handshake, lingering.
He sits down and turns his attention to the gift. In my peripheral vision, I see Ray Kowalski smirk, but I ignore him, focused on Ray's fingers carefully unwrapping the parcel. I hold my breath and involuntarily imagine those fingers trailing down my chest, touching me intimately.
I'm shocked. Am I so inconstant? It's true, I've believed myself in love with both of them, but if the object of my desire can change from one moment to the next, surely I truly love neither. But no, there's something missing in that logic, too. Something refuses to add up. What have I overlooked?
I'm distracted from my distress by the gift. Beneath the green and gold Christmas paper, there's a plain white cardboard box. Ray lifts the lid and pulls out a tiny roll of paper, a folded form, a small photograph, and a set of car keys, which have been nestled in a bed of cotton wool. He swallows. "Benny?"
I shakes my head in confusion, and Ray Kowalski comes to the rescue. "It's at your mom's place, hidden in the garage," he explains, tapping the photo. "A green, mint-condition--"
"--1971 Buick Riviera," Ray and I chorus with him. I think we're about equally thrown.
"Christ, Benny. How did you--?" Ray sounds awed. He unrolls the curl of paper and reads it, and then begins to laugh.
"What is it?" I ask, curiously, and he hands it to me, still chuckling. It is a small hand-made certificate bearing the RCMP seal, and it states the Riv's license plate number and a declaration that the car is warranted "100 percent Mountie-proof".
He stands up again and the laughter fades from his face. "Thank you, Benny," he says softly, and throws his arms around me, holding me tight. One of his arms is around my waist, the other hand cups the nape of my neck. I respond immediately, dry-mouthed and aroused, and I don't know if I should feel humiliated because of it. I don't know.
Looking over his shoulder, I see Ray Kowalski watching us with a small satisfied grin, no reproof. I shut my eyes and squeeze Ray Vecchio. "Merry Christmas," I murmur again.
I am hovering on the edge of understanding. I hold my breath, trying to capture an elusive truth, but then Ray lets me go and says, "Open the one from me," and it flies apart and vanishes.
I swallow my frustration, quell my physical reaction as best I can, and nod. The parcel is large and flat, and the card has a picture of a cartoon reindeer with baubles hanging from its antlers. Inside it simply says, "Benny--Love, Ray."
I peel off the tape, ignoring Ray Kowalski's snort, and strip back the paper, and my gut twists. I cover my mouth with my hand. It's an enlarged photo, beautifully framed, of the three of us, with Dief. The three of us unmistakably together. We are standing by the lake, our arms across each other's shoulders, our bodies pressed close. It's summer, and all three of us have matching smiles of contentment. How odd, I think, gazing at it. It's--I'm sure it's supposed to be smaller.
I blink rapidly, waiting for comprehension to follow instinct--and, yes! It does! I bark out a laugh.
I look up, and both Rays are watching me anxiously, as if they're unsure how I'll react. I can't express the joy and relief that's flooding through me. Instead I bite my lip, and give Ray Kowalski his present from me. "Open it."
He does, ripping into the paper, and inside--just as I knew it would be--is exactly the same photo, but smaller, mounted in a hand-carved wooden frame. I vividly remember the sound of the knife rasping against the wood, the care with which I rubbed oil into the grain once it was done. My mind cartwheels into today, now, with all the yesterdays of the last three years slotting into place. I feel dizzy, and sit down suddenly.
Dief comes over and nuzzles my hand, telling me it's his turn now, and I bury my hands in his neck ruff and tell him he's already had a cookie--his presents are going to have to wait until Christmas Day.
"Aw, come on, Frase." Ray sits down right beside me and takes up Dief's case. "It's Christmas. Give the wolf a treat."
I take his hand, holding it so tightly I must surely be hurting him. He doesn't complain. "You already gave him a cookie," I say, and bring his hand to my mouth so I can kiss his knuckles.
"Yeah, well, a cookie isn't a Christmas present," he murmurs, a slow heavy-lidded grin lighting his face as he realizes I remember.
Dief barks agreement, and I sigh exaggeratedly, and lean forward far enough to fish out a small package that I know contains a book about wolves--without releasing Ray's hand.
"That's the Christmas spirit," says Ray Vecchio, sitting close by on my other side. Together, we watch Dief unwrap his book. "Welcome home, Benny."
"It's good to be back," I say, and kiss him, slowly and appreciatively, savoring the rich zing of caffeine from his tongue. When we end the kiss, his eyes are dark.
"I can't believe you found me another Riv," he says, rubbing the back of my neck gently.
I smile. "You deserve it. I really am sorry about the last one."
Ray tilts his head, and finally concedes, "It wasn't completely your fault. I guess Garrick and his gang can take some of the blame." He kisses me quickly. "So you do remember? At last!"
I laugh, slump back into the couch, and rub my forehead. "I thought you were a couple and I was simply your roommate. The attic room--"
"Hey, you were the one who wanted your own space," Ray Vecchio points out.
"I know that now, but--" I shake my head at my own folly. "--what was I supposed to think? You could have told me, you know!"
Ray Vecchio grimaces. "We didn't want to shock you. I mean, you three years ago? You were still pretty strait-laced then, from what I hear."
Ray Kowalski elbows me in the ribs. "You thought Ray and me were a couple, and you still kissed me in the kitchen! Fraser!" He pretends to be shocked, then looks smug and winks at me.
I lean over and murmur in his ear. "I couldn't help myself." And then I say, openly, "Besides, it was only your presence that saved me from repeating my solecism with Ray just now."
Ray Vecchio ignores our antics. "I couldn't stand the thought of you--not wanting us," he continues. "Not wanting both of us. You had to remember on your own."
"What if I hadn't?" I turn to him and meet his eye, letting him see how much I care. Then I tease, "Were you both going to continue to flirt with me until you drove me insane? What did you expect me to make of that picture?"
Ray's solemnity falls away and he grins. "Well, I wasn't going to wait forever. Jeez, it was hard enough keeping my hands off you at dinner."
"You weren't the only one," I assure him, and lean into him. It feels wonderful.
"So what are we waiting for?" asks Ray Kowalski, resting his hand on my thigh suggestively.
I look around the room--our home. Dief seems content with his book. I put up the fireguard. "Not a single thing," I say, giving them each a hand up.
Ray kicks off his boots and pulls back the bedcovers while Ray and I undo each other's clothing, smiling foolishly against each other's mouths. I know, now, how much they love me. I can feel it rushing through my veins like blood, heating me, arousing me. Images of other times we've made love flash through my mind--I know their respective tastes, their smells. I know what they like, where they're sensitive, how it feels when they're inside me.
I want it all again. I want each memory stamped anew, imprinted so deeply I'll never forget. I strip off my pants and underwear, and toss them onto the chair in the corner, and while Ray hangs his Gucci sweater in the closet, Ray presses up behind me, naked, his arms sliding around me, his erection hard against my rear. He kisses my neck, bites down on my shoulder. I reach back to pull him closer.
Ray turns from the closet and watches us while he finishes undressing. He's blatantly aroused. His hand strays to his erection and he strokes himself.
"No," I say. "Please--let me." I beckon him closer, and release Ray Kowalski to run my hands over Ray's torso, his belly, his sides. I position his cock in the crease of my thigh, and pull him tight against me, gasping at the shock of his skin against mine. Heat and heat and passion flow through me, and I shudder. "I love you," I tell Ray, and then I twist around in their embrace and tell Ray behind me, too. "Love you."
Ray Kowalski catches my mouth and kisses me, then licks up my jaw to my ear. "You can't hide it, Frase. Even when you were trying to--"
He pushes me toward the bed, and he and Ray arrange me on my back, hold me down. Ray Vecchio lies against my left side, his leg hooked over mine, and kisses me, slow and deep, mesmerizing me.
Ray Kowalski explores us both with his hands and his mouth, licks his way down the cleft between us. He nuzzles Ray's armpit, then lightly nips his way across to suck on my nipple. I groan and slide my fingers into his hair to hold him there.
Ray Vecchio and I are sweating, moving against each other with increasing urgency. His cock is caught between us, and he starts to thrust. "Slowly," I whisper, wanting this to last, and he breaks the kiss to gasp my name. I run my hand over the back of his stubbly head, delighting in the textures of them both, the richness of the experience.
I want to give to them, I want to give them everything, pleasure and indulgence, all that I have--but the intensity of their attention steals my breath, and all I can do is lie back and let them love me, and trust them to know how I feel. Ray Kowalski spends a long minute licking my navel, then transfers his attentions to Ray Vecchio so that his hair brushes lightly against my sensitized nerve endings. Ray Vecchio pushes hard against me, clearly seeking friction, and I hook my arm over his shoulder and pull his chest further on top of me, needing his weight, needing them to anchor me.
Ray Kowalski groans and pries us apart, twisting Ray Vecchio's hips to gain access to our erections with his mouth. He licks first one, then the other, and we slide messily against each other until Ray wraps his fingers around us and licks around and around the heads of both our cocks together. My breath turns shallow and harsh at the sensation, the knowledge that we're all together.
I want to pleasure Ray Kowalski, too, but I know the time will come--I must be patient. My job, now, is to receive his attentions, appreciate them--and I do!--and to hold Ray in my arms.
Ray moves his hands along our cocks, up and down, and I shiver. Ray Vecchio twists his head sideways, overcome. "Shhh," I tell him. "Slowly."
"I--" He gasps. "I--can't. Christ. Too--too good, Benny--Ray!" He groans, and I take his lips, swallow his feverish murmurs, release Ray's hair and hold Ray's face in my hands while we kiss.
Ray Vecchio holds off a few more minutes, until Ray speeds his strokes, his licks sloppy and generous, and Ray and I both succumb, one after the other. "Oh, God," I gasp, heat welling up in me unbearably, and I release--and then Ray cries, "Yeah, oh yeah," and follows, stiffening and thrusting hard against me, in the tight clasp of Ray's hands.
I collapse back on the bed, all tension drained from my body, and Ray sprawls across me, panting. Ray sits back on his heels, wipes his chin with the back of his hands, and regards us smugly. His cock is rigid and flushed. Sated as I am, I still want him.
He meets my gaze and I nod, willing to submit to anything. Ray Vecchio rolls his head to one side. "You wanna fuck?" he asks Ray.
"Fraser," says Ray, his voice hoarse, almost unrecognizable.
"Yeah," I say, and give Ray a lingering kiss before I let him roll out of the way. "How do you want me?" I ask.
"Like this, just like this." Ray gropes in the nightstand for a condom, and slides it on quickly, adds lubricant, and arranges my knees in the air. Ray Vecchio intervenes, positioning a couple of pillows under my hips, and then Ray slides fingers into me--a brief formality; I'm more than ready for him--before driving home. I throw my head back and try to breathe, and Ray runs his hands down the backs of my thighs, gripping them tightly and pushing them further apart, until it hurts just right.
"Yes," I say. "God." It's perfect.
"Wait a minute," says Ray Vecchio, and I bite back my impatient protest: he's right--he needs to be part of this, too. He pushes me and pulls me, and arranges the pillows just so until he's seated behind me, my head leaning against his solar plexus, his legs cradling me, and his hands smoothing across my chest, pinching my nipples, driving me crazy.
Ray slides out slowly, gently, then slams home, and I shudder and cry out. My back arches involuntarily, letting him further in.
"Fuck," he says, rocking into me, again and again. "Fuck, Frase--don't ever--ever do that--again." He can't reach my lips to kiss me, the angle is awkward, and he's apparently too overwhelmed to stop and change position, so I take his hand from my thigh, the hand free of lubricant, and suck his fingers into my mouth, kissing him by proxy. He groans and his fingers curl on my tongue, and he throws his head back and drives into me, harder, harder, stealing my breath. With only one hand, his balance is compromised, but he gives no sign of it--he dances through the motions, his hips rolling against me, reigniting my passion.
Ray Vecchio's arms clamp across my chest, pinning me to him, and I grip his arm as pleasure courses through me. Soon Ray Kowalski's rhythm stutters and fails, and he gasps, pulsing inside me, perfect, beautiful, his hair damp with sweat, his face flushed.
It's more than I can bear. I shut my eyes. Ray slips his fingers from my mouth and I feel him gently extract himself. My other Ray's fingers brush my face.
Pillows are moved again, I'm rearranged. The sheets are cool where the pillows were. As long as Ray and Ray are touching me, I don't care. I keep my eyes shut, and wait for my heart to calm, for my blood to stop its tumult.
When I open my eyes, I find myself sandwiched between my Rays, their arms around me, their hands stroking lazy trails over me and each other. It seems impossible that I could have forgotten this. That, even having forgotten, I could have doubted it.
Ray Kowalski seems to be thinking the same thing. "I don't get how you could forget this! Do we gotta tattoo it onto your skin?"
I smile. "Maybe."
"It's okay," says Ray Vecchio, sleepily. "It all turned out okay."
"In time for Christmas, too," I agree, and give each of them a soft kiss, then watch through heavy eyes as they lean across me and kiss each other.
"Yeah," says Ray Kowalski. "Merry Christmas." And he settles down against me and reaches blindly behind him to turn out the light.
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