"Fraser, what is this?"
I looked up from the dog harness I was mending and squinted at the object in Ray's mittened hand. "Ah. Well, that's a salve made from seal fat and bees wax, Ray. When your lips begin to crack from the cold, a little of that will fix them right up."
Ray made a face. "That is disgusting, my friend. That is just... way too close to nature." Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him unscrew the lid and sniff the jar's contents, his eyebrows lifting in surprised appreciation. He closed the container again, dropped it back into the pack he'd found it in. The fire popped, a pocket of sap finally surrendering to the flames, exploding into the dusky sky in a shower of orange sparks. One of the dogs stirred and then subsided, exhaustion overcoming its natural inclination to investigate the sudden noise. Ray shifted on his stony seat, clapped his mittened hands together, stretched his long legs out until his boots were nearly in the flames.
"Pretty," he said. I looked up again. He gestured with his chin, indicating the range of mountains across the south-western horizon, where the sun had not quite set. The sky there was a deep blue streaked with violet. Between Mt. Joseph and William's peak, a single star was visible.
I took a breath. "Yes," I said. We sat there a moment longer, admiring.
"So...tell me something, Fraser."
I waited, watching Ray's face, but he said nothing more. His eyes were on the fire, now, his chin tucked into the scarf wound around his neck.
"Deep beneath the layers of ice that sit atop the Arctic Ocean, Sedna waits for humanity's end." I paused, waiting for Ray's inevitable protest. But there wasn't one. Ray sat quiet, listening, flames reflecting in his eyes. He let me get all the way through the story without a word of complaint, and when I came to the end of it, he only lifted his gaze to my face and smiled at me.
"Tell me something else," he said.
I frowned, puzzled, but he didn't elaborate. So I told him the one about Nanabush and the giants that used to live in Lilluette Lake. He laughed a little at the end of that one. I smiled, but I felt the uncertainty in it. Knew he could see it too. "Ray," I said, "What..."
And he met my eyes again and though he was smiling still, I could see he was serious about this. I felt my stomach clench, and I had to look away. "Fraser," he said, "Tell me something else."
So I took another breath and shifted my feet in the clean snow. Above our heads, the sky had darkened enough to show the ever-present Aurora in the stratosphere. "I'm not leaving here," I said. I lowered my gaze to his face again. "Not ever. I can't."
And he nodded, unsurprised. The fire cracked and Diefenbaker yipped at a rabbit in his dreams. I set the mended harness in the snow. "I'll miss you very much," I said.
He smiled again and grimaced at the same time, looking back toward the fire. "Yeah, well..." He hunched his shoulders, lipped uncomfortably at his scarf. "We still got this hand to look for, right? And it's only May. I'm not leaving yet."
"Fraser. You awake?"
I shifted, rolled onto my back. The midnight sun lit the roof of the tent, strange and yellow. I couldn't tell what time it might be. "Yes," I said.
I heard Ray shift too. Turned my head so I could see him lying there, facing me, his cheek pillowed in his hand. We were still using both layers of our sleeping bags, but the toques and sweaters were no longer necessary. Ray's fair hair stuck up even more than it usually did. In the slanting light, he looked about twelve years old.
"Hard to sleep," he said, waving a vague hand at the sky.
I nodded. "It is a difficult thing to become accustomed to. I'm having some trouble myself."
"You grew up here, though. Aren't you accustomed already?"
I yawned, rolling so I could face Ray while I spoke to him. "It's been a long time. I suppose my body's internal rhythms have readjusted to match Chicago cycles." He nodded, letting his eyes close. Just resting them, I suspected--his breathing told me he was still far from sleep. "But even when I was a child and didn't know anything else, the first few weeks of summer were difficult. My grandmother used to warm a mug of goat's milk for me each night before bed, but it often did little to help."
Ray smiled, his eyes still closed. "Goat's milk," he murmured. "Even your grandparents are freaks."
I smiled too, though I knew he wouldn't see it. "They were, you know. Very unusual people. My grandmother, for instance, corresponded with Fidel Castro for more than twenty years. She was somewhat exasperated by his megalomaniacal tendencies, but he valued her ideas about governance, and he could be quite the charmer, from what I understand."
Ray shifted, bringing his knees up inside the sleeping bag, his jaw cracking as he yawned tremendously. "Mmm," he said.
"And my grandfather...well, if you know anything about the factionary politics in astrophysics, you'll remember the kafuffle caused by his paper on membranous universes and the flaws in particle theory as it was understood. Oh, he was blacklisted at several important theoretical science shin-digs that year, let me tell you..."
Ray made a soft noise meant to convince me he was listening. I rolled my eyes.
"And of course, they were both rather infamous for their annual all-night Mayday Bacchanal. Wine and opium, nude dancing in the forest, the whole shebang."
Ray's eyes slitted open briefly, then fell closed. He smiled again. "You are so full of shit."
The corner of his mouth had quirked up into a shadowed crease. There were numerous small lines around his closed eyes; his lashes were startlingly dark against his cheek. I cleared my throat. "Quite possibly," I admitted.
There was a silence then, and I began to think Ray had finally fallen asleep. I shifted about, settling into a comfortable hollow in the bedding.
I opened my eyes. "Yes, Ray?"
"I am really not looking forward to Tuktoywhatever."
Tuktoyaktuk offered three southbound flights per day--they called it the gateway to the Beaufort Sea. The routes I'd marked on all our maps stopped at the hamlet's perimeter; whatever it was we were doing out here, Tuktoyaktuk would be the end of it. I swallowed hard. "No," I said, "Nor am I, Ray."
"Yes, Ray?" I shifted on my rocky seat and propped my elbows on my knees, cradling my mug of tea between my hands. It was nearly the end of August and the nights were growing colder. The warmth of the liquid was welcome.
"Well. We've been up here on this hill for what...three days now?"
I felt myself go very still. "I believe that's correct, yes."
Ray glanced at me, sidelong, and then away. "And Tuktoywhathaveyou is just down there, right? Where you can see those lights?"
I swallowed, but found myself reluctant to actually answer. After a long while, I managed to jerk my head in a nod.
Ray nodded too. "Right. And yet, neither one of us has said anything about actually going there. You noticed that?"
I lifted my head and looked at him. He looked steadily back. In the dusky half-light it was difficult to be certain, but I thought that might be a smile playing at the edges of his mouth. I ducked my head again.
He watched me for a moment longer, and then I heard a sudden rustling and scuffling as he rose from his seat on one of our packs and came to sit next me. I couldn't look anywhere but at the mug of tea in my hands, but I could feel the warmth of him beside me, the slight pressure of his knee against my thigh.
"Hey." He leaned a little closer, bumped my shoulder with his. "Relax. I said neither of us--you're not the only freak in the room."
I smiled despite myself and managed a quick glance out of the corner of my eye. Ray was watching me, arms wrapped around his chest, that same not-quite-hidden smile in his eyes. I blinked down at my tea again. "Well that much has always been abundantly clear," I murmured.
Ray snorted. The wind gusted suddenly, bringing with it the smell of snow and the icy ocean, the faint sounds of Tuktoyaktuk below. Ray shifted a little beside me, his shoulder pressing mine again. But this time, he didn't pull away. I could feel his wiry warmth all down my left side--that fleece-clad shoulder, and then his hip, and then his knee. I took a breath. Watched as he brought his toe over to nudge mine, concentrated on the seams of his boot and the odd way he had laced it up--lattice-style, instead of cross-hatched.
"I'd be all right with just staying here on the hill a while," he said gently. "If that's what you want to do. Kind of a weird place to hang out, but I couldn't think of better company."
I took another breath. Cleared my throat. "That metaphor may just be reaching the end of its usefulness, actually," I said.
I heard Ray grin beside me. "That so."
"Mm." The tea in my hands had gone cold. I set it down, scrubbed my palms on my knees. Reached very carefully and took Ray's hand between mine. "There comes a time," I said, lacing my fingers with Ray's, "when it's really better to speak plainly."
Ray's voice was largely gone, now--his "uh huh?" was mostly breath. But his eyes met mine when I finally turned to look at him, and that smile had only grown.
"I don't want you to leave," I said, and my own voice wasn't much steadier than Ray's had been, and his face was very close. "Please. Stay here with me. Don't leave."
And I felt the fingers of his other hand in my hair, behind my ear, just as I bent my head and pressed my mouth to his. And his lips were moving beneath mine as I kissed him, so I felt his answer more than I heard it, that one word repeated into my open mouth: "Okay. Okay. Okay."