Ray stood alone at the end of the dock, facing west into a rosy, glowing sunset. He wasn't aware of it, but to Fraser, watching him from the shore he was an achingly beautiful silhouette against the soft hues that streaked the sky beyond him.
For all that Ray was a "city mouse" it seemed to Fraser that he was enjoying this weekend at his cousin's cottage. He'd been working hard for the last few months and needed some "down time". If it were any reason for asking Fraser along other than a simple desire to chill out with a good friend, Ray hadn't expressed it to Fraser, so the Mountie took the invitation to spend some friendly time alone at face value.
What choice did he have? Tell Ray how he really felt? Tell his partner the way he really yearned to spend this weekend? He wanted to, but something was holding him back.
Now they were both at the river bank watching this perfect sunset. Ray stood uncharacteristically still, looking at the different shades of pink interact in the sky with the darkening blues. In the increasing darkness, clad only in a tight bathing suit, he looked as though he were wearing nothing at all. Fraser marvelled at the perfection of his slight, wiry form.
Ray turned to Fraser on the shore.
"Hey Fraser, this is really nice. Lookit this, here's me enjoying natural beauty. Go figure."
I'm enjoying natural beauty, just looking at you, Fraser thought.
"Come on over here, you'll see better," Ray called to him.
Fraser didn't dare move any closer to Ray at that moment. Fraser's control was slipping and his desire for Ray grew and grew in this idyllic setting. In the city there was always so much going on, so much noise, so many people, so many distractions. Normally he could suppress his longing, and when he couldn't there was always some pretext to run away so Ray wouldn't notice.
But not here. Here they were alone and Ray stood before him so available and so inviting. . .
"I can see fine from here," Fraser called to him.
"Whatever," the blond man turned back to his enjoyment of the sunset.
A single word slipped into Fraser's thoughts as he stood there.
Hard on the heels of that single word came a flood of memories.
Why hadn't he noticed the resemblance between Steve and Ray before?
Easy answser. All the two men had in common was their height and slight build. In every other way they were unlike. Ray was fair. Fraser's lost love was dark, dark: his skin browned from years of trapping, his eyes so dark brown they were almost black. And his stillness, the way he could sit for hours at peace with himself and the world around. How the memory was coming back so strong now - the way he could enfold Fraser in that peace.
Ray was always in motion, rocking, dancing, twitching, as though the whole world itched him and he couldn't find a comfortable place in it. His soul was as jumpy as his body: yearning, agonizing, dumping on himself. Wasn't it strange, Fraser mused as he looked at Ray on the dock, that compared to HIM, I am the calm one.
No, there hadn't been anything about Ray that had brought Steve to Fraser's mind until today, when Ray was standing still and gazing at the sunset.
If Steve had lived, if he hadn't been killed battling a forest fire, they might be together still. But Steve was gone and Fraser hadn't dared love another man for many years. Until some blond stranger had thrown his arms around him and called him "partner".
From time to time Fraser sensed that Ray desired him too. That look Ray had given him on the dock just after he punched him. The way he clung to his hand just a little longer than he had to after his fall. It seemed the signs were there but Fraser didn't seem able to make a move.
Fear of humiliation? It had to be more than that.
Ray turned and headed along the narrow dock back to the shore. As he stepped from the wooden planks onto the lawn that surrounded the cottage, he said, "Fraser, I got to get you out of those clothes."
Fraser froze. Was Ray making the first move? Was this the reason for the invitation to spend a weekend alone? Or was Ray just displeased with how he was dressed and no more than that? He glanced involuntarily down at himself. He had on his jeans and a polo shirt - his standard warm weather outfit. In the winter he wore the same jeans with a lumberjack shirt.
"What do you mean, Ray?"
"I mean, you should be in swimming trunks. How you going to swim dressed like that?"
Ray was standing close to him now. His bathing suit was as tight as a second skin. More than anything Fraser wanted to seize him and press him close. Ray wanted it too, he was sure, but something prevented him from grabbing Ray in his arms.
"I don't own a bathing suit, Ray," the Mountie said.
Ray chuckled at this. "There you go talking Canadian again. Bathing suit."
"Use whatever name you like, I still don't own one."
"Too cold for swimming in the Northwest Areas?"
"Actually, Ray, the summers in the north can get quite hot. I guess I never got into the habit of swimming for pleasure."
"Did you bring shorts at least?"
Fraser looked at the ground.
"No shorts. I don't guess you'll go swimming with me in just your underwear."
Fraser kicked at the ground with the toe of his boot.
So unlike Steve. His beloved had been so modest. Except to bathe Steve didn't like to be without clothes. He even made love with his shirt still on. Fraser used to teasingly call him an old dog that did like to have his collar off.
Ray came to where Fraser was standing and said, "I really wanted us to swim together, There's still enough light and there's nobody around to watch. Come on. Let's take a dip."
Steve wouldn't do something as dangerous as swimming in unfamiliar waters at night. He'd risked himself and died battling a blaze when asked, but he wouldn't have considered doing anything remotely reckless just for fun.
Steve, I need your permission to love again. Somebody that's nothing like you except when he stands in silhouette.
"Earth to Fraser. I just said something to you. You want to maybe be in the same universe as me when I'm talking to you?"
"What?" Fraser was jolted out of his reverie.
"We're alone. There's nobody here. We're safe. A sunset swim - we can do that and nobody's here to hassle us."
"I . . . I've no . . . bathing . . . um swimming. . . um . . . nothing to wear."
"Yeah, you said that already. Thing is, there's nobody around. We don't need to be wearing anything."
"You want me to swim naked?"
Steve, you don't want to be alone for the rest of my life. I know you wouldn't ask that of me. I'll never forget you , but you have to give me permission to love somebody else too.
"Fraser, look at me. Look me in the eye."
Fraser did, reluctantly. Ray placed his hands on the Mountie's shoulders.
"How much more time are we going to waste being embarrassed? Didn't you figure out why we're here? We're alone. We don't have to pretend in front of anybody. Are you going to take off those clothes or what?"
As though to demonstrate, Ray let go of Fraser and bent over to ease himself out of his bathing suit. He stood before Fraser naked, beautiful and - as Fraser could easily see -quite willing.
Let me do this, Steve. It's time.
But Fraser couldn't will himself to do it.
"You can't, hunh. You want to but you're too uptight. Hey, it's okay." Ray reached for the bottom of Fraser's shirt and started pulling up. "I'll help you get started."
Fraser took hold of Ray's hands, which left his shirt halted midway up his chest, and for an instant he felt silly. Then he dropped Ray's hands, took hold of his top and peeled it off. He stood by the river bank in his undershirt.
Steve, I'm going to do this. It would help if you give me your blessing.
Fraser took a deep breath and resolutely began taking off the rest of his clothes. In short order Ray was enjoying the sight of his body as much as he was enjoying the sight of Ray's.
"Swim first," Ray said.
"No, it's not safe to swim at night in water you don't know. We'll do something else."
As they fell together, pressing their bodies close, Fraser heard in the back of his mind a voice he hadn't heard for many years saying 'Go for it, Ben. I want you to be happy.'