There were days when Ray couldn't imagine what in the world had ever possessed him to leave Chicago.
Those were usually the days when the wind came screaming down off the peaks, enveloping the world around him in a blanket of sweeping sound, white with the snow that bit like bared claws against his cheeks.
Like now. The wind howled around them with all the fury of hell's inferno, but without the heat, sucking the life out of him and leaving him bitter and shivering, helpless to do anything but continue on, step after step, in the trail that Fraser was setting for them. Some days, it seemed that there was little else left in the world but snow, and cold, and that vicious, unending sky that stretched over them like a burial shroud, cutting them off from the rest of the world.
He hated that sky. He'd never seen anything like it, not once in all the time he'd lived in Chicago. It was huge, flat and grey like some kind of monstrous apparition, like the smooth, featureless slope of the inside of a snow dome. At times, that's exactly what it felt like -- being trapped inside one of those small, glittery trinkets that the tourists loved, and every so often a celestial hand would reach down and shake them up but good.
He barely registered when Fraser called a halt ahead of him and began to set up camp for the night. Ray watched dully, mittened hands stuck under his armpits in a vain attempt to keep them warm, while Fraser unhitched the dogs from their supply sled and began to remove the materials they'd need to set up camp.
Then his brain woke up out of the stupor it had fallen into, and he moved forward to help. Fraser cast him a quick smile, almost lost behind the furry fringe of his hood, and began putting together their tent, tucking it carefully up against the side of the mountain face. Comfort and security all in one convenient cliffside location.
At least here they were out of the wind, mostly. Still shivering, Ray dug out the bowls and filled them with dog food, moving with the stiff, mechanical movements of one who'd performed this task countless times before. He was glad of that experience now, falling back on muscle memory as he saw to the animals' needs. Dief gave his hand a brief lick in passing, which made Ray smile despite himself.
Fraser had a fire going by the time he stumbled back toward the tent. Lord only knew how he'd done it, with hurricane-force winds whipping the snow into a white-walled frenzy around them. Although now that he took the time to notice, they were kind of hidden in a crevice at the side of the mountain here, sheltered on two sides by walls of tall, unyielding black rock.
It was heaven, as far as Ray was concerned.
Fraser had gone so far as to remove the hood of his coat, along with his gloves. His hair was tousled and damp with sweat in places where it had been matted underneath the hood, his cheeks bright red from windburn and the lingering bite of the cold. But his eyes were merry as he put a pot on over the fire, filling the air around them with the heady aroma of steeping coffee.
He really does live for this, Ray mused wonderingly. And maybe this wasn't quite the blizzard it seemed to Ray, who was unused to anything more arduous than snow flurries that iced the road on his way to work in the mornings in Chicago. Fraser had always told him that nature was bigger out here in the wild, where it wasn't penned in behind walls of concrete and glass and steel.
Still hugging himself firmly, Ray sat down next to Fraser and leaned in toward the heat from the fire. Ah, god, that felt good, almost painful where it cut through the frigid chill over his exposed skin. Tentatively, he tried pulling back his hood and sighed happily when his head didn't freeze into a solid lump of ice on his shoulders. He shifted slightly, trying to find a comfortable position for his bony butt on the frozen ground.
"How do you feel?" Fraser asked, giving him a sideways glance.
It was a good question. How did he feel? "Hungry," he decided after a moment. And, "Cold," although that was getting better. He closed his eyes and leaned closer to the fire.
"Ah." There was a slight shifting as Fraser moved to wrap an arm around him. Smiling, Ray leaned against his side.
This was what made it all worthwhile, really. That he was here, with Fraser. The wind didn't seem quite so cold suddenly as they went through the motions of eating dinner and then crawling, exhausted, into the sleeping bag they shared.
And yes, the days in this godforsaken wilderness might be cold, but the nights....The nights were always warm. The nights were what made him remember why he'd left Chicago, and why he'd never in a million years dream of going back.
The nights were filled with warm hands and soft eyes and the knowledge that he was never, never going to be alone again. The way Fraser touched him, held him, so that even when they weren't making love, they were. The wind could scream itself hoarse outside the flimsy walls of their tent, but it didn't matter. Nothing mattered except for this, right here.
"Do you regret coming here with me, Ray?" Fraser's voice in the darkness was very small.
Ray smiled and tightened his arms around Fraser's waist, burrowing closer against his warmth, his strength. "Nah," he answered truthfully. "How could I?"
And it was kind of nice kissing this way, in the dark, with nothing but the warmth and heat to guide them. Fraser's mouth yielded to his with all the sweetness of melting sugar, his hands strong and sure where they tightened over Ray's waist. It felt good, touching him this way, being touched by him this way, until Ray was left wondering how he'd ever believed that the north could be cold.
"I love you," he whispered. It wasn't as hard to say as he'd expected.
He could feel Fraser's lips curving against his cheek. "I love you as well, Ray."
And they held each other, there in the heated darkness. Ray sighed and thought that he'd never been more comfortable, felt more safe.
"We should be at my father's cabin tomorrow." Fraser's voice was a low breath against his ear.
"I can't wait," Ray said, and meant it. Another day of walking through the snow didn't sound so intimidating, not with Fraser by his side. Staying here, in the north, with Fraser....Yeah, he could get used to that.
Smiling, he snuggled deeper into Fraser's side and enjoyed the warmth of home.