NORTHERN LIGHT

Ever had a nightmare, and you woke up and you thought it was still going on? Maybe it took a while before you realized you'd woke up - then you looked around your bedroom, saw all the familiar things, looked at the clock, looked out your window at the moon and realized, awwwww, hell, it was just a bad dream, it was over, you were safe and home.

Now imagine you couldn't do that. Couldn't see the familiar things that told you you were home and safe, that the bad dream was just a dream and that it was over. Imagine that you couldn't see anything at all.

Imagine that you woke up and couldn't tell where the dreaming nightmare ended and the waking nightmare began.

I'd been doing it for two months.

The doc said it was normal, and he spouted a whole bunch of psychobabble - post traumatic syndrome, psychological adjustment, depression, adrenaline response, panic attack, blah blah blah. For a while he gave me sleeping pills, but after once or twice I put my foot down, 'cause the damned things made the line between sleeping and waking that much blurrier.

Blurrier.

Hah.

I was in the hospital for a couple weeks while the docs did every test they could think of, while the back of my skull knitted back together. Then I stayed in a convalescent place for a while while the docs did more tests. Everybody was still real hopeful at that point. Pressure on the occipital lobe, swelling, subside, temporary, blah blah blah.

Then a few more CAT scans and a couple imported neurologists and specialists with all kinds of other alphabet soup at the ends of their names, and words like "temporary" and "subside" started getting replaced with words like "undetermined" and "unpredictable" and "unknown", and I kind of got the impression that "temporary" wasn't nearly as temporary as they'd thought from the start. There was some kind of surgery they could try, but it sounded pretty fucking risky, and the neurosurgeon didn't want to do it until he was sure my vision wouldn't come back on its own, or all the swelling inside my skull had gone down, or both, whatever.

The PD was great. I got full benefits on everything - well, hey, it was definitely an on-the-job injury, not much to quibble about when a cop gets whacked on the back of the head with an iron pipe while he and his Canadian Mountie Liaison guy rescued the Governor's niece being held hostage by a bunch of gang crazies. So I got full pay, full coverage, all the best specialists, a citation, medal from the Governor, you name it.

Everything but my life back.

Fraser was great. He was there every day, every minute he didn't have to be at work, as long as the nurses would let him stay, and I got the feeling they bent a few rules here and there about that. He was always there with the cup when I needed a drink, or an arm to the bathroom, or the time to read me the newspaper. And what was amazing was how damned good he was at helping just enough, never too much. The difference between guiding and pulling. The difference between helping me get the knife turned right to cut up my food, and doing it for me. The difference between helping me figure out the crazy tangle of the shirt I was trying to pull over my head, and dressing me like a baby.

The difference between squeezing my shoulder and quietly tucking a kleenex into my hand when the latest not-so-great test results came back, and coddling me like a crybaby.

When the doctors set me up for something called life skills therapy, I knew there wasn't a whole lot of hope left, even though they kept saying my sight could return anytime, there was no way of knowing. That little smidgen of hope seemed almost worse than none at all - just enough to make my heart flip over every time the crazy colored lights flashed behind my eyelids, even though the doctors had told me that was normal, just kind of optic nerve misfires. Enough hope that the neurosurgeon didn't want to risk operating. Enough hope that the guide dog program turned down my first application, and my second, and my third. The demand for guide dogs was bigger than the supply, and they didn't want to risk giving one to me when my vision might just come back anyway. Maybe after a year or so, they said, when the doctors were more sure it was permanent.

I only stayed at the convalescent place a week. The insurance company was starting to get balky about paying for things, some technicality about me only being classified as temporarily blind instead of permanent. Mom and Dad insisted on me coming home with them, which turned out to be a really rotten idea. Mom wanted to do everything for me, feed me, wait on me hand and foot - hell, she wanted to bathe me, some nonsense about me falling in the shower or drowning in the tub something. Dad didn't try to do everything for me; he kind of went the other way, wasn't too patient with me being depressed and clumsy fumbling around with things. Gave me about a dozen speeches about being a man, sucking it up and getting on with life or whatever.

What life? Oh, sure, there were plenty of jobs out there for blind people - Americans with Disabilities Act and all that good shit. Plenty of jobs, probably none of which I was qualified for. Damned sure, though, nothing that involved chasing down criminals and rescuing hostages.

What life?

Well, I wasn't helpless enough to suit Mom or cheerful enough to suit Dad, and I spent most of my time in my room, in bed, just . . . well, feeling sorry for myself, Dad called it. What the fuck ever. My life skills therapist had told me about this kind of intro to blind school place, kind of like a halfway house for blind people, and the PD's insurance didn't want to pay for that since I wasn't for sure permanently blind, but I figured I had enough socked back to swing it, and hell, even though I didn't particularly like the idea, anything had to be better than this. And I wasn't ready to stay alone at my apartment yet, not when I was still walking into walls more often than not. Supposedly before I could go home to my apartment, a kind of specialized aide would have to go through it with me and sort of organize it so I could find everything and teach me how to keep it organized, but that came later, after I finished more blind skills training, which the insurance didn't want to pay for because it might not be permanent . . . see a pattern forming here?

Which is when Fraser came up with the craziest idea yet.

*****

"Vacation?" my dad repeated. "What the hell kind of vacation can Ray go on?"

"Any kind of vacation he wishes," Fraser said, and unless I was imagining things, he actually sounded kind of sharp and snarky. "In this particular case, however, I thought Ray might like to spend a few weeks in Inuvik, get away from Chicago for a while. Get away from bad memories and unpleasant reminders for a while."

I didn't say anything right then; I was too surprised. And I had kind of mixed feelings, too. I mean, the thought of going anywhere when I couldn't see shit was . . . well, scary, all right? I mean, I'd been holed up in my bedroom for weeks, hardly even stumbling around the house, much less going out anywhere. But leaving the city - hell, the country!

But that last bit, that struck home. Everybody I knew at the PD had visited at some time or another. It was awkward as hell. You ever heard well-meaning colleagues trying to censor their speech so there's no references to "look" or "see"? "Man, look at the time." "Christ, Kowalski, you should have seen - " "You wouldn't have believed the look on her face when - " I mean, it's amazing how fast people run out of things to say. Especially when, I admit, I wasn't doing all that much talking back. What the hell was I supposed to say to all the people out there doing the job I'd never do again?

So like I say, I didn't say anything right off, but that hardly mattered, because Mom and Dad had plenty to say. Stuff about taking me to some strange environment, away from my doctors and my therapists, blah blah blah, who's gonna take care of me, this is just running away from my problems, blah blah blah.

So I interrupted and said, "Frase, pack my bags."

So a week later Fraser guided - not led - me down the steps off the plane in Inuvik's little excuse for an airport - I remembered how it looked from when we did our quest trip after Muldoon - and the air was crisp and clean, cool even though it was only like the beginning of autumn there, and I could feel so much space all around me that, I admit it, I kind of stuck real, real close to Fraser.

And he let me.

"Benton! Ray!" I knew that voice, and I braced myself, which was a good thing 'cause a minute later Maggie was trying to hug the stuffing out of me. "Oh, it's so good to see both of you!"

And of course the first thing I thought was, Wow, she said see and didn't apologize.

"Hey, Maggie," I said, hugging back one-armed - I wasn't letting go of Fraser. "How's it going?"

"All the better now that the two of you are here," Maggie said firmly. She kissed my cheek - I wasn't expecting that and kind of jerked, and I think I probably mashed her nose, but she didn't complain. I could feel her give Fraser a hug, too. "Come on, let's go rescue Diefenbaker and get your luggage."

From the feel of it when I got in, Maggie was driving a jeep or an SUV or something like that. Wasn't much I could do but sit there while Maggie and Fraser loaded up the bags, but at least Dief sat with me, leaning against my shoulder so I could loop an arm around him and bury my fingers in his fur.

Dief had been a real trooper through the whole blind thing. Believe it or not, and anybody who knows Benton Fraser would believe it, Fraser actually got permission to bring Dief to the hospital and the convalescent place a couple times, and I think that damned wolf did me more good than all the doctors put together. He didn't treat me any different, just slobbered in my ear like always, and he let me hug on him all I wanted, and as far as I know he didn't tell Fraser on me when I got his coat kind of wet and salty.

It's funny, but the worst thing about not being able to see was how nothing seemed real anymore. I mean, people weren't real, they were just a collection of sounds. I couldn't see Fraser rub his eyebrow when he was upset, couldn't see him smile or frown. He was just a voice and a steadying arm or hand, like Mom and Dad and everybody else. Nothing unique, nothing Fraser about him.

Not just people, though. Nothing was real. I might know my room well enough to know there's the bed here, there's the chair there, but until I actually touched 'em, I never knew for sure they were really there. Maybe they'd been moved. Maybe it was just a dream and they'd never really been there at all. Hell, even the ground in front of me where my foot was going to touch down at my next step was kind of a matter of faith more than anything else. Trusting - or at least hoping - there'd be ground there to step on, when all it felt like was standing on one single point of solidity with this big black void all around me.

Dief was real, though. I could hold on tight to that damned wolf, feel the solidness of him, bury my face in his fur, hear his heart beating, smell that wolf/donut/pizza smell . . . sometimes Dief seemed like the only thing in the world that was a hundred percent real, if that makes any sense.

I was real surprised when Fraser didn't get in the front with Maggie, but slid into the back seat with me, sandwiching me between him and Dief. That felt real good . . . solid.

"Are you all right, Ray?" Fraser said softly.

"Great," I said, pasting on a smile. "Greatness."

I heard Fraser sigh.

"That was a silly question," he said quietly. "I'm sorry, Ray. Just a few more minutes and we'll be home."

"Where's home?" I asked, not really caring. I expected we were probably staying with Maggie, which for some reason I didn't like the idea of all that much. I mean, Maggie's great, but there's not a lot of people I'm comfortable with seeing me walk into the furniture, drop food in my lap, and walk out of the bathroom with toothpaste still on my chin.

"I've rented a small house at the edge of town," Fraser said. "Or rather, Maggie found one and rented it for us."

"It's on Bompas Street," Maggie said cheerfully. "I chose that one because it's right beside the beginning of a lovely walking trail that loops up through the taiga forest."

Taiga forest, I remembered that from the other trip up here. Lots of scrubby pines, moss, sometimes boggy places - probably wasn't too dry up here, with the river and all the lakes.

"Greatness," I said. "Give Fraser a place to go running with Dief."

A moment of silence.

"Maggie, when do you think John and Charles can meet with us?" Fraser said.

"Charles said he'd bring John over tomorrow," Maggie promised. "Ten o'clock tomorrow morning. Everything's taken care of."

"Good." Fraser sounded relieved.

"Who's John and Charles?" I asked, when it became obvious that Frase wasn't going to volunteer the information.

"I beg your pardon, Ray," Fraser said quickly. "Charles Elkin and his brother John. I've known them for several years. They live a few miles outside of town. John is blind, and I asked him if he would mind coming to the house and showing us how to set it up for your convenience."

"Oh." I fought down a snicker. Back in Chicago I'd already gone six rounds with the insurance company about getting some aide to come in and do that. Up here it was just a matter of Fraser asking a friend. Just part of the Benton Fraser Experience.

We drove for a while from the airport to the town, and a little bit more through the town - I could tell when Maggie slowed down in town, and then pulled in somewhere and stopped. Fraser got out of the jeep.

"Maggie, I'm going to help Ray inside first," he said. "I'll be right back to help with the luggage."

You know, there would've been a time when I'd have told Fraser, "Hey, I can carry a bag in one hand and hang on to you with the other." Hell, there would've been a time when I'd have grabbed a bag in each hand, and hey, if I ran headfirst into the wall, so what? I'd heal.

But I just let Fraser guide me into the house. A murmured caution at the doorstep, a turn, and then there was a nice comfy chair under my hand. But I didn't settle down.

"Ah, Frase?"

"Yes, Ray?"

"Mind showing me the bathroom first?" Humiliating. Couldn't even go to the john by myself. God.

"Oh, yes, of course, Ray." Guiding touch down what felt like a hallway, and then Fraser guided my hand to the familiar porcelain toilet. "Maggie has already put toilet paper and soap out, and there's a hand towel on the rod by the sink."

"Thanks, Frase," I said. "I can take it from here."

"Of course, Ray. I'll just bring in the bags."

I heard the door close, and I hiked my pants down and sat down on the john like an old woman. Yeah, want to make something of it? Ever try to hit the bowl when you can't fucking see the bowl? So I sat there and did my business, pulled my pants up, fumbled around till I found the soap and hand towel, washed up, and stumbled back out into the hallway. Okay, how many steps had Fraser led me down the hall? Four? Six? Dragging my hand along the hallway wall, I stumbled along until I came to an open door. Okay, great, now I'd have to let go of the wall for a little bit, and the chair was just a couple steps.

Just had to let go and -

I took a deep breath and stepped away from the wall. Okay, step, step, the chair should be right - right -

Fuck, no chair.

I stopped and stood perfectly still, trembling. Now that I thought about it, hadn't there been carpeting or maybe a rug under my feet there at the chair? Not here, this was like linoleum or maybe wood. Okaaaaaay . . . mud room? Entry way? Laundry room? Kitchen? As the list of options grew, I got more scared, which was ridiculous. I mean, I was in a house. It wasn't like I was going to get lost on the tundra or something. But try telling that to your heart when it's pounding out of the walls of your chest going eighty miles an hour.

"Fraser?" Then, "Fraser?"

"Ray?"

God, I had never been so happy in my life to hear that voice.

"Uh, Frase? I got kind of, um, lost here."

Gentle touch guiding my fingertips to a flannel-shirt-covered arm.

"I beg your pardon, Ray. It was thoughtless of me to leave you alone in a strange house. Come, I'll walk you through it."

He did, and he did a good job, too, walking with me around each room, "showing" me where the furniture was, giving me a good mental layout of the house: Two bedrooms, one full and one half bath, big ol' eat-in kitchen (that's where I'd been lost), living room, utility room, big pantry, garage. Didn't seem like such a small house to me, but then, that might have been because it was new and strange and kind of unnerving. Fraser spent a lot of time "showing" me my room and putting my clothes up, and then Fraser went through the house putting nonslip backing on the rugs so the clumsy blind guy wouldn't trip over a flipped-up edge and go flying, while Maggie cooked some dinner.

When Fraser finished with the rugs, he unveiled a cool surprise - he'd packed up my whole stereo system and all my CD's and brought it with us, just so I could have tunes. Wow. Of course, I couldn't tell which CD was which, so either Fraser had to find the right one for me, or I could take potluck. We had cable TV, too, for all the good it did, since Fraser didn't watch much TV and I couldn't see the fucking thing. Fraser went off on some tangent about alphabetizing my CD's and doing an index in Braille, or maybe that raised-print plastic tape you click out of labelling machines, but thankfully Maggie interrupted him with dinner.

Dinner was venison stew, which was really great because I could eat it with a spoon and didn't have to cut anything up. I couldn't have a beer with it - right after I'd had the back of my head smashed in, I had a couple seizures. I hadn't had any since, but I was on some mild anti-seizure pills just as a precaution until I'd gone six months seizure-free, and I couldn't drink with the meds. Thank God Maggie's not like Fraser - she drinks coffee. Hell, she buys whole beans and grinds coffee. And it's great coffee. Anyway, venison stew, refrigerator rolls and coffee was just fine and dandy by me, and after that I was worn out enough that halfway through the evening, I left Maggie and Fraser to catch up and tottered off to bed.

My nightmares came in a variety of shapes, sounds and decorator colors to match every occasion. That night it was the suffocating one - strangling in an airless void. I woke up on my stomach with my face mashed into the pillow, heart pounding out of my chest, covered in cold sweat. It took me a few minutes to realize where I was and calm down a little. Hell, at least I hadn't screamed and brought Fraser running. I'd scared my mom shitless a couple three times.

I sat on the bed, knees pulled up, shivering. Going back to sleep was not an option. Hell, I didn't even know what time it was, whether it was almost morning or whether I'd just gone to sleep ten minutes ago. I'd have happily changed out of my sweat-soaked boxers, but I had no idea where my clean ones were, and pawing through every drawer in the bureau sounded like way too much trouble. I'd have killed for a beer, but I couldn't have one - in fact, I doubted there were any in the house. Hell, even a cup of coffee would have been wonderful, but my ability to make coffee was probably right on par with my target shooting skill at the moment. I wasn't so sure I could manage getting a glass of water without breaking something - the glass, or me. Not to mention that the idea of wandering around a strange house in my boxers just didn't do it for me, either.

Anyway, why bother? It wasn't like I could read or watch TV. Hell, even if I just picked a CD at random, I wasn't so sure I could figure out the controls on my stereo without blasting Fraser out of bed.

Nowhere to go . . . and nothing to do once I got there. I pulled up the covers, and lay there waiting, and sooner or later I fell asleep again.

When Fraser knocked on the door and woke me, I groaned and crawled out of bed, tired, feeling like I'd been beaten or something. I was so foggy that I visited the hall closet trying to find the bathroom, but hell, eventually I got there. Fraser had to shave me, and although he said he didn't mind, and yeah, it beat slitting my throat every morning, it was still embarrassing - I'd have to invest in an electric razor. Fraser "showed" me where the soap and shampoo and towels and stuff were and I managed the rest okay, although I damned near broke my neck in the shower despite the mat Fraser had put down - my balance was still for shit. Then Fraser had to get my clothes out for me - otherwise nothing would match, not that it probably mattered much out here, but then again, we were expecting company. Fraser went back to fixing breakfast, and it took me about twenty minutes to get dressed, but I finally did it. I figured Fraser was probably getting sick of me already, and the less trouble I gave him, the longer I could put off either going back to Mom and Dad's place, or going to this blind place that really smacked of being in an institution or something.

I nerved myself up to bring it up over breakfast - yummy hot pancakes and bacon, and I only made a moderate mess trying to cut up and eat the syrupy pancakes. At least I thought it was only a moderate mess, and hey, if I dropped some, Dief was there and I was pretty sure it'd never reach the floor.

"So . . . hey, Frase," I said, trying to sound casual. "How long's 'a few weeks'?"

"I beg your pardon?" Fraser asked.

"You said this vacation was a few weeks," I said. "How long is that? I mean, you can't have all that much vacation time stored up already, right?"

A brief silence.

"Actually, Ray, I received a promotion to Corporal while you were in the hospital," Fraser said, and damned if he almost doesn't sound embarrassed or something. "I haven't used any vacation time so far this year, so I have up to four weeks available, and after that up to eight weeks of unpaid leave. I thought we'd see how you were doing in a week or two. I have the opportunity for a temporary assignment here, depending on how long we wish to remain."

I didn't know quite what to make of that. Either Fraser was going to one hell of a lot of trouble on my account, or he was taking advantage of this excuse to move back up north. Probably the second one. I mean, wasn't much point in him staying in Chicago now. With both Vecchio and me off the force, no reason to keep up the liaison thing. Might as well move back up here where he'd wanted to be from the get-go. He was just being nice enough to let me have a little unwinding time up here before he shipped me back, plus give me a chance to learn a few things from this friend of his. Made sense.

Fraser stacked up the dishes and carried them over to the sink.

"Would you like to dry them, Ray?" he asked kind of hesitantly, and I laughed.

"Sure, hey, I'll sort 'em by color." Okay, yeah, pretty snarky tone. I heard Fraser sigh, and I felt like seven different flavors of shit, but since I started out the morning with six flavors to begin with, I couldn't bring myself to care all that much.

"Sorry, Frase, I didn't mean to . . . " I shook my head. "Look, how about if I just get out of the way, sit on the front step with Dief and soak up some sun."

Another short hesitation.

"Ray, you're not in the way, not in the slightest. But some fresh air and sunshine would be very good for you. If you like, there's a patio seat two steps to the left of the front door, right against the wall."

I didn't ask Fraser to show me the seat; Dief was right beside me, damn near glued to my leg, and I just followed the wall. The seat was right there, a nice cushioned patio swing. I figured they probably didn't get much use out of the thing up here, but right now it was nice, and the sun felt warm and good.

I turned my face towards the warmth, blinked my eyes several times to make sure they were open. Nothing. I had to be staring right into the sun.

Nothing.

The porch seat dipped slightly and Dief laid his head on my thigh with a small whimper.

"Hey, Dief," I said, ruffling his fur. Sick, if you think of it, that the blind guy's buddy is a deaf half-wolf. Fuck it. Dief was a better person than most human beings.

Sound of a vehicle approaching - something big, like a jeep or SUV, but not Maggie's, it sounded different. It pulled up in the driveway, from the sound of it. Right. Company. Suddenly I felt really exposed, sitting out here blind and alone except for Dief.

"Frase? I think your friends are here."

"So they are." Fraser's voice right there in the doorway. I fought down a sudden frantic desire to cower behind him. Or maybe go hide in my room. I don't know, maybe it showed on my face, because the next thing, Fraser stepped over and squeezed my shoulder. Okay, no hiding. I stood up but kept the backs of my legs against the seat for balance.

Footsteps coming up the driveway; quiet male voices, chuckling.

"Hey, Benton, how you doing?"

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