"Ben!" Meg shouted, running down to the edge of the river ice. She ran along the rocks, looking for a place that could support her weight, and watched Fraser drag himself out of the freezing water. She knew he didn't have more than a few minutes before hypothermia would set in. She had to get across to him, and fast. She put her gun back in the holster and pulled out her hand radio.
"Thatcher to base! Come in, base!" She ran along the rocks, looking, looking, glancing up to gauge Fraser's status. He had slumped to the ground, and was barely moving, from what she could see.
"BEN!" she shouted, her voice starting to crack. Her heart was pounding fast. "Fraser, get up! Ben!" Whatever he did, he had to keep moving until they could get him warm, and she knew he knew it. He started to roll onto his side.
"Thatcher to base!" she growled into the radio. It crackled to life a moment later, and she heard St. Marie's voice.
"RCMP 1113 to Thatcher, go ahead."
"We've got a man down—" Meg said, looking around for a sign of the other officers Fraser had brought with him. Were they down, too? "—and possibly three more. We need hypothermia measures, and medical assistance. And possibly a body bag."
"They're on their way," answered St. Marie, sounding immensely relieved at having something to do. "What's your location?"
"We're on that second river basin we discussed; we may have some difficulty getting a rescue team in here; it's not safe for a landing." Meg found a place to step onto the ice, and she tested it with her foot.
"They flew a helicopter up from Fort Nelson a few hours ago."
"Excellent—one second, I'll get an exact location for you." She looked up and saw Ankers heading across the ice, though carefully. She tried a step out, herself, and it felt stable enough to continue. Harding was already halfway to the other side. Fraser had started slowly peeling off his coat.
"Ankers!" she shouted across the ice. The constable looked up. "Where are we?"
"Approximately ten point two kilometres due south-southeast from our drop-off point!" he shouted back. She repeated the information into her radio.
"They should arrive in about forty-five minutes," St. Marie assured her. "Anything else?"
"I'll let you know," Meg answered. "Thatcher clear."
Meg, with the radio still in hand, continue to make her way across the ice. Harding had reached Fraser and was speaking to him. A minute later, Harding took off up the embankment that Fraser had come down, and he disappeared over the top of the hill. Ankers was running further downstream, looking for signs of La Croix's body under the ice. Meg approached, carefully skirting a wide circle around the hole in the ice.
"I can't find him," Ankers shouted, looking over at her as she leapt to shore and hurried towards Fraser. He was trying to pull off his soaked sweater, with some difficulty. He looked up at her with a small smile that turned into a wince.
"Ben." She crouched down beside him, swallowing the lump in her throat at the sight of him. He was pale and shivering, with dark hollows under his eyes. Washed-out bloodstains coloured the neck of his off-white sweater—it was the same one he had worn when he had come to see her on the mountain. He paused in his movements to let her check the angry split on the back of his head. She frowned, and sat back on her heels.
"Did Harding go for the others?" she asked, quickly examining the surface wounds on his face. His left cheek was split and was quickly developing a bruise, and there was a cut running along his right cheekbone. It bled, but the cold air temperature kept the flow slowed down.
He nodded, with a shiver. Constable Ankers had run a short distance downstream, and had begun making his way back towards them.
"Ankers, I need your coat. Mine is too small," she shouted, helping Fraser out of his wet clothing. Ankers quickly worked his way back to them, unzipped his coat, and handed it to her.
"What do we do about La Croix?" he asked. She looked at Fraser, who shook his head.
"Did you find any sign of him?" she asked Ankers.
"No, I couldn't tell with the amount of ice and snow over the river. It's unlikely that we can find him now, though. The current looks strong—his body could have been pulled quite a ways downstream by now."
"Radio to base and find out if there's a dam or waterfall or some other obstruction on this river. And while you're doing that, go find something to keep Fraser warm."
"Do you have any blankets on your sleds?" he asked Fraser, dropping his pack on the ground beside them.
"Two," Fraser said, between chatters. "The two—sleds—directly—up there." He motioned towards the top of the incline behind them with his head.
"I'll bring them down," Ankers said, and started up the embankment.
"I'll build a fire. Here, sit on my pack," Meg said, unshouldering her backpack. Fraser moved to sit up on the dry perch that she had laid down for him. He looked out at the ice with a worried expression.
She followed his gaze, out to the wolf, who was lying in blood-stained snow a short distance off shore. She went to Ankers' pack and pulled out the matches and the first aid kit, and brought the kit out to where Dief lay.
He opened his eyes when she approached, but did not raise his head from the snow. His off-white fur was matted down with blood, and ran into a reddened stain around his stomach in the snow.
"Hey, Dief," she said softly, surprised at how strong her reaction was to seeing him. She had watched him attack La Croix, and take the hit. She stared at him for a moment, and he stared back, through half-opened eyes. She crouched down beside him and touched his side gently. He twitched at the pain, but he otherwise did not move.
She was no expert in animal medicine, but from the wound and his apparent lethargy, she did not think he had much time left. At the very least, he was in danger of bleeding to death. She made a quick pad and taped it to his side. She could only hope it would hold until help came. He needed to be close to the fire, so she managed to wedge her arms underneath him and carry him the short distance over to Fraser. She laid him down—dropped him, really—and laid out the tarp from La Croix's sled next to Fraser, then lifted Dief onto it. The entire time, he remained limp, and breathed faintly. Fraser reach down and rubbed the half-wolf's head.
"Dief is grateful," he said.
She smiled faintly, nodded, and turned away from the animal's dark eyes. She went a short distance away to gather some damp brush and branches from a fallen tree. She returned a few minutes later, dropping the wood in a pile near Fraser's feet. Ankers had brought back the blankets, leaving them out on the tarp, to keep them dry. Fraser had managed to remove the rest of his clothing and was wrapped in one of the blankets. His wet clothing lay in a pile next to Dief.
"I have to admit that I haven't done this in years," she said. Fraser smiled a little.
"You can do it," he said. She knelt down and got to work starting a flame and trying to get the brush to catch. Smoke rose up, and the brush caught a few seconds later.
"Well done, sir," Fraser said.
"Please don't call me that, right now," she said, turning to look at him as he sat and tried to get his shivering under control. "Please."
"I'm sorry, I was attempting a little...levity," he said. Chastised, Meg rose and moved over to him.
"I shouldn't have snapped at you," she apologized. "I know. I'm sorry—it's just..." She trailed off, not sure, and knowing that she had a job to do right now. The rest had to wait for later. She ran her fingers through his wet hair. Some bits had frozen stiffly, and she tried to smooth a clump down.
"I'm going to be all right," he said quietly, looking at her.
"I know," she answered, her eyes drifting to the cuts on his face.
"Was it your shot?"
Meg nodded, swallowed back the threat of tears—really, she was a career officer, and had seen much worse than this—and returned to building the fire. They sat in silence while she tried to coax some heat out of the brush. Harding returned with Ankers fifteen minutes later, both helping Willis walk slowly down the incline.
"What's their status?" Meg asked, when she looked up from the flames. The fire was a decent blaze by then, with some larger broken branches from the dead tree. Ankers picked up the first aid kit and the second blanket and headed back up the incline, leaving Harding to report as he helped Willis to the ground.
"It's all over?" Willis asked, wincing when he sat down.
"It is," Fraser answered.
"Constable Willis's left arm is broken, I believe," Harding said, coming over to crouch down beside Diefenbaker. "And Constable Bohner is conscious, but probably has internal bleeding and a broken hand and arm. Constable Lecrue has some broken ribs and a broken leg, and is unconscious. I didn't want to move either of them until we have splints and stretchers. And several of the dogs are seriously injured."
Meg nodded, and looked around at their small group. "They should be here in twenty minutes. That's the best we can do."
Fraser stroked Dief's head and waited, watching as his friend drew shallow, painful breaths. He thought of the two men and the dogs lying behind them in the snow, and frowned at the fire. La Croix was missing. Nothing had gone as the Mountie had intended.
It was late into the evening by the time that Ben was able to lay Dief, safely asleep, on a foam matting in the corner of Miriam's office and sit back for a moment to take in a deep breath. He carefully lowered himself to the floor, and sat beside the wolf, watching his side rise and fall as he breathed peacefully. Ben reached out a hand and ran it fondly along Dief's neck, stroking the thick fur, and reassuring himself of the wolf's presence. Dief's ear twitched in his sleep, and Ben smiled.
Though he had only known the wolf for thirteen years, he considered the animal one of his oldest and truest friends. Their camaraderie and fond disputes were something that he did not look forward to losing one day. Dief was getting older; he couldn't take many more hits like this one.
Neither can I, Ben thought ruefully. He shifted, and hissed as a dull pain shot up his side at the movement. Ben was not an old man, by any means, but he had been in law enforcement for more than twenty years, and the thrill of the danger of it had waned. He found himself enjoying more and more the mundane aspects of his job: the substitute teaching at the elementary school, the everyday in-and-out of small hamlet life. He thought of the way little Paul's eyes lit up when he saw 'Sergeant Ben' coming, and of the simple respect of the people who lived in the Liard River Valley.
He had not thought that he would like being saddled with administration, being a man who preferred being free to pursue his own interests in law enforcement, and he had not liked it at all, not at first. But he came to realize why his father eventually had settled in Toktuyaktuk and the farthest northern reaches and had helped the displaced tribes secure land of their own, remaining to run the outpost for those areas. He found himself enjoying the responsibility of the community, its colourful and varied residents, their children, and the recognized place that he had in it. It was really the first place in his adult life that he felt he could be comfortable. Dief had thrived, sneaking treats regularly from the children and the soft-hearted adults, and he, too, had found that calling this place home was not so bad after all. Of course, finding Lira had not hurt anything, and Ben had thought it ironic that Dief had settled down and built a family before he himself had.
Dief had not seem too surprised about it, reminding Fraser that his lifespan was, after all, shorter, and also that he had never had any of Fraser's social compunctions regarding females, a point which Ben conceded to him.
Ben rubbed the fur around Dief's ear and sat back. He exhaled and closed his eyes.
He looked up at Meg as she crouched down beside him.
"Hey." He could feel the exhaustion with the word, as he realized that the crisis for today was over. Even Dief was sleeping, and Ben wanted nothing more than to do the same, but he felt the unfinished job hanging over him, remembering his inability to draw La Croix back to the surface. "Have they found him?"
"No...they're still looking, but it seems unlikely that they will find him before the river thaws."
"Too long," he said, closing his eyes and rubbing his forehead. Meg decided to change the subject to something more reassuring.
"The men are all asleep. I sent Ankers and Harding over to the motel for the night."
"They'll be all right?" he asked. Meg nodded, resting a warm hand on his knee.
"Lecrue went to sleep a short while ago; Miriam has a nurse waking him up periodically throughout the night. He's got a concussion."
Ben nodded. Dr. Miriam Inuvik had been taking care of them all evening, and after setting bones, sewing up cuts, and giving each of them a thorough going-over, she had taken care of Diefenbaker. She had done her best to sew him up, taking over two hours to finish working on him. He was to stay here for the next few days, under her watchful eye. He was a favourite with the children, and Miriam had two of her own. Dief was in good hands. Ben was pretty sure that Dief would be given whatever snacks the kids could sneak in to him. He smiled at the thought, and as he relaxed, he felt himself falling a bit. Meg's hand was on his arm in a moment, steadying him.
"You're exhausted. Come on, I'll take you home," she said, her deep brown eyes drawing him back to his senses.
"Right." He got to his feet. "I'll follow you; my snowmobile is at the outpost."
"Are you sure you're awake enough to drive home by yourself?" She frowned, standing up beside him. He nodded.
A tired-looking Miriam came into the office.
"Yes. Thank you for everything, Miriam," he said, giving her a grateful smile.
"You're welcome. Are you sure that you don't want some Advil or something?"
"Yes, I'll be all right." He had refused medication. He was not fond of taking anything that dulled his senses, though in this tired state, he supposed that it probably could not dull much more.
"I'll watch out for Diefenbaker for you, Sergeant," she said, rubbing her eyebrow and smiling slightly. "I think he'll pull through all right."
"Thanks for everything, Miriam," Meg said, taking his hand. At her touch, he wove his fingers through hers and ran his thumb along the back of her hand in a silent thank-you. As the senior officer present, she had naturally taken over coordinating the rescue and subsequent arrangements, for which he was grateful. He was not looking forward to the mountain of paperwork to be completed the next day.
"Good night," the physician said, with a small wave, as she sat down behind her desk.
"Good night," they echoed, and went out into the cold, darkened night. The moon's light was not that bright, and they hurried through the snow, going over to the shadowed form of the outpost a short distance away.
Weary, they started their snowmobiles and headed off into the night.
Ben grimaced and stopped moving for a second, one hand touching the helmet that he had just put down on his snowmobile seat. Meg looked up at him in alarm.
"Nothing," he managed, after a moment. "Just...sore."
"Come on," she said gently, and when he straightened up, she went behind him into his cabin. It was, surprisingly, not empty. A light had been glowing inside, and the thought had not occurred to her that someone might be inside.
A Native man stood up when they entered the room. The cabin was warm, and a steady fire was burning.
"Antonu," Ben said, with a tired smile.
"Ben," the man answered, also smiling. "I didn't think you'd want to come home to a cold cabin, so I came by to start a fire. Word came from Harold Onsten that you were coming back today. Good thing you're okay."
"Thank you," Ben said, truly grateful. If it were not for Meg probably staying the night, he would have just gone to bed without building a fire first. Meg was still looking surprised at seeing Antonu Ittinuar standing next to the fire. "Oh, Antonu—this is Meg Thatcher. Meg, Antonu Ittinuar. Vera's husband."
"Ah," Meg recognized the name. "Pleased to meet you."
"And you," Antonu said with a slight nod and a smile. Seeing their weary state, he picked up his coat from beside him and pulled it on. "You both have a good night. Call me if you need anything; I'm only five minutes away."
"Thanks again, Antonu," Ben said.
"Yes, thank you," Meg echoed. The visitor nodded a good night to them both, and disappeared a moment later, with no further ado, pulling the door closed firmly behind himself. He had done what he came for, and it was late; he had his own family to get back to.
They stood for a moment looking at the closed door, and then turned to each other.
"Do you want me to stay the night?" Meg asked him.
"If you want to," he answered. She paused a moment, watching him. His gaze remained fixed on her, and he blinked slowly. She wanted nothing more at this moment than to curl up beside him for warmth and go to sleep.
She blinked, and shook her head, bringing her mind back to the present.
"I...don't have a change of clothes," she said lamely, though the thought of riding further into the cold night alone, until she reached the Coopers', was not appealing to her. Yes, she wanted to stay.
"I have some extra night-clothes," he answered mildly, removing his coat and Stetson and putting them on the hooks next to the door. "I apologize, for not..." he yawned, "...offering you tea." He gingerly touched the cut running along his cheekbone.
"It's okay, no apologies..." Meg yawned, inevitably. "...needed."
He smiled at the sight of her yawning, also.
"You know, I don't think I've ever seen you do that before." He came near and cupped her cheek with one hand, smiling quietly. "You're endearing when you do that."
"Ah...thanks." She yawned again, and they both grinned. Ben ignored the sting in his cheeks, and drew her chin up slightly. She did not resist a soft, short kiss. When he pulled back, her eyes were closed, her dark lashes laid across her cheeks. The sight of Inspector Margaret Thatcher so yielding and peaceful, due to his motions, made him step back, and he let his hand drop to his side.
"Let's get you something to stay warm in," he said, his voice unexpectedly gruff. He walked into the darkness of his bedroom, knowing her eyes were following him, questioning. He went around the corner and open his bureau drawer. He found his spare pair of red long johns and pushed the drawer closed. He looked up and caught his reflection in the mirror over the dresser, and he swallowed in the darkness, looking at his half-darkened, half-lit face. There were dark shadows under his eyes, and deep lines of fatigue running under them. He looked down at the folded red fabric in his hands.
"I'll sleep out here," Meg said, when he came out of his room. Her tone brooked no argument, and he was not going to insist. She was removing her shoes and socks as he came over.
"This is all I have," he said, handing the long johns to her. She looked at them skeptically, with one eyebrow raised, as she took them. He shrugged, with a half-smile. "You might have to roll up the legs."
"Thank you," she gave them a funny look. "This should be fine."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. I'm sure I'll be roasty-toasty warm," she replied, returning his smile.
"Fine, then." He turned away, with a wince, rolling his shoulder.
"Do you want a back-rub?" She suddenly heard herself asking. He looked back at her, considering for a moment. He had something of the same expression as when she had instructed him to remove his tunic when they were in the egg incubator, when they were working on a criminal case in Chicago. He was not sure of her intentions, and his face was a beguiling combination of wariness and apprehension.
"Yes," he finally said. Her face relaxed into a smile.
"All right," she answered. He nodded to her, and then disappeared into his bedroom.
She changed in the bathroom, feeling more than a little silly wearing his red flannel pajamas, but having nothing else, and she rolled up the pant legs before gathering all of her clothing and going back out to the main room of the cabin. She saw that he had laid out two blankets and a pillow for her. Smiling, she left her things on the floor beside her shoes and went over to his room and looked in.
He was in the darkened back corner of the room, next to the closet, pulling on a pair of sweat pants. He made a small sound of pain, and Meg winced at hearing it. When he straightened up, he saw her in the doorway, and his form stiffened. His face was shadowed, but he clearly was uncomfortable at seeing her watching him.
"I'm sorry," she felt immediately invasive of his privacy, and she turned away from the door. "I'll just...wait—"
"No, it's all right," he said quickly, coming into the light from the doorway, and she realized that his torso was bare. It was not a sight that she was accustomed to, and her eyes travelled, of their own accord, over the lines that the light made on his skin. He seemed to notice her gaze, and he looked away, clearly self-conscious. "I...ah, I apologize. It's rather warm in here, and if you still intend to give me a back-rub, I'd prefer to go to asleep directly, and not have to remove my shirt before finally falling asleep." He took in her reaction, and quickly added, "If you prefer, I'll put one on—"
"No, you're beautiful." She immediately realized the words the moment they were out of her mouth, and she put a hand to her forehead, embarrassed. "I mean—no, it's okay."
A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth at the sight of her in his long johns, and he reached up and pushed back a lock of hair on her forehead.
"Thanks." He would have, at this moment, been possessed to do something more, if the weight of exhaustion had not been drawing more tension into his shoulders, along with all of the aches and tight muscles from the long day. He let his hand drop to his side and he let out a long breath.
He sat down on the edge of the bed and moved to lay down and settle onto his stomach. Meg came into the room, her chest tightening at the brief glimpse she had gotten of the large brownish-reddened bruise on his stomach. She would have to be very careful about pushing down while rubbing his back. He had a bandage over the stitches at the back of his neck.
She knelt one knee on the bed beside him, after he had gotten comfortable.
"Tell me if I ever hurt you," she said, pushing up her flannel sleeves.
"I will," he answered quietly, and closed his eyes.
Taking a deep breath and a few seconds to try to relax her own shoulders, she began rubbing his shoulders, lifting and kneading the warm skin. He made a small moan, and she lightened her touch.
"No...no," he said, his eyes still closed. "It just feels...so good. I haven't had anyone rub my back...in years."
She smiled and returned to her previous pressure on his muscles. The little, almost-inaudible sighs that he made at first, combined with the sight of him simply so relaxed beneath her hands, stirred a peaceful warmth in her. She was tired, and her own muscles ached, but seeing him like this for the first time, since the day that she had met him and the walls of formality had been drawn up between them, was entirely worth the small discomfort.
He had one small, round scar next to his spine, halfway down his back. She knew, from reading the medical report when she had first come to the Chicago consulate, that a 9mm bullet was still imbedded in his back, too close to the spinal cord to be safely removed without endangering him. She did not avoid it in her passes over his back.
She continued until she was sure that he had fallen asleep, and then she lifted her hands away and looked at him for a long moment. He truly was a beautiful man, and she felt tears unexpectedly rise in her as she let her eyes travel over him, and up to his face, where the lines of tension had completely relaxed from his expression.
Her work was done. She smiled, rolled her head, and rubbed her neck muscles for a moment, before drawing her leg off the bed and turning away.
"Red suits you," he murmured softly. She almost did not think she had heard it, but the barest hint of a smile on his face belied that. Smiling inwardly, she went to the futon and sank down, falling asleep at once.
She opened her eyes in what seemed to be just a moment later, to find Dr. Miriam Inuvik leaning over her, shaking her awake, the cold air rolling off her clothing onto Meg's warm body, huddled under the blankets. "Wha...?"
"Caryn's having the baby. You said you wanted to be there, and I could use the extra pair of hands," Miriam said quietly, insistently. "We don't have much time. Hurry."
"Uh...okay, let me get dressed," Meg said, coming awake at once. "Is everything all right?"
"Yes. Dave just called me," Miriam answered, stuffing her mittened hands into her pockets. "He said you were here..." Meg was amused that the doctor's tone of voice implied that she was surprised to find her sleeping in the main room. She picked up her pile of clothing from the floor and hurried into the bathroom to change.
"What time is it?" Meg asked, when she came out of the bathroom, pulling on her sweater.
"Two-thirty in the morning," Miriam answered, holding out Meg's coat. Meg took it from her, quickly tugging it on.
"Have you gotten any sleep?" Meg asked, with a wry smile.
"Not much," Miriam admitted, with an echoing smile. "But it's in the job description." Seeing that Meg was dressed, Miriam started for the door.
"Wait, one second. I want to leave a note," Meg said. She found a pencil and a piece of paper in one of the kitchen drawers and wrote a short note to Ben, explaining the situation. She left it on the table, and then zipped her coat, pulled her hat and mittens on, took one last look at the inside of the cabin, and closed the door behind herself and Miriam.