Fort Liard

Chapter 3

They stopped in front of a small cabin about three kilometres away from the general store. Fraser got off his vehicle and swung aside a wide door in the side-shed, and she drove inside and cut the engine. He drove in after her and then quickly got off his vehicle and pulled the door shut behind them. The howling of the storm was muted somewhat. The garage was attached to the cabin, and she could see light shining down through the panes of glass on the door. She didn't see any people moving around inside.

She removed her helmet and got off the snowmobile. Fraser was slipping off his own helmet, and he set it on the seat. She shook off the clumps of snow clinging to her clothing and began unclipping the straps on the sleeping bag and the travel pack with her belongings. Fraser pulled a cover over his snowmobile and came around to stand between her and the door.

"Do you need any assistance?" he asked, leaning over to half-shout against the whistling of the storm against the walls. She slung the pack over her shoulder and hefted the sleeping bag in her other hand and then turned to him.

"None required," she shouted back. He nodded, went up the few steps, and pushed the door of the cabin open. She followed him inside, manoeuvering the sleeping bag around her legs to get through the door. The cabin was larger than it looked on the outside. The room was dark; the only light appeared to be coming from the fireplace. One main room, a door in the back, another closed door on the side, and an open dark doorway on that same wall, to their right. Fraser checked on the fire in the stove, stoked it, closed the door, and then stood up.

"This way, sir," he said, walking off towards the dark doorway. She followed, glancing around the main room. There was a small kitchen area on the opposite side of the cabin, and a table with two chairs set up under the window. A brown rug was spread halfway across the room, with a futon set near the edge. It faced the fireplace and coal stove that were set in the wall that she was walking past. On the other side of the fireplace was a white wolf, lying on its side in the corner. A gasp escaped her lips when she saw the tiny puppies curled up along the length of the animal's stomach. This was not Diefenbaker.

She looked up at Fraser as he lit a lamp in the side room. He moved over to the corner across from the doorway and pushed aside a neat stack of books and a pile of blankets.

"You may leave your things here," he said, standing up. He cleared his throat. "I want to apologize, sir, for my behaviour previously. Your arrival was...unexpected." He held out his hands, and she gave him the pack and the rolled sleeping bag.

"It's all right, Sergeant. The storekeeper seemed to think that I was expected, though," Meg answered.

"You were. Well, not you, exactly, sir. David Cooper told me a woman named 'Meg' was coming. I never thought—well, that may not be entirely—no, I did not think it would be you, sir. He never mentioned your surname."

"I understand. No offense taken. I was not exactly providing a...warm...greeting, either," she said.

"Apology accepted," he answered, inclining his head towards her for a moment.

"Nice place you have here," she said, looking around the bedroom. A bed and a dresser stood opposite each other and a closet was set in the far corner. She thought she could see the shoulder of his red serge poking out from the clothing in the darkness. She swallowed back an unexpected thickness in her throat at the flood of memories that hovered on the edge of her mind. His next words jarred her from her thoughts and she turned away from him.

"I must apologize for the state of my home, Inspector," he said, clearing his throat. "I wasn't expecting a visitor."

"It's quite all right, Fraser," she answered, walking back out into the main room. Everything seemed to be in its place; there didn't appear to be anything to apologize for. She decided not to press the point. "It looks very comfortable."

"Diefenbaker likes it, also," he said, moving past her. "May I take your coat?"

"One moment."

As she unzipped her coat, she looked over at a second white wolf who was coming around from the behind the couch, his ears standing up straight. If she had not been so rational, she would have sworn the animal looked genuinely surprised. He barked softly.

"Mm. Yes," Fraser answered. She pulled off her coat and he hung it on a peg beside the door. She had the crazy impulse to ask him what the wolf had said, but quashed it. Something about the two of them had always left her feeling as if she was missing a conversation, and it seemed that they had not changed. She knelt down as Dief came up to her and sniffed her hand. There was something comforting in seeing the selectively-deaf half-wolf again.

She still smelled good. She smelled tired, too, Dief decided.

She ran her fingers through the fur on his neck, and his tail beat the air wildly.

"Hello," she said, realizing that she was smiling widely down at him. "It's been a while, hasn't it?" He woofed at her, and she laughed. He made some snuffling noises and poked his nose at the pockets of her ski pants.

She had rarely given him food before, though there was once, when they were in the consulate alone one evening... Nope, no food. Perhaps later, Dief thought.

"No donuts," Fraser said from behind her, pulling off his boots. "It took you an entire year to get back in touch with your Arctic-wolf side. You don't think she's going to bring you treats and let you get soft again, do you?" His voice was half-teasing, half-reprimanding. Meg smiled and continued running her fingers through the wolf's soft fur. There was more grey around his eyes and snout than she last remembered.

"He's getting older," she said quietly. Fraser finished pulling his ski pants off and hung them in the corner.

"Yes," he said, and walked over to crouch down beside Meg for a moment. He ran a hand underneath the half-wolf's neck and grinned. "But not wiser."

Diefenbaker whined, then growled softly. She still smells good.

Fraser smiled at the wolf's observation and stood up.

"Are you hungry?" he asked her, walking around the couch and into the small kitchen area.

"Yes. I haven't eaten since this morning."

Diefenbaker walked over to the female wolf lying in the corner, who had raised her head to watch them. Meg went over to the coat-rack by the door and started pulling off her boots. She looked at the puppies, watching them scrambling over each other for an open spot along their mother's stomach.

She set the boots off to the side and started tugging her ski pants down.

"Who's the new mother?"

"Lira," Fraser answered, filling a large teapot with water. The light over the kitchen sink was turned on. He walked over to a crock-pot that was sitting on the counter and lifted off the cover. A cloud of steam rose up, and Meg could smell the aroma of slow-cooked stew as it drifted across the room. Her stomach rumbled as she finished pulling off the pants and hung them on a peg. She ran a hand through her hair, damp from the sweat inside the helmet.

"Where is the washroom?"

"That door," Fraser gestured towards the dark doorway on the other side of the room. "Do you mind some moose hock stew?"

"Ah, no," Meg answered. She walked into the bedroom and rummaged through her pack until she found a brush. "That'll be fine."

"It's mild, a rather tangy kind of taste. I think you'll find it quite good." He finished filling the kettle with water from the tap and set it to boil.

"I'm sure I will, Fraser, if you haven't lost any of your cooking skills since I last ate your food," she answered, fondly remembering the omelette that he had made for her so long ago. She had not eaten moose in years. It brought back a memory of childhood that felt like more than a lifetime ago. She made her way over to the bathroom and pushed back the door into the small area, relieved to find that he had indoor plumbing.

"Be assured that I haven't lost any skills, Inspector."

"I'm on vacation, Fraser," Meg sighed. She searched for the light switch and flipped on the light. "You aren't required to call me 'Inspector'. Actually, I'd prefer if you didn't."

"Understood," he searched through the cupboards. "Ben."

"Ben," she repeated. She pulled out her ponytail and frowned at herself in the mirror. "While I'm out here...'Meg' is fine." He had never used her given name before, but it seemed silly to keep up formalities now, so many years later and so far away from the city. She was not in the mood—she brushed a stubborn tangle out—to, to... She stopped brushing for a moment and looked at herself in the mirror. There were deep shadows under her eyes and her hair was unkempt. She was tired. Steam wafted across from the stew, and she looked over at Fraser. He was stirring the pot and watching her. He looked back down at the stew.

" said her name was Lira?" She finished brushing her hair into submission, and wove the damp strands into a quick braid.

"Yes. This is her third litter. She and Diefenbaker have produced an admirable progeny. Many of the area residents have trained the puppies as sled dogs, with good results. Two of the first litter led the winning team at the last county race. Diefenbaker was practically bursting with pride." He filled a bowl with stew, nodded to himself. "Lira, of course, is never happy when they leave, but knowing that her children are successful is something of a comfort."

"How old are these?"

"About three weeks—" Fraser started, but Diefenbaker barked, from his place next to Lira. Fraser corrected himself. "—all right, two weeks and five days." He filled the second bowl, and carried them both over to the table. "In any case, they have at least another month before I'll let any of them go out to new owners."

Meg left her brush in the bedroom and went over to the puppies in the corner. She slowly reached out a hand to Lira and let the animal sniff her. Lira seemed to deem her acceptable and she let her rub her neck. A puppy tumbled over its mother's legs and tried to climb on to Diefenbaker's back. Another came over and sniffed the toe of Meg's sock and then sneezed. She laughed and picked it up. It squirmed in her hands and barked a tiny sound.

"Hey there," she said, rubbing its soft ears. It closed its eyes and looked extremely content.

Fraser cleaned out his smaller tea chainik and spooned some fresh chai grains into it. He poured in some of the heated water from the teapot, enjoying the small ritual as the fragrant steam wafted out. He finished with the preparations and set the teapot and the chainik in the center of the table, along with two small bowl-shaped cups.

"Dinner is served, ma'am."

"Meg," she reminded him, putting the puppy down. "Is Lira also a half-wolf?"

"Forgive me, Meg. Yes. It appears that there are a number of their kind out in the woods, probably the offspring of a mixed mating somewhere down the line." He strained and diluted the hot chai into the two cups on the table. The stew bowls were steaming, and Meg's stomach rumbled again. She came over to the table and sat down in the closest seat. Fraser finished cleaning around the sink and sat down at the table opposite her.

"What are these?" Meg asked, looking at what appeared to be two small bowls filled with dark tea. "Did you break your last two mugs or something?"

Fraser laughed, then demonstrated picking up his tea-bowl and carefully sipping it.

"They're piyalas. A friend brought them back from Central Asia for me recently and since you're my first guest since acquiring them, I decided to make some chai for dinner."

"Piyalas?" Meg picked up the small bowl and tried a sip. The tea was strong; it definitely needed some sugar.

"So how did you find her?" She asked, spooning some sugar in and trying it again.



"She was caught in a trap; Diefenbaker found her and led me back to her. She was only half-grown, abandoned, and weak. She was almost dead, in fact. We found her and nursed her back to health. I'm afraid her paw will never completely be its old self, but there's barely even a limp visible now. So how have you been...Meg?" He stirred his chai and set the spoon aside.

She looked up from a mouthful of stew—good stew, in fact—and raised her eyebrows at the sudden change of topic. Fraser took a bite. Meg nodded, and swallowed.

"Good, doing well. This is good."

"Mmm, thank you. It could probably use more seasoning, but—"

"No, really, this is just right. I hate over-spiced food. It tends to make my nose itch." It tends to make my nose itch? What am I saying? Meg picked up her cup of tea and sighed inwardly.

"I know what you mean," he answered. "My grandmother only used salt in her moose hock stew. On special occasions, she'd add a few bay leaves. She kept them in a little glass jar that had a leather cap. I believe that my grandfather had procured the bottle for her as an anniversary present in the first years of their marriage. It was really quite impressive that she managed to preserve them and their spice potency after so many years. I suspect that it could be attributed to the airtight cap." A dry voice in his head observed that he was babbling like a fool, and he told it to be quiet.

"Most likely. So, have you been?" She took a large bite, enjoying the warmth and wildness of the tastes. It brought back a few long-buried memories, and she let them be.

"Good, good." His tone was light and he nodded. "Life has definitely become...quieter."

"Yes, I imagine it is pretty quiet out here."

"Comparatively," he smiled.

Compared to Chicago, any place is quieter. Meg looked around the room and asked in a mild voice, "So, no Mrs. Fraser, no little Frasers?"

"No," he answered, smiling, matching her tone. "Though there are those who would have it otherwise. You?"

"No little dragons," she smiled, finding a piece of meat in the stew. Fraser frowned slightly and shifted in his seat.

"You do realize that 'Dragon Lady' was actually a term of endearment for you?" he asked, looking slightly apologetic.

"I gathered as much, after a while," she replied, licking her lips. "Though I can't say I didn't deserve it. Have you heard from Detective Vecchio since then?" She took another bite.

Fraser nodded. "We exchange letters, on occasion. Detective Kowalski also sends me Christmas cards every year. Always a month late, without fail. I suspect that he does not realize the time required for post here."

"How long does it take to reach you out here?"

"We have a satellite-transmission hook-up at the outpost for RCMP communication, but most parcel mail can take up to a month, depending on the weather conditions."

"I assume that you and your men coordinate the mail for your jurisdiction."

"Yes; I usually make the rounds every two weeks, whenever a shipment comes in. It is also a convenient time to visit those families in the outlying areas."

"Don't they all have radios and telephones? You could just notify them."

"I know; that's how the previous Sergeant managed the mail. However, I wanted to meet each of the residents, and I suppose that I've just gotten into the habit, now."

Still doing more than is required of him. It was somehow comforting to know that he had not changed in his attitude towards duty. "You're a fine officer."

"Thank you," he smiled. "As are you. So, you've come out to help Caryn with her family?"

"She asked me to visit, and I decided to take some time off. We were roommates in college, and I haven't seen her for...too long." She took a bite of the stew and chewed thoughtfully, watching him eat. "I must apologize to you, Ben." He looked up and frowned, not understanding. "I should have registered with your outpost and let you know that I was going to be within your jurisdiction. I made the situation awkward by not telling you...and your office."

He shook his head and finished a mouthful. "No—don't worry about it. You wanted to take a vacation. Registering officially with us would require you to provide us with any assistance, if we asked for it. I know the regulations, Meg, it's all right. Enjoy your month off." He eyed her for a moment. "You look as if you could use it."

"How did you know it was a month? Do I really look that bad?" She touched her hair, then pulled her hand away quickly, angry at herself for letting his comment affect her. So she was tired; she already knew that. What did it matter to him?

But it always had; that genuine concern was what left her off-guard.

"It seemed the logical time span, since Mrs. Cooper isn't due until the twenty-third, and you'll probably want to stay with her for at least a week after the birth to help. And no, I apologize for implying that you look unattractive. You look well—tired, perhaps, but still beau—good." He half-frowned at himself, then smiled slightly. "I'm sorry for my awkwardness. You look very nice."

"Thank you." Meg leaned back, starting to relax, and slipping back into something she remembered fondly—and tempered with a good deal of frustration. She smiled. "Well, I see that you still haven't completely regained the use of your tongue, Sergeant Fraser."

"Your presence seems to render me uniquely unable to form a coherent thought—oh dear." He looked down at his stew and pictured her semaphoring moron at him from across the table.

"What's wrong?" She sat forward.

"I find it difficult to believe that I just said that," he replied, in a mortified tone of voice, and looked up at her. He blinked. She started to laugh, which only made him look more embarrassed. She had not meant to make it worse.

"No, no—I'm sorry, Fraser," she said, putting out one hand to apologize. "I'm not laughing at you. It's's mutual." He blinked again, and she realized what she had just blurted out. "Oh, oh dear. No, that's not what I—arrgh." She closed her eyes, trying to recollect her thoughts. She had thought this frustrating lack of coherence was an affliction of the past. She had been doing so well. She shook her head and opened her eyes, smiling ruefully. After a moment, he appeared to relax somewhat, and he smiled and shook his head, too. She looked across at him.

"A toast," she said, lifting up the warm piyala in her hand. He tilted his head slightly.

"To what?"

"Old friends," she smiled. He nodded.

"Very good. To old friends, then." He lifted his own piyala.

"To old friends," she echoed, and their cups bumped gently together. They both took a long sip.

"Good tea," he said, observing that something intrinsic in her manner seemed to have changed subtly; he was not sure how to interpret it. Inspector Thatcher at ease had never been part of his experience. He wondered what had happened to her in the past four years; the last word that he had heard was that she was highly placed in the Canadian Intelligence Division. Then, nothing. He supposed that espionage had its drawbacks.

"What is it?"

"Kazakh chai."

"Ahh," she intoned, as if it all made sense now. She cupped the bowl in her hands and leaned back again. "So, ah, did you get to become a Staff Sergeant? I was somehow under the impression that the RCMP headquarters wasn't too fond of you. That's quite a promotion in just four years."

"It's not any more astounding than reaching the rank of 'Inspector' at thirty-one years of age, Inspector. Less so, actually."

"Hmm." Meg nodded into her cup, not wanting to take up that topic. "Yes, well, tell me how it happened. With you, it's likely to be a long, involved story about Inuit legends and a stack of beaver skins."

"Nothing of the kind. I think I would actually have preferred a stack of beaver skins and an Inuit legend to the real events. It's almost embarrassingly short."

"A short story? With you? Benton Fraser? Are you certain?" It felt good to be talking to him again. It was nice to feel safe for once, knowing where she stood with a person who truly respected her. Teasing him made her feel confident—or perhaps it was just the comfortable feeling of a warm, full stomach. She took another sip.

"Completely." He sat back, noticed his cup was empty, and refilled it. "Would you like some more?" She set hers down, and he strained and diluted her tea, then set the teapot back down carefully.

"Three weeks after I transferred out of the Chicago consulate, Ottawa still had me attached to their field office and hadn't given me a new assignment. There was an event being given for some of the government dignitaries and a few foreign ambassadors. I was assigned as an internal door guard."

"Handsome wall decoration, then," Meg murmured.

"Pardon?" Something passed briefly across his face.

"Nothing," she answered with a smile. She knew he had heard her just fine. "Go on."

"It was simple, really. A criminal had infiltrated the catering company that was serving the event and had poisoned a glass of wine. The man walked past me carrying the contaminated wine on a serving tray and I saw the suspicious discolouring of the Port-Isle 1959 liquid—the wine is of the dry red Prince Edward variety, and the poison left a slightly darker tint in the drink—and I naturally wondered at the colour difference."

"Naturally," she said. He eyed her for a second, then nodded.

"I noticed that the Commissioner had taken the wine-glass and so, concerned for his safety, I broke guard and went over to inform him of the danger." He rubbed his ear and sighed. "He unfortunately tried to drink the wine, and I was forced to knock it from his hand."

Without much effort, Meg quickly imagined the Commissioner in an expensive tuxedo, drenched in red wine. She tried, unsuccessfully, to stifle a giggle. The highest-ranking member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was a stuffed-shirt bureaucrat, who had had the indecency of making a pass at her at a diplomatic function several years earlier. She pushed the unwanted memory away and smiled at the mental image.

"And this action, I imagine, resulted in a rather irate Commissioner."

"Well, I'm sure he would have been irate had he been given the opportunity. However, the criminal proceeded to pull out a gun on us and I disarmed him before he could fire a shot at the Commissioner."

"Very nice," Meg nodded, taking a sip.

"Yes, well, once the incident was over and I had explained myself, the Commissioner insisted upon promoting me. He raised my rank to—"

"—Staff Sergeant, ah."

"—and commended me for my actions." He paused and looked down at his mug. There were nearly a dozen commendations in his record, almost all of them hollow and obligatory. Meg asked the next question, left hanging in the air.

"So how did you get stuck out here in out-of-the-way Fort Liard? I'd think that a display of competence and a rare promotion like that would get you headed back on the fast track toward success."

"Mmm," he tilted his head to the side, looked across at her. "It appears that turning in one of our own will always remain a blemish on my career. The Commissioner was not aware of my record at the time and when it was brought to his attention, I was quickly promoted to sufficient rank to take over command of a remote field office, so they could post me here." He nodded and frowned. "I did what I thought was right. I can't change the attitudes of others."

Meg looked at him for a long moment.

"You'd rather be out here." It was not a question.

"Yes," he smiled.

They talked on for a few more hours and then they cleared the table and Fraser insisted that she take the bedroom. He would be fine on the couch. After a short argument in which she knew that she would not be able to get him to change his mind or his ideas of chivalry, she went into the bathroom and got ready to turn in for the night. He prepared the bed and brought a blanket out into the living room for himself.

"Are you sure you'll be comfortable?"

"Yes, I'm sure," he called back. "I once spent a night sleeping in a mine shaft, with a compounded concussion. I'll be fine here."

She laughed softly and shook her head at herself in the mirror. Because of their respective positions, they had never had the opportunity to cultivate an off-duty relationship. What little there had been was forbidden territory, and had forced them into maintaining distance for sanity reasons. Perhaps she would have the opportunity during this month, to learn more about him, outside of duty. Out here, she was not acting in any official capacity, and was not responsible for his well-being. Maybe there would be a chance or two to just talk about life and enjoy pleasant company. He would probably be coming by the Coopers' homestead with mail, if it came.

She walked out of the bathroom and carried her toiletries bag back with her. He came out of the bedroom, having changed into a—oh. He still wore those one-piece red long johns to bed. Unspeakable underwear indeed. A long-ago image of him sleeping on the Chicago consulate floor sprang into her mind, unexpectedly clear and most definitely unnerving. She pushed the picture back, and smiled tightly, as she made her way into the bedroom. She would not humiliate herself here; she was a grown woman with a sharp mind and a well-defined sense of propriety. She was a Mountie. She was perfectly capable of taking care of herself. But, oh!—those long johns drove her crazy in the best sense of the word. She reacted outwardly with an annoyed look at the dark bedroom, and he stepped aside to let her pass, giving her a wide berth.

"I apologize for the lack of a door in this doorway. I just never got around to putting one in," he said quickly, misinterpreting her expression completely. Mercifully.

"I'm sure it will be fine, Ben, really."

She put her things in the travel bag, stood up, and went over to the bed. He had spread her sleeping bag across the mattress and tucked a pillow inside. She smiled, and started to climb into it. He stood as a shadow in the doorway, and moved back a step when she turned around.

"Well then, good night, ma'am."

"Good night, Ben. Thanks for all of your hospitality."

"You're entirely welcome. It's my pleasure." He turned away, and she crawled into the sleeping bag. She could hear him settling down outside in front of the fireplace.

"Sleep well," she called out softly.

And after a long pause, "Pleasant dreams, Meg."

"Thanks," she whispered, and just realizing how tired she was, she let the weight of exhaustion close her eyes. The pillow

She tried to move her feet, but there was something heavy weighing down on them. Puzzled, she cracked opened her eyes and looked over the edge of the sleeping bag. Dief was spread out across the end of the bed. She laughed softly and yawned, and stretched out. Sunlight was streaming in through the curtains hanging across the window. She turned her head to look over at the morning light, and pulled her feet out from under the wolf's stomach. Her eyes travelled slowly around the room, now that she could see it all clearly.

Alongside the older brown uniform, the red serge dress uniform was hanging in the closet, with its rank markings stitched on the shoulder. There was a gold inverted-V patch with a black border that had not been there when she had last seen the tunic. She looked at it for a long moment, and then turned away. There was no use in staring at it now. She sat up with another yawn and poked her toe at Dief through the sleeping bag.

"C'mon, sleepyhead. Aren't you animals supposed to be up before us humans?" she asked the sleeping wolf softly. He opened his eyes and swung his head around to look at her. She was not entirely sure that he had been sleeping at all; now he just laid and watched her, and she stared back at him. After a moment, she shook her head. What silliness. He was just a dog. Wolf, she corrected herself.

He leapt off the bed as she pulled her legs out of the sleeping bag and swung them down to the floor. The boards were cool, but not freezing, as she had expected them to be. Even the air was only slightly chilly, which must mean that Fraser had already gotten up and had stoked the fire a while ago.

She padded out into the main room, and saw the teakettle on a low flame. A short while ago, then. She got her toiletries bag and went over to the bathroom to clean up. There was a shower, and it would feel so good to take one... He would not mind. She went back to the bedroom and got her towel and a change of clothes. She could be in and out in only a few minutes, probably could be out before he returned. She went back into the bathroom and undressed quickly and turned on the water. After a minute of waiting for it to warm up until she was satisfied, she stepped in.

It did feel good. She tried not to concentrate on where she was, and just enjoyed the heat on her back.

When he came back in from clearing out a space in front of the shed door, he removed his hat and stopped, holding the Stetson in his hand, and frowned. That was odd, the shower was—oh, it was just the Inspector—Meg. When the mental image of that thought registered, his mind came to a disconcertingly grinding halt.

Diefenbaker walked out of the bedroom and saw his friend standing as still as a statue, one hand held out, half-way to hanging his hat on the peg by the door. His eyes were fixed on the closed door across the room. Ahh. Dief whined, and made a snide remark.

Fraser blinked and frowned down at the wolf. He remembered the Stetson, and hung it on the peg. "Oh, you're one to talk. You're a regular Rudolph Valentino. How many tails have you dropped everything for to give chase?"

Dief woofed a denial and walked over to his water bowl. Lira barked softly and Fraser laughed. Dief looked up from his drink, then put on an air of indifference and went back to lapping it up.

Meg stepped out of the bathroom, carrying all of her things with her. Across the room, Fraser was dropping chopped onions into the omelette sizzling in the frying pan. He looked up at her and smiled.

"Good morning. I hope you still like omelettes."

"Good morning. Yes, thank you."

Only the best for you. He dropped in a few pieces of green pepper, and hummed. She walked into the bedroom. He turned slightly. "Was the water warm enough?"

"Oh, yes, fine," she called back. She rubbed her hair with a towel and then straightened up and looked at herself in the mirror over the dresser. "Do you have any electrical plugs?"

"Yes—there's a generator over here in the corner, with a power strip attached. Hair dryer?"

"Yes." She took her small dryer out of the bag and went out into the main room. "Where?"

He pointed across at a power strip lying on the floor near the back door. "Turn the generator on before you plug the hair dryer in. It sends a startup surge."

"Ah, thanks." She found the switch, and it rumbled to life. She had become accustomed to nice, quiet sockets in the walls. She plugged in the dryer and began to brush her hair. Fraser dropped some more diced pieces into the omelette. After a few minutes of both of them doing their chosen tasks in companionable silence, she finished to her satisfaction and straightened back up, unplugging the dryer. Fraser had made a second omelette and was now cooking bacon. The smells were making her hungry, so she quickly braided her hair and put her things in the bedroom.

"Will you take me out to the Coopers' home?" she asked as she came out into the main room.

"After breakfast," he replied. "We'll need to stop at three other homes, first. I need to drop off a few things."

"It smells good,"she walked over to the kitchen area. "Do you want any help?"

"If you could set the table..." he deftly flipped the bacon onto a plate.

She found two mugs, and went through the cupboards looking for the rest of the settings. He finished the bacon and poured the grease into a container and then put the skillet in the sink. She poured the hot tea into the mugs and set the teapot on its potholder in the centre of the table. They finished cleaning up around the stove and sat down to eat.

"What are your plans for the month? If you don't mind my asking," he said, settling down.

"Rest and relaxation."

"Ah," he nodded, and took a bite of his omelette.

"And helping Caryn, of course." She chewed thoughtfully, swallowed. "Reading. Long walks. Babysitting." Her eyes drifted into the middle distance. "Getting up every morning just to go outside and breathe in clean, cold air." She drew her attention back to the breakfast, and cut a piece from her omelette. "What do you have for responsibilities around here?"

"Heh," Fraser said, and set his mug down. He launched into a rote speech.

"Responsibilities here generally include making monthly reports, assisting the residents with any emergencies or situations, maintaining law and order and mediating in disputes, procuring supplies, assisting traders in their journey through the area, delivering mail, transporting assistance for the doctor—" he paused, took in a breath, then continued, "—substituting for the local schoolteachers when they are sick, helping to build new homesteads or add on to existing ones, hunting threatening wildlife, communicating with the local Inuit population, transmitting news, repairing broken equipment, attending social functions, and—" he paused to take in another breath, "—apprehending escaped criminals."

Thatcher sat, momentarily stunned by the rush of words. She blinked, and nodded.

"I see."

"Only about a quarter of those things are officially in the job description." He forked a piece of his omelette. "The rest is just expected of me by those who reside under my jurisdiction." He continued eating.

"And you let them?" She was slightly angry; people took advantage of him. He was too kind. He finished what he was eating, and shrugged as he tried to explain.

"I don't mind it. I'm not doing all of those things all at once. I've just done each of them since I've come here, on occasion."

"When do you have time to relax?"

"When none of those activities are requiring my attention."

Meg sighed. "Of course, Fraser. You miss the point of my question."

"How so, sir?" He lapsed back into protocol unconsciously and then grimaced.

"How many men do you have under you?"

"Three men, one woman. Constables Lecrue, St. Marie, Bohner, and Willis. And Sergeant Vern Stoughton, the former commanding officer. Well, he's officially retired, but he takes his duty very seriously."

"You have a retired officer still on active duty in your jurisdiction?"

"He is knowledgeable about the area and its residents, and prefers to remain active rather than succumb to the 'atrophy of old age,' as he refers to it. Also, many of the residents wanted him to remain in charge, and this seemed the most diplomatic way to resolve the situation."

"Don't you ever feel like you're being taken advantage of, Fraser?"



"I thought we had agreed—never mind." He frowned. "I do my duty."

"That's not what I was asking...Ben," she sighed again. "There is no question of that. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have made an issue of it."

They were both silent for a moment, and then his expression softened, and he said the unexpected.

"Yes. I do."

She looked up in surprise. He continued.

"Sometimes...I am frustrated by what they expect of me. I suppose, part of it, it's my fault. I volunteered to help and they assume that I'll never mind when they ask me again." He scratched his eyebrow, and looked back up at her. "I don't really have other concerns to deal with; I live alone. There's Dief, and Lira, but they don't usually have a problem with my being gone."

She nodded, not sure how to respond, if at all. The omelette was excellent. Ah, a change of subject, Meg thought.

"This is very good, Fras—er, Ben." That came out sounding odd. She cleared her throat, and looked up at him. "Do you raise your own hens?"

"As a matter of fact, yes," he answered, after a moment. "Andalusians. My grandfather, also, bred fowl. I seem to have inherited the hobby. I came into possession of a cock and two hens, Dief took a liking to them, and I built a henhouse behind the shed."

"A wolf took a liking to three chickens?"

"Well, they really are very empathic creatures, you know. Commonly underestimated."

"The wolves or the chickens?"

"Both." He was studiously avoiding her eyes, taking a great interest in the remainder of his omelette. She had been one of a very few people who had not taken all that he said at face value, and he doubted that she had changed in that respect. He was afraid that if he looked up, he would descend into a very undignified fit of laughter at the sight of her no-nonsense gaze.

Meg took a bite of her omelette and eyed him for a moment. When she finished chewing, she sipped her tea, and still looking at him intently, leaned forward.

"May I ask you a question?"

"Certainly," he said, and looked up, to find her face only inches from his. He had to force himself not to flinch back, and then he had to keep himself from leaning closer. Her large brown eyes pinned him to his seat. "Yes?" It came out less certain than he would have liked.

"Are you for real?"

He stared back at her for a long moment, considering several glib retorts and deflections. She seemed to know what he was thinking, because her brown eyes flashed a warning. He raised one eyebrow, and decided to try for tact.

"Why do you ask?"

"Empathy, Ben. Chickens."


She continued to try to search those slate blue eyes for something...what? They were not blank, and they were not deceptive. They were simply impenetrable. She was a trained observer, able to read a person's face, notice their nervousness, see their tension; but his betrayed nothing. She was not sure what unnerved her more, the moments when she did know what he was thinking, or the moments when she had no idea.

Fraser reflected her searching gaze, and managed to distract himself fairly well by studying the way the morning light reflected off of her irises. Beautiful, clear pupils, contracting just so when the light touched them. He thought he might like to admire them for a while...

"Well, son, aren't you going to kiss her? This is torture!"

Fraser dropped his head and let out a long, exaggerated sigh.

"You know, I would appreciate it if you would just go away."

"What?" Meg managed to squeak out.

"Oh, oh no—" Fraser looked up at her, eyes wide. "No, I didn't mean you."

She looked around.

"Who did you mean? There's no one else around."

"You know, son, someday you're going to learn the concept of not answering dead people when there are live ones within earshot. It'll save you a lot of trouble. And embarrassment." His father stood behind Meg, smiling placidly down at him.

Fraser looked up at him, then looked back at Meg.

"Would you excuse me for a moment?" he asked, and stood up from the table.

"Y-Yes—" Meg turned, bewildered at his sudden change of mood.

Fraser stalked across the room, pulled open the door, went out, and closed the door behind himself. Meg stared at the closed door, and blinked, twice.

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