Fort Liard

Chapter 8

Meg climbed onto the large boulder protruding from the snow covering the mountainside and settled herself down with her legs dangling over the edge. She leaned forward, her gloved hands resting on the rock on either side of her thighs, and looked out over the valley.

The sun had gone down two hours ago, and the moon was casting a pale luminescence over the valley. Dave had been reading the newspaper, and Caryn had been making herself comfortable in her rocking chair, when Meg had left their cabin to climb farther up the hillside to be by herself. Caryn was due in less than a week; as the day came nearer, Meg felt increasingly saddened, wanting to be happy for her friend, but finding it harder and harder to ignore the reality of her own loneliness—her own barrenness. There. She had let herself say it. She swallowed and looked up at the sky.

She had come to help her friend with taking care of her family and making all of the preparations for a new baby, not to feel sorry for herself, but here she was, sitting on the mountainside, looking out at the endless kilometres of white snow and green pine, feeling the cold wind seeping into her bones. She pulled the warm coat more tightly around herself, but it was not the temperature, really. In all honesty, it was not really that cold—her body had adapted to the lower temperatures in the two and a half weeks that she'd been here, and the cool air did not sting her cheeks uncomfortably. It just felt cold in her bones, that was all. She looked across the sky and found herself mesmerized by the brushes of colour shooting up from behind the mountains. The Aurora Borealis was humming in a pale green, edged this evening by a faint orange. She watched them every evening from this perch on the rock, never tiring of their stunning waves across the nighttime sky.

Against her will, and then a bit more easily, thoughts of him edged into her mind. She did not want to hold out hope, or to delude herself, or to pretend that the emotions were not real. They were—but were they right? Were they misguided? Were they just the product of her biological clock ticking its seconds away? Or were they just a fantasy that she was imagining existed? If they were, why did it hurt so much to admit that? If they were not, what could she hope for?

Her thoughts were leading her nowhere, so she frowned up at the sky and bumped the rock with her heels. She remembered the social with a smile, calling to mind all of the life and exuberance that the people of Fort Liard had put into the simple gathering. The Dene and the Europeans alike, though they lived on opposite sides of the street, had come together for an evening of food, laughter, music, children, dancing...

He had quite a good voice, and she could carry a tune, as well. Singing had been fun, it had reminded her of the freedom of the songs she had learned as a child. Harold Onsten and the others in the motley group of musicians had insisted that Fraser dance with her once, and after a moment of awkwardness, they had agreed. With all eyes on them (though pretending not to notice), they had danced to a rousing tune while the fiddles sang and the drums pounded in time with the heels on the floor, and there was general breathless laughter all around. The room had spun—half literally, half in her own body, while those slate blue eyes had fixed on hers and those arms had swung her around, and she had felt like her own feet were flying across the floor.

It did not matter that she had stepped on his toes once—they had only ended up laughing and had gotten back into step, or that when it was over she was dizzy in more ways than one, and had ended up falling into his arms—she hadn't meant to, she hadn't. They had stood like that for a moment longer than a heartbeat, and then she felt him quicken, and he bent towards her—she felt his breath across her neck—and then just as suddenly, he had set them apart, at arms' length, thanked her for the dance, excused himself, and disappeared from the hall.

She hadn't followed him; instead, she'd made her way through the dancing crowd to the women's washroom, and had cried for a few minutes. She wasn't an overly-emotional woman, she didn't cry about things like this. There wasn't anything to cry about, why was she even locked in here, sitting on the toilet seat, covering her face with her hands while hot tears welled out of the edges of her eyes? It was just that things she had kept shut for so long were pushing their way open, and it was both frightening and hopeful all at once. She had come out here on a low emotional ebb, hoping to find peace and repair a little of her heart, an ironic voice in her mind said. This was not it.

Caryn had come to get her; she had knocked on the door and asked in that soft voice if she was all right, and did she want to go home with them? By then, Meg had collected herself and was just staring silently at her reflection in the small mirror. She had opened the door with whatever calmness that she could muster, and had spent the rest of the trip back to the Coopers' home in silence. She hadn't seen him in the hall, and she didn't ask if anyone else had. She just wanted to crawl into her warm sleeping bag and cry, for no good reason, some more. She had done just that, and after a long time of asking herself what their respective ranks meant, how callous she was, and what he must have been thinking, she had drifted off into an exhausted sleep.

Meg took a deep breath and let it out, watching the small cloud disappear into the cold air. There was plenty of moonlight left, and she didn't feel like going back down to the cabin just yet. There were still too many things in her mind for her to sleep, in any case. Why couldn't life be simple and clear-cut? A bitter laugh rose up in her throat at that wishful thought. It could never be that way, not for her. She had had her chance, she had put her career before everything else in life, and it was unreasonable now to ask for a second try.

She heard a rustling movement below her, and she looked down, all of her self-defence and wilderness training rushing to the front of her mind. A bear, possibly, or a hunter; she started to rise, then paused—a man was walking up the incline, through the trees, and the moment she recognized his Stetson, her stomach relaxed and then tightened, and she swallowed. What was he doing, coming out here this late in the evening? Why was he here? He had probably come out with mail or spare snowmobile parts for Dave's pet tinkering project, and had decided to offer her a stiff apology and make his escape. Ever doing his duty. She sighed and told her snappish attitude to stop. He was a fellow officer and a good friend, one of a very few people that she knew she could trust. He may be a bit eccentric or bull-headed at times, but he had always respected her. She told herself to be content with that.

They must have told him that she had gone up the mountain. She'd taken to doing it in the evenings, just sitting up here by herself after the sun went down.

She watched him follow her tracks, admiring his easy stride up the hillside in the snow. He was in his element, doing what he did best, his movements athletic and unhurried. She knew that he could just look up and see her sitting on the boulder, but the brim of the hat remained angled down, his face hidden. After a minute of watching him, she looked out at the white landscape, across the valley to the edge of the lake. It was a clear night; farther away, greyed by distance, she could see where the two rivers snaked together. It was beautiful, quiet and pristine.

He climbed around a short hollow in the ground face and followed her tracks up to the side of the boulder. She looked over at him and he smiled at her with a kind of short, polite nod. He paused beside the rock.

"Good evening. Is that seat taken?"

"No, but I must warn you that I'm experiencing violent tendencies."

He smiled at the dry comment and moved around behind her to sit down about half a metre away. She looked at his profile for a moment and then turned her own gaze to the shimmering greens and blues in the sky. They were both quiet for a while. Meg did not know what to say, so she said nothing. She listened to the sounds of the wind blowing through the trees, the creak of the pine as it swayed. She listened to him, wondering what he was thinking. She thought she could catch his scent, but the air was cold and the wind was moving, and she supposed that it was in her imaginings. After a time, he shifted beside her and exhaled a long breath.

"It's beautiful, isn't it?" She said, taking it all in. He turned to look at her, then nodded, and looked up at the night sky, himself.

"Yes."

They were silent for a long moment, and then he turned towards her.

"Meg—"

"I'm sorry."

That gave him pause.

"You're sorry? Why?"

"My presumption, the way I tried to make your life difficult, my callousness. I'm just sorry, that's all. Being out here, alone, you have time to think about what's important and what you've done wrong, and why you're sitting alone on a rock thinking dark thoughts about the universe." She surprised herself at her own words, and she quieted again.

He looked out again, and swallowed. He had almost never wanted to hear those words; that brokenness that he heard in her voice twisted a point into his chest, and he looked down at his hands. He had not come up looking for an apology; he had come to make one. His behaviour had been unacceptable when he had last seen her, and what she must have been thinking when he left had been eating at him for days. He had overheard two of the women discussing it as they left the gathering that night, and knew that he had to make restitution, if not just for embarrassing her before everyone else. He just was not sure how to make it, or what to say, or even if she hated his very presence. He shook his head at the silence that hung between them and took a deep breath to speak.

"You don't have to apologize for anything, Ben," she interrupted his unformed thought again. "Nothing."

"I behaved wrongly," he said, remembering the taste of her lips from long ago and pushing the thought aside as quickly as it had appeared. He had come to apologize. That was all. He should not have left her standing alone on the dance floor; it had been wrong then, and her insistence on not allowing him to ask her forgiveness was not making it any easier for him now.

"No, you didn't. You did the right thing, I understand." She spoke in a kind of detached tone, and he wanted to reach over and shake her by her shoulders. That fire, that proud bearing, that commanding officer—he could fight that, he could even understand it—but this soft-spoken shadow beside him, she frightened him. Inspector Margaret Thatcher did not offer soft-spoken apologies.

"My apology stands, nonetheless," he answered. He looked over at her cold-reddened cheeks in the dimming light—the moon was bright tonight, he noted—and saw a small glistening spot at the edge of her eye. The sight twisted in his chest again, and he swallowed and looked away. Perhaps he should leave her and go back down to the cabin, but he could not bring himself to move from the rock. She was all that mattered at the moment, and if she wanted to stay, then he would, too, if only to make sure that she was all right.

"Why weren't you angry at me?" She asked suddenly.

"What?" He wasn't sure what she was asking.

"When I treated you so unkindly all those years."

He took a moment to collect his thoughts, to put one in place.

"I didn't believe that you were truly unkind, sir," he answered, using the address as a subordinate officer, to let her know that he knew what she was referring to. She understood.

"But why?" She turned to look at him, her expression genuinely confused. She thought that if she could understand this one thing, why a man with his integrity respected her, she could get up from the rock and walk with the knowledge that someone saw more of her than just a cold woman with a hard exterior. She actually needed him, and she had never before admitted to herself that she truly needed anyone in her life. I'm at a low ebb; I know that, she told herself.

"Your antagonism was borne not from a spiteful attitude, but from much...pain," he said finally.

"And how would you know that?" She snapped at him, at once reacting to the fear that he knew she was vulnerable and also testing him to see if he would take offense. He didn't.

"Your eyes," he answered quietly.

She stilled, shifted, and looked down at her gloved hands. A wind blew past them, but she didn't notice the chill in the air. Her emotions had tossed her, and she hated not being able to control her emotions. It was a sign of weakness, and in a woman, it could be used as a badge of female incompetence in a male environment. If you showed weakness, they assumed that you couldn't handle the job, and that was unacceptable. She had buried and buried for so long that when the ground was turned, it hurt terribly, and more things poured out than she could hold in at once. His words ached in her. They were simple, but they turned earth.

"You know," he continued, in her silence. His voice was a mixture of discrete observation and gentle curiosity. "I've always wondered something about you."

She licked her lips and looked sideways at him, half-fearing his answer to her question.

"What's that?"

"Your...scent, for lack of a better word." He paused, she waited expectantly. "Well, it's...wild, I guess." He was trying to describe something of a sense that most people rarely used, and there was a startling lack of sufficient descriptive words for it.

"Why does that intrigue you?" Meg asked, her interest piqued. She remembered him trying to guess her perfume as a distraction while they had been tied together on the train. He had finally given up—something that Benton Fraser never did—and asked her what she was wearing. She had told him she wasn't wearing anything. Well, she thought a bit wryly, that hadn't come out quite the way that she had intended it to, but the resulting look on his face had been quite worth the blunder. She smiled a little at the memory.

"My first impression of you was of a city-dweller," he said, tilting his head to the side a bit. "You seemed well-adapted and comfortable in the dense urban setting of Chicago, but you smelt nothing of the thick air of the city. I don't mean that the smells of the city didn't adhere to your clothing, what with the air being so full of pollutants—" He sighed. "I'm not entirely sure that I'm communicating what I mean to you."

"Nothing new," she actually felt a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. "Try again."

"Right you are," he said, and nodded. "What I'm trying to say is that neither Diefenbaker nor I could resolve the...essence of your scent...with the scent of those who have spent their lives in urban settings. It's distinctly different, like, ah, how do I describe it?—instead of the smog and the closed-in...smell...of living in cramped quarters with so many people, it has a touch of the acridity of pine, the clearness of a fresh snowfall," his voice grew wistful. "A touch of musk...that's not all of it... It was a puzzle to me. I always wanted to ask you, but was afraid to bring the topic up, being that it's related to something of a personal nature..." he trailed off, looking at her to gauge her reaction. Ray Vecchio would have told him that it was just one of those paradoxes and asked him how he could have gotten close enough to smell her, anyway?—snicker—and Ray Kowalski would have told him to just carpe diem, and all that, you know? and ask her. Well, here he was.

"You can smell all of that?" She asked, wondering at the puzzle of a man sitting beside her.

"Yes."

"Why do you wonder about it?"

"I wondered how you came to have such a scent."

"You never read my personnel file to find out?"

His head swung around, and he seemed taken aback by the prospect. "No," he answered. "That would have been inappropriate."

"You could have used the consular access at any time; there would have been no repercussions."

"It would have been inappropriate," he repeated. "If there had been a situation where information concerning your past record of service was relevant, I would have accessed it. None arose. Beyond that, any personal information was yours, alone, to give."

"And now you want to know," she said, thinking that the moon was unusually bright this evening.

"No, sir," he answered, with a sigh. "I'm not here to...extract information from you. I just...I was just trying to make conversation." He looked away, in the other direction, at a pair of bald eagles, as they flew over the treetops further down in the valley. They wheeled and landed in a patch of pine, disappearing from view.

"I was born on the edge of Lake Athapasca," she said, into the drawn-out silence. "My father was a trapper, a fisherman, and a pilot. My mother was a schoolteacher from Alberta. They met when she went to the Territories as part of a federal education program, and he saved her life during a blizzard. He was gone for weeks at a time, transporting supplies, gathering salmon from the fish wheels, and checking the trap lines.

"I was home-schooled when we were snowed in. She would read to me, when we were wrapped in a blanket together on the cold nights. Sometimes, if my father was home, we would all huddle together and read a story. Sometimes I read, and they would listen. I was the youngest child in the school who could read; I learned to read when I was four, I loved it. My father always managed to bring me new books when he flew in another shipment of supplies."

There were tears forming in her eyes, but she didn't pause. Fraser listened in silence. Never in his surmisings had he thought that her childhood had been similar to his. She was so accomplished, so poised. Not at all like him in his preference for simplicity or his unease with urban life. He frowned as she continued.

"My mother died the night Eleanore was born. When the labour started, my father brought me to the Reverend Ernst's home, and he didn't come back for me for two days. When he did come back, he brought Eleanore, and I held her. I never saw my mother again." She swallowed, and Fraser looked down at his hands.

"We lived with the Reverend and his wife for six years. They were kind to us, provided for us, but I was never content there. My father came every few weeks, to see us, and I used to beg him to take us with him, but he never did. His visits, over the years, grew more and more infrequent, and though I loved him, Eleanore barely knew him, and I resented him for that. I took care of her, she was always sick, and weak. She caught pneumonia twice..."

Her voice caught, but she steeled herself, her expression hard, and continued her narrative.

"She died two weeks after my seventeenth birthday. The Reverend and his wife had gone to a neighbouring village for a month, leaving us alone, since I assured them that we would be fine. She grew sick very quickly, and no matter what I did, she grew worse. I had been caring for her since she was an infant, I thought that I knew what to do—" her voice was rough, but she didn't stop. She had to finish now, or she never would. "When I finally decided to call for the doctor, he couldn't make it in time. Her little, too-hot body, so thin, she tried to breathe, I tried to keep her comfortable, to clear her lungs, but she couldn't, she was too tired and too small and too sick, she couldn't even struggle to breathe, I remember her eyes, pleading with me—" Tears fell down her cheeks, and she didn't bother to wipe their cooling trails away.

"The doctor didn't come for six hours." Her voice had gone dead, and hearing it, Fraser's throat tightened. He just listened, quietly, unwilling to break into her words.

"They pitied me, the whole town," her voice took on a bitter edge. "I could hear the whispered words, 'The girl who sat alone with her dead sister for hours, the poor thing.'" Her gaze remained fixed on the valley below. "I ran away. I took my savings and I ran away. I went to the city, where no one knew who I was, and where there were people all around me. It's easy to hide in a city, Ben. I got a job and found a group of friends. We laughed and talked and they treated me like I was one of them. We went to France for a summer, all of us, saved for it, and backpacked across the country. Three of us got small jobs as models in Paris. Paris! Can you imagine it! Style, fashion, money, excitement, beauty, men..." Her voice trailed off, the high note suddenly dropping from it.

"I had never known what it was to be desired by a man before. Life up in the Territories, you know how isolated it can be," she looked over at him. He nodded slightly, his eyes were a silent encouragement, and so she looked away again, not wanting to face him, and continued, quieter now. "And living in a minister's home, well, it's sheltered. None of my friends knew where I had come from; I never spoke about it, I didn't want them to think I was a backwoods nobody. And there I was in France, in the middle of a world of everything that I'd only read about, being admired and loved and desired. I met a man, he was older, and experienced, attractive. We became involved." She took a deep breath, her next words coming out thickly.

"One night, he raped me. No one believed me. They all knew him, they didn't want to get into trouble. They told me that it happens. They told me that I was misinterpreting it all. They told me that it was best not to make an issue of it," her voice rose, her lips were pressed in a flat line, her hands were tightened into fists on the rock. "I went home, bitter and angry again."

She suddenly turned on him, her voice icy and hard. "You want to know how I became an Inspector? Do you want to know how your precious superior officer got her job? You want to know why I came to Chicago and tried to take it out on you? Do you!?"

Fraser's gaze on her didn't waver, and she felt as if he could see through her. She shivered. Why was she telling him this? But she steeled her jaw and glared at him. His calm, understanding expression only made her angrier. She wanted him to react, to get angry, to back away from her, something, but he only sat looking at her, those clear blue eyes neither accusing nor questioning her. The sudden wave of anger dissipated as quickly as it had rushed in, and she felt deflated, an aching hollowness left in its wake. She swallowed and turned away from him, the fight gone, the tiredness taking its place again, feeling intensely lonely and angry at herself.

There, he had seen her weak, probably what he had wanted all along, since that first day they had met. She had given in to years of pent-up frustration and had once again taken it out on him. She felt miserable for having made the mistake so many times, and now, out here in the snow and mountains, she was no different. One rotten turn out of life after another, she had let it make her bitter and hard, sharp, snappish. She heard him shift behind her, and she just wanted him to go away. She could not bring her voice to apologize. It was just too tight and thick and her eyes stung too badly to turn and look at him. She hid inside the hood of her coat, the fur-lined edge covering the side of her face. Just go, just go, just go... a voice in her mind repeated, desperately. She just wanted to be alone.

He moved again, and she hoped that he had understood her silent request, and would leave her without an awkward attempt at a good-bye. But suddenly she felt his arms come around both of her shoulders, and he pulled her back into an embrace. She resisted for a moment, but too tired to fight any longer, she let go of the taut muscles holding her in, and a sob escaped her lips. She turned against him, her face pressed into the soft wool at his neck, and she cried. She let the hot tears roll down the side of her nose and she didn't try to stop her shoulders from shaking. He shifted them both slightly, for a more comfortable position, and then she felt his hands slowly begin to rub her shoulder and back, through the thick layers of her clothing.

His kindness only made her cry more, she felt so wretched, but he did not vary in the steady circular motions of his hands. They remained in that position for a long while, and after a time, her shaking lessened. He did not see her tears as weakness, and she knew that he would not look disdainfully at her after this. The knowledge that he would look at her with the same respect as he always had gave her the strength to let herself cry until her heart had finished pouring itself out onto his sweater. Her sobs calmed, the tears slowed, the thickness in her throat melted somewhat, and she swallowed. The wetness was quickly turning very cold, very uncomfortable, and she reached up to wipe it away. Her cheeks were going to be numb soon, if she didn't dry them. Seeing her motions, he drew back the sleeve of his jacket and gently wiped the exposed length of his white wool sweater across her cheek. She had to smile, just barely, at that, and she sniffed, swiped at her nose.

"Thanks," she said, just above a whisper. A cool wind blew across them, but his body shielded her from the brunt of it. His leather jacket was open. She wondered how he could sit there without shivering.

"You're welcome," he answered, in a roughened tone. Surprised at the sound, she looked up. His eyes were wet, and he blinked them, swallowed. He smiled, a little turn up of the corner of his mouth, tentative. She found herself smiling back, just a little.

"Hey," he said, in a low tone.

"Hey," she answered.

They sat in a comfortable silence for a moment. Another wind blew across them, and this one bit at her not-quite-dry cheeks. She shivered and pulled her hood tighter around her neck. Fraser nodded.

"We should get back."

"Yes."

But neither of them moved.

She looked up at him, and their gazes held for a heartbeat, for two, and she realized that she could feel his heartbeat under her fingers, through the sweater, and she pressed them against the weave, feeling the pulse speed up. She knew her own was moving faster, too, matching, and she watched something move in his eyes.

"It's racing?" He asked, his voice still low, and a little rough.

"Out of control," she answered. The two beats were quickening.

"Runaway," he had barely finished the last syllable before his mouth closed down over hers, and she slid her hand up from his chest to rest between the leather of his jacket and wool on his neck, pulling herself closer. She didn't care about rank, she didn't care about the wind, she didn't care that her hood had fallen back from her face. All that mattered was the taste of him, of his arms tightening around her shoulders, holding her to him.

There was no ill-timed interruption this time, and she held on for as long as she could, until they both had to pause, and then he pushed her half-fallen hood back on, his hand on the back of her head, and reached down to wipe a finger of his glove across her cheek. She closed her eyes, feeling a warmth that spread up to push a smile across her mouth, and his lips touched her eyelids briefly. She opened them, half-surprised.

"Well, that was interesting," was all she managed to work out.

"Was it?" His eyes twinkled. And she had always thought that the expression was just a metaphor.

"Mmm, very." Some little voice in the back of her mind said that they shouldn't be doing this, but she ignored it.

"Even without the trainload of unconscious Mounties headed for a thermonuclear catastrophe?" It was uncanny how his memory worked perfectly well at all of the wrong times. It seemed to have some kind of running joke going on with his heart.

She wasn't quite ready to laugh; her memories had left her drained, but something about being held by Staff Sergeant Benton Fraser of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police gave her just enough energy for a very undignified giggle.

"Oh dear," she managed.

"I concur."

"I concur?! Listen to you, you sound like someone out of an Austen novel."

"That would be my grandmother's influence," he answered.

"Your grandmother sounds like an interesting woman," she said. "What else of her influence did you retain?"

"Well, she also taught me pugilism, knitting, and the art of making caramel apples. All from books in the library, of course."

"I thought you grew up in Tuktoyaktuk. How could you make caramel apples up there?"

"Inuvik, actually. My grandmother found the recipe, and she kept at my grandfather for two months, until he had a box shipped up there. We made it a community event."

"Do you think we can make this work?"

He tilted his head and looked at her somewhat quizzically. "What, you mean this?" And he moved down and kissed her, a short, teasing movement with his tongue. She started feeling warm all over again, and pushed at his chest. He withdrew, raising one eyebrow.

"No," she answered, smiling, her hands still on his chest. "I think we can make that work. I mean this whole situation. Us. You, me, and the mountain."

He dropped his head, exhaled a long breath through his nose. He looked up. "Let me take a moment to think about that."

After a short pause, he suddenly removed one of his hands from her arm, shifted, and pushed them off the boulder. She shrieked at the sudden fall, but before she had a chance to truly scare, they had landed, standing up, the two metres down below the rock. He had steadied her drop, and they stood facing one another on the small hollow of ground in front of the boulder.

"You!" She whacked his shoulder. He grinned. He really could be so infuriating at times.

"Yes." He paused, serious again. "That is, if it is something that you want, enough, we can."

"And you?" She was somewhat taken aback that he had dumped it all on her.

"The same."

"Ah," she answered, eyeing him. After a drawn-out moment, where she wasn't sure what he was thinking, if anything at all, she said, somewhat impatiently, "Well? Do you want it enough to put up with me?"

"What is 'it'?"

She paused, pursed her lips. "I don't know yet. That just happened too fast."

"Well, I'm not sure that I know yet, either."

"We're really off to a great start, you know that?" She was starting to get her ire up all over again.

"Yup," he grinned, and then his expression softened, and he held the side of her face in his gloved hand for a moment. She melted. He drew her face up towards him for another lingering kiss. It was sweet, not demanding, a bit testing. She just accepted it and decided, for a man who appeared to practically live the life of a monk, he was pretty skilled at kissing. Curious.

"How did you learn to kiss so well? Did you get that from a book, too?" She asked, teasing, enjoying the soft scratch of his wool sweater against her cheek. He shifted on his feet, and she stood back and looked at him.

"Well, actually, yes," he answered, somewhat sheepishly. "There's a wealth of information out there. Thank you kindly, by the way. You're not unskilled yourself."

"Thank you." It was something, being told that particular bit of information by this particular man. Enough to make a person strut around a bit. She decided that was a good thing.

"However," he continued. "I have also read, incidentally, from the same text, that if we continue, we will likely have very chapped lips."

Now she laughed. At that thought, however, her lips suddenly felt really chapped, and she licked them. He copied her movement, almost exactly at the same time. Both laughing, they started back down the mountainside.

"What are we going to do?" She asked finally, when she caught her breath.

"Let's deal with that tomorrow," he said, going down ahead of her. "You need to sleep. Caryn said you were up early, with Maggie."

"She got sick; I had to change her sheets. By the time I'd finished, Dave had gotten up and started breakfast, and I just decided to stay up. From one thing to another today, I never got the chance to take a nap." She yawned, realizing once again how tired she actually was.

"How is she now?"

"Fine; she didn't have any problems for the rest of the day, she never had a temperature. Perhaps her dinner just didn't agree with her."

"Probably," he nodded back. "I'm glad she's all right. How's everything else?"

"Aside from my tortured love life, you mean?"

He laughed. "You've really changed," he said, turning slightly towards her as he spoke.

"Have I?" She frowned.

"Yes—" he took in her expression, and his quickly changed. "Oh, I didn't mean to offend you—"

"It's all right, you haven't. How?"

"How what?"

"How have I changed?"

"Well, you're more relaxed, for one thing," he continued down the path.

"Well, so are you."

"Point taken," he nodded.

"You really like it out here?" She asked, looking up as they came into a clearing between the trees.

"Yes," he said simply.

"Don't you get lonely?"

"Well, yes," he answered, his voice taking on a somewhat tired tone. "But I found that I was also lonely in the midst of other people, and that was harder to deal with, precisely because I was with them, but still felt alone. At least, out here, you have the wildlife, the trees, the stars, a passing moose to keep you company."

She nodded, a wry smile appearing. "I think I see what you mean." The path widened here, and she moved ahead to walk down beside him. "I can see why the solitude is a comfort, from that point of view. But I also enjoy the city for its convenience, the wealth of opportunities, the chance to be anything that you want to be."

"You can do that out here, too," he answered. "It just depends on what you want to be."

"And that's where the crux of the matter rests," she responded.

"Mmm-hmm."

They walked the last distance up to the cabin in silence, both contemplating their own thoughts. The lights in the windows were down; Dave and Caryn had likely gone to sleep some time before. They stopped in front of the door, and she went up a step, then turned to look at him.

"The street where you live, milady," he said, with a smile. He doffed his hat, and she smiled back.

"Thank you for coming up the mountain," she said.

"My pleasure," he answered, the smile reaching up to his eyes. He took her gloved hand, raised it to his mouth, and kissed it. "Good night."

"Good night," she squeezed his hand, as he started to turn away. He turned back slightly, and she suddenly decided to end it right. She gave his hand a tug, and he obediently returned to her, his eyebrows raised in an entirely-too-innocent expression.

"Yes, milady?"

"Oh, stop posturing," she said, took his face in both hands, bent down from her slightly-higher position on the step, and kissed him soundly. When he stepped back, the colour in his cheeks had definitely risen, and it wasn't from the cold night air. For some reason, she felt immensely pleased, and was looking forward to climbing into her sleeping bag this evening and sinking into some decidedly pleasant dreams.

He couldn't keep the grin off his face this time, and he nodded to her as he backed away, looking as if he were trying to evade a predator. She watched him take off his Stetson as he climbed onto his snowmobile, and with one last smile in her direction, he slipped the helmet over his head, put the Stetson in the seat compartment, and drove away. She watched the dark figure until she couldn't hear the rumbling of the motor any longer.

Then, smiling widely to herself, she turned and went inside.


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