Ray came back to consciousness in stages. The first time he felt more or less aware of his surroundings he wasn’t all there. He could hear murmured voices but no words distinguished themselves, and even though his eyes felt open all he could see was white – it felt peaceful; completely painless – kinda like floating.
Ray had never given this out of body experience stuff any thought but this was kind of nice. He could get used to that.
The next time was slower. He didn’t even realize that he was conscious again even though words washed over him in a soothing murmur because his brain didn’t do anything with them. But the longer he lay there the more distinct the words became until Ray could even make sense of them.
“…she was 24 years old when she died. Her backpack showed that she had been ill prepared for the length of the hike and she must have gotten lost in the snow storm, she had strayed so far off course…”
Fraser’s voice was low and sounded lost in thought. With awareness, however, also came pain. It exploded in white flashes behind Ray’s eyelids and it took him a moment to work through it.
“…and, of course, I hadn’t known she was there. But I had been in the area. To this day I’m wondering if… had I only known… maybe I could’ve saved her—“
Ray gave a quiet, pained moan. “Don’t worry cuz… me? –You saved.” Ray put a hand against his forehead, trying to stop the headache. “Being dead cannot hurt this much.” Ray groaned in a hoarse voice he didn’t recognize.
“Ray!” Fraser’s voice grew louder with surprise and Ray winced at the new bout of headache it brought.
Fraser immediately lowered his voice again.
“I—,” he seemed to check himself, “I’m going to call the doctor.”
“Fraser—!” Ray interrupted—god, he didn’t want a freaking doctor here right now. All he wanted was for Fraser to explain to him –quietly- what the fuck happened. But Fraser was already out of the room.
Ray carefully moved his head around on the pillow to take in his surroundings. It was a typical hospital room, no surprise there.
A man in a white lab coat appeared, Fraser in all his red glory hot on his heels.
“Ah, Mr. Kowalski, you are awake.” He smiled politely over his wire-rimmed glasses. With a glance at Ray’s pained expression he adjusted the IV which, as Ray now noticed, was connected to his arm. A few moments later Ray felt his headache recede and he sighed relieved.
“Better, I take it?” The doctor smiled again, a hint of amusement played around his lips and Ray decided that he liked the guy – hell, anyone who could stop his headache was a friend of Ray’s.
“Much, thanks… So, what happened?” The way he saw it a hospital was the wrong place for subtlety. Fraser looked startled and the bit of color that had returned to his cheeks seemed to take another leave of absence.
The doctor nodded thoughtfully.
“Mr. Kowalski may I enquire what you remember? Are you aware of who and where you are?”
Ray made an annoyed noise. “Yeah, yeah, I’m Ray Kowalski and I’m in a hospital.” This wasn’t exactly rocket science.
The doctor didn’t look convinced but the smile stayed fixed on his face. Maybe Ray didn’t like him so much after all.
“Yes, you are quite correct. However, would you mind being a bit more specific?”
The tight look around Fraser’s eyes made something in Ray twitch uncomfortably.
“Alright…” Ray took a deep breath and closed his eyes for a moment. He opened them again and fixed his look on Fraser who seemed to cling to his eyes as if to a lifeline. “I’m Stanley Raymond Kowalski, detective first class of the 27th police department of Chicago. You’re Corporal Benton Fraser RCMP and my partner of 3 years,” he looked at the doctor who appeared pleased with Ray’s assessment.
“We were working on a case and we managed to catch the bastard McKinnley. But he took a hostage – name was James Conroy- and…” Ray reached up to scratch his head when his fingers encountered gauze bandages. What the–?
“And what happened then Mr. Kowalski?”
Ray lowered his hand to the bed again while he puzzled out the answer.
“It gets a bit fuzzy after that,” Ray admitted. Fraser’s face was carefully neutral.
“I remember that we ended up in a factory, a paint factory I think, but one that hadn’t been used for quite some time. I don’t really know what happened then but I guess I got lucky and found McKinnley,” Ray grinned apologetically, “and that he probably whacked me once I did,” Ray shrugged. “When I came to my senses again I tried to find the exit but…” Ray tried to remember and ended shaking his head, “I dunno. I vaguely remember finding Fraser and –and a loud crash and then everything is a big blank up to now.”
The doctor nodded with satisfaction. “You were very lucky Mr. Kowalski. From Corporal Fraser’s account it seems as if you’re memory is only missing a few facts around the time when you were hit. However, there is a possibility that your short term memory is affected in general.”
“What? You mean I might have trouble remembering stuff?”
“Yes, it is a possibility. It might happen that you have difficulties remembering phone numbers or things on your shopping list, names, maybe. However, chances are good that you are going to make a full recovery.” There was the confident smile again.
Ray nodded agreeably when, in all honesty, he wasn’t thinking much about what the doctor had said. Right this moment he had bigger fish to fry than how many things he could remember of his shopping list.
“So, is anyone going to clue me in?” Ray asked impatiently when no one said anything for another few seconds.
The doctor cleared his throat.
“I’ll leave the details of the actual events to Corporal Fraser, however, while at the factory you suffered a blow to the head by a,” he consulted his notes, “a metal object of approximately 3 inches width – a metal bar in all probability. This resulted in what is most commonly known as ‘blunt head trauma’. You lost consciousness some time after the blow and were brought here. We had to perform a craniotomy – a standard procedure of brain surgery –“ the doctor continued and Fraser smiled encouragingly at Ray while his brain filled in the blanks:
Craniotomy, Surgical operation in which a bone flap is temporarily removed from the brain to access the skull. Fraser’s smile stayed fixed on his face.
“—to treat the epidural hematoma – a blood clot, if you will – that had developed as result of the blow to your head,” the doctor explained further.
Epidural hematoma, A type of traumatic brain injury in which a buildup of blood occurs between the dura mater and the skull… and…
…between 15-20% of patients with epidural hematomas die of the injury. Fraser’s smile wavered the tiniest bit but Ray was still looking at the doctor and didn’t notice. Sometimes, Fraser cursed his youth spent in the company of the books of his grandparents’ library.
“The surgery was very successful Mr. Kowalski. You are obviously in the possession of a very fine, thick skull.” The doctor smiled a little at his own joke.
Ray grinned. “Could have told you that.” He paused for a second. “Does that mean I can go now?” Ray asked hopefully.
“In general, yes. However, we would like to keep you here for observation for one or two days. After that you are free to go home. You should try to keep exertions to a minimum for the next three weeks, try to ease back into your normal activities. And someone has to monitor your behavior in case there are any changes. We can probably remove the sutures in about a week if it heals nicely.”
“Sutures?” Ray’s hand came up to the bandages around his head again.
“No need to be alarmed Mr. Kowalski. I assure you there won’t be anything but the faintest scar if at all.”
Ray’s fingers twitched nervously. “Ugh… could you give me a moment alone doc?”
“Certainly. I can imagine that this amount of information has been quite a lot to process. I’ll check up on you in a little while and then you can ask me any questions you might have. Is that alright with you?”
“Yeah, sure.” Ray answered, thinking go already.
The doctor moved towards the door and Fraser followed with stiff movements.
“Fraser, where are you going?”
“Ah, I—“ Fraser turned around and rubbed furiously at his eyebrow. He dropped his hand again with a bit of effort.
“Understood.” Fraser smiled one of his tiny smiles, the one where he is secretly pleased but doesn’t want to show it too much so you really had to know him well to see it at all.
The doctor closed the door behind him and Ray wasted no time. “Fraser, get me a mirror okay?”
“Ah, Ray—I really think you should get some rest.” Ray narrowed his eyes and Fraser continued, “It’s really not—“
“Fraser, hand me the damn mirror.”
Fraser hesitated another second before he handed Ray a small hand mirror.
Better get this over with, Ray thought to himself and gritted his teeth. He flicked the mirror up to his face—and jumped in shock.
“JESUS!” Ray moved a hand to touch his own cheek. “Jesus,” Ray repeated with disbelief. “How can you even look at me?” He asked incredulously, looking at Fraser.
But Fraser met his gaze with a stubborn look of his own. “There is nothing wrong with your appearance. These are simply a few bruises you acquired when you collapsed.”
Ray mouthed ‘a few’ with enough heat to convey very clearly that he found this to be the mother of all understatements.
There were scrapes and scratches shortly above his eyebrow and again on his chin, he had purple shadows underneath his eyes and there were some purplish-red bruises blossoming on his left cheekbone that hurt just looking at them. There was a small, red crack splitting his lip on the left side and Ray winced when his tongue came out to touch it on its own accord. Ouch pretty much covered it.
His eyes strayed up to the bandage that was wrapped around his head and before Fraser could stop him Ray had unraveled it. He gasped when it came away.
He craned his neck to the side, taking in the gap where his hair was missing. In disbelief Ray’s fingers travelled over the bald patch, it wasn’t that big, maybe fist-sized but… Ray swallowed. The stitches stood out in stark relief against his pale skin.
“Fraser I look like fucking Frankenstein!” Ray exclaimed in despair, still feeling the naked skin at the back of his skull.
Fraser smiled gently at him. “I’d say you’re lucky then – after all, you could look like his monster.”
Ray was confused for a second before he scowled. Fraser had a funny way of cheering someone up.
“Ray,” Fraser continued earnestly – Ray hated it when he got out the earnest crap, it was like listening to a boy scout – you had to believe him. “It is only temporary. They had to shave your head for the surgery but it will grow back. And the bruises will heal; when you dropped unconscious you probably hit the ground without being able to protect your face but the wounds are all superficial.”
Ray was looking at the mirror again. God, what a sorry sight. He traced his face on the cold surface. This was depressing.
“So…” Ray wasn’t sure if he wanted to hear the answer. “I’m going to be alright?” Looking at his face like that wasn’t the biggest encouragement.
“You’re going to be alright.” It sounded like a law – part of the order of the universe or something. It made Ray smile. He winced again when it hurt his split lip – damn.
“People with epidural hematomas are expected to make an excellent recovery.” Fraser added.
“Okay, no permanent nerve damage or speech problems or anything, right?” Ray asked and fiddled with the bed sheet.
“Of course not, Ray.” Fraser replied. Permanent disability only occurs in 10% of the mild cases… it can’t—it won’t happen to you.
Ray released a breath he hadn’t even realized he had been holding. “Good, that’s good.”
Having Fraser here helped, the man was as solid as a rock. His mere presence was soothing if only because Fraser usually made everything alright for everyone.
Ray would have preferred to soak up Fraser’s resolute presence for the rest of his hospital stay – Fraser was really good at creating a calming aura around himself. But apparently no one had gotten the memo that all Ray wanted was peace and quiet.
It seemed that every nurse in the goddamn place had something she wanted to check, some machine she had to fiddle around with or some test she had to run. If anyone pointed one more flashlight into his face Ray would not be held responsible for his actions. And, of course, Dr. Polite-Smile also came back for yet more questions and Ray was pretty sure that his headache would go down to almost non-existent if people would just stop hassling him.
No wonder no one wanted to spend longer than necessary in a hospital – this place made you sick to death.
It took three nurses, at least seventeen threats of kicking someone –anyone – in the head and some severe cussing that made Fraser wince before Dr. Distinguished-Glasses agreed to let Ray have a look at his file.
Ray sat up in his bed and stroked over the cover of the folder. He wasn’t sure what to expect. So far everything anyone had told him had sounded like out of a movie – not something that had happened to him. Seeing the Polaroid of it though… different kettle of fish.
He took a deep breath and closed his eyes for a second.
“You don’t have to do that, Ray,” Fraser’s quietly assured voice drifted over from the visitor’s chair, the chair which Fraser had never left since Ray had woken up save for going to fetch the doctor.
Ray looked at him, a lopsided grin playing around the corners of his mouth.
“Yeah I do. And you know it.”
Fraser bit his lip before he nodded. He watched Ray opening the folder with apparent ease while his insides twisted themselves into knots with anxiety.
Ray gasped when he saw the first picture. Fraser didn’t have to strain his neck to make out the picture; he had shamefully abused the admiration of one of the nurses to have a look at Ray’s file prior to Ray’s return to consciousness.
The first picture had been taken at the hospital, shortly after Ray’s arrival. The doctors had been trying to ascertain if a craniotomy was needed but the picture hadn’t shown the true horror. The wound had already been cleaned, the dirt had already vanished from Ray’s hair…
…it wasn’t as bad as following Ray’s collapsing figure, to find him lying amidst the debris, a puddle of blood pooling on the concrete floor; it didn’t show Fraser’s scarily steady fingers while his hands had helped to shift Ray into the recovery position so that he could get air or the empty buzzing that had filled his mind at that moment.
It couldn’t record Fraser’s voice as he called the emergency in, the way it sounded so hollow when he said the fateful words “officer down”, the dryness of his lips or the cold sweat when he added “we need an ambulance”.
All that the picture showed was a tangle of blond strands of hair, a patch of skin still reddish from the blood they had cleaned away and a small sliver of skin behind the ear that was still slightly dusted with grime.
It didn’t show how Fraser had been waiting, waiting so very patiently next to Ray for the paramedics to reach them which couldn’t have taken more than a few minutes because the ambulance had already been on the way – the only good thing about the involvement of the FBI and the hostage situation they had had on their hands. But it felt like hours and the blood seemed to be dripping out of Ray, leaving him paler with every drop.
Drip… drip… and he had tried to stay focused, head wounds always bleed worse than the wound itself is, drip… the recovery chances with instant medical attention are very good… drip… but it took longer and longer for the paramedics to arrive so that Fraser wouldn’t have to stand by and watch Ray bleed any longer… drip… skull fractures… and his mind painted various brain injuries in vivid detail… cerebral contusion, drip… permanent disability… his heart rate sped up to a painful hammering in his chest… fatal… drip…
And right before his thoughts could overwhelm him with all the possible permanent damage a head wound could cause the paramedics arrived at long last and they strapped Ray to a stretcher and they hoisted him into the ambulance and Fraser got in next to them.
The sound of the siren was awfully loud, the whole van rattled slightly, cramped full with equipment and Ray was still so pale… motionless… and silent. Ray had never been silent. Not even when he slept.
The reality of it all made it feel surreal. And the nightmare had just begun, the—
“Earth to Fraser?” Ray sounded almost amused. “You should get some rest, Frase. You’re sleeping on your feet,” His voice let the concern bleed through the gentle banter.
“I’m fine Ray,” he replied automatically, shaking himself out of his dark memories. And he was fine— everything was better than those last 24 hours. “What did you say?”
“What happened to McKinnley? All I remember is this big crash and I know that I thought something had happened to you.”
“Ah, he’s in the police hospital getting treatment for his broken shoulder.”
“You triggered a mechanism before you collapsed that released a pallet full of small, empty steel drums. The load was hanging almost directly above him when you pushed the lever. He was quite lucky, all things considered. His injuries could have been far worse.”
Ray nodded with satisfaction. At least the asshole was in the same shit as Ray.
“Oh, hey, what about James? He okay?”
Fraser nodded; a warm smile on his lips. He admired Ray for the concern he showed towards others and his willingness to put others first – even though he always denied doing it.
“We were almost at the exit when the FBI announced their arrival. I found someone to take care of him and went back inside to find you – but McKinnley found me first and you already know the rest.”
Ray made an affirmative sound and looked back at the pictures from his CT scan and the ones from after his surgery.
It wasn’t such a bad deal that he couldn’t remember the actual moment of the injury. Sure, he had the stitches at the back of his head but otherwise? The pain killers kept his headache at bay and as long as he didn’t have to look at his face the whole incident was more of an abstract idea than one of his own memories.
“I should call Lieutenant Welsh and Francesca to let them know that you are awake now and on the way to recovery,” Fraser interrupted his musings.
“Tell them I said ‘hi’ and tell them not to bother visit me at the hospital. I’m not planning on staying long enough for visitors. They can come visit me at home.”
“It’s a bit late for that, I’m afraid. They already visited you but you weren’t conscious then and I sent them home so that they would get some sleep.”
Ray blushed slightly with the wave of affection that washed over him. “Then say ‘thanks’ from me.” he mumbled.
“I will. Anything else I can get you?”
“Get me out of here?” Ray only half-joked. If someone knew a sneaky way to break out of a hospital Fraser had probably already tried it.
Fraser’s smile was sympathetic, “As soon as it’s save Ray. Just a bit more patience.”
Fraser stepped outside and took a deep breath. It took a moment for his heart beat to return to its normal, steady rhythm. He needed to be in control of his emotions. Ray more than anyone else counted on Fraser – and Ray was fine, he was on his way to recovery.
Fraser took another deep breath; in… out… Reliving everything, thinking about all the possibilities it could have gone wrong didn’t help anyone and it was unnecessary. Ray was fine. Ray was fine, he repeated once more before he went down to the reception area.
Other people were also depending on him. Call Lieutenant Welsh. Call Francesca. Reassure Ray. Stay calm. He picked up the receiver and began to dial.
Once the door had closed after Fraser Ray sighed and let himself fall back against the cushions.
A moment later there was a soft knock on the door and the doctor was back.
“How are you feeling?”
“I’d feel better if people just stopped asking me that every five seconds,” Ray grouched.
The doctor smiled indulgently. He had probably seen worse patients than Ray.
“I take it you’re already better then. It might lift your spirits to talk about your release from the hospital?”
Now that sounded more like a topic Ray might want to discuss.
“Your condition is stable and there is only so much we can do for head wounds. I don’t see much harm if you return home tomorrow evening if your condition remains stable or even improves. However—“
Ray had known it. There was always catch.
“We can’t let you stay unsupervised. Head wounds are critical injuries in which change might occur much later than the initial treatment. It would be best if you stayed with someone for the next two weeks. Just to make sure someone can monitor your behavior in case there should be any changes or in order to get you medical assistance should dizziness or disorientation occur.”
“Yeah, I can do that.” Anything to get him out of there.
“Very well. I hope you’ll have a good night here. Call the nurse if you need anything. I’ll be by tomorrow morning to check up on your condition.”
Great. Ray could barely contain his enthusiasm at the prospect. “Yeah, thanks.”
Fraser had apparently already been waiting for the doctor to leave because he came in not two seconds after the door had closed.
“Any new information?” Fraser sounded almost as hopeful as if he were the one in Ray’s position.
“Nah… I have to stay here for another day.” Ray grimaced. “Hospitals suck.”
“Ray it is a very promising sign that Dr. Hersey believes that you are well enough to be discharged as soon as tomorrow evening. Recovery from brain surgery may enquire you to stay in the hospital for up to two weeks.”
Ray gaped at him. “No way!”
“I’m afraid so. You are very lucky Ray.” Judging from Fraser’s voice he felt pretty lucky, too.
Ray was again extremely thankful that it was Fraser who was keeping him company at the hospital. Fraser took everything in stride. He was the perfect candidate to handle a crisis – Ray shuddered just imagining having to listen to Francesca’s tearful pep-talk for more than an hour.
Fraser wasn’t freaking out. He was calm and reassuring and it made Ray feel more at ease. If Fraser could be calm about this it couldn’t be all that bad.
Ray sighed. “Alright, alright. Jesus… one more day of this crazy circus here.”
Fraser opened his mouth to reply something when an announcement came over the speaker in the hallway pronouncing the visitor hour over.
Ray rolled his eyes. “You better go home and grab some shut-eye.”
Fraser wanted to object but Ray gave him a hard look before he managed to phrase a reply. “Nuh-uh. I’m fine and I’ll still be fine tomorrow morning. You need some rest.”
Fraser jerked his head in obvious displeasure. Finally, he nodded. “Alright.”
Ray grinned. He loved it when he won an argument against Fraser.
Ray’s night wasn’t exactly quiet though. At first he drifted in and out of consciousness without ever feeling as if he had really slept in between and when he finally fell asleep he dreamt of stumbling around in the dark. He was looking for something and it was damn important that he found it fast – whatever it was he was looking for. But he couldn’t find it and he was walking in circles while the darkness closed in around him.
He came awake with a gasp, sweat was beading on his temples and his breathing came fast and ragged. His hand moved to grab the bed sheet and found something warm lying on the bed. Ray looked to his right and could just make out a figure sleeping with its head on Ray’s bed, cradled by a pair of strong hands.
The dim light filtering in through the curtains meant that it must have been around the early morning hours. And yet here was Fraser, still –no, again – sitting in the damn visitor chair, fast asleep.
Ray shook his head, affection welling up inside of him so strong his throat felt tight. It was a nice gesture that Fraser had stayed after all –that Mountie could be more than a little stubborn when he wanted to bend the rules to suit him.
Ray couldn’t know that Fraser hadn’t stayed for his sake – at least not only for that… but for his very own peace of mind.
Ray closed his fingers around one of Fraser’s hands. If only… no, this was the worst time of the worst. First he had to get out of the hospital and over this head injury business and then he could think about the nice stuff – which also happened to be the complicated stuff but with Fraser this came as no surprise to Ray.
Sometimes it seemed the better something could be the harder it was for Fraser to accept it.
Almost as if Fraser was so used to not getting the things he really, really, wanted – which was just sad. And no one could have such a crappy life, could he? Fraser must have some happy memories, right?
With all the crazy stuff he had pulled in Chicago over the last few years he had probably impressed quite a few Canadians… Ray stumbled over this thought for a second… because Fraser wasn’t in Chicago because he had so many fans in Canada that he had to get away, right?
The dull throbbing of his head was back and Ray decided that tomorrow was early enough to find out if Fraser was really as unhappy as all that.
As was often the case with these kinds of late night epiphanies they don’t accompany you back to the waking world. Even though it would have saved Ray from quite a few hardships over the course of the next few weeks had he remembered his suspicions. Thankfully, he didn’t know that either.
And after feeling Fraser’s hand beneath his own sleep came much more readily.