The Best Defense...

Written for Bathsweaver, who asked for a year or so after Practical Diplomacy.

“So, Benny, how do you feel?” Professor Vecchio looked relaxed, slouching against the back of his leather chair, his hands joined above his middle. Ben wished he could feel as relaxed. The only good thing about him being this tense was the fact that it was preventing the contents of his stomach from escaping through his esophagus.

“Fine,” he answered. Even to his own ears, his tone sounded clipped, and the words rang hollow.

“Uh-huh. Sure you are.”

“Well, I’m not certain how I am expected to feel, since I am about to -” Ben stopped. The words ‘defend my thesis’ couldn’t even escape his lips. Perhaps he wasn’t tense enough. “Excuse me.”

Ben heard Vecchio’s “sure thing, Benny!” as he dashed out of the third-floor office and ran quickly into the third-floor men’s room, with barely enough time to bend over the nearest toilet before he heaved.

“All better?” Vecchio asked as soon as Ben made his slow way back to the office. Ben dry-swallowed and carefully sat down in his vacated chair.

“Much. Thank you.”

Vecchio cracked a grin and finally came out of his slouch. “All right, listen up, Benny. You are your own harshest critic – that is no secret. Kowalski, there,” he pointed vaguely at the floor, indicating Ray’s office below, “agrees with me on this.”

“He- he does?” Ben schooled his expression to one of mild curiosity, as opposed to blind panic. The professor, oblivious to the real source of Ben’s current worry, shrugged in answer.

“It’s not like it’s a big secret, or anything, Benny.”

Maybe not so oblivious. Ben nearly threw up again, and only managed not to do so through sheer for of will. His voice cracked when he asked, “It isn’t?”

“Benny, everybody knows.”

“They do?” He was beginning to lose the tenuous grip on his sanity. If he and Ray had been discovered– there would be– hearing upon hearing between all manner of disciplinary committees- it would mean the end of Ray’s career, and Ben’s, and–

“You don’t hide things well, you know that, right?”

Ben could barely make himself shake his head. He gripped the chair underneath him. Vecchio sighed and gave a low chuckle. “Of course you’re your own worst critic, Benny, and even the secretaries around here know that. My point is, relax. You’ve done good. You have nothing to worry about, all right?”

The relief was so great, Ben nearly threw up again. He held himself in check, however, forced a smile, and riding a reckless wave of pleasure, even ventured so far as to ask:

“Do you speak with Professor Kowalski often?” He was simply making sure, testing the ground, so to speak. When Vecchio’s eyes squinted at him, Ben thought he had gone too far, asked too much. Again.

“Every now and then, at meetings. Sometimes we eat lunch together. Why, you fishing for another compliment, Benny?”

Ben flushed and dropped his gaze to watch his shoes. He’d shined them for twenty minutes that morning, to two matching tones of teasing voices, Diefenbaker’s being the loudest and most grating.

“Not at all.”

“I’m just teasing ya. He only has good things to say about you, Benny, I promise.”

“Thank you, Professor.”

Vecchio paused, and allowed his smile to spread wider. “You know, you’ve been my student for, what, two semesters now? When are you going to start calling me by my name, Benny? This isn’t undergrad, you know.”

Ben smiled in answer to his professor’s easy grin, and thought that if he had to have had two Rays in his life, he was very happy, indeed, as to who they had turned out to be.

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