With all of my eternal, neverending, flaming thanks to Soupytwist for holding my hand through this whole thing, looking over the early drafts and picking up on everything that I wasn't happy with and making it better, even at 3 o'clock in the morning. (The girl doesn't sleep.) And with same huge, neverending, flaming thanks to Brooklinegirl for breaking down exactly what wasn't working as a whole and pointing me in the right direction, and being there from the very beginning. (All the remaining mistakes are mine.)
Written for the "Get Fraser Laid" challenge, with the prompt: Fraser/Kowalski (AU) – Ray as professor, Fraser as graduate student, a little bit of inappropriate fraternization, if you will.
“Professor Kowalski? Uh- Ray?”
Ben poked his head through the half-open door. His gaze immediately fell on the familiar figure of his advisor, sitting with one knee propped up on his desk.
“Yeah, Ben, come in. Sit down.” Ray waved him in without looking away from the computer screen. He didn’t look at Ben until Ben was seated directly across from him, shifting a bit in an attempt to find a position that he could settle into more or less comfortably. His starched shirt felt too constricting under his tie, his jacket too warm a burden.
“Ben, relax. It’s just a first draft.” Finally looking up at him, Ray flashed a toothy grin and slid a thick, familiar-looking folder toward Ben.
The last of his thesis. Ben knew that it was, technically, the first of what promised to be many more drafts of these last few chapters, and it was not so much an obstacle standing in the way of his Ph.D. as the basic groundwork. However, it was proving very difficult indeed to convince himself of this.
He’d worked on his thesis for so long now, he had begun to understand why writers considered their novels to be like their children. Ben’s thesis was very much his own creation – a labor of the love that he felt for his country; a small opus on the ways he believed the world at large could be bettered. Working with his sense of duty firmly in place, he had avoided wording, or, indeed, mentioning at all, the ideas included in the pages he had left in Ray’s in-tray just a few days ago. However, now that he sat facing his advisor, he realized that perhaps he had gambled a little too much.
He stared at the folder without lifting a hand to retrieve it. A second extended into moments and he was still staring at it dumbly when Ray’s voice cut into the haze of this thoughts, startling him into meeting his gaze.
“Ben! Quit that, and take it back. It’s – it’s good, Ben. It’s very good.”
Ben took a deep breath and finally reached for the blue folder.
“Very good?” His voice broke a bit and he cleared his throat. Very good was…good. It was, well. Very good, indeed. However, his expectations being what they’d been, he had expected something else. Something about the newly posited ideas, perhaps. Watching his advisor’s face gave Ben the courage to ask. “But not stellar?”
Ray’s smile disappeared, replaced by a thoughtful expression. “You don’t want a stellar thesis, Ben.”
Ben frowned, uncertain as to where Ray was headed with that comment. “I don’t?”
“No, you don’t.” When Ray didn’t clarify, Ben opened his mouth to ask for further elucidation, but was interrupted by Ray abruptly jumping out of his seat.
“Come on. You need a drink,” he declared and was almost out the door by the time Ben found the mechanism that closed his jaw and implemented it. He wasn’t sure what he needed at that very moment, but he knew that a drink was less likely to be the answer than, say, an encouraging review of his first thesis draft by his advisor.
Ray didn’t give him a chance to voice any of this. All sudden energy fed quite a bit by impatience, he bounced a little on his feet and jiggled his keys.
“Come on, come on. Grab your folder. We’re going to the University Café for a drink.”
“I – okay.”
There were times when, all logic reaching its tethers, Ben could find no other solution than to trust the people around him not to lead him too much astray.
The University Café was newly remodeled. Ben had seen it just before it had been closed down for renovation. Faded and ripped leather chairs, with stains that no one could tell the origin of anymore and, Ben had thought, no one had actually cared to. Sparse, cheap lighting. Two kinds of coffee – regular and decaf – served in Styrofoam cups that came in one size. Two kinds of tea – Lipton and Lipton Decaf – and three-day-old milk, with sugar that you could try to scrub off the tables, if you were a brave student, or, as was usually the case, a stoned one. Ben had hated the place on first sight, and had been reluctant to come back even after its grand reopening. However, Vicky had dragged him there bodily about a week into its rebirth, and although that particular foray into lands unknown had nearly ended in disaster, his enjoyment of the café never wavered. He’d been coming there ever since.
In fact, the café was where he had first met his advisor in person, rather than at a departmental gathering or in class. Professor Stanley Raymond Kowalski was among the youngest of the faculty to garner a full professorship and actually take on students. Ben, having been nurtured in a rather traditional academic manner, was less than thrilled to learn that in order to be able to study his particular brand of Civics, he would have to ask Professor Kowalski to become his advisor. However, one chance meeting over tea – and Ray’s coffee – had convinced him he’d been entirely wrong to have had a single doubt as to Ray’s merits as an expert in his field.
Ray, for all that he looked like the biggest misfit on campus, was whip-sharp and lightning-quick. Sitting in on his classes had humbled Ben, who had imagined himself as a professor a lot more than he’d care to admit. However, while he was thinking about it, Ray was doing it. Drawing his students out, getting them interested in the smallest minutiae through his passionate and obvious love of the field, teaching them without making it an effort on either side. He was a well-loved and respected professor, and yet – there was that air of – well, something. Ben could never quite figure out why Ray struck him as such a fascinating mystery.
The obvious answer, of course, was that he was a member of the faculty, and as such a lot less open with his life than any of Ben’s peers. They never interacted outside of the academic setting, and Ben did not know much more about Ray than Ray knew about Ben. However, that wasn’t the entire reason for Ben’s curiosity. Somehow, somewhere, Ben knew there lurked a secret, maybe, or at least some kind of quirk, that distanced Ray from the university as a whole. Never quite as enveloped in the academic life as the rest of them, Ray stood apart and a little ways…in the back.
It hadn’t hit Ben until about the tenth time he’d come into Ray’s office. Filled with books on politics and Civics and the law, cluttered with notepads and pens and paper clips, it lacked the one thing that humanized every other office Ben had been inside: no visible signs of Ray outside his physical person graced the room. No pictures, no notes to self, no grocery lists, not even a mug or a coffee maker. Most grad students with offices, and indeed, most professors, rushed to make their offices feel like home, having to spend long hours ensconced in them. If judged by his office, Ray’s only purpose in life appeared to be research and teaching. Which was not, in fact, true, judging by how difficult it was to catch him on campus most late afternoons.
Which was another reason Ben was shocked to find himself having an actual drink with Ray Kowalski on a Wednesday night. Ray favored early meetings with his students, apparently preferring to spend the later part of the day either holed up in his office with the door locked or away from campus altogether. Finding Ray in his office at five at night, with the door open, had actually been due to a rescheduled meeting originally set to take place at noon, but, to Ben, was no less perplexing for it.
And now, at nearly six o’clock at night, Ben was staring into his ale, with Ray’s blue eyes crinkling at the corners across from him, a beer in one hand, Ben’s thesis in another.
Ben cleared his throat. “You know, Ray, I- I don’t actually drink that much. Or, well -” In for a penny, in for a pint. “Or at all, in fact, outside of holiday festivities and the like. I’m rather puzzled – that is –” Ben’s tongue felt like it had jogged a mile and was having trouble staying off his teeth.
“Why are you having a beer with me at six at night on a Wednesday, at the University Café, and it isn’t the apocalypse?” Ray interrupted him, smiling in a knowing way.
Ben shut his mouth and nodded, his cheeks flushing. He watched as Ray leaned back in his chair and studied him over thick-framed glasses. After a moment, Ray quirked a small grin, held up a finger in the universal gesture of “wait a sec!” and began flipping through Ben’s thesis. Ben’s eyes only registered red marks, visible on every page that he could see, flying by as Ray searched for whatever it was that had the world tilting on its axis. Ben took a gulp of his light beer and waited, forcing the bile down.
“Ah. Here.” Ray flopped the thesis on the table between them, and pointed a long finger at a passage, now framed by three overlapping red squares.
Ben flipped the folder so he could read, and bent his head low. He didn’t want Ray seeing his reactions.
Ray had, indeed, circled the very heart of what Ben had been trying to get across in his thesis, and the very thing that he had avoided discussing with Ray before. He hadn’t been sure at the time if it had been fear of mockery or something much more difficult to overcome, but he knew now that it had been a somewhat cowardly act. It was, after all, his thesis. Ray was there to advise him on it, and not to discourage.
Well. Ben coughed and, without looking up, took another gulp of his beer. For courage, he told himself.
“So, Ben,” Ray cut in through the silence. “Now we come to the, uh, heart of the matter.”
Ben finally made himself look at Ray, and was perplexed to find him looking more amused than anything else. Ben wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but it hadn’t been amusement. At least not on his end.
“You,” Ray pointed at him in his characteristic two-finger point, one largely favored by tough Chicago street guys and not lauded academics, “are trying to change the way this government is run. And by ‘this government’, I mean, this specific government that tends to, uh, run its way into others.”
“Which,” Ben cleared his throat, “which government do you mean, exactly?”
That’s right, son, he heard his father’s voice in his ear, skirt the issue. Maybe the Yank will get confused and stop probing you for your plans. Never let the enemy see your weaponry until you are ready to shoot.
Ben jerked his head around, but knew that he couldn’t have possibly heard his father speaking. His father was dead and Ben had seen him buried, watched his coffin lowered into the ground. The voice he had heard had most likely been a product of his somewhat sleep-deprived mind and nothing more. He shook his head free of the voice, and when he looked back at Ray, Ray’s eyebrows were furrowed. Clearly, Ben’s surprise had been a little too visible. He forced his lips into a smile, and settled back in his chair, ready to listen.
“I mean, the United States of America,” Ray finally said after a largely uncomfortable pause. “Ben, you’re Canadian.”
Ben nodded, trying to place the import of the statement. “Yes. Born and bred, so to speak.”
“And you ended up in Chicago because you were probably – stop me if I’m wrong – at the top of your class, and Chicago was one of the best places to study Poli Sci.”
Ray looked at him through the thick-framed glasses, but it seemed to Ben as if there was hardly even air between them. The room was getting stuffier with the number of students occupying the various tables and booths and everything in between. He tugged at his collar and forced himself to nod.
“See, I’m psychic.” Ray smirked and leaned back in his chair. “Ben, you’re an overachiever – I had you pegged from the moment I met you.”
Ben felt his hackles rising, in his mind’s eye seeing his back like Dief’s, covered in fur and agitation. He had always excelled at his studies - that was true. But it had never been due to any particular desire to please, only out of his sense of right and wrong and what he had to do to live up to what he had been given.
Some of his thoughts must have shown on his face, because Ray leaned back in and stretched a hand out towards Ben. Seeing the slender, calloused fingers reaching out for his brought Ben back to reality with the force of a bola. He grabbed his drink and did not even attempt to look at Ray, focusing only on the slightly warm, dull taste of his beer.
“Ben, I didn’t mean that as an insult. You’re one of the brightest, most dedicated students I have ever worked with.” Ray’s voice sounded lower, less aggressive, perhaps, than usual. A lot more uncertain. His hand withdrew, and Ben allowed himself to look up and nod. Ray continued. “The biggest problem with your thesis is that you are trying to change the world with it. And Ben, I am telling you right here and now, it won’t work – so don’t do it.”
It felt like a compression in his chest, a deflation – something had collapsed. He did not even attempt to hide the reaction Ray’s words had created.
“Ray, I – I want to – I need to propose all this now, while I am still in a position to.” He broke off when he saw Ray shaking his head. “Isn’t this the sort of thing graduate students are meant to try and do? And are you not meant to encourage me?” Ben knew he was grasping at straws, but he was mystified, absolutely mystified as to why a man as dedicated to his field as Raymond Kowalski would be discouraging his student from publishing a strong thesis.
“Ben.” Ray took a sip of his seemingly forgotten beer and never looked away from Ben’s gaze. “What you are proposing is incredibly smart. It is, in fact, potentially groundbreaking. It is also crazy. It is one hundred percent, one hundred percent, freak-certifiably nuts.” Ray lowered his beer and narrowed his eyes. “But I believe in it.”
Ben blinked. He took a deep breath, leaned on the table and nearly dislodged his own beer. He clutched at the glass as it wobbled on the edge of the polished surface and only a little bit spilled out onto the floor. For once, he didn’t reach over for a napkin and attempt to clean it up. He was, as the saying went, all ears.
Ray continued as if nothing had happened. “What I’m saying is, if you put all of this into your thesis, you will get nowhere. And I mean that almost literally, by the way – departmental politics, if you’ll forgive the pun. This is too out there – you won’t get past the defense committee.”
Ben must have looked as startled as he felt, because Ray spread his hands and his smile was just a tad sad. “It’s true, Ben. This isn’t the idealized, open-minded world we all envisioned when we came here. If it’s too far out there, it won’t pass. This is why you don’t want a stellar thesis.”
Ben’s mind was reeling. It felt like Ray was dismantling all of his years in Chicago one by one. When Ben had left Inuvik for Toronto to go to college, he had been so wide-eyed, it embarrassed him to this day. Toronto wised him up, made him learn, but it had never actually drained his hope or the promise he had made to himself when he had set out to do his duty. And now Ray was telling him that not only was it hopeless to try, this world he had so staunchly believed in – the land of knowledge and unending possibility – had its own spider webs to weave and flies to catch. Ben thought he was going to be sick.
In fact, he actually was, as the beer he had imbibed began to slowly make its way upwards, raising bile and dizzying his head, and he slumped slightly forward, just a might too fast. It was simply the beer, he told himself, because he could handle Ray’s criticism. After all, he had had many years to practice taking criticism. Criticism had never stopped him before.
“Ben, are you all right? Ben?” Ray was on his feet much too fast, and now he was much too close, leaning over Ben, a crease of concern between his eyebrows, teeth too white between his full lips. Ben closed his eyes and slumped back. The bile began to recede. He thought that perhaps sitting still was the best solution he could up with at this time.
“I’m all right. I apologize, Ray. Like I said, I hardly ever drink alcoholic beverages.”
Ray’s hand settled heavily on his shoulder, adding unnecessary warmth to his suit jacket, and squeezed. Ben wanted to dislodge his hand, gain some distance, but that seemed nearly impossible now. He opened his eyes and saw that Ray had straightened up and wasn’t looking at him at all, his hand their only point of contact. His gaze seemed to be scanning the room – perhaps he was looking for someone.
“Hang on, I’ll be right back,” he said and finally let Ben go. Ben watched Ray stride away with a detached sort of interest, and forced his hands to stop shaking. No matter how much he told himself he was right, he couldn’t help feeling a fool. Perhaps, he should have done what his father had wanted him to do all along.
So, you’re admitting I’m right now, are you?
Ben jerked in his seat and this time, when he searched for the source of the voice, he actually found it, standing at the opposite side of where Ray had stood less than a minute ago, staring at him with a familiar mixture of exasperation and worry.
“Son,” said Bob Fraser, “you are not a fool. No son of mine could ever be a fool. You just keep that in mind.”
Ben watched as his – very dead – father waggled a finger in warning and sat down in the seat vacated by Ray. Ben wanted to rub his eyes and pinch his arm, but he found he had no energy for such frivolous attempts at righting himself.
“Dad,” he began instead, “what are you doing here? And why aren’t you -”
“Lying in the ground, where I was last seen?” his father interrupted.
“Well.” Ben thought about it. “Yes. In fact, why aren’t you?”
“It got dull, son! This way I get to exercise the old limbs, get some life back in them, if you catch my drift. Get some air, converse with my only son. That kind of thing.” Ben stared as his father attempted to get the attention of the young man working the bar at the other end of the room and failed. “They never see me. Why is that, do you think?”
“Because you’re – dead?”
Looking horribly out of place in his red serge and Stetson, Bob Fraser glared at Ben, then waved his hand one more time, gave up and attempted to lift Ray’s abandoned beer.
“Dad? Is there –” Ben searched for a delicate way to phrase his next question. “Is there a history of insanity in our family?”
“Insanity?” His father paused with his fingers half-way through Ray’s beer bottle. “Not that I remember. Of course, your uncle Tiberius was found dead, wrapped in cabbage leaves. However, it was never proven that it had been his mental state -”
“I got it. Thank you.” Ben hadn’t known about the exact nature of Uncle Tiberius’s sad demise, but he’d known enough. “No insanity. So, what, are you haunting me?” He seemed to have regained his equilibrium and his father had still not disappeared. Ben could only assume that his father had not been a side-effect of his drinking, but an incorporeal form determined on making his evening even more incomprehensible than he could have imagined five minutes ago.
“Haunting is such a strong word, don’t you think, son? I like to think that I am able to do this through the strong bond that we have shared over the years. You know, father, son, a dogsled…”
“Dad, we went sledding once. Then, I decided to go into politics, you decided I should become a Mountie, we fought, I went to college, you got killed.”
“Those are some harsh words of welcome, son.” His father assumed an all-too-familiar tone of disappointment and warning. Ben bit back a retort, and then realized that he was simply too tired to deal with it tonight. He never wanted to disappoint his father, not even after his death. Perhaps, in fact, especially so.
“You’re right, dad. I’m sorry. I just don’t deal with this sort of thing every day.” He slumped against the back of his chair and peeled off a corner of the Heineken label on Ray’s bottle. It gave easily, and he began to strip it with a kind of fervor.
“This isn’t the end of the world, you know,” his father said, all hearty intonation and undying optimism. He looked horribly fragile against the light, harsh lines etched into his skin, bags under old, pale eyes.
Ben had missed him.
“It feels like it,” he admitted after a moment, feeling the wet paper give away with a certain amount of grim satisfaction. “If I can’t change anything from here, I -”
“You need to get out and get a life, is that it?” Ray’s accented voice broke in and Ben nearly jumped out of his skin. Scanning the chair in front of him, he found it first empty, then Ray filled his line of vision, all messy hair, crow’s feet and big smile. “Here, have this.”
A glass with ice water stood between them now, the top fogging over already. Ben watched it mutely.
“Who were you talking to just now?” Ray asked, and he didn’t look like a man who had nearly caught his student talking to a ghost of his dead father. In fact, he didn’t look in the least surprised. Perhaps it had helped that graduate students were not known for their sanity.
“No one, I just – sometimes, I talk to myself out loud and forget where I am,” Ben fibbed. It hadn’t even been a fib, really – sometimes he did forget where he was, and talked to himself. He had just never had to use that as a cover for conversing with ghosts before.
“Understandable. So, you feeling any better?” Ray tipped his chin forward, looking genuinely concerned, forcing Ben to look away.
He was not okay. Not by a long shot. He wished that Ray would excuse him, let him go home and be alone. But Ray had settled in more comfortably, it seemed, and if anybody would be making excuses, it would have to be Ben. He searched for some kind of answer that would not offend Ray, and came up with a nod and a sip of the water Ray had graciously brought him.
“You’re not okay. All right, how about I make you feel better?” Ray didn’t wait for Ben to respond, which was a good thing, because Ben had no comment. “All of your ideas? You should go for it. Not in your thesis, mind, but you should. After you get your Ph.D., Ben. Not before. And here is why.” Ray took a pull of his beer, made a face, and put it down. “God, I forget how awful beer is until it gets warm, and then it’s like a cat pissed in my mouth. You mind?” He nodded toward Ben’s glass of water and Ben had just enough presence of mind to let go of the glass and nod his head. When Ray brought the glass to his lips and sipped exactly where Ben had gulped a moment ago, Ben’s palms prickled and he scratched them on his slacks. He dug his fingers into his thighs and attempted to relax, while Ray’s throat moved as he drank.
When he was done, he lowered the glass, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and looked nothing like a professor at all. He smiled at Ben, pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket, and nodded toward the door. “Wanna get out of here? It’s getting kinda stuffy, and late. We’ll talk on the way.”
To where? Ben wanted to ask, but didn’t. Instead, he gathered his thesis into his bag, summoned all his strength, and walked out after Ray. By the time he stepped outside, Ray was already lighting a cigarette. It was dark now, and the orange glow was visible a few inches away from Ray’s lips. Ray snicked his Zippo closed, dropped it in his coat pocket and leaned against the brick wall. Ben fidgeted with the shoulder strap of his bag, not quite sure where to rest his hands.
“See, this is Poli Sci, Ben,” Ray spoke up, his mouth still expelling smoke. “The real breakthroughs, the kind that you’re talking about? They happen in office. They don’t happen in dissertations. Your dissertation will get published, bound, and put on a shelf along with a thousand other ones, and no one will ever really see it after that, and hardly anybody’ll care about its actual content.”
Ray pushed himself away from the wall and nodded for Ben to follow him. They were headed in the direction of the faculty parking lot by the Political Science building, Ben realized. Their meeting was very much coming to an end. He walked in step with Ray, silently waiting for him to continue.
“Politics isn’t like math or physics. Those fields depend on academia, they’re fueled by it. Academia is where mathematicians and physicists do that kind of research and make those kinds of discoveries. What you’ve done?” Ray pointed at Ben’s chest. “That is not something for a dissertation. It just isn’t. You gotta trust me.”
Ben cleared his throat and finally spoke. “What do you suggest I do, then?”
Ray slowed his stride and rubbed his chin. Ben fancied that he could hear the rasp of stubble against skin. “I suggest that you get your Ph. D. and get into office. You’re Canadian, so you can’t exactly run for much around here. But I’m guessing that you’ve thought about this. So, you tell me. What are your plans, Ben?” Ray tilted his head to the side, like he was considering Ben, and Ben’s collar got tight again.
“I…I admit to having laid out something of a plan for a career in diplomacy, upon my return to Canada.”
Ray smiled at him, a genuine smile that somehow eased out a knot in Ben’s stomach. “Diplomacy, eh? Working between nations to better each other?”
Ben felt himself smiling sincerely for the first time in a long time. “Something like that, yes. A liaison between countries, and their political ways, I suppose.”
“Well, Benton Fraser, you got my vote.” Ray clapped him on the shoulder and brought out his keys. “Listen, I gotta drop something off downtown, so if you want a ride home, we can continue this in the car.” Ray lowered his eyes and Ben thought it must have been the street lights that extended his lashes into soft shadows and made him look ten years younger and strangely vulnerable. “You look like you could use a talk right about now,” Ray continued as he fidgeted with his keys. “And, admittedly, that’s kind of my fault.”
When Ray looked up again, he was back to his usual self, perhaps a little more flushed. The refusal was at the tip of Ben’s tongue, and in fact, about to pour out, when his exhaustion caught up with him and he exhaled.
“A ride would be wonderful, Ray. Thank you.”
Ray flashed him a grin, opened the front door of his vintage car, and slid in. Ben, for the first time wondering how inappropriate this actually was, looked around, walked to the other side of the car, and opened the passenger door.
It was a ride, and he was tired. If Ray thought it was nothing untoward, he would, as well.
Ben lived a ways away from campus, but not as far downtown as Ray had to go. Nevertheless, even after Ben had given Ray his address, instead of dropping Ben off first, Ray headed straight for his own destination. With the window rolled down to let the chilly night air in and the smoke of his cigarette out, Ray smiled seemingly at nothing as they drove through brightly-lit streets and past dark alleyways, filling the air around them with companionable silence.
Ben used the time to pull his head together, get a clearer picture of the torrent of thoughts raging in his mind. Ray had nearly pulled the rug from under Ben’s feet tonight, but he had also righted Ben when he’d been about to topple over. Ben knew that Ray had been right. Even if some grand illusion had been shattered, he knew that he was, more or less, on the right track – perhaps simply on the wrong platform.
He found himself watching Ray whenever he thought Ray wouldn’t notice. They had spent more time together than this, many times, in fact, but it was tonight that Ben felt closer to Ray than he ever had before.
Perhaps it was the strange intimacy of being in Ray’s car. If Ray’s office lacked any sort of presence of humanity, his car was infused with it. While his office didn’t even hold an ashtray, Ray’s car was scattered with bits of cigarette packets, or torn plastic wrappers. Tapes littered the cubby between the front seats. In the back, Ben had noticed a window sticker, though he couldn’t quite make out what it symbolized.
And perhaps it had been the tacit agreement they had come to. All through their previous working partnership, with Ray pacing Ben, and Ben rushing both of them, they worked out Ben’s problems, worked out his plans. And even with all that, he had still managed to hold back his most basic and profound beliefs, his most treasured ideas.
“We’re stale,” Ray had said once. “Kind of like bread, or something. Or, not even we. You, Ben. You gotta get that fire lit under your ass, gotta do whatever it is that you need to do get back into it. You’re flagging.”
That had been true. There were times when Ben couldn’t see the end of this, it seemed so far away, he could barely imagine the next day, much less the first draft of his thesis.
But even with all that, he had never felt as connected to Ray or his work, for that matter. Whatever fire Ray had lit under Ben’s ass tonight, so to speak, had kindled something greater. Ben felt discomfited and determined all at once. In fact, with the ride lengthening, each second drained away the exhaustion and added fuel to his determination. He was thrumming with anticipation. He thought, for the first time in a while now, that perhaps he could do this and more.
He suppressed a smile, and looked out the window. Chicago rolled by and he welcomed it, the sensation so unfamiliar, his head nearly spun.
After a while, Ray broke the silence. “We’re almost there. Sorry to take you around this way, but I figure a drive can’t hurt, and you shouldn’t be doing any more work tonight, anyway.” He turned a corner without looking at Ben and threw his cigarette butt out the window. “You don’t have a pet or anything horrendously difficult to take care of, do you?”
The question seemed as much out of the blue as the rest of the evening’s events, but Ben diligently answered. “I do, indeed, but Diefenbaker – my dog – can take care of himself for a while. As long as I leave the window unlocked, he can come and go as he pleases.”
“Diefen-who?” This time, Ray did turn to face him, both eyebrows raised. “Don’t tell me you named your dog after a Prime Minister, Ben.”
“I- I’m afraid I can’t do that,” Ben replied in all honesty.
Ray shook his head in response, chuckling. “You really are a freak.”
“So I’ve heard. And he’s a half-wolf, actually.” Ben cracked a smile and waited for Ray to finish gaping at him long enough to maneuver his car into a relatively small space. He seemed to enjoy doing it, steering the wheel with panache.
After they came to a stop, with his hand halfway to the buckle of the seatbelt, Ben froze. What was the proper etiquette in this kind of situation? Ray had given him no clue as to where they’d arrived, and Ben had been so lost in his own thoughts, he had simply neglected to inquire. Now faced with the dilemma, he scratched the uncomfortable itch of sweat on his forehead and turned to Ray, only to see his advisor already getting out of the car. Ben shut his mouth and watched Ray’s progress through the windshield.
“Ben, you coming? Or do you wanna wait in the car?” Ray knocked on Ben’s window, and it seemed only polite to answer. Ben signaled for Ray to move away and slid out of his seat. As he followed Ray, Ben took in their surroundings and, with a jolt, recognized the building they were about to enter.
“Ray, this is the City Council.” He had walked by here a million times with Diefenbaker on the mornings they were both feeling up to a brisk walk, and each time he’d felt an almost reverence of sorts.
“Yep, sure is.” Ray didn’t hesitate before opening the heavy, gilded door and waving Ben in before him with a grin and a wink. “After hours, no less.”
They walked inside and the security guard at the front desk barely waved a hand in Ray’s direction as he watched the monitors secured behind the counter. Ray waved back and Ben’s curiosity finally got the best of him. “What are we doing here?”
Ray flashed him a grin over his shoulder and pressed the elevator button more times than was strictly necessary. “I’m dropping off some paperwork. This is kind of like my part-time job.”
It was only through a super-human effort that Ben managed to keep a firm lock on his jaw. His shock must have shown in his expression despite his efforts, because Ray grinned wider, and bounced a little on the balls of his feet as he explained. “I should say, part-time volunteering, actually. Don’t really need a second job, just -”
“Do you- do you lecture here, or -”
Ray barked a laugh. “Christ, no! Remember how you make a difference?” His hands took in their surroundings, inviting Ben along. “Start small, think big, right? I can’t spend my whole life warming my ass in academia. I love teaching, Ben, and I love the research, but this here – this is what gets my blood pumping.”
“All politics is local,” Ben murmured, almost to himself.
Ray’s sudden smile seemed to light a beacon across his features, years melting from his face like shadows. “Exactly!” He led Ben towards the elevator as it dinged upon arrival. “Come on up, I’ll give you a tour.”
Ben followed him in while his mind reeled. This certainly explained quite a bit. Ray’s office wasn’t his whole life, because academia – the students, the research – wasn’t his whole life.
The numbers on the display rolled up and Ben found himself studying Ray from his corner of the elevator. The folder in Ray’s hand beat an unsteady rhythm against his thigh. The hollow sound of it and the whir of the elevator was all Ben could hear over his own breathing. Ray wasn’t looking at him, but something about his stance – perhaps the tilt of his head, or the odd steadiness of his gaze on the glossy metal door – jolted Ben into the realization that Ray was aware of his scrutiny. Ben’s neck prickled. He broke his gaze and turned it on his own shoes. When the elevator finally lurched and came to a stop, Ben had to force himself not to run. Instead, he waited until Ray gestured for him to follow and exited.
The hallway echoed with their steps, though it was not entirely empty. Even after hours, the City Council did not appear to sleep. The hallway lights flickered, white halogen lamps diffusing the evening darkness. Every now and then, a yellow, warmer light would spill from under a closed door of an office, a thud or an odd conversation, dulled by the closed doors, would break the surface quiet. Ray didn’t speak as he led them down and around the floor, to Ben now a long and wondrous punctuation to a long and odd night.
After their third turn, Ray glanced over at Ben and gestured for him to follow through a closed door, which turned out to be unlocked. A flick of Ray’s hand over the wall illuminated the office. Ben looked around. Tall shelves lined one wall, filing cabinets lined another. The desk was made of heavy oak – the kind favored by the higher officials of the RCMP. He felt his childhood memories floating to his mind like seaweed, lapping around his senses. For one breathless moment, it was as if his father were truly there - alive, bent over the desk, busy recounting his various altercations and pursuits in a leather-bound journal.
Ben blinked, and the vision dispersed. Apart from Ray, rummaging through a stack of papers on the desk, he was very much alone.
“Is this your other office?” he inquired, hoping to put himself in a less maudlin state of mind. His voice sounded odd in the echoed silence.
“Nah, only sometimes. This is an old friend of mine’s. She leaves it open for me to come and go, since I don’t got one here, and -” Ray snatched a piece of paper from the middle of the pile and pushed the rest towards the middle, “- a-ha, gotcha – I use it for my own thing.” Ray scanned the paper he’d picked up without turning to Ben.
“And what is your friend’s position here?” Somehow it felt more polite not to inquire about ‘Ray’s own thing’. Perhaps, Ray would feel compelled to tell him on his own sometime.
“Stella?” Ray finally pulled his gaze away from the piece of paper he’d been clutching, and looked up at Ben. “She’s an Alderman. Alder-woman, rather. Stella Kowalski, heard of her?”
“I – Kowalski?” Ben felt the oddest sensation of his stomach dropping out, though he could not, for the life of him, figure out as to why.
“Yeah, well, that’s the ‘old friend’ part. She’s my ex, actually.” Ray did look up at Ben then, the slight squint of his gaze adding a sudden intensity to the moment. Ben’s stomach flipped over, something akin to anticipation simmering inside. Then, broken by Ray’s too-casual shrug, the moment ended, leaving Ben with the sense of a thing unfinished, or perhaps, not even begun. He nodded then, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, and did not inquire further. Ray, meanwhile, turned back to the papers, stacked the ones he’d rearranged into some kind of order. Ben might not have noticed the slight flush to Ray’s neck if he hadn’t been looking. He turned his gaze away when Ray turned back to him and patted his jacket pockets.
“Looks like I’m done here.”
Ray moved forward and Ben felt a compulsion to move away, into some kind of safety zone in which he knew where he stood. He mustered a polite smile and made an ‘after you’ gesture.
“Is there anything else you wanna see?” Ray asked, wrapping his arm casually around Ben’s shoulder, just tight enough that he felt Ray’s touch through the cloth. Ben felt frozen in place. “I got the private tour covered, if you want it.” Ray’s hand didn’t move from its position. “C’mon, the scenic route getting back to the car. Or- or not?”
“I, uh –” Ben cleared his throat and scratched a sudden itch above his eye. “Perhaps another time. I think I should get back to Diefenbaker.”
“Sure thing, Ben,” Ray nodded. His hand remained a hot weight on Ben’s shoulder, and Ben finally found the strength to step away. He thought he’d felt Ray’s fingers linger on his jacket, like the touch of a ghost, before they disappeared entirely.
The elevator did not pause at any floors, and it was just as well. Ben had time to memorize every scuff mark on his shoes by the time they came to a stop on the ground floor, and he was certain that Ray had noticed his change of mood. It was as if that last shy touch of fingers on the collar of his jacket extended into a lingering presence. He couldn’t shake the feeling of it, heavy, like – he looked up and immediately looked back down again, clearing his throat. Like Ray – watching him.
The elevator dinged its arrival, and this time, Ben did not wait for Ray to exit – he knew the way. Out, to the right, and the hollow thumps of Ray’s black boots followed in time with his own stride. He didn’t glance at the security guard on his way out, but he heard Ray’s greeting of “night, Charlie, stay cool.”
Out in the chilly fresh air, Ben breathed in and allowed his eyes to close. It had been too long a night. He felt Ray come a halt next to him and, after a moment, opened his eyes again. He found he was searching for the lost moment they had shared back in the building, but Ray’s gaze was more guarded now, and difficult to read.
“You all right?” Ben only noted the concern on Ray’s face for a short moment, his gaze drawn immediately to Ray’s white teeth biting his lower lip. Ben forced himself to look down at the glistening sidewalk, and somehow, that made it easier to breathe.
“Quite fine, Ray. Thank you. I’m afraid I’ve kept you out long. I apologize.”
“Hey, it wasn’t you, buddy. It was me.” Ray’s voice sounded subdued. He nodded towards the car. “I’m sorry, Ben, I just needed to do it so Stell’d have the stuff by tomorrow morning.”
“Oh, no - no problem at all, Ray. It was my pleasure – seeing the building, where things happen, so to speak.” Ben struggled to bring back a lighter mood, and with Ray walking away and towards the car, it became progressively easier. He wondered if walking the rest of the way home would prove to be the best solution.
“Hey, you are one of the few people I know who actually gets excited about this shit,” Ray mumbled through the cigarette he’d stuck in his mouth. “Believe me –” a snick of metal, “it felt good.” The cigarette lit up, then dimmed, and then was gone as Ray slid into the driver’s seat. “C’mon, get in!” he shouted over the rev of the engine.
Ben hesitated and looked down the street. He squinted when a familiar figure first appeared, then disappeared from view, and then there was no choice as he slid in beside Ray and the car burned rubber on the pavement as they took off.
“So.” Ray took the cigarette out of his mouth and blew the smoke out the window. Ben was grateful for the direction of the wind. “You probably wanna know what the hell I do there, huh?”
Ben was never very good at prevarication, though he had had occasion to fib. “Yes, very much so, actually.”
Ben paused. “Yes. Quite. I don’t often meet professors who -” He paused again, thinking. He was never quite sure how much freedom to take with Ray. For all that he was an entity onto himself, and unlike any other academic Ben had ever met, he was still his advisor – and he was still the man who got tenure at thirty, and had apparently managed to make a dual career for himself in the span of five years.
“Who volunteer for side jobs?”
Saved. “Exactly. I admit, it’s – well, in any case, I would be quite interested in hearing what it is you do at City Council, if – if you don’t mind.”
Ben chanced a look at Ray, and caught the end of a grin, punctuated by the white of the cigarette. It looked near slipping, but Ray’s teeth caught hold of it and pulled it back. Ben faced front once more.
“’Course I don’t. Basically, it’s the groundwork, you know? The bottom of the political food chain.” Ray drummed his fingers to a silent rhythm on the wheel. “I mostly work with Stella in my old district, where I grew up. It’s under fire right now, the old neighborhood’s dying out, so – I just fight with the authorities, for the most part. Get things moving. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”
Ben tugged at his starched collar – now damp rather than constricting – and couldn’t help the smile now lifting his cheeks. “That’s incredibly generous of you.”
“Generous?” Ray’s voice, grown huskier from the cigarette, was strangely muted. It recalled the short moment before the drive downtown, when Ray had looked at Ben rather like a friend would have, and not a professor. It was only in recall that the realization of it hit Ben, but indeed, it had been that which had thrown him for a loop. Not an advisor – a friend.
Ben cleared his throat. “Perhaps not generous, but – well, I don’t meet too many people willing to work on the less glamorous side of politics, if you will.”
“In the thick of things? That’s true, I guess.” Ray’s tone grew thoughtful. He steered the car around a corner, straightened out, and continued drumming his fingers on the wheel. “I just – I never had any interest in rising to the top. At least in politics.” He snorted. “What it is, you do your best, and see what happens, right?”
Ben found himself nodding vigorously, hanging on Ray’s every word. He started to hope that the drive would take longer, that they would find themselves in a wave of red lights. He watched the road as he spoke. “Absolutely. That’s –”
“What it’s about?”
“Yes.” He breathed out, but his chest still felt curiously tight. He grew aware of his heart thudding against his ribcage.
“Yeah, see, you’re the same way. Me, I did the school thing better than my parents had expected. You should have seen my old man, Ben – proudest day of his life, when I graduated from college.”
Ben recalled the blurb on “S. R. Kowalski” in the student guidebook. “Summa Cum Laude, at twenty, correct?”
He grinned as Ray visibly flushed, even in the darkness. “Yeah, how’d you know?”
“Read up on me, of course. Who wouldn’t, right?” The smile slipped. “Getting an advisor is tricky business,” Ray mumbled, so quietly, it was almost to himself.
Ray’s advisor, Ben recalled, had been Harding Welsh, one the most legendary scholars in his field. Ben never liked to admit to such weaknesses as being impressed by connections, but it had been that particular partnership – one brilliant mind leading another – that had set him on the track to deciding that Ray Kowalski would have to become his advisor, relative youth notwithstanding.
“It is, indeed,” he sighed, then prompted for Ray to continue. “You graduated early, and went straight into your doctorate.”
It was Ray’s turn to sigh, a short exhalation through the smoke. “Yep. Straight into it. Welsh, he – well, he was not easy, that’s for sure. Rode me hard.” Ray chuckled softly. “I hated him for two years straight, I remember. Then I got the hang of it.”
Ben thought this over. “So, I believe that the moral of that tale is that…at least you’re not as bad as Harding Welsh?”
Ray’s unexpected laugh drew Ben out and, if for a moment he had felt entirely out of place, teasing Ray, that moment passed so quickly, he could hardly remember it. He smiled wider.
“Something like that,” Ray finally said after he stopped laughing. “In any case, you’re not as bad as I was, that’s for sure. I was one arrogant son-of-a-bitch.”
“What’s changed?” Ben asked. And while he hadn’t meant for his tone to hold even the slightest edge of sarcasm, Ray’s askance glance at him told Ben he hadn’t been entirely successful.
“Not much, really.” Ray drew on his cigarette for one long moment, his cheeks framing his jaw line, accentuating the sculpture of his face. “But I did grow up. You know,” Ray waved the cigarette along to his point, “eventually.”
“Ah, well, eventually, we all must,” Ben said, and found himself surprised at how comfortable he felt now. He could not remember the last time he had had a conversation this open with anyone. Perhaps it had been with Vicky. The edge had worn off, but Ben still felt the old sting, the wound not yet entirely healed. Indeed, eventually, everybody had to grow up.
“Well, you’re all grown up now, it seems,” Ray noted, just the slightest note of teasing in his voice. Ben felt his cheeks flushing, thought whether it had been with embarrassment or pleasure or an idiosyncratic mixture of both, he could not tell. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ray nearly drop his cigarette. “I mean, for a guy in his twenties, you’re awfully mature. Did you lie on your application, Ben?” Ray seemed to have righted his cigarette, and his bravado was back full force.
Ben blinked and drew breath to answer. “Surely not. After all, whoever heard of a lying politician?”
Ray chuckled. “Yeah, all right, you got me there. Though, Ben.” Ray made another turn and Ben realized they were nearing his street. “And this is something I don’t often say, mind – not even sure I should be saying it…” Ray’s voice thinned into nothing. Ben’s heart thudded harder and he had to clench his hands into fists. He strained to hear over the purr of the engine. “You’ve got tremendous potential. I hope that tonight doesn’t affect how you feel about – this program. Or your future.”
It took him a while, but finally, Ben regained his voice enough to rasp a “thank you.”
“Don’t mention it. You’re kind of a rare specimen in this field, you know.” Ray didn’t look at Ben as he pulled up behind a car parked outside of Ben’s building.
“How – how so?” Ben wiped his palms on his slacks. The wait seemed to take forever as Ray straightened out his car, pushed the shift gear into ‘park’ and killed the engine. His hand lingered on the keys, and Ben watched, mesmerized, as the slender fingers slid against the key-chains and jingled them like wind chimes. Finally, one fumbling move later, the keys were out of the ignition, and Ray faced Ben just as Ben looked up from his hands. He held his breath as Ray watched him through the shadows.
“You have no political ambition, but you’re willing to go to the top – to whoever is at the top, is what I mean, not to get to the top yourself – to do what’s right. Your ambition is not - it’s not personal. Am I right?”
Ray held his gaze as Ben nodded, not entirely certain as to what he was nodding to.
“Right. You wanna change the world – I mean, really wanna change the world.” Ray finally broke eye contact and looked down at his lap. “Scary thing is, you’re the one guy I know who can probably do it.”
Ben was afraid to blink, because in his experience, blinking often made things disappear. This time, his eyes watered and he finally had to blink to get rid of the sting, but Ray remained in place, only a dim street light throwing his face into relief. Ben wasn’t certain how long they sat watching one another – it couldn’t have been more than a few seconds. Ray lowered his gaze just as Ben nearly grew overwhelmed by a flash of heat prickling against his skin.
“Thank you, Ray, I - I cannot fully express what that means to me,” he finally managed, the distance between Ray’s statement and his reaction punctuated by the quiet stillness around them. He had waited too long. The awkwardness slithered round the air of the car. “I - I better -”
He looked back up at Ray, and in the second before Ray had schooled his features into a neutral expression, Ben caught one maddening glimpse of what lay beneath. Perhaps he had imagined it – it wouldn’t have been the first time – but Ray had looked at him like… like he wanted - Ben’s stomach seemed to flip over. He felt himself shaking – hadn’t he just been hot?
Desire – a desire he hadn’t allowed himself to feel, a desire he had staved off for so long, he could hardly remember its inception – threatened to overwhelm Ben. He had known from the start that Ray was a dangerous man for him to get close to; everything had suggested it. However, while before tonight, it had been a mere physical attraction, in and of itself quite manageable for Ben, so well-versed in the art of self-control, now – now it was the sort of desire that had no clear boundary, nor a set definition.
Ray seemed to be pulling Ben in with his mere gaze, eyes dark under heavy lashes. Ben’s mind reeled. Ray was – had been – married. And the likelihood of Ray sharing any of Ben’s inclinations was – barely existent. And – and it was wrong, too. Wasn’t it? Yes, of course – wrong, unethical, unprofessional, he was Ray’s student – he –
He was leaning in, his mind screaming at him to pull back, to turn around and run, run into his building, the safety zone of his apartment where there was no trace of Ray anywhere, no smell, no heat –
But then Ben breached the neutral zone of the gear box and touched his hand to Ray’s knee. It was meant to have been a light touch, like sifting snow off a caribou track, but his fingers dug in and he glimpsed Ray’s face – startled? Afraid? Aroused? He could no longer tell – and –
“Fuck - “ Ray’s warm breath plumed against Ben’s mouth, and how had he gotten so close, so tantalizingly close... He watched as Ray’s lids finally hid his eyes from view, and Ben felt the last thread of control snap. He could almost hear it, as his mouth found Ray’s, touched it, and this was – it was entirely wrong, it shouldn’t have been – happening –
Except now Ray made a small, desperate noise, and Ben found himself clutching Ray’s knee harder, his other hand coming up to rest against Ray’s cheek, forcing him to stay still, to remain where he was so Ben could kiss him.
And Ben kissed him, Ray’s lips so soft against his, so wet. And then – oh, yes – opening against his and finally letting him in. Ben hadn’t kissed anyone in so long that even though he had been craving it, the soft tongue touching his was a shock to the system. He shuddered and deepened the kiss, tasting Ray’s cigarettes and the forgotten, never-finished beer; tasting Ray, a heady and all-encompassing flavor. He breathed in deeply, once, and just as he was about slide his hand to the back of Ray’s head and feel the hair that had teased him for so long with its silkiness, Ray moaned and pressing a hand to Ben’s chest, pushed him back.
Ben’s lips were still moving and he had to stop himself from plunging back in. Ray was panting and not looking at him. Ben swallowed hard and licked his lips. They tasted like Ray. Only the sound of Ray’s voice was able to snap him back to reality.
“Ben, Jesus, this -” Ray stopped and cleared his throat, and Ben found himself wishing he hadn’t, because Ray’s voice had sounded raw, hungry and –
Ben bit his lip and struggled for control. Ray was right. This was ridiculous. What had he done?
He looked down and felt himself going red all over, his blood and skin betraying him like cowards. He knew it was against the rules, and he knew it had been his fault, but he simply could not bring himself to think that, on some elemental, most basic level, kissing Ray had been wrong. He took deep breaths. The third one stuttered off as Ray’s fingers grasped his chin and pulled it up.
Ray’s eyes were so dark, outlined the by shadows on his face, the lines around his eyes deepened by them. He looked shaken.
“Ben, come on. This – this is your career, you get me?”
Ray hadn’t let go of his chin, which precluded him from nodding, so Ben fought to find his voice. “Yes, I know that. And it’s… it’s your career, as well. This is against - against every - rule or code or - or regulation -” He wasn’t looking at Ray, he was looking down at Ray’s arm, wrapped in a leather sleeve, Ray’s slim wrist extending out of it, the mere glimpse of the silver-balled bracelet.
“Ben, look at me.” Ray’s hand extended and caressed Ben’s cheek now, and Ben raised his eyes to Ray’s. “Fuck the code. This is my rule. I can’t – I can’t do this with you and sit on that committee. I could probably advise you, and pretend like we weren’t - but I’d be holding your future in my hands, and that’s - that’s been fucked, Ben. Not –” Ray huffed a humorless laugh, dropped his head and squeezed Ben’s neck harder, like he needed its strength. “Not your future. My impartiality. That’s been fucked.”
Ben struggled not to focus all of his mind on how good Ray’s hand felt on his neck. He listened to Ray and he understood and he knew that something had just slipped away, something that he had considered precious, for a year and a half now. “I know, I – I will need to get a new advisor.”
Ray’s hand gave his neck one last squeeze and slid down, ghosting slightly over Ben’s chest and then Ray was scratching his own head and looking away. “Yeah. I can probably – I can help you out, recommend someone, put in a good word for you.”
Ben’s new future unfolded before him – a new advisor, perhaps a different focus, nothing to show for the kiss except the memory of Ray’s soft lips, strong and needy against his, because he knew that for that one minute, just for a minute, Ray had wanted him as much- as much as Ben had wanted him. It was a lonely future. But – perhaps it didn’t have to be that way.
“Who –” Ben cleared his throat. “Who did you have in mind?”
“Oh, well – for what you’re doing? The best guy for that is -”
You, Ben thought, it’s you, it’s you, his mind chanted.
“Probably Vecchio. Uh…Raymond Vecchio. He’s on the third floor, next to Thatcher…” Ray’s voice trailed off and Ben looked at him, watched his hands fumbling for his cigarette pack and then throwing it aside unopened. “Shit.” The sudden, quiet curse dispelled the last of Ben’s inhibitions, and he threw his weight forward.
“Ray. If- if I already need a new advisor, couldn’t –”
Ray’s head jerked toward Ben, and Ben thought, for one wild moment, that if he came any closer to Ray, he would get burnt to ashes with the heat of his gaze. For another wild moment, that was all he wanted.
“Ben, that’s- that’s- Jesus Christ.” Ray dropped his head back against his seat. His eyes squeezed closed and Ben thought that, at least now, he could regain some equilibrium, but the sight of Ray, vulnerable and open, only further upset his balance. He could barely think, but he had to. He had to think. He licked his dry lips.
“That’s – do you want to, Ray? Do you -” He could barely recognize his own voice, or the words coming out of his mouth. He breathed in, then out. “Do you want me or –”
“Fuck. Yes.” Ray’s voice cut him off before he could even finish. Ben paused all movement, but couldn’t stop for the shudder that ran up his spine. “I just – God, Ben, I’ve never – I’ve never done anything like this, and – I’m the one who’s supposed to keep it cool. I’m older. I should fucking know better.”
Ray’s vehemence transformed him once again. Ben watched, like a paralyzed man, all of Ray’s movements – the constant jiggle of his thigh, up and down, the way he balled his hands into fists, then released them, then tightened them again. He wasn’t facing Ben, but he didn’t need to be. Ben had seen him. He knew now. He couldn’t let it go.
“But it’s my decision, as well. Isn’t it?” he pressed, unwilling to let go, willing Ray to understand.
Ray dropped his head forward and laughed. “It’s a two-way street, Benton. I just know how fast rumors spread. We left together tonight.”
Ben hadn’t thought of that. He should have – with the way things with Vicky had turned out, he should have been running as fast as his legs could take him, all the way back to Inuvik. But this wasn’t Vicky. Vicky was gone. This was Ray.
“I don’t care.”
“Yeah, well, you should.” Ray finally lifted his gaze to Ben’s and Ben struggled to look away from it. “I only have so much left in me to say no to you, Ben. Not a whole lot of control on this side, let me tell you.”
Ben looked up in astonishment, and was almost certain he’d seen Ray’s mouth ghost a smile. He bit his lip. The thought of Ray wanting him so much that he could take a risk he had never taken- like an aphrodisiac, it consumed Ben, spread into his skin, his blood, his very bones.
“I’m afraid that –” He struggled to breathe. “Whatever control I have is quickly – dissipating, as well.”
Ray remained still, watching him with that burning gaze of his. Ben swallowed.
“In fact – I –”
“Oh, fuck it.”
Ray met him halfway. Ben clutched at Ray’s head, and the next time their mouths touched, Ray’s lips were open, and he was devouring Ben with open kisses, tongue sliding in and out of Ben’s mouth, soft, strong and unrelenting. Ben pressed himself closer to Ray, slid his hands through Ray’s hair, then down his neck and shoulders and back. He felt Ray’s hands sliding down his sides, pulling him in hard by his hips.
Then, Ben’s knees knocked against the console, Ray’s arm caught the horn, and they broke off.
“Fuck.” Ray held onto Ben. “If we’re gonna do this, you have to invite me upstairs. I’m too old for this car crap.”
Ben smiled and touched his forehead to Ray’s, inhaling his rich scent. “Please come up, Ray. I wouldn’t want to hurt you.”
“We’ll just see about that.” Ray tilted his head and found Ben’s mouth again, and again, and again.
The way to Ben’s apartment seemed insufferably long, with Ray’s gaze heavy on Ben’s back the entire time. A thrill ran up and down his spine whenever he thought about what would happen once they closed his door from the inside. He hadn’t had anybody over since Vicky, which made it an almost even year now. It’d been far too long. For all that he prided himself on never needing anything but the knowledge that he was doing his duty, Ben often found himself awake at three o’clock in the morning, clutching his pillow to his body and trying not to wake Diefenbaker with his restlessness.
He had tidied his place very recently, but now his mind raced ahead of him, beyond the stairs and his front door, and Ben pictured his room as he’d left it that morning, with some clothes still strewn over a chair, his shoes lying haphazardly on the floor, and the dishes not yet washed in the sink.
Flushed, he turned around to see Ray making steady progress on the stairs behind him. “Ray, would you- would you excuse me for a moment? I think- I must check up on something. I’ll only be a moment,” he reassured him, and shot up the stairs, taking them two and three at a time. He heard Ray calling after him in a teasing tone, but he couldn’t decipher the words. It was all right, he was only going to be a minute or so ahead of him.
When Ben finally reached his landing and took out his keys, he came to a dead stop in front of his door.
“Son.” Bob Fraser nodded his acknowledgement and didn’t budge from Ben’s welcome mat. His father had always had an odd sense of timing, and it appeared that death had not solved the issue.
“What- what are you doing here?” Ben asked, as cautiously and quietly as he could manage, still panting from his jog up the stairs.
“I’m doing my duty, son. I’m trying to stop you making a terrible mistake.”
Oh, dear. “And, uh, what mistake would that be?” Ben asked even as he listened for the echoed footsteps getting closer with each second.
“You don’t want to bed your professor, Benton. It goes against every rule known to civilized man.”
Ben found that perhaps missing his father had been easier and a lot more pleasant before he’d re-materialized as a ghost. “Is it? Well, some rules are meant to be broken.” Ray was getting closer. Ben had to take care of this now, or – he didn’t care to think what would happen then.
“Oh, don’t say that, son. I taught you better than that,” Bob Fraser uttered sadly, shaking his head.
“Yes, well, I’m a grown man, Dad, and fully capable of making my own decisions.” He moved forward to try and displace his father, though he wondered even as he did so how one could move a ghost. Apparently, one couldn’t, and Bob Fraser remained rooted to the spot, as if he were guarding Ben’s door from the Apocalypse. Ben exhaled and sagged against the wall. “Dad, please listen. It’s wonderful to see you again, and we should- we should talk. Catch up. Sometime. Just- not now. Please. Not now.”
“You know that if you go through with this, I shall be gravely disappointed?”
Ben clamped his mouth around the first retort that came to mind, and sifted through all the other, more appropriate responses. “Yes, Dad. I know. I guess we’ll have to talk about it later.”
“Later, then, son.” His father nodded and stepped aside. “Here comes your Yank. You just watch out for yourself, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.” With that, his father turned and his red back walked past Ray, just coming up the stairs to end up a few feet from Ben.
“Everything okay?” Ray looked at him with a certain amount of caution. Ben wondered how much he had heard. “I thought you were having roommate problems, or something. You, uh… you don’t have roommates, do you, Ben?”
Ben rushed to ease his mind. “Oh, no. No, I live alone. Well- with Diefenbaker. I was just – I have a very, um…persistent neighbor. I was just - attempting to talk him back into his apartment.”
“Oh.” Ray nodded, his hands in the pockets of his jeans, looking more than a little out of place in Ben’s dingy hallway. The arousal which had banked during Ben’s conversation with his father, flared back up again as he watched Ray standing in front of him, watching him back. “So, you, uh- you wanna open the door, or do this in the hallway?” Ray’s teasing smile was back, and Ben fumbled for his keys, nearly dropping them twice before he finally unlocked his door and let Ray in. He watched, mesmerized, as Ray crossed his threshold.
Diefenbaker met them at the door, wagging his tail and jumping on them both.
“Dief, get down.” Ben enunciated as clearly as he could, sliding his bag off his shoulder. “We do have company.”
Diefenbaker obeyed and Ray crouched down to scratch him on the ears.
“Oh, Ray, you – might not –”
Dief panted and his tongue almost lapped against Ray’s ear when Ray shot up off the ground and backed away.
“– want to do that,” Ben concluded the needless warning. “You were very quick. Not many are.” Ben couldn’t help laughing as Ray turned an incredulous stare on him. “He appears to like you, at any rate.”
“Your wolf is a whore, Ben. Anything for a scratch.”
Ben cleared his throat. “Yes, well, some things he didn’t learn from me. Dief – feel free to go to your own corner.” Ben directed Diefenbaker towards the small bed he’d made up for him nearly a year ago in a foolish burst of optimism. It was rarely used. When Diefenbaker stayed put, Ben frowned. “Don’t look at me like that. If you really feel this put upon, go take a walk.” Dief’s ears lowered and his tail ceased wagging. “Aha. I see. Good boy. Thank you kindly.” After he watched Dief make his disappointed way to the corner, Ben turned his full attention back to Ray. “Would you, uh – would you care for something to drink?”
Ray advanced toward him, shaking his head. “No.”
Ray’s mouth was open when Ben kissed him, and their tongues slid against each other in recognition. Ben fumbled for Ray’s jacket, slid it off, then tugged at the black sweater, scratchy against his fingers. Ray wrestled it off himself with impatience and his hands once again found Ben’s hips, digging in hard and strong. Ben shuddered.
“You’re- you’re still wearing your jacket,” Ray panted. “This how they do things in Canada?”
“I hadn’t noticed -” Ben attempted to catch Ray’s mouth once more, but Ray resisted, sliding just out of reach.
“I had. Here -” He reached up and fumbled to yank at Ben’s tie. “Take that thing off, I can’t believe you -” Ray’s hands went under the tie to Ben’s buttons, thumbing them open one by one. “- wear a fucking tie, you’re a student, for -”
“Graduate- I’m a graduate student, Ray, there’s a difference.” Ben finally succeeded in undoing the knot and Ray’s hands caught the length of the tie and slid it off Ben’s neck.
“Thank God,” Ray retorted before Ben kissed him again, all the time walking them backwards. They shed clothing as they went. Little by little, Ray’s skin appeared to him – his belly as Ben rucked up his t-shirt, then his chest, warm and hard against his, then Ray’s entire torso, naked, all of it for Ben to touch and discover.
Now he was allowed to, he couldn’t let go of Ray’s skin, had to touch him everywhere, anywhere he could. Underneath his hands, Ray’s lower back moved as they walked, a physical presence of a graceful stride. Ben felt Ray’s sides with his fingertips, then Ray’s chest, his hands seeking more and more warmth and hardness.
“Ben, if you don’t get naked now, I’m walking out of that door,” Ray gasped, and for a moment, Ben almost believed him.
He hadn’t needed all those buttons. He could always sew them back on tomorrow.
When they fell on his bed, Ray landed on top of him. Ben surrendered control as Ray’s breath slid against his neck and flared his senses. “Wanna fuck you, Ben. Let me fuck you?”
Ray fucked him washed in the yellow light of Ben’s night lamp, skin and hair damp. Ben struggled to breathe. Ray’s face was close enough to feel and touch but not close enough to kiss and Ben had to strain forward, sliding out his tongue, touching it to Ray’s lips – Ray’s tongue – inside his mouth, and Ray moaned and thrust forward, deepened the kiss. They lost the rhythm, found it again, built it up until Ben was certain this was going to be it, this was where it would break, until Ray stroked his tongue smooth against Ben’s and they stuttered off, lost in each other’s mouths. Again, and again – unending, unrelenting, and Ray fucked him harder, with each minute, and faster. The kiss transformed to shared breath and shared breath transformed to shared gasps until Ray whispered in his ear, “Come on, Ben, touch yourself,” and Ben did, no longer able to stave it off. His orgasm shook him as Ray thrust two more times – three – and moaned a low, wordless moan, shuddering against Ben’s sweaty skin.
“Jesus Christ.” Ray’s voice wasn’t entirely back to its regular cadence. Ben smiled and turned his head to see Ray better. He was splayed out next to him, their arms their only point of contact. Ben felt like his skin was on fire. He shifted his boneless body and was almost shocked to discover a profound sense of relaxation.
“No, I mean – fuck.”
Ben felt his smile growing and turned on his side. Ray’s eyes were closed. He was breathing through his mouth. “Did you enjoy that, Professor Kowalski?”
“Oh my God, don’t ever say that again.” Without opening his eyes, Ray felt around for Ben’s shoulder and smacked it.
Ben chuckled. “Why is that?”
Without turning to Ben, Ray raised a hand, as it to count off the reasons. “A, I’m trying hard not to think about the fact that you’re -”
“Younger than me.” This time, Ray glared. Ben bit the inside of his cheek. “And B, I don’t wanna get a spontaneous woody anytime someone calls me that in class. I don’t like spontaneous woodies, I’m too old for them.”
“Understood.” Ben rubbed his chest his, feeling his belly rumbling below. Ray, despite the consternation evident in his words, appeared equally relaxed in his lazy sprawl. A profound, bone-deep satiation rolled heavily between them. Ben turned on his side and slid forward until Ray was a mere breath away.
“Is this – all right?” Ben asked, and was almost certain that Ray had heard every single nuance of the question. Ray pulled Ben toward himself and touched their foreheads together.
“Yeah, Ben. It’s all right.”
Ben reached behind him, turned off the lamp, and allowed the darkness to lull them to sleep.
He woke up at approximately the same time as always, if the diffusion of light behind his eyelids was of any indication. In the back of his mind, he felt like there was something he was expecting, a buzzing in his stomach, like a kid on Christmas morning. He smiled, stretched and –
Upon opening his eyes, discovered he was very much alone.
Had – had it been a dream? His heart hammered in his chest. But it had certainly felt real, and –
He rolled over to the middle of the bed, and found it – Ray’s scent. His aftershave, shampoo, hair gel, a trace of sweat, and stale cigarettes – the sheets were infused with him. Ray had most definitely been in Ben’s bed. But he wasn’t in it any longer.
Ben sat up and his gaze immediately fell on the open window. The chill hit him as an after-thought.
“Ray?” His voice was too hoarse with sleep to make any impression over the din of the city morning. Sitting on the fire escape, Ray had his back half to the window. It looked to Ben like he was wearing shorts, t-shirt and his leather jacket. Ben watched the unsteady progress of a plume of smoke making its way above Ray’s messy hair and disappearing. He forced himself to relax and fall back onto his pillow.
From that vantage point, he could see Ray’s naked thigh jiggling up and down, up and down. Ray looked wired, primed, as if any moment now, he would spring up and away, leaving nothing but smoke in his wake.
Regret? A too-late realization of the consequences?
Ben wasn’t certain he wanted to find out, but he had to. Whatever the consequences were, they would have to face them together.
It was a two-way street. Ray had said it himself, just last night.
Gathering all his strength, Ben moved to throw off the covers and face the chilly air, when an altogether different kind of chill grazed his shoulder. He jerked and turned around.
“Good morning, son.” Bob Fraser nodded at him gravely, his hat adding an unnecessary air of disappointment to his tone. Ben glanced back at the window and pulled the covers more tightly around himself. He’d been certain that being found masturbating in his bedroom by his grandmother would be the height of embarrassment for the rest of his life, but clearly, he hadn’t taken the shameless persistence of his father’s future ghost into consideration.
“What are you doing here?” he hissed as quietly as he could manage. He felt a new and overwhelming sense of gratitude for Chicago and its many sounds.
“I told you there’d be consequences, Benton,” his father answered. “Now, here we are.”
“What consequences? And couldn’t this wait until I was, you know -”
“Dressed, actually. And alone, yes!” Ben attempted to rein in his irritation, but, it appeared that he was not at his very best this morning.
“Oh, son, I’ve been in the barracks – seen much worse. Besides, your Yank there’s been out on the ledge for an hour now.” His father looked out the window, and Ben couldn’t help following his gaze. “I think he’s gone into some kind of trance.”
Ben raised his eyebrows. “A trance?”
“Looks odd to me.” His father shook his head. “I don’t trust him, son.”
“Jesus, Dad, who do you trust? Just listen to yourself.” Ben wrapped a sheet firmly around his middle and made his clumsy way over to the dresser. He could feel his father’s gaze on him the entire time. “Do you mind? I haven’t lived in the barracks, so I’d appreciate a little privacy.”
Ben sighed and took out the top pair of shorts from the drawer. Feeling like he was back in primary school hockey locker room, he maneuvered his legs into the shorts and finally disentangled himself from the sheet. The air was – brisk. He breathed in very deeply, decided that he was at least somewhat prepared to have a conversation with his dead father, and turned around. He nearly yelped.
“You all right? Sorry I scared you.” Ray was closing the window and shucking his jacket.
“Not – not at all. I’m sorry, Ray, I didn’t hear you, um, climb in.”
“Heard you talking. Was it the wolf?” Ray gestured to Diefenbaker, who had already laid claim to the bed. Ben seized the opportunity.
“Yes.” Diefenbaker rudely objected. “Well, you are taking over my territory, Diefenbaker, therefore I’d ask you not to complain about the smell.” He felt his ears burning. Diefenbaker had always had appalling manners. Ben avoided looking at Ray, for the first time feeling truly naked in front of him. When he finally peered at Ray’s face, Ray gave him a shy smile and dropped his head.
“Yeah, this is kinda awkward.”
Voiced, it sounded even worse. “No, Ray, of course – of course, this was to be expected, but I hope – that is –” He forced himself to be silent and looked out the window. Seeing nothing but the dingy brick of the building across from his and a small patch of overcast sky, he sighed and tried again. “What I had meant to say was –”
“Hey. Ben, it’s all right. I’m sorry.” Ray’s voice carried a note of hesitation, and perhaps just the slightest hint of hope. Ben tore his gaze from the window and turned to Ray. Ray sat with his legs apart, arms propped on his knees. Even in shorts and a rumpled t-shirt, he looked – right, with Ben’s bed as his background, Diefenbaker, the foil in the picture.
Ben slowly made his way over to the bed. He stopped just shy of his knee touching Ray’s. “You – you don’t regret this.”
“Sit down, will you?” Ray looked up at him. His eyes were very blue. “Better that way.”
Equal footing. Ben understood perfectly. He sat down beside Ray and waited for Ray to answer.
“No. I don’t regret this.” Ray rubbed his hands together, slowly, as if with a purpose. Ben watched his fingers nearly tangling, then parting, then nearly tangling again. “But this- no one can know about it. You know that, right?”
Ben nodded silently, still watching Ray’s narrow fingers with their wide knuckles moving against each other. The silver ball bracelet made a dull, hollow sound as it slid around Ray’s wrist.
“I’ll tell Vecchio that the direction in which you want to go is more up his alley than mine,” Ray went on, still in that quiet, too-precise tone. “And that you, uh – are highly recommended.”
Ben looked up, not understanding the import of this.
Ray smiled and shrugged. “It’s weird when a student changes advisors this deep into his work. But it isn’t unheard of. You should be fine.” Ben watched as Ray raised one hand and laid it gently on his shoulder. Its warmth shocked him, brought a physical reminder of their fleeting night. He cleared his throat.
“And you? Will you be – fine?”
“Oh, yeah.” This time, Ray gave him a full-on grin and squeezed his shoulder before dropping his hand. “I’m known for being kind of a wild card. Kinda kooky. They won’t be surprised.”
“Ah. Good,” Ben nodded, mechanically, not knowing what would come next. He had his hopes. But Ray had his…unexpected nature.
“Yeah, so. God any coffee around here?” Unexpected, indeed.
“No, I’m sorry. I only keep…tea.” He didn’t add what kind of tea. He’d learned the hard way never to offer up certain kinds of information.
“Tea? You don’t have any coffee? At all?” Ray sounded more distressed than Ben had anticipated.
“I’m sorry, Ray, I never drink coffee. I- I suppose I could ask one of the neighbors?” He hoped that his neighbors had been too enthralled watching TV or sleeping to have heard any of what went on last night. Perhaps they’d offer him the boot.
“Nah, don’t bother, I’ll get some on the way. You have a bathroom, though, right?” The naked hope in Ray’s voice made Ben smile. “A shower?”
“Of course. I’ll get you a towel.”
Ben paced back and forth while the water ran in the bathroom. By the time he got to his tenth lap in the direction of the window, Diefenbaker whined about his head getting dizzy.
“So, look away,” Ben snapped and turned to walk back. He came to a stop in front of a red wall. “Dad. You’re back. What a surprise.”
His father shrugged and smiled. “Just doing my duty, son. Doing my duty. So, these consequences, then?..” His father gestured for Ben to elucidate.
“Well, you must have heard Ray.” Ben firmly forbid himself to think about what else his father might have heard. Or seen. Oh God.
“I do tend to respect your boundaries sometimes, Benton. I went away – did you see me? No. I wasn’t here. I don’t know what this- your Ray – might have said.”
Ben struggled to believe him. “Fine. Well, there are no consequences academically. That is, both our careers appear to be safe. For now, I suppose.”
“Aha. Until somebody finds out, of course.” His father’s tone was almost triumphant.
Ben found new reserves of control. “How would they find out? What, would you tell them?”
“Of course not, I’m dead. Don’t be stupid.”
Ben sighed and rubbed his itchy eyebrow.
“But people always find out about these things, you know that,” his father continued. “You have to be very careful, son.”
Ben looked up. “What do you mean? About this? Of course, I wouldn’t tell a soul about last ni-”
“Not just last night, Benton.” His father’s tone softened. It was like looking into his father’s eyes the first time he had built a fire. Ben felt his shoulders slowly relaxing. “Whatever future the two of you may embark upon – there are always consequences. But it may, well – very well be worth it.”
Ben blinked. “Dad?”
“Well, what else do you want me to say?” his father exclaimed, spreading his arms out helplessly. “You look happy! What am I going to do, begrudge you happiness? You’re my flesh and blood. In fact, my only flesh and blood, death being what it is.”
Ben made to touch his father, but remembered just in time that it was impossible. He settled for words. “Thank you, Dad. I appreciate that.”
“You’re welcome. Now, I will take my leave.” His father turned and was almost through the front wall when Ben’s voice caught up with him.
“You’re – you will be back, Dad…won’t you?” He held his breath as his father turned around.
“Surely, son. I’m just going for a walk.” The hearty tone of voice Ben had grown to know so well was back, and he nodded.
“Of course. Have a nice walk, Dad.”
“Thank you, Benton. You take care now.” His father tipped his hat in a salute.
“I will. You too.”
When Ben turned around, Ray had just emerged from the bathroom. His hair was a mess, and a few drops of water still clung to his ears, chin and chest. He was wearing Ben’s clean boxer shorts.
Ben collected his senses and forced himself to sound casual. “Did you have a nice –”
He never got to finish his sentence, because Ray had caught his mouth in a kiss. A long, slow, sensuous kiss that tasted of toothpaste, sleep and steam. Ben moaned and ran his fingers through Ray’s hair, petting it and spiking it back up. Ray smelled like Ben’s shampoo. For one long moment, Ben forgot to think about anything at all.
Ray broke off panting. He staved off Ben’s attempts to catch his mouth again with a grin. “Listen. I’ve got a meeting today at four, with the City Council people. Wish I could invite you, but it isn’t my meeting. But –”
Ben caught Ray’s lower lip with his teeth and licked. Ray chuckled and slipped away. “But what I was thinking was – dinner, maybe? Uh…my place?”
Ben paused. His heart thundered – he wondered if Ray could feel it. “I – I would love to, Ray,” he finally managed.
“Good. Great. Good.” Ray exhaled. “There’s a rally happening this weekend – feel like seeing what it’s like? It might shake you up, give you a feel of what it’ll be like, when -”
Ben felt his grin spreading wider. “I would love to see what it would be like. Thank you, Ray.”
Ray smiled and brought their faces closer together. “You’re gonna make a great diplomat someday, Ben.”
The sudden change in topic startled Ben into laughter. “What do you mean?”
“You know when to listen, and you hear things right,” Ray explained quietly.
“Oh.” Ben closed his eyes. Through the closed window, he heard the rain begin to patter against the glass. Diefenbaker sighed and Ben heard him move closer to the sound. He smiled and welcomed the reprieve. The sidewalks would smell like water all afternoon long.
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