The lecture hall is vast and carpeted, lit with recessed bulbs set into the walls, and furnished with chairs made of orange and brown plastic. It has the feel of a cave, rather than a classroom, and seems like an excellent place to take a nap.
Benton sighs and sets his lecture notes on the podium. He finds the projector (already warmed up and ready for his slides: life at the Depot in Regina; shots of the Annual Musical Ride) and the blackboard supplies--chalks in three colours, brushes. He writes his name on the largest board, the one in the center of the room: Constable B. Fraser, RCMP. He arranges his cards in order on the podium, then changes his mind and stacks them back up again. Much as he loves to talk about the grand traditions of the RCMP, doing so in front of a roomful of flat-eyed American college students is a good deal more intimidating than he'd anticipated. They aren't so much younger than he is, after all, and they seem to be able to sense the slightest bit of nervousness from 50 feet away, like dogs in a pack. The girls, in particular, are fearsome.
But the debacle at Pickerel Lake left him in urgent need of reassignment, and the educational liaison office was looking for new speakers at just the right time. Benton has been trying to take it as a compliment, the way Sergeant Monk insisted he accept this new position--a recognition of his skills in rhetoric, perhaps. But he has his suspicions that his efforts in Pickerel Lake, despite having uncovered a shameful degree of corruption internal to the local Department of Wildlife and the RCMP detachment there, have not been much appreciated amongst his peers, and so far, he has not been wholly successful.
He sniffs and straightens his shoulders. Never mind. Regardless of the real reasons behind it, he has been given a job to do, so do it he shall. He braces his hands on the podium, surveys the rows of empty seats. "Good evening," he says softly. "Hello. My name is Constable Benton Fraser of the Royal Canadian--"
The doors nearest the front of the room bang open just then. He breaks off and stands straighter so he can smile a welcome as the students begin to file in. This is a combination of several introductory criminology classes, if he remembers correctly, along with some interested parties from other areas of the sociology department. They look at him curiously as they take their seats, some of the young women already nudging one another and giggling behind their hands. Oh, Lord. Benton coughs and lowers his gaze to his notes, tugs at the collar of his uniform, which suddenly seems a lot more restricting than it usually does. Breathe, he reminds himself, then immediately attempts to follow his own orders. It doesn't improve things very much.
Eventually, Professor Fletcher (whom he's spoken with over the phone and met with once, when he'd first arrived this morning) introduces him and the murmuring, for the most part, dies away. He clears his throat. "Good evening," he says. "My name is, ah. Well, you know my name--Professor Fletcher just introduced me." There is a murmur of feminine laughter. Benton clears his throat again. "I'm, well, I've been asked here to tell you about the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which is Canada's largest national law enforcement agency, and of which I am a...well, a member."
One of the young ladies in the first row seems to be attempting to tell him something by mouthing the words rather than saying them aloud; a brief attempt at lip-reading reveals the contents of the message to be shockingly off-topic, and he jerks his eyes away and sucks in a desperate breath. "Ahem. So. Why don't I, ah. Begin." Slides, slides--slides will save him, because then they'll all have something else to look at, and perhaps be distracted from their more inappropriate preoccupations. He fumbles for the controller, flicks the projector on. But before he can introduce the first slide--a plaque at the Depot which displays the RCMP motto in French--the door bangs open yet again. Benton turns with everyone else to watch the latecomer make his way into the room. It's a young man with a battered paper scribbler in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. The man blinks at the unexpected attention, then grins, wide and engaging, and gives the room a small salute. "Sorry," he says. "I'll just, uh..." He waves his cup of coffee at the seats (indicating sitting in one of them, perhaps?) and ducks under the projector's beam; nevertheless, his unusually...upright fair hair makes a strange silhouette on the screen as he moves past.
Benton coughs. "So, ah. Maintiens le droit: literally "maintain the right", or, more loosely translated, "defend the law". The RCMP motto, which greets all new cadets as they come into the training center to begin their time with the corps..."
The slide show part of the presentation goes well. With everyone else's attention on the screen, it is much easier to ignore the rapacious gaze of the young lady in the front row and the murmuring of the group at the back of the theatre. But although he endeavors to make his comments as thorough as possible, he eventually runs out of things to say and, bracing himself, turns the projector off.
The students stir and stretch as though waking from a long sleep; at least one of them actually was asleep--Benton heard his snores from the podium. He sighs, but he hardly blames them. He can't quite remember everything he said, but he's fairly certain that at one point he went off into a long, somewhat Scheherazadian divergence about the properties of snow hare scat and how it could reveal a good deal about long-term climate patterns in the north--a subject which can hardly be said to be fascinating, even if one actually lives in an area where such knowledge might be applied.
He clears his throat. "Questions?" he says. And despite his most fervent hopes, the young lady in the front row thrusts her arm into the air as though it's spring loaded.
Benton presses his lips together and manages, with an effort, not to physically wince. "Yes?" he says.
"Paulette Rhimes," says the young lady. "Hi. Um, I was wondering--is sexiness a prerequisite for being a Mountie?" A wave of laughter sweeps the room. Benton coughs, thinks about deserting, becoming a priest or perhaps even a monk--his atheism may make real devotion difficult, but surely his dedication to tradition and his talent for committing things to memory would go a long way to making up for that.
"No," he says finally. "It, ah. It certainly is not." He tugs once at his collar, his gaze flitting desperately along the front row, hoping for an innocent questioner. He spots the young man there, the one who entered late; he has a pair of thick, black-framed glasses on his face now, but he's still wearing the same genially amused expression behind them. He sees Benton looking, lifts his eyebrows in a wry sort of sympathy, that strange, one-sided grin growing a little wider.
Benton feels his face heat. He looks away, out into the back rows where another hand is waving. "Yes?"
"Um, Justin Price? I just wanted to say that I think it's really, um, great that Canada has police now."
Benton feels his left eyebrow begin to twitch, lifts a hand to smooth it. "Well...Mr. Price, is it? Then I'm sure you'll be even happier to know that Canada has in fact had a functioning police force for more than 100 years--as I, in fact, mentioned during the presentation."
Mr. Price blinks at him. There is a moment of silence. The girl next to him lifts a hand.
Benton sighs. "Yes."
"AreMountiesallowedtogetmarried?" she says, all in one breath.
Benton coughs again. "There is currently no, ah, no rule that requires us not to," he admits. The young lady beams distressingly at him, her friends all leaning in to nudge her and giggle. Sadly, wishing has no effect on the molecular structure of the floor beneath Benton's feet: it remains quite solid and unlikely to open up and swallow him.
"All right," says Professor Fletcher, from his corner. "Let's try to be civil, please. Does anyone have a pertinent question for the Constable?"
There is a ringing silence.
Professor Fletcher sighs and squeezes the bridge of his nose, glances surreptitiously at his watch. "All right. Well, Constable, I'd like to thank you on behalf of the department for taking time to speak with us this evening. I think we've all learned, ah, a good deal more than we could have imagined." He applauds. After a moment's hesitation, the rest of the group applauds with him. It's brief and scattered; people are already making their way out the back door.
Benton smiles at the professor and nods a good-night, then turns to gather his things. He'd brought a, a portfolio, hadn't he? Where had...ah. There it is. He thrusts his bundled cards inside it, pushes the box of slides in afterward. His hands are not quite steady and it takes him a moment, standing in the middle of the rapidly emptying lecture hall with the leather case hanging open in one hand, his eyes on the looping script that marks his name on the blackboard, to think of why. He is angry. He is, in fact, breathing hard with it already, his face flushed and his guts blazing; so filled with aimless, idiotic fury that he considers putting his fist through the stupid blackboard, demolishing the prim and futile characters that make up his name.
"Hey," says a voice from behind him.
He stiffens, takes a long breath. Makes sure to compose his face into what feels like a neutral expression before he turns around. He is expecting the professor or one of his associates, come to make sure he gets back to his hotel all right, but it seems that isn't what this is. The young man behind him is the one who'd entered the lecture hall late; he's got rid of the coffee cup somehow, but he's still wearing those awful glasses and he still has his notebook clutched in one hand. He smiles tentatively at Benton.
"Just a heads-up: Paulette and her buddies are waiting around outside that door. They figure they got a better chance if they catch you alone."
Benton feels the anger drain out of him, along with all of his remaining strength. He squeezes his eyes closed, lets his shoulders sag. "Good Lord," he says. "What on earth is the matter with them?"
The stranger grins. "I don't know, pal--I think maybe they got pon farr or something." He watches Benton, as though he's waiting for him to get the joke. "You know, Vulcans, pon farr..."
Benton shakes his head.
The stranger sighs. "I guess, uh, you don't get much TV up there in the northern areas, huh? Never mind."
Benton clears his throat, his gaze lifting to the door behind the stranger's shoulder. "Well," he says. "I suppose I'd better get this over with." He casts about to see if he's left any equipment behind--he hasn't--and then closes the portfolio, tucking it under his arm.
"Wait," the young man says. "Hang on." He rolls his notebook up and pushes it into the back pocket of his blue jeans, glancing from side to side to make sure there isn't anyone left to overhear. Then he leans forward a little, confidentially, and puts his hand on Benton's arm. "I think I got another way out of here, if you want. You game?" His eyes are bright and alive behind his thick lenses, his mouth quirked upward in the beginnings of a smile. The door he's indicating is set into the wall behind the blackboards, plain and unremarkable, clearly a janitorial access and not a door meant for students to use at all. Benton licks his lips. The young man's smile is infectious; he finds himself echoing it, nodding, his face flushed again with some new emotion--something like the anger he'd been feeling before, only bright and excellent, alive.
"Cool," the stranger says, softly. He squeezes Benton's arm once, then lets him go. "Okay then."
The janitorial exit leads them into a narrow cement corridor, which takes them in turn to a crowded closet redolent of bleach and pine-scented cleaning chemicals. Beyond a collection of upturned mops, the stranger finds another door. This one is clearly marked as "Fire Exit Only: Alarm Will Sound". Benton gives it a doubtful look. "Oh, we can't," he says.
The stranger grins again. "Sure we can," he says. He steps forward, puts a hand up to push it open.
Benton takes his wrist. "No, really," he says. "I can't possibly allow-- I mean, you're a student here, and I'm, at least temporarily, your teacher, and...well. It would be unconscionable."
The young man gives Benton a careful look, as though he isn't sure if Benton is serious. Benton meets his gaze. The young man sighs.
"Okay, listen," he says. "The alarm, it isn't, uh. Real. Seriously--I promise. See?" He pulls his wrist gently from Benton's grasp, his eyes still on Benton's face, and pushes the door open. No alarm sounds.
Benton lowers his arm. He exhales, and it turns into a laugh, somehow, and that leads to more and more laughter, until suddenly he is sitting on the cement ledge that marks the edge of the loading bay outside the fire exit, with the clouded city sky above him and the scuffed and oil-stained pavement below, his head in his hands, his elbows on his knees. The strange young man is the one who put him here. Benton can feel the warmth of him along his left side, now, can see the concern behind that hesitant smile; can feel it in the careful hand that rests on his shoulder.
"Oh," Benton says, sighing. "Goodness. I'm sorry." He lifts his head, sits straighter, gives the young man a smile.
The young man smiles back. His fingers close on Benton's shoulder, once, then let him go. "So," he says. "Benton Fraser, huh?"
Benton clears his throat. "I'm afraid so," he says.
The young man laughs. "Ha. You don't have it so bad." He sticks out a hand. "Stanley Kowalski," he says. "Nice to meet you."
Benton laughs again, briefly, then closes his mouth. "Oh, dear. You're serious."
"Yeah, well. Yeah. But I go by Ray."
Benton smiles and takes the outstretched hand, gives it a hearty shake. "Well, Ray. I thank you kindly for your assistance."
Ray shrugs. His hand is dry and warm and calloused in odd places; he squeezes a little longer than he needs to before he lets Benton go. There is a silence. Benton rubs at the back of his neck before he gets to his feet. "Well," he says.
Ray cuts him off. "Listen, listen, Benton. You seem like you could maybe, uh. Use a drink. Or something. You wanna..." He inclines his head, lifts his eyebrows.
Benton regards him. It's not appropriate, he's sure, to fraternize with one's students, even if one is only a guest speaker at the school. But frankly, that only makes the option even more appealing right now. He feels a little of that not-rage heat his face, gives Ray another smile. "Yes," he says, firmly. "I would. Very much so."
So Ray has a Mountie. It's not the weirdest thing that ever happened to him--he's been a hostage in a bank robbery and maybe even an alien kidnappee, after all--but it's weird enough for a regular Tuesday night in September, that's for sure. He gives the Mountie a sidelong look across the front seat of the car his dad bought him for graduating high school, which was only a year and a half ago, but which feels like ages, decades, a lifetime ago. The Mountie--Benton--doesn't notice. He's sitting stiff and straight in the seat, and he has his eyes on the road ahead of the car as though he is the guy who's driving.
Which, maybe Ray ought to be watching the road too, huh? He turns his head again. The streets are deserted anyway, so it wasn't like they were in any real danger, but still. Benton doesn't need to be involved in an accident tonight, on top of everything. Ray doesn't know much about psychology (that's Stella's thing, and Jesus--Stella and her freaky-assed psychology is the last thing he wants to think about tonight) but he knows the brink of a nervous breakdown when he sees one. This guy, for whatever reason, is this far from losing his shit, maybe permanently. Ray can feel him practically vibrating over there, like a pressure-cooker that is about to go. It's freaky, and weirdly fascinating, like watching those nature films in which gazelles are getting stalked by lions or whatever; only in this case, he can maybe help the situation somehow. If he can figure out where the safety release is.
"Hey," he says finally. "Uh. So. You want a smoke?" He fishes in the pocket of his jacket and finds his pack of Kools (kid smokes, yeah, but he's broke, okay?) and holds them out to Benton.
Benton eyes them, looking uncomfortable. "I, uh. I don't smoke."
Ray shrugs, knocks the bottom of the pack on his knee so a couple of smokes pop up, lifts it so he can get one of them in his mouth. Damn. He is so cool. He grins at himself as he sticks the smokes back in his pocket and finds his lighter. All that practicing was worth it.
Benton clears his throat. He has his hands laced together in his lap, his head bent so he can stare at them. The uniform he's wearing is freakishly perfect: all brown and pressed and tidy. His hair is the same way. He looks like maybe somebody ironed him.
Ray sniffs and looks away, downshifts into neutral so they can stop at a light. "You, uh. You ever smoke?" He takes the cigarette out of his mouth, ashes out the window, watching Benton's face.
Benton lifts his head. His lips part. He licks the bottom one, kind of nervous. "No," he says.
Ray nods. He takes a drag, then holds the cigarette out to Benton. "Here," he says. "No, really. You got to try it at least once in your life. And besides, it's good for bad nerves."
Benton's eyes flick up to Ray's face, then down to the cigarette again. Ray can practically see the decision happen behind his eyes. Benton reaches across the front seat and takes the cigarette out of Ray's hand, brings it to his lips, gingerly, as though he's afraid it'll burn him. He sucks at it like an amateur, his eyes squinted most of the way closed, inhales rashly and then chokes and chokes and chokes.
Ray takes the cigarette back, sticks it in his mouth, puts the car into gear and pulls back into traffic. Then he reaches over and pats Benton on the back a few times, which was what Paul Delenko did for him the first time they ever shared a smoke.
"Gah," says Benton, after a while. "That's awful." He sits up straight again and gives Ray an accusatory glare.
Ray grins and stubs the butt out on the edge of the window, flicks it into the street. "Yeah," he says. "It's a shitty habit. Wish I never took it up." He glances over his shoulder and pulls into the right hand lane. Benton is still glaring at him. Ray gives the guy a little wink.
Benton laughs, reluctantly, then not so reluctantly. Ray grins again. Score one for the gazelles.
He brings them to Izzy's. Izzy's has this no-ID policy that works for Ray, who is technically underage because Illinois state law is stupid, and also it is the kind of place where you can do whatever the fuck you want and nobody will look at you twice. It's a dive, so Ray's friends won't be there, either, and he doesn't think about why that seems like a good thing, but it does.
He gets them each a beer. From the look on Benton's face, beer isn't a thing he usually does either, but he doesn't say anything this time--just takes a long sip and wipes his mouth on one bare wrist. (He took that uniform jacket off in the car and rolled up the sleeves of the paler brown shirt underneath; he didn't say why.)
Ray grins at him, tips the neck of his own bottle over so he can clink it against Benton's. "You like pinball?" he asks.
Benton blinks. "I...don't know."
And that, right there, is a freaking human tragedy, if you ask Ray, plus it goes a long way to explaining the state of Benton's mental health, or what have you. He shakes his head, claps a hand on Benton's shoulder and leads him toward the back of the bar, which is where they keep the machines. "Okay," he says. "You hang onto this--" he hands Benton his beer "--and watch me."
And that's where things start to get weird, because Benton does. He watches Ray like Ray is the guy who knows all the answers and he's saying them in sign language, or Arabic, or some kind of secret code Benton only sort of knows. He watches Ray with this look on his face, this look like want and relinquishment all at the same time, like he is used to not getting what he needs, like he expects it. It's a shitty fucking look. It pisses Ray off, makes him reckless, makes him tilt at pinball and sink the eight ball when they move over to play pool, makes him stand too close, put a hand on Benton's shoulder more than he probably should, under the excuse that the music is too loud and he has to get close so Benton can hear him. "Sight along the cue," is what he's saying. "Don't exhale until you get your shot." Stupid advice that Benton doesn't need, seeing as how Benton is currently kicking Ray's ass, three games to one.
"Beginner's luck," Benton says, grinning. He doesn't look ironed anymore--has a piece of hair sticking up at the back of his head and a flush to his cheeks; there is a dimple in his chin which looks fucking lickable, too. Ray grins back, kind of slow and flirty, because what the hell, what the hell--if Stell wants the two of them to be on a break, who is Ray to argue? He drains the rest of Benton's beer, leans against the pool table beside him.
"Yeah right," he says. "Hustler."
Benton snorts. He's standing pretty close, too, and the music isn't that loud. Ray reaches out, takes the cue from Benton's loosened grasp and sets it on the table. "You want to get out of here?" he asks.
Benton swallows, that smile turning into something else. "Yes," he says, softly. So Ray leads the way.
In the glow from the distant streetlights, Ray is a pale blur, moving through the trees just ahead. They are in a park, not far from the bar they had been drinking in a few moments before; Benton breathes too deeply, smells pine trees and damp earth, the sharp scent of fallen leaves rotting into mulch. His boots sink a little with every step. His brain feels bright and good, easy and loose, alive in an unfamiliar way. Ray brings him in beneath the trees, then turns and takes his hand. They look at each other for a moment, and then Benton laughs, nervously, and Ray smiles and pulls him one step closer, strokes his other hand up Benton's bare forearm, over his shoulder, making him shiver and duck his head.
"Hey," Ray says. His lashes are pale, silvery against his cheek. "You uh, you okay with this?" Benton can feel those eyes on him, watching him. That makes him shiver too.
"Yeah," he says, and then he leans in, tips his head up a little so he can press his mouth to Ray's. It feels like jumping into Laurel Lake, like a long dive from a height. Ray tastes like beer but he makes a noise in the back of his throat, low and breathless, and Benton has to bring his hands up, has to touch him, get his hands on Ray's sides, the ribs plain even through the t-shirt, the flat, rolling muscle of his back. Ray is a gift, Benton thinks, and a dare. Every single small injustice can be answered here, like this, with his fingers on Ray's smooth skin; the risk of being found out is palpable, and part of it.
"Jesus," Ray says. "Benton." He pushes his long fingers into the hair at the back of Benton's head and pulls him closer so he can get his teeth on Benton's ear.
Benton presses forward recklessly, pushes them both through the trees until Ray's back hits a cement wall--some kind of equipment shed, perhaps. It doesn't matter. It's solid enough to hold them both, to let him pin Ray there with a hand on each of those bone-thin shoulders while he kisses Ray's mouth and his jaw and the sweat-damp hair at his temple. Ray moans and closes his hands on Benton's arms, holding on. He lets his head fall back so his throat is exposed, and Benton licks it, kisses his way down until he finds the joint of Ray's neck and shoulder, bites him there, gently, and pushes his hand into the front of Ray's loose jeans. Ray gasps and then exhales, pushing up into Benton's hand. "Mmm," Benton says, his mouth close to Ray's ear again, his nose buried in that fair hair. "God, you're beautiful." And oh, he knows right away that he shouldn't have said anything like that, that it isn't the kind of thing you should say, in a situation like this, that he's got it wrong again. He goes still, waits for the break in the momentum to happen, for Ray to disengage.
But Ray doesn't. He doesn't even pause--only turns his head and kisses Benton hard, then slides a hand between them so he can unfasten his jeans and Benton's trousers, too. "Here," he's muttering, "fuck, Jesus, come here." He pushes Benton's trousers down, and then his underwear, and for a moment, Benton has a feeling of utter ridiculousness, because he is in a park in the middle of a strange city, and he can feel the night breeze cool on his bare behind--but then he feels Ray's hands there, too, rough and hard, pulling him in, and then Ray's penis is warm against his, slick with pre-ejaculate and possibly with sweat, and Ray's body hums against him, quivering and flexing, motion and breath, his lips against Benton's ear. "God," he's murmuring. "Fuck, Jesus, yeah." They move together, thrusting awkwardly. Ray's penis slides against his. Ray's hands pull him close, tug at his shirt, trying to touch him everywhere, all over. Benton can't stop kissing him. It's loud--they're so loud--and it's uncomfortable, and they can't quite, Benton can't get the right angle. But when Ray's mouth falls open and his head falls back again, baring his throat for Benton's lips; when his chest heaves with a desperate panting breath and his penis swells and spurts between them, Benton hears himself moan out loud, ragged and low, and then he is coming too, thrusting into Ray's belly, Ray's hands sweet and soothing in his hair.
They lean there for a while, then Benton pulls away, blushing, and Ray touches his cheek. "You, uh." Ray clears his throat. "You got a hanky?"
Benton reaches into his pocket and produces one, gravely. Ray looks at it, then back up at Benton, and then he snorts and laughs and leans his forehead on Benton's shoulder, and Benton lifts a hand to cup the back of his neck, bewildered, but smiling nonetheless, because Ray's laughter is contagious.
They clean up in silence, broken only by the occasional foray into more senseless giggling, which Benton can't seem to completely contain. He thinks it must have something to do with the beer. Ray tosses the handkerchief into a shrub and pulls Benton's collar straight. Benton kisses him on the nose, impulsively, feeling silly, and Ray beams at him and ducks his head, kicks the toe of Benton's boot with his own. There is a silence.
"So," Ray says.
Benton inhales. "So."
They look at each other. Ray grins. "You are one hell of a speaker, buddy," he says.
Benton smiles and swallows, lowers his eyes to the middle of Ray's chest and thinks about home. His hands clench of themselves, making fists.
Ray's fingers touch his cheek again. "Do me a favour," he says softly. "Don't regret this."
So Benton doesn't.
"Look at Miss Ohio"
by Gillian Welch
from Soul Journey
Oh me oh my oh, look at Miss Ohio
She's a-running around with her rag-top down
She says I wanna do right but not right now
Gonna drive to Atlanta and live out this fantasy
Running around with the rag-top down
Yeah I wanna do right but not right now
Had your arm around her shoulder, a regimental soldier
And mamma starts pushing that wedding gown
Yeah you wanna do right but not right now
Oh me oh my oh, would ya look at Miss Ohio
She's a-runnin' around with the rag-top down
She says I wanna do right but not right now
I know all about it, so you don't have to shout it
I'm gonna straighten it out somehow
Yeah I wanna do right but not right now
Oh me oh my oh, look at Miss Ohio
She a-runnin' around with her rag-top down
She says I wanna do right , but not right now
Oh I wanna do right but not right now