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Ben knew they had considered him a gentle giant. In a lot of ways, he supposed they were right. He had always been self-conscious about his size, partly due to the teasing he had so relentlessly suffered growing up. There were only so many fat jokes one kid could take. Plus, his hands had always been a little too big for his body. Wreck-It-Ralph, he had been called a few times now that Popeye wasn’t part of the mainstream anymore.
He used to try his best to make himself small. Unassuming. Tried to just…disappear.
One thing he had always been good at was becoming a play structure for his foster siblings, and now the skill came in handy. Currently, he acted as a five-passenger bus for the short trip from the water pump to the makeshift classroom.
“Go teacher! Go!” they shouted, spurring him with tiny jabs to his – thankfully well-padded – sides, or wherever their feet could reach. One of the smallest preschoolers rode on his neck, little legs dangling over his shoulders. The rest piled on down the length of his spine, some nearly doing the splits to keep their little legs on his broad girth. The kids who weren’t having their turn followed along, yelling and prodding their classmates.
“I’m a little outnumbered, here!” he shouted, lumbering as carefully as he could to keep them all from landing in the dirt. For now.
“Go! Go!” they shouted louder, and he couldn’t help but laugh.
“Alright! Everybody off the bus!” he announced when they reached the school. When they protested, he reared and shook like a dog, nearly suffocated by the crowd of children he hadn’t had room for. They hoped for one quick ride.
“Recess is over, you scoundrels! Let’s get back to it. It’s almost time to go home.”
Dripping children, he stood, readjusting his shirt and brushing dirt off his hands. The last child plopped onto the grass at his feet, and he entered the school. Everything had been cleared out for now: the fertilizer, the tools, the seeds, and all the building supplies. They had brought the desks and chalk board and everything else in, and left the door open to let in some light, but it was still dreary and dark.
Alison, his assistant, smiled at him from where she was finishing laying out the materials for the day’s lesson. Ben had always enjoyed children, he thought as he continued their science lesson from before lunch. It was physics today, even though they didn’t really call it physics since the kids were only six.
Even when he was younger and forced to babysit, eventually, he realized he didn’t mind it that much. Now that he was older, he felt like he was part of building up the next generation. These kids were especially smart. Sure, he said that about all of his students, but it wasn’t any less true. All over the world, he was building up the next generation of architectural engineers. This was the first time he had ventured to a place that he could get himself killed, but there was a first time for everything.
“You spoil them,” Alison teased.
Winking at her, he grabbed his notes from behind her. She blushed as his arm brushed hers. “Shall I be spoiling you later?”
“Shhh.” She eyed the children who now sat at their desks. “But yes.”
He peeked outside as he monitored the students’ progress on their stick houses. “Remember to make sure these ones at the bottom are the same length. You’ve got to have a good foundation.”
“Yes Mr. Ben,” said the little boy. “Are you going to build our new school today?”
The building team had been arriving over the last couple of days, and should be complete by tomorrow. “We have some friends flying in to help who should be landing today. I’ve got all the plans ready, and we’ve got all the supplies.”
“We’ll be able to put up all of our butterflies after?” asked a small girl in excitement.
“That’s right! There will be so many colours.” He smiled.
“Who’s that dumbass over there?” Lanie asked Mickey, her favorite volunteer coordinator, who met her at the bus. Lanie barely looked at her. There was a huge man in a black tee-shirt and cargo shorts on the ground near the school, completely covered in children. They climbed on his back, his legs, even over his head, as he screamed. She hefted her duffel and stared. He tossed one of the giggling bundles of arms and legs into the air and caught her, then blew into her tummy.
“Lanie! It’s good to have you back.” Mickey knew by now not to try and hug Lanie, but gave her a playful bump with her elbow and grabbed her bag. “I was so excited to hear that you were coming back here. It’s going to be such a fun year.”
Rolling her eyes at Mickey’s exuberance, Lanie couldn’t help but smile. “I’m excited, too. We’ve got a lot to do here. The school is first, right?”
“Yes! That’s actually one of the teachers over there. He’s here teaching math and science for the year. I guess he’s actually going to be helping us build, too, when he’s not teaching.”
“Yeah, we’re going to need all the help we can get if we’re going to get this thing done quickly. Even from the teachers.”
“No, I mean he’s going to be in charge of the construction. He’s the architect in charge of getting this thing done.”
Lanie raised an eyebrow as they passed him. His face split into a huge grin when he noticed them. “That guy is in charge of us?”
Mickey beamed back at him with a little wink. “I know, right?Not only is he smart, he’s also gorgeous!” She giggled and opened the door to the volunteer cabin. She dumped Lanie’s bag on a bunk, then bounced onto the mattress beside it. “He’s so kind and good with the kids. He travels all over the world teaching math and helping build things! He calls himself an architect without borders. He’s only been here for a few weeks, but we all love him. Don’t you just love a man who’s good with kids?”
Mickey continued to babble as Lanie started unpacking her things into one of the small drawers. “Not my type. He’s a little out of shape, don’t you think? Speaking of my type, is Javi here yet?”
“No, he should be here tomorrow. And oh my God you’re so mean!” Mickey laughed, slapping Lanie’s arm. “I like him. He’s got great arms and a big smile. And, he knows how to take care of himself. He exfoliates every chance he gets, and he’s got, like, this oil he uses for his beard. He smells so good all the time, even with this heat and dust and he’s just got the strongest back – ”
“You’re a wealth of exposition as always, Mick. Are you sleeping with him or something?”
Groaning, Mickey flopped back on the bed. “I wish! He keeps flirting with me, and we’ve kissed a few times, But, we like, just met, so.”
“So if you’re so into him, why do you care if I like him?”
She considered. “I don’t know. It’s just been so boring around here. All the other teachers and locals and coordinators think I’m annoying. It’s just nice to finally have someone to talk to about boys!”
Sighing, Lanie stuffed the empty duffel under the bed. “Mickey, we have work to do. It’s been a few years, so I need an update. I also have some things arriving for the hospital tomorrow”
Lanie scanned the perimeter as Mickey bounced along beside her. There was a tactical weak point near the school where a new warehouse had been built. She wished they had told her where they were planning on building it. She definitely wouldn’t have suggested putting it right up against the brush where it was easy for attackers to hide.
“How’s the hospital?” Lanie asked, even though she checked every week at home.
“Oh, Lanie, it’s so wonderful! Ben took a look at it a few days ago and says it is well-designed and structurally sound. Patients are arriving from every village within a two-hundred-mile radius, and we’ve already helped six hundred people. Four hundred children! Three hundred and fifty were under five. I’ve been keeping track. Did you get the report I made with all the stats?”
Lanie checked the pump on the new well, then stood up. “Yes, Mickey. I loved all the pictures too. Who’s Ben?”
“The hot teacher!”
Him. Why did he feel the need to comment on the structure of the hospital? “Let’s take a look at the damage to the school.” It looked like it was home time for the kids. Ben beamed at parents and orphanage workers who came to gather up the kids outside the warehouse. Shaking hands and apparently cracking jokes, he towered over everyone. When he caught sight of her and Mickey, he practically bounded over.
“Hey there, Mick. Who’s your friend?”
Up close, she realized how large he was. At least six-three, with a slightly jiggly belly and yes, one of the biggest set of arms she had ever seen on a man. She tried to focus, but was suddenly stunned by his eyes. They were the palest grey, practically silver, set off by the light toffee colour of his skin and onyx hair.
Mickey couldn’t seem to keep from grabbing Lanie’s arm in excitement. “Ben, this is Lanie. This is her third time here! She’s a paramedic and a firefighter and she helps in the fields and basically whatever heavy lifting we need. Oh, and aren’t you like a ninja or a paratrooper or something? Anyway, she handles a lot of our security and surveillance, and she’s pretty good in a fight, too, oh, and the hospital, she – ”
“Nice to meet you!” Lanie quickly interjected, stepping in front of Mickey to shake Ben’s hand. She shot her friend a warning look.
Her hand disappeared as he grasped it with both of his. He turned that shining smile and those shining eyes to her, and she quickly took her hand back.
“Sounds like you’re someone I’m going to enjoy getting to know,” he chuckled, his voice deep and full.
“I’m not a ninja. I used to work as a security guard and I’m trained in tactical surveillance, mixed martial arts and weaponry.”
He seemed intrigued. “So, you’re like a spy?”
“Yeah, something like that. So, Mickey tells me you’re in charge of helping us with getting this school back up and running?”
He turned and spread his hands, encompassing the building. It was riddled with bullet holes and missing one wall. Carefully they stepped inside. The remaining bricks were crumbling, and parts of the ceiling were about to fall down. “Yes, they did quite a number on it. We’ll have to knock most of it down, but the foundation is good. We’re going to start work on it tomorrow, and if my calculations are correct, we’ll be done in twenty-three days.” He reached to pick up a brick, but she grabbed his arm.
“Don’t touch anything. This whole structure is unstable. Actually, I’m not even sure we should be in here.”
He and Mickey exchanged a look. “I mean, I come here sometimes. It can be a quiet place to come and…think.”
Of course, Mickey couldn’t help but giggle.
He continued. “Don’t worry. The walls will stand as long as we don’t try to climb on them. Anyway, the new school is going to be so cool. I’ve theorized a new mix of cement to make bricks that will keep the building nice and cool, and we’re going to build a playset on the grass back there, and – ”
Lanie saw it coming, but was too late to tell him to watch out. His foot caught on something on the hard-packed ground, and he went flying. With a yell he crashed forward. Mickey screamed, but Lanie was already standing over him, holding up the wall.
“Whoa,” he gasped, gazing up at her in shock. He looked at his hand, which was dripping red.
She grunted, trying not to tremble. She guessed it weighed about one-hundred and fifty pounds, and it pressed against her face. “Move, dumbass,” she ground out. “This thing is about to fall apart.”
Mickey helped him scramble from between her legs, and as slowly as she could, she worked her way out and let the wall drop. It broke apart with a clattering racket. Heaving a breath, she stared at it. He probably wouldn’t have died, but damn, he wouldn’t have been much help on the project. Turning, she noticed what he had tripped over. A pair of pink underwear. She shook her head.
Stepping back out into the sun, she saw that Mickey was staring at Ben’s hand in horror. Blood still dripped from his fingers, and he looked fascinated.
“Battle scars!” he exclaimed.
“Give me that. Mickey, go get the first aid kit.” He winced when she took his fingers. Apparently he had stabbed his palm on something. Nothing was broken, though.
“That was so hot. Will you marry me?” He peered at her with curious, amused silver irises.
“Are you stupid or something? Nobody should be going in there. And you definitely shouldn’t be having midnight trysts in there. You definitely wouldn’t have died this time, but you wouldn’t have been walking away smiling.”
He seemed hurt. “Who said anything about midnight trysts?”
“You tripped over a particularly pink pair of panties back there.”
“Really?” He seemed confused, but then Mickey ran up with the first-aid kit.
“Is he going to make it?” Mickey asked, bumping Ben playfully.
“Not if he doesn’t grow a brain,” she muttered, cleaning and wrapping his hand.
He put his free hand on his hip. “Hey! I would like to inform you that I’ve got triple combined degrees in physics, chemistry, and sociology, two masters in engineering and structural design, and a Ph.D in architecture. I’m a certified industrial mechanic and I’ve got a diploma in pastry arts. Not to mention my degree in charm and charisma. Oh, and I know Arabic and Hebrew, pretty good Spanish, and all of the naughty words in French.” He beamed proudly.
“Thanks for the resume. Now I know what you spent all your brains on.” She returned his hand, then smirked up at him.
“So, is that a yes?”
“Yes to what?”
He gasped, and widened his eyes in dismay. “To my beautifully heartfelt proposal. I need to keep you around.”
Lanie looked at Mickey. “I think I’d have to get in line.”
“It’s a long line,” Mickey warned, and Ben huffed.
“Anyway, you’re not my type.”
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