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This was that thing he did. He hadn’t even known her for two weeks; he needed to get over it.
Slowly, Lanie spun the stick from one hand to the other, flipping her palms in sequence while she spoke to the small group of women. Almost unconsciously, she spun it faster and faster, and soon the movements blended together. It didn’t even look like she was switching between her two hands. She had simply turned into a fan. Or a helicopter. A dismemberment hazard, either way. He felt dizzy, nauseated, and breathless.
He jerked in shock when the rotation of the stick halted abruptly. One millisecond, and she had killed the lethal twirling without a perceptible movement. Blinking, he came out of his trance, shaking his head.
But he nearly jumped out of his skin when a hand clapped him on the shoulder. Why did people keep doing that to him?
It was Damian. “She’s really something, isn’t she?”
Ben groaned inwardly. The boy had walked up with Terrence, the watchman who had saved his life from that stupid bee sting on Monday.
“Um, yeah.” Ben swallowed, shifting on his feet.
He knew he had to go, but he couldn’t take his eyes from the scene. She was demonstrating some sort of complicated turn that involved passing the stick behind her back and then around her body. The other women copied her, achieving varying degrees of success, but with none of her nonchalant, almost bored coolness. Her lack of concern made it all the more chilling. She was like an intricately-designed, clockwork masterpiece, finely-tuned, mechanically-coordinated.
It was harder and harder to distinguish between mortal terror and blazing lust. Maybe it didn’t matter, anyway. Both would eventually do him in; it was never a simple matter to extricate his emotions once they staked their claim on a woman, which is why he usually avoided it at all cost. His demise was inevitable, now.
A round of laughter caught his attention once again. “He didn’t even hear us!” Terrence chortled.
“Hear what?” Ben asked in a daze.
“Don’t worry,” Damian assured. “It just takes practice.”
“Practice to what?”
“To keep Lanie out of your head. Don’t feel bad. Half the men here are in love with her. She’s a total babe.”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Ben had spent his fair share of time shooting the breeze with the guys about hot women. But for some reason, he was uncomfortable now. This wasn’t just a regular, casual interest. Lanie wasn’t a regular “babe.” Should this majestic woman be fodder for misogynistic banter?
“He’s tongue-tied!” Aaron was here now, too, and openly appreciated the view of the women below them.
Terrence shakes his head with a sigh. “Look at them. This is just what I needed to wake me up in the morning. You must be looking forward to fight day, huh, Damian?”
Ben was not about to admit that he didn’t know what they were talking about.
Damian groaned, his head craning back, his coffee-coloured skin gleaming. He probably polished it so he could see his reflection in it. “Ugh, you have no idea. I think I’ll finally be able to get her to notice me. As much as it’s going to hurt to let her win.”
“Worth it,” Terrence said. “She’s horniest when she’s just beaten someone in a fight. And if she feels like she just barely beat you, she’ll be so impressed that you’ll be irresistible.”
Ben turned to stare at Terrence. A deep heat began in his chest.
Terrence looked back innocently. “What? She’s a legend. I’ve been with her on four Towers missions. It’s always the same. Combat is her aphrodisiac.”
Well, she hadn’t had to fight Jake to let him stick his tongue down her throat.
“You might have a real chance without Javi here,” Aaron confirmed to Damian. “I think he’s the closest she’s ever come to going steady. He mentioned last year in Yemen that he was planning on proposing when he saw her here. Lucky mission number seven, he called it. Of course, he chickened out, though.”
“Seven missions. They didn’t get together until their third one, though. And she always chooses someone else when he’s not around,” Terrence said in awe. “What I wouldn’t give.”
“And how’s your marriage going, Terrence?” Aaron asked.
Terrence shoved him. “Oh, fine. But I can still look, can’t I?”
Finally, Ben was able to speak. “Just…what are you guys talking about? Letting Lanie win something so that she’ll sleep with you?”
“Yeah, man,” said Damian, bouncing on his toes, and Ben felt the eleven-year age gap between them acutely. “Do you think I have a chance? Rumour has it you guys spend a lot of time together. Some people think you’re sleeping together, but, like, obviously not. Even though she’s been acting weird since she got here.”
The implication affronted him, and he made a valiant effort in what he knew was a lost battle. “What, like we’re buddies, or something? Maybe I want a chance with her.”
Terrence fought to control his expression, but a small laugh escaped. Then the other two were laughing at him. Again.
“Dude.” Damian spread his hands with an apologetic grin. “No offense or anything, but you’re not her type. Don’t get me wrong! You’ve been voted one of the top three hottest bros here. Second only to me and McGuinness.” A huge, unselfconscious grin. “According to Mickey, anyway. But Lanie isn’t just interested in hotness. She only likes someone who can put up a good fight. Someone who’s almost her equal. But not quite. Hence slipping her a win at the very end of a spar. Stroke her ego, and she’ll stroke your – ”
“But why do you have to let her win?” Ben interrupted. “Surely she must win on her own. She’s incredible.” Even as he said it, he knew that this breathless declaration would make him the butt of another joke. As predicted, the group snickered again. His fists tightened, and his jaw felt like a vice.
“I mean…she’s not bad.” Damian studied his fingernails, avoiding Ben’s eyes. “We let her get away with bossing us around because she’s a snack. And it’s kind of funny that she thinks she’s so scary, and like, our leader or something. You don’t know anything about fighting, Ben, so I can see why you’d think she’s something special.” The genuine charitability grated.
“She does keep this place running like a clock, though.” Aaron smiled. “All of the compounds, actually. I’ve been with Towers for fifteen years, and let me tell you, before she took over, I don’t think that so-called charity was more than a photo-op. Lanie’s like a machine, the way she’s been setting up base after base after base this last decade. Women are just so good at stuff like that.”
Ben crossed his arms. “She is a good fighter, too.”
Terrence shook his head. “She just doesn’t have time to train the way we do. She’s spread really thin, between all the paperwork, and insisting on taking on medic and guard duty.” He rolled his eyes. “I wish she’d just leave that to us. It’s a pain making sure that there’s always someone around to shadow her on her shifts. Oh, and on top of all that, she simply has to help with reconstructing the school. She’s a micromanager.”
“Oh, did you hear?” Aaron cracked his back. “Apparently she’s going to try and build that second playground after all.”
“Really?” Damian raised an eyebrow. “How do you know?”
“I have an orderly friend in 2. She was talking to someone about using the supplies to build two smaller play structures. There’s no way she’ll be able to do that without cutting into her precious extra supplies, though.”
“Isn’t that so annoying?” Terrence whined. “She’s so anal about staying prepared. Like, I’m sorry, but I think it’s overkill. I’m just as sad as the next person about all the people we lost when the orphanage was raided. Chelsea was a nice girl, and we’ll always remember her. And yeah, it sucked when the school blew up. But it happens. She acts like she’s never been to a third-world country. Sometimes I wish I could just tell her that it’s not worth turning everything upside down. She really needs to let it go.”
“You know how she gets about kids, though,” Aaron reminded. “Which explains the playground thing.”
“Well, hey, if she really does loosen up a little and build both of them, I’ll eat my words, and she’ll have my eternal, undying respect.”
“Here, here!” chimed in the others.
“Are you coming with us to breakfast, Ben?” Damian asked. “I’d love to pick your brain. Some people are calling you the Lanie Whisperer. I’m taking all the help I can get.”
“I…I have to go to the hospital.”
Terrence’s brow furrowed. “What’s going on, man? Are you feeling okay? Is it another bee?”
Ben shot him a glare, and Terrence threw up his hands, eyebrows raised. “No. I’m volunteering there in the mornings. I’ve already been to breakfast, though, thank you.”
And with that lie, he left before they could say anything else.
He really didn’t like this feeling. He fought with all his will to tamp it down. It was something he had been running from all his life, because things never went well when it took over. And he’d been succeeding. For years, he’d lived his life in the most casual, carefree way he could. Even now that he was operating on a dare, trying to live close to the edge without going over, he didn’t let himself get attached to any one person, place, or thing. While he’d had a few moments of irritation, or even anger, here and there, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d been overcome this way.
A blind, all-consuming, homicidal rage cast the bleakest of black shadows in his soul.
He had to pass the women as he strode down the road to the hospital. Though he was running late – even if he technically didn’t have an official shift at the hosptial– he stopped one more time to watch. Maybe he didn’t know anything about martial arts, but he couldn’t be imagining what he saw. They were sparring now, Mickey with Lena, and Lanie with Alison. Mickey and Lena seemed barely competent, as they aimed ineffectual jabs at each other, occasionally dissolving into self-conscious giggles. But Lanie and Ali were a blur of motion as they came at each other, over and over. Their sticks collided with thunderous thwacks, and they moved so fast that Ben couldn’t tell what they were doing. Even though Ali was putting up quite a fight, and seemed to be giving it everything she had, Lanie was clearly better trained, executing aerial flips, spin kicks, and dives like she was sliding into home base. Her footing was more solid, her expression clear and focused, compared to Ali’s fierce look of wild determination. They jabbed and blocked and ducked and jumped with athletic grace and unwavering ferocity. Ben couldn’t help but laugh at how Lanie showed off. Was it appropriate to say that Lanie looked happy, despite the cool detachment on her face? Her body didn’t lie. This was what she lived for.
What could he offer?
He knew for sure that he would never want to be in the middle of that fight. He’d like to put Aaron, Damian, and Terrence there, though. It would be so satisfying, like pushing sheets of paper through a shredder.
Hungry, but determined, Ben strode on toward the hospital. He didn’t care what Lanie said. He’d been on the fence about his conversation with the young, up-and-coming architect, but all his hesitation was gone now He had a chance to save her, and he was going to take it, whether she liked it or not. A small part of him hoped she did like it, though. Just a little. Even if she never admitted it.
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