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He reminded himself that he was not alone. He was surrounded by people. He was well-liked here, and the children adored him. This was exactly what he had been looking for. Meaningful work that was making the world better for the least well-off. A place where he would be expected to stay clean and sober. Surrounding himself with decent people who wanted the same thing: to make a difference. This was the cleansing he had needed. The purging that would save him and finally make him worthy of the future he longed for. He was finding clarity here. Purpose. Joy.
But it was a lonely thing, realizing that he didn’t really have anyone to share it with. He had no one to marvel about it all with. No one knew his soul, here. No one would understand the deeper reasons that he was here. He’d tried with Lanie, but she’d been too angry to listen as she bandaged his burn. He was just another volunteer. One of several hundred personnel here to do a job. Just another bro to shoot the breeze with.
If he told her again, would she understand? He didn’t know why he thought that. She was with Jake now. But he played over the moments they’d had together. Moments when he was sure that there was more than a director-volunteer relationship between them. Even when she was lecturing him about something. He just loved listening to her voice. It was so smooth, so silky, like the velvety chocolate of her skin.
Was this medicine working? Did that last breath feel a little less like nails up his throat?
According to the guys, Lanie wouldn’t look at him twice. She had explicitly told him that, actually, and he’d been the one to misinterpret. So, what was the harm in a little bit of impossible fantasy? What was so wrong with imagining what it would be like to kiss her? For her to kiss him back, and look at him with desire in her eyes? For him to touch her, and for her to lean into him? To feel those long, tapered fingers on his arm again, but this time, not in comfort, or to shepherd him around. But just to touch him. He wanted her touch so badly. On his face. Her hands in his hair. Stroking his neck. That satiny voice, calling his name…Oof, a sting in his thigh. He hadn’t pictured her as a biter. But it turned him on, if that’s what she liked. What would she do, if he nibbled on that spot just under her ear where Jake’s fingers had been? What if he wrapped his hands around the slender stem of her waist, drinking pure pleasure from the goblet of her mouth? What if…
“…saw Ben. Yes, we’re in the cabin. I just gave him some intramuscular epi, and it looks like he self-administered an albuterol tablet.”
The world hovered on the edge of focus, and Ben was only partially sure that he wasn’t dreaming.
“Who knows how long ago. I think he got stung by another bloody bee. He’s sleepy and delusional. Going on about wine, I think.”
He took a gasping breath, and nearly wept at the sweet relief of air. The breath was accompanied by a familiar, comforting whiff of hibiscus shampoo. He pushed himself up on his elbows and licked his lips. His tongue was a normal size, too.
“No. I’m fine.” The words came out a strained. “I’m okay, Lanie. It wasn’t as bad this time.”
Still clutching the radio, she regarded him with an enigmatic expression.
“Chief? Come in, Chief.” It sounded like Damian Pike.
Ben’s fists clenched. “I’m not going anywhere,” he growled.
Lanie blinked in surprise, then relented. “Never mind. He’s fully awake and responsive now. Airway’s clear. We’re all good. Over and out.”
Slowly, she clipped the radio back onto her belt, then turned to him. “What’s up, Ben? I saw you stumbling around outside your cabin, and when I looked in, you were collapsed on the floor.”
“How long have I been out?”
“About five minutes.”
He wasn’t even aware that he had lost consciousness. Or that it had only been a few minutes – it felt like he’d been staring at the ceiling for at least an hour. “I didn’t think anyone saw me.”
He rubbed the sore spot on his neck where that bee had pricked him. He glanced up at her, waiting for the lecture. The tirade. Something.
But she just nodded, her face impassive. Completely neutral. “Glad you got your meds in time.”
He examined her, his gaze caught by those tattoos again. As his gaze followed her arm up to her shoulder and neck, he thought he noticed a telltale ring of dark splotches on her skin. His breath caught. Those were finger prints. Though they were fading, they were still unmistakeable.
“What happened there?”
Her eyes flickered only slightly. “Just a training accident yesterday. No big deal.”
He worked his jaw, swallowing, trying to maintain control. “Did someone hurt you?”
Though he knew she probably got hurt all the time, there was just something so…evil about that injury. This anger wouldn’t rise in him if she’d sustained a broken finger, or even a punch in the face. He could easily picture an errant jab that got out of hand. But to put those marks on her dark skin, someone would have had to put his hands on her for a long time. And squeeze very hard. How could that have happened by accident?
“Was it Damian? Was it Terrence?” He hoped it was. All he needed was one excuse to give them a piece of his mind. He might even consider touching a gun. He was that angry.
Lanie shook her head again. “No, Ben. Another guard and I were running chokehold escapes, and she got a little carried away.”
This made him take pause. Did it make it better that it had been a woman? It did eliminate the image he’d conjured of one of those jackbooted beef-heads on a power trip. It also got rid of the ways Ben fantasized about taking revenge. He could never hurt a woman.
She changed the subject before he could ask more questions. “Worry more about yourself. Things could have gone badly for you today.”
Alright, maybe he should let it go, for now.
Uncomfortable, confused, and still bitter that she wouldn’t tell him the truth, he glared out the window of the bunkhouse. “Oh, come on. I’m sure a small part of you would have been glad to be rid of me. I know you’re just counting down the days until the March transport.”
A small twitch spasmed in her shoulder, but the cool mask stayed in place. “That’s an awful thing to say, but I respect your position.” Her tone had slipped below zero degrees. Just barely.
Bitterness twisted in his stomach. “Think about it, Lanie. You’ve been distracted, spending all this time thinking about me. You’re losing your touch. Accidents like that shouldn’t happen.”
Her brow furrowed, and she brushed her fingers over her neck. “Excuse me?”
“Rumour has it you’re getting soft. That your training’s slipping. This whole fight day thing – you’re not on the favorites list anymore. I know I’m a tall drink of water, and all that, but you really should spend less time worrying about your magnetic attraction to me.”
Nothing made her angrier than insinuations that she had feelings for him. Since it was such a laughable idea. But instead of the blazing anger he had braced for, she seemed to scrutinize him.
“Why do you do that, Goldberg?”
The question caught him off guard, popping his vengeful bubble. “Do what?”
“I’m not sure, exactly. You’re deflecting something. And I’m not sure why you do it by making jokes about you and me. I’m not even sure if it is a joke.”
Since when had she turned into a blasted therapist? He tried to smile. “It’s just the way I talk. Flirty playboy, remember?” He knew it was the wrong thing to say, but it was too late. She saw right through the crack he had unwittingly opened.
“Alright. So, you don’t want to sleep with me? That’s just a joke?” She moved closer to him, their faces only inches apart.
For a moment, he couldn’t breathe. Her closeness was intoxicating. What was he supposed to say to that? He didn’t see desire in her eyes. Just the curiosity of a wolf watching a bird hop in a meadow. Wondering if it would make a good snack. More than anything, he didn’t want to do anything to upset this weird friendship they had. He needed it. It came closest to a tangible connection. Things were already unbalanced because of the Jake thing.
She touched the jointure of his neck, just above his collarbone. Her finger was dangerously close to the slightly-swollen bee-sting, but she didn’t venture any closer to it. Just stared at it. Clearly, the shot of adrenaline still coursed through him, because his pulse was suddenly erratic. Her fingers meandered downward, then along the curve of his clavicle. He felt light-headed, hazy. Drunk.
When she reached the nape of his neck, he snatched her wrist and swallowed hard, his jaw tight.
They stared into each other’s eyes. Blackest night and palest light. He didn’t mean for his words to sound so broken, but he tried to convey that he couldn’t handle this right now. His thumb rubbed her wrist, right above that rose tattoo. He didn’t want this memory of her with that expression of…pity…in her dark eyes. She pitied him. She felt sorry for him. He was nothing but a walking accident, in her eyes.
“Look, I…” Her voice trailed off, and her eyes softened even more.
He dropped her hand. Getting out of bed, he stretched his arms above his head. He saw her eyes flick down to his exposed stomach, and he quickly pulled down his shirt.
“I’ve got to get going. Thanks for the epi. One of these days someone needs to show me how to give myself a dose. This isn’t a ritual I’m going to enjoy, but for whatever reason, chances are one of those little monsters are going to get me again – ” he cut off his babbling, and went to the door. “Anyway. Bye.”
Who cares about her, he told himself as he continued his project later that. His stomach rumbled, but he ignored it. I’m doing this for the children, anyway.
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~ Romans 15:13