Pain Management

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Through the open door of the illuminated bathroom, a naked Ben hunched over the sink with one hand behind his back. Moving closer, Lanie saw that he had a small pot of gel on the counter. His shoulders glistened, and the sharp scent of mint, eucalyptus, and oregano swirled in the room.

“What are you doing, B?”

Jumping, he turned and smiled at her. “Oh! You’re home. I thought you’d be another hour, at least. Usually after I’m already asleep.” Did he look guilty? A little weary? Casually, he put a hand over the gel pot. “How did it go at HQ?”

Stepping in the bathroom, she lifted his hand and peeked at the gel. “What’s this?” She tried to touch his lubricated upper back, but he sucked in a breath and moved away from her. Crossing her arms, she stared him down. “Tell me.”

“Just trying something new. Doesn’t this stuff smell amazing?” His brilliant smile, accompanied by a crinkle of crow’s feet, bounced right off her cold exterior.

“You hate oregano. Have you injured yourself?” She was baffled to see that his eyes were dilated, despite the bright lights of the bathroom. Deep lines of pain at the corners of his eyes belied his attempt at casualness. 

He cleared his throat, and shook his head. “No. My back just gets sore sometimes. Especially when the weather is changing. Or maybe I did too much with the kids today. I’m not sure. Guess I’m just getting old.”

Her heart tripped, but she continued her interrogation. “How long?”

He shrugged. “Usually I can ignore it, or just take some Tylenol. The doctor suggested this cooling gel a few months ago. But as you know, I hate oregano, and I’ve been avoiding it until now.”

Lanie gazed at the ceiling, and counted to three. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because I didn’t want you to look at me like that!”

She glared. “Like what?”

“Like I’m child! Or a difficult patient. Someone who doesn’t follow your orders.”

“You’ve never followed my orders. I’ve basically given up trying to get you to care about yourself.”

A muscle popped in his jaw as he fixed on a point on the bathroom wall. “So why would I tell you that I’m in pain, then? You always act like it’s my fault. You’re never on my side.”

She gasped. “I just want you to be okay!”

“Then stop judging me.”

“I’m not!”

“You are!”

They both stopped then. He must have also realized that they sounded exactly like the children. But they continued to glare at each other stonily, unsure how to break the impasse. She stared, until she noticed a twitch in his shoulder, and his carefully controlled expression. Reaching up, she passed a hand over his face, and he closed his eyes, a deep furrow between his brows as he rolled his shoulder.

“I want to help.” She tapped the end of his nose lightly, and he opened his eyes again.

Some of the mutinous stubbornness left him, and he nodded with an exhaustion that she could feel in herself. “I think the gel is helping, but I can’t reach the middle of my back. It’s shooting pain everywhere.”

“Maybe lay down?”

He nodded again, defeated. Very gently, she took his hand and led him, bringing the salve with her. Ben collapsed on the bed with a groan, burying his face in his folded arms. After turning on the main bedroom light, Lanie crawled up next to him. She needed a minute to take in the length of his body. It was strange, how her horror and guilt over his scars was so automatic that it had drifted to the back of her mind. Most of the marks had all but faded, and after almost four years, the ones on his lightly hair-dusted arms and legs were virtually invisible.

Now, she looked more closely, making him twitch as she trailed light fingers over the skin of his back. The places where shrapnel had buried deep in the layers of flesh. Where projectiles had sliced and pierced him. She circled the dimpled place where that branch had stabbed all the way through and punctured his lung. Her slender frame couldn’t have survived the onslaught.

That day consumed her consciousness, and the thick fog of thoughts was nearly suffocating. She could hear the rasp of his wheezing breaths. She could see the blood soak through his clothes. She could smell the burning and smoke, and remembered the heart-wrenching feeling of knowing that she was hurting him more as she pulled him along the gravel away from the fire. She felt the stress of keeping vigil by his side while he lay unconscious, afraid that if she blinked, he would die.

After that first time, on their honeymoon, when she had fully seen the track of the scars from his neck down to his heels, and he had told her that it hadn’t hurt, she hadn’t even thought much about them. The same way she never thought about her own scars. How had she missed the recent signs of his secret pain? It must have been nearly unbearable for him to voluntarily go to the doctor. She’d been too caught up in her obsession with that witch, Lilah.

“You’re staring, Lanie,” Ben grumbled, voice muffled against his arms. “Stop judging, and help me like you said you would.”

She hiccupped a sob, and he jerked up his head, startled. “Ben, I could have helped you sooner!”

Even though she was the one who was supposed to be taking care of him, he turned over, seeming shocked at what he saw in her face. He hooked a long arm around her and pulled her down to him, cocooning her fully clothed body with his naked one.

“Shhhh. Hey. I don’t want you to worry about me, Lanie. I’m okay. I know how much it hurts you to remember that day. You almost died. That’s partly why I didn’t want to tell you that my body has been acting up. ”

She bit back her urge to call him an idiot. “That’s not what hurts,” she ground out. “It’s because you almost died. Again. And again and again.” She flipped over in his arms, grabbed handfuls of his hair, and kissed him fiercely, trying to draw him into herself, where he’d be safe. She wished she could wrap him up like he could with her, but she was just too small. She’d never felt so small.

A tentative hand came to her waist. “Lanie.” He eased her away from him, taking one of her hands and placing it on his chest, pressing one of his own hands to her stomach. “Take a deep breath.” 

He held her gaze, and she gradually drifted into the still, calm pools. His soothing, deep voice compelled her to obey, again and again, matching their breathing. The mist began to clear. She blinked, and emerged from the trance to find him gazing at her tenderly.

“I’m trying to be grateful for your protection, Lanie,” he said, kissing her forehead. “I guess I just feel guilty for the trouble it causes you. If there’s anything I can do to give you a fraction of all that you give me, it’s worth it.”

“I really wish you wouldn’t, but thank you for protecting me, too.” Even though the words were difficult to say, she was gratified by the soft smile that curved his lips.

He kissed her, gently and deeply, then smiled warmly at her. “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,” he recited, and she pressed her nose to the base of his throat, pleasant vibrations tickling her. The lilt of his voice tipped between the worlds of poetry and prayer and song. When he talked like this, she could be transported by him listing the ingredients off a box of crackers. “In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife – ” He punctuated his words with another kiss, “ – loves himself.”

“If you say so,” she murmured happily, nearly asleep.

She felt him stretch discreetly, and the change in his breathing as he seemed to try and hold in a pained sound. Guilty, she touched his chin “Oh, let’s do that salve. Sorry, I almost forgot.”

“It’s okay.” His arms were still locked around her, his face pressed into her hair. “We can do it tomorrow.”

Idiot, she thought with all-encompassing affection. “My treat.” She smiled suggestively. “Think of all the times you’ve given me a massage. I think it’s time I reciprocate, even if I can’t give the same service guarantee.”

Wincing, he released her, and rolled back over. “Oh, fine. Far be it from me to deny you all this.”

Sounds of pleasure as well as pain broke from Ben as she worked the gel into him. His nose crinkled a little, and he turned his head when she did his shoulder caps, muttering about oregano. She worked until the cool ointment was completely absorbed, and his skin was fragrant, supple, and soft. Tenderly, she kissed his left shoulder blade, lingering a moment to breathe the scent as it mingled with his natural, manly musk. Then she quietly went to put the jar away and get her pyjamas.

“Thank you, my love.” Ben’s voice was a little drowsy. “I feel much better now.” 

He drew her in again when she joined him in bed, and she breathed him in. “I like oregano.”

He kissed her, and the press of his lips radiated pleasant heat through her. The way his hands moved over her made her give him a quizzical look.

“Aren’t you sore?”

His laugh was a little unsteady. When he looked at her with darkened eyes like this, he was irresistible.  “Well, I could do with a distraction. A different kind of pain management.”

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“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him.”
~ Romans 15:13


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