Word Count: 1667
Summary: M.D.’s bosses have finally had enough of her roller coaster of functioning, and deal with it in the Treehouse way.
Notes: This takes place directly after Auld Lang Syne, and it draws on events referenced there, plus in Six Weeks to Recovery, Happy Godbirth and Many Blessings Upon Your Meat. At bare minimum, you should read those first, and preferably everything earlier in Walking Wounded, Running Scared. Seriously, this is arguably the most context-heavy story for Infinity Smashed I've posted so far; it's a linchpin story.
Shades of the Past
I saw it coming long before Scorch and Flame brought it up. It’d happened before a hundred times, and I could see all the signs: the looks, the inquiries as to my health, the fraying patience. They were getting ready to get rid of me.
And who could blame them? I was a wreck, on and off sick leave since October, and lately more on than off. There was only so far that I could expect their goodwill to extend.
In preparation, I’d been quietly selling off my possessions, and I’d pulled out my old friend the emergency backpack again. Foolishly, I’d hoped when I moved in that maybe I wouldn’t need it anymore, but now I was glad I’d held onto it and most of its old contents. It was reassuring to touch them: the blue tarp, the para-cord, the knife and the food and the thick socks. As long as I had them, I’d be fine. And I had job skills now, useful ones. Everything would be fine.
So when Scorch and Flame called me up to ‘discuss a matter of importance,’ I was sure I was prepared.
The bandages were hidden under my sleeves, but I could tell by their body language that it didn’t matter. They could smell the old blood on me, and Scorch’s eyes were sad. They didn’t want to do this, I could tell.
“You’re not well,” Flame stated. Not even the slightest hint of a question.
I flinched. Really, there was no point in excuses or lies. They were my bosses and they’d been nicer to me than anyone else I’d ever worked for, and I didn’t want them to have to go through the trouble of firing me. I just wanted to get it over with.
“I understand,” I said. “I’ll go.”
“Go?” Flame cocked her head. “But we’ve only just started—”
“Look, I get it. I know I’ve been a royal failure as a junior healer, and I’m sorry.” Boy, was I sorry. “I’ll pack my stuff and—”
A plume of steam appeared at Flame’s mouth, and Scorch hastily broke in.
“You… you think we’re terminating you? Why on earth would we do that?”
Well, there went my understanding of everything.
Worse, judging by their reactions, I’d just violated yet another local social more. Fantastic. I was just batting everything out of the park today.
“Um. Because I’ve been ruining everything?”
This only got Flame steaming harder. Scorch tried to cover, but she leapt off her perch and up onto Scorch’s head, blasting a gout of warning steam in my face.
“Do you think we are such shoddy employers that we punish an apprentice for her illness?”
This time, at least, I had the sense to keep my mouth shut and my hands still.
“Darling—” Scorch started.
Flame inverted her neck to give her mate a baleful look.
“Local social mores,” he told her gently, and then, to me, “I’m not sure how it works where you’re from—and please, don’t tell me—but here, in our practice, a junior is… it’s like our family. You understand? Our healing practice is our family home, and our juniors are our children. We don’t… terminate our family members for getting sick.”
His signing was carefully precise, desperately polite, and I realized at that moment that contrary to popular belief, and contrary to my own, I was, in fact, pervious to shame. Offending Flame was bad enough, but I’d made Scorch sad and that was like kicking a puppy.
Scorch apparently read my mortification, because he added, “I’m sure you misunderstood.”
“Yes,” I said, and let it never be said you can’t squeak in sign language. “But. Um. If it’s not about that, then what…?”
Scorch and Flame exchanged glances, and Scorch lumbered out of the room. Flame fluttered to her highest perch. Oh no. Highest perch meant Flame at her most authoritative, most in charge… and most angry. And whatever sign-lashing she was about to give me, Scorch, the gentler one, supported it (otherwise he wouldn’t have been involved at all) but still couldn’t bring himself to take part.
I had sassed and back-talked many an authority figure in my life. Now I found myself quailing under the eye of a reptile smaller than what most people ate for Thanksgiving dinner.
She stared me down for quite a while, then ruffled her wings.
“What job are we training you for?” she asked.
Now was not the time to ask why she was asking me. “Um. Junior healer?”
“Indeed. And what, exactly, is it we healers do?”
Earth, swallow me now. “We ease suffering?”
“Is that a statement or a question?”
“Statement? I mean, statement.”
“Good. Then you’re aware of the obvious.” Then, with a veritable eruption of steam and fire, “Then why are you still walking around like this?”
“Do you think us blind? Incompetent? Incapable of giving appropriate care to a mammal?”
“No! No, I don’t think that!”
“Then you had better have a good explanation for your behavior,” she fumed, and by now I was almost having trouble seeing her signing because of all the steam. “I was willing to put my professional pride aside when you were with the League, but your boys have informed me that you’ve rejected their care!”
So I had Thomas and Raige to thank for this. And not only that, it had to be both of them because only Raige had known that I’d quit, and only Thomas had Pidgin Sign good enough to explain that. I made a mental note to haunt the bejesus out of them after I expired from shame.
“Do you have any idea what sort of message it sends to our customers, doing this? What sort of message it sends to us? Did you think we didn’t care?”
Oh my sweet blue heaven. She was hurt.
Abruptly, she stopped flaming. Her ruff went down. Her head drooped. “You are our junior healer, and you are hurting. We don’t know what happened, and we didn’t want to impinge on your privacy… but we know something has wounded you deeply. Something haunts you, something so painful that physical pain means nothing to you. I know you’ve been selling your things. Scorch says that you love working with us, and we both know that we love working with you. Are we truly so incompetent that you can’t abide our care? Have I completely misjudged our relationship?”
My hands stayed at my sides. It had been building in the back of my head for a while, but only now did it finally burst like lightning in my mind. Dear god, they cared about me. They all did.
I thought about Raige, so worried that he overcame his own fears of confrontation to come to me at the Jaunter’s League, to talk to me, to talk to Scorch and Flame. I thought about Thomas, taking time from the frantic tutoring and remedial courses to come over and explain everything to them because Raige’s Pidgin Sign was dreadful. I thought about Bobcat, paying for my padded rumpus room out of his own pocket so I would have somewhere to go if all else failed. I thought about Biff, shoving food at me and shouting at me and letting me crash on his couch.
And that was the clincher. Everyone else, I could blame it on them being good people. Like Raige, who worried about everyone and everything. But Biff wasn’t a good person. He was a violent, binge-drinking jerk, possibly the most emotionally constipated human on the planet, and he’d said he’d miss me if I died. They’d all miss me if I died.
And they weren’t saying that out of social obligation. They weren’t overworked teachers or social workers, itching to file me away. They weren’t would-be parents who wanted some prop to their ego, who’d be more than happy to return me to the manufacturer for being defective. They wanted me around. They cared about me.
The knowledge was earth shattering. For the longest time, I sat there, trying to decide what to do with it. Whether I wanted it or not, and whether it was a reason to be happy or to be terrified.
Finally, I recovered enough of myself to sign, “No. No, you haven’t misjudged anything. It was me. I was wrong. About… about a lot of things.”
A bit of the steam was back; she was still mad. “Yes, you were.”
“You should be.”
Pause. Then, without fire or steam this time, “will you accept our services? Or would that be too personal?”
I thought about it. They were offering me an out. They could give me a referral somewhere else, leaving their professional pride and conscience intact, and I could even blow off the referral if I wanted. Leave these people and their relationships and their caring behind and just go somewhere else, Freeport or something, where nobody knew me or my issues, and I could do what I did best and leave it all behind, start over…
I was so tired of starting over.
I looked around the room. The dried herbs hanging from the ceiling, the bowls and bottles and bones. The wooden walls and floor that I scrubbed clean every day. My boss, looking at me with concern on her red, scaly face. And outside the window, I could see the little township of tree and greenery that I knew and loved, where everyone knew my name. Where my bosses had tried to give me meat for Christmas, because that’s what they thought humans did.
My home. My family.
“I’ve been working for you for a long time now,” I said. “I think it's time I work with you now too.”
Her look of relief was such that I called Scorch back into the room and introduced them to the Earthling concept of the hug. For reptiles without arms, they caught on rather fast.