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aomi Kwan got to work twenty minutes late, with hot sauce on her shirt, family troubles on her mind, and hope in her heart. The tardiness would be a problem if she got caught, but her first afternoon client didn’t arrive until half an hour after her break, and the clinic receptionist always took a lunchtime nap.
She ran the last block from the bus stop, sure that the odds were in her favor, but her spirits sank when she reached the glass front doors of the clinic. Sleepy Susan was not working the reception counter. Lucy Ayala was.
The clinic director’s watery eyes missed nothing, her ability to hold a grudge was unsurpassed, and her heart was as black as her dyed, thinning hair. She lived to make Naomi miserable. Naomi lived in fear of calling the woman “Sourpuss” to her face someday.
Today Lucy was giving her full and doting attention to two men standing with their backs to the door. Naomi’s spirits lifted again, just a little. She had dubbed the pair Wow Guy and Wired Guy on first meeting them, and their presence might deflect Lucy’s attention enough to prevent disaster .
Wow Guy was big and blond, with hair down to his shoulders in a Viking-wannabe style. His default setting was “charming,” and he had a voice as rich and promising as butter melting on a hot griddle. Wired Guy had brown buzzed hair, bright hazel eyes, and a whip-thin body that was always in motion.
Both men favored work boots and cotton twill in neutral colors no matter whether San Francisco’s fickle weather turned foul or fair, and they looked as out of place amid the chrome and pastels of the clinic as wolves in a tea shop. They were brothers, Carl and Parker Harris respectively, and lean, twitchy Parker was Naomi’s client.
She scraped up determination and put on a cheery face. With the Restoration break just around the corner, Parker wouldn’t get another physical therapy session for a full week. Naomi couldn’t back out on him now.
“Hi, Parker, sorry I’m late,” she said as she entered the reception area. “I see you brought the morale officer today. Nervous about your evaluation?”
Parker turned and grinned as he shook his head.
Naomi stifled the urge to smile back like a lovesick teenager. Professionalism demanded that she maintain a pleasant but disinterested front with her clients, but Parker made that difficult. A grueling series of surgeries that would have physically wrecked most people had only scraped him down to chiseled essentials, and therapy was literally a hands-on job. She stifled her usual reaction to him and said, “Go ahead to my workroom. I’ll catch up.”
Parker snapped his fingers and headed across the gym with a bounce in his step. He was lucky to have fingers at all. He’d undergone complete replacement of both bones in both forearms, as well as a partial rebuild of left elbow and right wrist. Finger-snapping had been a major milestone.
In eight weeks he’d said fifteen words. Seven “Thank you’s” and a “Thanks.”
Naomi made herself stop watching him and looked up at Carl. “You haven’t done a ride-along in a while. Does he have questions?”
“For once the issue is transportation, rather than communication,” Carl said with a charming smile. “We’re heading straight from here to the station to grab the upcoast zip train. You weren’t late, by the way. We’re early.”
Carl’s dark blue eyes were dazzling, but he bestowed exactly the same smiles on Lucy, which diminished their appeal. He never stared at Naomi’s tiny feet or the braided black hair that swung to her waist, so the admiration wasn’t fetish-based, but it still felt as impersonal as a crow’s interest in a shiny bauble.
As soon as he was out of earshot, Lucy hissed, “You were late. Why can’t you eat lunch in an hour?”
Naomi always swore to herself that she wouldn’t make excuses, and she always broke the promise. “I’m sorry, Mams had another meltdown about the stove, plus I had to get a surcharge reversed when I picked up her meds because she’s on Subsistence even if I’m not now, and then the first two buses were full.”
Lucy pursed her lips in the expression that had inspired her nickname. “Excuses. There’s always an excuse with you. If you want to get ahead, you need to juggle your personal problems on your own time. I needed you here.”
One glance at the empty gym floor disproved that claim. The Friday before Restoration was always slow. Patients shifted schedules to clear extra days around the holiday week. There were only three appointments all afternoon, and Lucy had even sent home the receptionist.
Naomi bit her tongue. Insubordination would be another black mark she didn’t need. “I’m here now.”
“Yes, finally. I’m putting the door on buzzer and trusting you to check in your own clients. Don’t screw it up.” Lucy reached under the counter and came up with an intern’s jacket in one hand. “Put this on. Your shirt is filthy Can’t you even eat like a civilized person?”
Naomi held her breath until she had spots in her vision. Then she let it out in a rush. There was no shame in wearing a Subsistence uniform, but she’d paid for the right to not wear it, paid with six years of back-breaking labor and six more as an indentured apprentice.
“I will work naked first,” she said before she could stop herself. “Fire me if you want, but I will never wear Sub-issue again.” Her heart thumped fast in her chest. She needed this job, but there were some indignities she could not endure.
Lucy only made her Sourpuss face again and folded the jacket away. “I was trying to be nice. Don’t get snippy with me. If you’d rather look like a pig than wear the uniform, that’s your business.”
“I’m sorry.” Naomi choked on the words. “I can’t.”
“Fine. Make it up to me.” Lucy tapped the workstation screen. “Certify Parker Harris as ‘ready to resume.’ I checked his chart. He has good muscle tone, decent rotation, and adequate grip strength. Pronation and supination are almost up to par. Move him on. I expected you to drop him the second week.”
“I know you did. That isn’t the point.” Naomi bit her tongue to keep it from betraying her anger and frustration.
Parker had gone through five therapists in three clinics before landing in Naomi’s hands. The discharge sign-offs had stretched the diplomatic limitations of session notation. Naomi had been given a potentially disastrous assignment for the same reason she got the worst schedule and received reprimands for every minor transgression: the clinic couldn’t bring in a new Subsistence intern until a job opened up.
She had been set up to fail, but she had succeeded instead. Working with Parker was challenging on a professional level and satisfying on a personal one, and she wasn’t about to give him up without a fight.
“The point,” she said, “is that he isn’t ready. I know you’ve seen the commando tats across his shoulders when he works with weights. Good, adequate, and almost are not enough for his normal routine. There’s a reason we have a progressive skills list.”
“Naomi, he isn’t safe.” Lucy glanced around as if afraid of being overheard. “He has no service record to go with those Combined Forces tattoos, which means his file was sealed, which means black ops. They are both dangerous, mark my words. We don’t need their kind of trouble following them in here. Write him off. Please.”
The plea stunned Naomi speechless. Parker’s permanent ink collection also included a discharge date nearly a decade old. There was nothing exotic or mysterious about his injuries. He and Carl were electrical contractors, and construction could be a rough business off the worksites as well as on them.
Naomi saw no diplomatic way to tell Lucy that she sounded paranoid, so she said, “Let’s see how I feel about the idea after the evaluation.”
“Did I ask you how you felt? If you won’t step up, then I’ll do it myself when I get back from Restoration break. Send his eval to me with a priority flag. And don’t sneak out early today. I’ll check the time code.”
Two full minutes passed after her departure before Naomi’s hands stopped shaking. She rubbed her left wrist to ease the tense, aching muscles and went to tend to her patient.
* * * *
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