In honor of returning to one of my favorite story settings, I want to introduce readers to my main source of Steel City inspiration, Dave Dicello. Dave takes amazing photographs and has been hit hard by the pandemic. He had to close his gallery this spring. However, his prints are available online for purchase. I’ll be adding them to story-links for this chapter.
Now, here’s your story.
Chelsea fought to hide her worry. The pale-haired hedge doctor was young. Like maybe in high school young. The white-blonde hair and short stature didn’t do much to help him seem any older. Still, Jeff seemed quite competent as he cleaned and stitched Morgan’s arm.
Which was a good thing as Morgan’s trembling shook the table. Chelsea fought down frustration. She knew Morgan didn’t like people any more than she did, but the chupacabra had made of a mess out that arm.
What will this baby hedge doctor ask for in return for stitches?
The kid finally finished stitching and spread a white cream across the wounds before taping on the bandage. “We need to see you in five days to check on the progress. I’ll give you a salve, but let me know if it turns red or itches excessively. We have a take-home sheet for care.”
Morgan nodded, teeth clenched, and Chelsea wished dogs were allowed in this clinic. Bentley calmed Morgan better than anyone.
Jeff eyed Chelsea and then crossed his arms. “There is another issue we need to discuss, but I have to ask your partner to leave.”
Morgan’s face paled. Chelsea squared her shoulders and stepped in front of her hunting partner. She met Jeff’s bright green eyes by narrowing hers. “I’m not going anywhere.”
The kid sucked in a deep breath. “I’m afraid that’s not an option. You will step outside or I’ll have you removed.”
Chelsea fished into her shirt and pulled out a pendant on a chain. The wooden leaf was inlaid with silvery wire. She pulled the chain over her head and thrust the pendant at Jeff. “I’m assuming the debt for this healing, so now I get to stay.”
Jeff scowled at her. “You can assume the debt if you like, but that doesn’t give you the right to stay.”
“She can stay.” Morgan’s chattering teeth made the words nearly unintelligible.
Jeff sighed, took the leaf pendant, and studied the ceiling. “The synthetic hormones you’ve been taking… for your… transition. You’ve been rationing them, and you can’t do that.”
Chelsea’s heart battered against her ribs as Jeff’s words penetrated her brain. Suddenly Morgan’s awkwardness in private situations made a lot more sense. Even the extreme nervousness concerning the doctor seemed related. Behind her, Morgan’s teeth audibly chattered.
Jeff finally took his eyes off the ceiling. They were earnest and maybe brighter than normal. “My family can and will help you procure them, legally, but that means you’ll be in our debt.” He held up a hand stopping Chelsea’s instinctive outburst. “We won’t take advantage. We actually have a contract for these situations, detailing what we expect in exchange for our help. You can take it home, read it over, and then decide. But, in terms of your health, I would urge you to accept our offer. We only want to help.” He met Chelsea’s eyes and lifted the leaf pendant. “I understand you were just looking out for your partner, but these aren’t handed out lightly. I also don’t think that you gave it up lightly. So I am going to respect your decision.”
Gooseflesh erupted on her arms, and chest as she nodded. “I earned it. I spent it how I chose.”
Jeff nodded and swallowed. “Morgan, stop by the front desk. My cousin will have that contract for you.” He left with a sigh that Morgan and Chelsea echoed.
This is going to be awkward.
She turned to her partner. “You okay?”
Morgan’s eyes stayed glued to the floor. “How did he even know? He didn’t draw blood or…”
Chelsea shrugged. “Fucking hedge doctors.”
“Are you mad?” Morgan’s voice dropped, barely a whisper.
“Why would I be mad?”
“I didn’t tell you.”
Chelsea shrugged. “You think I’ve told you everything about me?” She forced a smile. “Though this does explain why you were so upset about your lack of pajamas that first night.”
Morgan tried to laugh, but the effort fell short. “Yeah. I-I-” Pain-filled brown eyes refused to make contact. “I just… I don’t know how hunters feel about… people like me. And it isn’t always pretty when…”
Chelsea nodded slowly. “No, I get it. And from my experience, nobody gives a shit what’s between your legs, who you do or do not fuck, or what you want to call yourself. Just do your part in a fight and everything is good.”
Morgan finally looked up, tears making tracks on round cheeks. “So we’re good?”
“Never better.” Her face relaxed into a genuine smile and was almost immediately rewarded by a similar smile from Morgan. “Now, let’s get you that contract and head over to Rita’s. I don’t know about you, but I could really use a beer.”
The effort to stand was obvious, but Morgan walked out of the exam room with squared shoulders and head held high. They poured over the contract at their usual table at Rita’s. The most onerous thing was sticking around Pittsburgh, but as the contract specified that it was because hedge doctors expected Morgan to help with local problems, like keeping the reaver population in check and cleaning out sliven demons in the summer.
Chelsea set the papers aside. “What the hell are sliven demons?”
Bart answered her rhetorical question. “Little critters. Live in the sewers, more nuisance than menace.” He had a beer in both hands and placed one in front of each of them. “So which one of you is sticking around?”
Morgan raised a tentative hand.
Bart smacked it playfully in a high five. “Maybe we should partner up then. I can’t leave either.”
Something about this felt familiar to Chelsea, but she couldn’t understand why. “What kind of special medicine do you need?”
“Not me.” Bart chuckled. “But I got a… collection of sorts. Little magical critters. Nothing too dangerous. They need herbs and stuff though, and Jeff is the best source for anything like that.”
“Really?” Morgan’s question held more fascination than doubt,
Bart nodded. “Yup. He might be young, but his garden is amazing. He really knows his stuff.”
Morgan snorted a laugh. “Picked up on that this morning.”
Genuine mirth brought a laugh to Bart. “He noticed something you was hiding, huh?”
Red stained Morgan’s cheeks and Bart slapped at his knees, laughter billowing from him. “That boy is a pisser.” Bart wiped at his face. “But he’s damn good at his job.” He stood and cuffed Morgan’s shoulder. “Be seeing you around then.”
Chelsea smiled at her partner and got a wide grin in return. “Told you hunters didn’t give a shit.”
Morgan looked over the contract once more and then signed with a flourish. “Let me give this to Rita and then we can go home.”
The tiny white, basement apartment had never felt more warm as they settled in for some sleep. Chelsea contained her shock when Morgan rolled over. Usually, her partner seemed to ignore her when it was time to sleep.
Now anxious eyes stared across the pillow. “So, you know why I was so weird the last few weeks.”
“Yup.” Chelsea fought to keep her voice even.
Morgan sucked in a deep breath. “And now I don’t have to be weird…”
“Nope.” She lay still, waiting for whatever point her partner might be trying to make.
Inch by inch, Morgan drew closer. Slowly, warm lips pressed against Chelsea’s. Once they did, she reached up and pulled Morgan closer.
If you liked Jeff and want to learn more about hedge doctors, he’s got his own book!
Keep the Adventure Going!
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