Ash and Ember

Ash and Ember - Chapter 21: Integration

Chapter 21: Integration

24 January 2019, Thursday 4:22 PM

Rhett expertly handled all of the orders for Grant's last patient of the day. And, unlike every other provider/medical assistant team in the building, they finished a little early. Grant sat at his desk, and he worked on their last patient's chart to finish up the visit before he left for the day.

Grant was now up to full productivity. He saw at least twelve patients every four-hour block of clinic time and often had additional patients squeezed into his schedule. He hadn't broken the thirty patient barrier in a day just yet, but he'd gotten close.

Rhett blew into the office, on his way back out to help another medical assistant with her provider so that she could leave at a decent hour. "Great job today, Grant. Man, you work fast." Coming from Rhett, that meant something.

Grant grinned. "You too." Grant shook his head. "There's no way I could get it done without you."

"We're a team. That's how it works." He put his stethoscope around his neck. "Okay, I gotta run to help Penelope, then if you don't need anything, I'll head out to get to my night class."

"I'm good. You've done plenty. Get out of here as soon as you can."

Rhett nodded, and he left the room, always moving, always busy. Grant continued working on the chart of the last young man he saw. The fellow was a squeeze into the schedule, referred to him by Dan, Rhett's brother. He was another, young gay man. Just like Dan, he seemed relieved that he now had a choice of a gay male provider at the clinic.

After another ten minutes, Grant was almost done with his note. A shadow fell across him, and he looked over his shoulder. Dr. Petrucci stood and looked down at him. "Hey, Grant. Got a minute?"

Grant nodded, and he turned to face the doc. Dr. Petrucci took a seat, and he pulled up so they could talk easily. His green eyes rested on Grant. "How are you doing? I know you recently hit full productivity, and I wanted to check in."

Grant smiled. "I'm doing good. Rhett has a big part to do with that. He's great."

Dr. Petrucci smiled. "Yeah, we knew Rhett was going to be an asset to you. He's young, but man, he can really get the work done."

Grant agreed. "Look, I know I'm new here, but I really think Rhett isn't getting paid enough for the work. Without him, I'd only see about half of these patients."

The doc grinned. "It's good you want to go to bat for him. That's great, Grant." He exhaled, and he seemed to give it some thought. "I'll take a look at the pay scale, and see where he falls compared to the other Medical Assistants."

Grant smiled. "Thanks for that. He deserves it."

"Sure." Dr. Petrucci cocked his head, obviously interested in another topic. "Marcy tells me you're seeing quite a few new patients. As in, completely new to the practice." Marcy was the office manager of the clinic, and she tracked such things and reported them to Dr. Petrucci. The doctor smiled slightly. "How's that going? New patients are a bit more work."

"Good. These are guys that otherwise wouldn't be getting seen, so I make sure to try to get them in."

Grant could tell by Dr. Petrucci's face that he was curious about that statement. Grant expelled a breath. "Ah, they're young gay men. And until recently they weren't really comfortable coming to the clinic to be seen for their particular issues."

The doc digested this information. "Oh." He frowned. "Do you know why they wouldn't want to see one of our other providers? If someone said or did something to make these young men uncomfortable …"

"No. No, it's nothing like that." Grant bit his lip. "The truth is, word has sort of gotten out that I'm a good person for them to see." Grant knew it was a tricky thing for an employer to inquire about his sexuality, so he decided to just let that cat out of the bag. "I'm gay. And these guys trust me to understand them, and they tell me things they wouldn't tell another provider."

Dr. Petrucci's eyes lit up with realization. "Ahhh. Okay." Then he grinned. "Well, this is a demographic the clinic isn't serving well. Our numbers for self-identified gay and bisexual men are far below the national average." He eyed Grant, and he slowly nodded. "You're really performing a service here. I appreciate that."

Grant felt relief at his mentor and bosses reaction. "Thanks. And I'm happy to do it."

Russell Petrucci looked thoughtful. "You know, I have a few patients who have self-identified as gay, but I know they're not telling me everything that pertains to their sexual health. I'd like to collaborate with you on these patients - give them the option to see you for certain issues. Would that work for you?"

Grant didn't even have to think about it. "Definitely. I'd like to help any way I can."

Russell smiled. "That's great. I appreciate that." The man stood. "I've got to finish up charting. If you have any issues, you'd like to discuss with me, or difficult cases, just let me know."

"Will do, doc. Thank you." Grant watched as Dr. Petrucci left the room. He turned back to the computer, a small, unconscious smile on his face. It was now just after five PM, and he had finished with his last chart. Grant shut down the computer, slipped the laptop into his bag, and he stood up.

Rhett came back into the office. He looked over at Grant. "All done?"

"Yeah. How about you?" Grant put his computer bag over his shoulder.

"Yes. We just finished." Rhett smiled at Grant, his blue eyes interested behind his glasses. "What are you up to this weekend? Anything fun?" He knew Grant had Fridays off, though he himself had to work.

"Yeah, actually. Saturday afternoon we're going to have some friends over for a game day. We'll play board games, and probably drink and overeat. How about you, Rhett?"

The short man chuckled. "Ah, not really. Probably just study" He shrugged into his jacket that hung on the back of the door, and his shoulders slumped a bit.

Grant noted the resignation in Rhett's response. From what he knew Rhett didn't do much outside of work, study and go to school. He was a busy guy and was on the path to becoming a registered nurse. But over the last couple of months, Grant began to notice Rhett's lack of social time.

"Well, would you want to come over to my place? You can hang out, play games, meet my pack of friends." Grant smiled at him. "You could meet Troy, too." Then Grant remembered something. "Ah, you may already have. He's the Van Handyman you told me about."

Rhett looked surprised. "Really? You're dating the Van Handyman?" He tried to hide his expression. "Uh, not that there's anything wrong with him."

Grant laughed. "Well, Troy has probably cleaned up a bit since you last saw him."

Rhett made a pained face. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't be so judgmental."

"No worries, Rhett." Grant watched Rhett's expressions. "So, what do ya say? Do you want to come hang out? You'll get fed, and we'll have wine and beer to drink."

Rhett's face looked nervous for a moment, and then it passed, and he smiled. "That sounds pretty nice. If you're sure you don't mind, yeah, I'll take you up on it."

Grant barely caught it.  It happened so quickly he wasn't sure of what he saw.  "I don't mind. None of the friends will either." Grant took a business card and wrote down his address on the back. "Here you go. We start at two PM. Come on over anytime after that." He handed the card to Rhett.

Rhett grinned. "All right. Do I need to bring anything?"

"Nope. Just yourself. We'll have the food, drinks, and snacks covered."

The small man looked at the card, and he nodded slowly, almost as if he processed something mentally. "Cool. It has been a while since I've been to anything like a party, or a game day. It'll be fun." He looked up, and the appreciation was obvious in his eyes. "Thanks for the invite."

"Of course. You're welcome." Grant patted his back. The two walked out of the building to the parking lot. Grant waved as Rhett got into his little car. He was happy Rhett was going to drop in on their party.

Just to make sure nobody would be surprised, Grant sat behind his wheel and started a text to the group of friends. 'Hey, all. I invited one of my coworkers, Rhett to hang out this weekend with us at our board game event. He's a good guy. Hope that's all right.' He sent the message, then thought a minute. He smirked and started another text. 'Brian, no humping the new guy.'

Grant was proud of his little remark. He started the car and then his phone buzzed. He looked, and it was only a sad face from Brian. Grant laughed, and he started on the way home.
___________________________________

26 January 2019, Saturday 1:49 PM

Saturday rolled around. Troy and Grant both prepared for their friends to come over. Grant was handling food, and Troy worked at tidying the house and getting their game selections squared away.

While Troy cleaned, Grant put the finishing touches on his meal. He made pineapple chicken breasts. He found a recipe for it online, though he tweaked it slightly to add spicy and savory flavors to the meat as well. The chicken was baked, and the sugars in the pineapple juice carmelized to a beautiful brown color on the chicken. It also made the house smell amazing. As he took it out of the oven Grant's mouth watered uncontrollably.

To pair with the chicken, Grant roasted cauliflower and broccoli tossed in balsamic vinegar and olive oil. He also cooked a pot full of brown rice. Their friends were bringing various appetizers, and anything they wanted to drink that wasn't beer, wine, or water.

Troy came around the corner of the hall, and he entered the kitchen. He went to the sink behind Grant, and he began to wash his hands. "Okay, all cleaned up, and ready for our friends to mess it up." Troy chuckled, and Grant smiled. The tall man finished washing, and he turned off the water. He looked over at Grant's chicken. "Good gravy, that looks awesome."

"Thanks!" Grant grinned at Troy. "What they won't know is all of this is really healthy. It has a ton of flavor, a lot of fiber, but it's low in fat and simple carbs." Troy made a surprised face and Grant continued. "I wanted to eat and not feel guilty about it!"

Troy rolled his eyes. "Like you need to watch what you eat, Mr. Yoga!" He pinched Grant's flat belly through his shirt, and Grant yelped and tried to get away. Troy laughed, a little evilness in the tone, and soon the men struggled playfully with one another against the kitchen counter.

Troy finally held Grant firmly, their chests together, and Troy's arms around Grant's chest and his upper arms - effectively trapping the shorter man in place. Grant simply gave Troy his lopsided smile. He wasn't trying very hard to escape.

Troy grinned, and he leaned forward. The men kissed, and then again. It wasn't long before their tongues explored one another's mouths.

A knock sounded.

Troy pulled back with a groan.  "God damn it." Troy put his head down on Grant's shoulder, and he laughed. They were both hard, thanks to their make-out session. "I know that's Aaron."

"Tell him he's a cock block. He'll love that." Grant smirked.

The men separated, and Troy pulled at his dick to try and make it less obvious in his loose cargo pants. It sort of worked. He looked down at his crotch, and he pulled out his shirt to cover himself. "That'll have to do."

Grant shook his head with a laugh.

Troy walked to the door and opened it. Sure enough, Aaron and Georgette were outside, bundled up from the chilly afternoon temperature.

"Come on in!" Troy greeted them both with a hug, careful to keep his hips back away from his friends. Luckily, neither seemed to notice his difficulty below the waist.

"Hey, Grant!" Aaron walked into the kitchen, followed by Troy and Georgette. Troy was amused to see the awkward hug Grant gave him, with his pelvis carefully turned.

Georgette sat her bowl of guacamole and a big bag of corn chips down on the kitchen counter. "Thanks for hosting, guys." She smiled at the men. Troy knew that Georgette was now in her tenth week of pregnancy. It wouldn't be long before she showed, and it would be evident that she was carrying a child. He could tell a difference in her. It was subtle, but she seemed calmer to him.

"Hey, Georgette. And no problem." Grant smiled at the woman. He nodded at her still-flat belly. "How's that treating you? Doing okay with the pregnancy?"

She sighed and laughed. Aaron stepped up, put his arm around her shoulders, and she leaned against him. "It's good. I'm exhausted, but I hear that's pretty normal."

"She's a trooper." Aaron looked down at her with unstinting love and respect. "I know she's tired, but she just keeps going."

"You make me sound like a hero," Georgette said, but she smiled against him. That's when Troy realized that the calmness he saw in Georgette was simply a symptom of her pregnancy. She was beat. Her body was madly replicating cells in the creation of another human being, and that process was incredibly draining. Georgette was a high energy kind of person, and the pregnancy forced her to dial back on her regular, manic self, and it made her seem "normal."

"You are a hero." Aaron kissed her head. The moment was a sweet one, and both Grant and Troy grinned at them.

Another knock came. "I'll get it." Troy peeled off the group, and he headed for the door. "You guys hang out, get comfortable."

Troy opened the door.

"Hey, buddy!" Brian instantly folded him in a hug. Troy stood helplessly as the big man trapped his arms down along his sides, and Brian squeezed him. Natalie stood a little behind Brian, and she shook her head.

"Hi, Troy." She chuckled at him, and she stepped around the men. "I'll just take our bacon-wrapped, cream cheese filled dates inside."

Troy made a noise of surprise and squirmed. "Turn me loose! Those things will be gone in like three minutes!"

Brian laughed, and he let Troy go. The tall man followed Natalie closely until she put the plate down on the kitchen counter. He instantly grabbed one of the dates. Natalie stuffed the dates with cream cheese, then she rolled each in ½ a slice of bacon, and finally she tossed them in brown sugar. After that, they baked until they were crispy, sticky, cheesy bites of sweet and savory.

Grant saw them, and he gave Natalie a scathing look. "Nat. Why?" He then looked down at the plate of treats. "These are the weapon of the devil when it comes to my meal plan, you know that?" He said the words, but he also took one.

Natalie laughed. "I've not heard them described that way before. But I'll take it as a compliment!"

Grant answered by popping a date in his mouth. He chewed and made a face of rapture, and he raised a thumb as he did.

Another knock came, and Troy started to go for the door. Grant held up a hand and he hurriedly chewed. "I got it." He swallowed his bite. "It should be Rhett."

Troy was happy to stand near the plate of bacon wrapped dates among all of the friends. Each of them happily chewed the sweet and savory bites.

___________________________________

Rhett knocked, then he stood nervously on the welcome mat. He scraped his feet free of ice and snow on the bristly material. He shifted the little basket of muffins around. He wasn't exactly a great cook, but he got by. And he made a snack that he hoped would go over well.

Grant opened the door. The dark-haired man smiled at Rhett. "Hey, glad you came, Rhett. Come on in."

"Hi, Grant. Thanks again for inviting me." Rhett stepped inside. He could hear voices, but he couldn't see anyone else from the vantage point of the hall.

"You're welcome." Grant looked at Rhett's basket, and he closed the door. "You didn't have to bring anything."

"Oh, I know." Rhett laughed a little, and he could hear the nervousness in his own voice. "Uh, I just like to have an offering when I go somewhere new." He tried to calm down. Being around Grant helped. He knew Grant. 'Come on. Be normal. Just for a little bit. Be normal.'

Grant seemed to notice his anxiousness. "You okay?"

Rhett made a face. "Ah, yeah. I just get anxious around a crowd of people I don't know." He waved a hand. "Patients don't bother me. I can handle them one on one easy. It's groups that give me a little trouble."

Rhett saw the light go on for Grant. "You have social anxiety?"

Rhett grimaced. 'Well, that didn't take long, did it?' He tried hard to push the negative thoughts down. "Yeah." He hesitated and handed the basket to Grant. "I'm sorry.  Thanks a lot for the invite, but I probably should go."

Grant smiled, the expression one of understanding. "If that's what you want, then that's fine. But I'm going to tell you that the people in that room are some of the best I've ever met." He put a hand on Rhett's shoulder. "Why don't you give it a shot? And if it gets to be too much, then you can just get out of dodge. No social niceties. You just get up, and you leave. I will tell you now that it's fine if you need to do that."

Rhett nervously licked his lips. Laughter came from deeper in the house, and people happily chatting followed. Grant gently patted his back. "Come on. Meet them. If you like.  I'll be right there."

This was so hard. Rhett just knew that they were going to find something wrong with him, or weird, or dumb. He knew it.

Rhett took a deep breath. 'No. Grant's right. Just get in there. Just do it.' He looked at Grant. "Okay." He nodded, and he steeled himself. "Okay. Let's do it."

Grant grinned. "All right." He handed the basket back to Rhett. "Here. You're bringing food. It's a good icebreaker."

Rhett took the basket. He nodded once more. Grant stepped in front of him, and Rhett followed him inside.

They were now in the living room. A fire crackled in the hearth, and it was comfortably warm in the house. Two women and three men stood in the kitchen, talking and laughing. Rhett felt his heart beat a little faster.

It was almost as if Grant could sense his tension, and he put a hand on Rhett's back. "It's okay," he whispered it, then he cleared his throat. "Hey, everybody. This is Rhett. We work together. He's the guy who keeps me running on time."

A tall, lanky brown-haired guy stepped around the kitchen counter. Rhett recognized him as the Van Handyman. "Hi, Rhett. I'm Troy." Troy's face crinkled a little as if he tried to remember something. "Have we met before?" Troy extended his hand.

"Hi. Yeah, when you did some work for my brother, Dan." Rhett shook Troy's hand.

"Ah. Okay, on a job." He smiled easily at Rhett. "Well, glad you made it. Grant has nothing but good things to say about you."

Rhett felt surprised at the comment. 'Grant says good things about me?' "Ah, well, that's nice to know." He smiled, genuinely happy at what seemed to be a casual comment by Troy.

Troy took the basket from him. "I'll take this to the kitchen." Troy stepped into the other room with the rest of the people. "Oh! You should come in here, grab one of these dates before they're gone, Rhett."

One of the women rolled her eyes. "Oh god. We're capable of saving him a couple." The dark-haired woman eyed a big man as he picked one up and ate it in seconds. There were now four remaining on the plate. "Maybe." She shook her head and smiled at Rhett. "I'm Natalie. Good to meet you, Rhett."

Additional introductions to the group followed. They all seemed nice, but Rhett was on high alert. He watched to see if anyone seemed put off, or if there were any sort of negative comments about him. He honestly felt he would be judged, or that he would do something stupid. It was a part of his anxiety, and that was a daily struggle for him.

At work, he fared well. Patients flowed into and out of the clinic. He didn't have to spend a lot of time around each of them, and one on one he had a much easier time. He knew all of the staff, and he didn't have a problem with people he knew well.

College was another matter. Before he went to college, he had to take his clonazepam. It was the only way he could get through it. He tried to take as many distance learning courses as possible, but some classes required him to go and sit in person. It was two sides of a coin. On the one hand, he loved learning, and he was smart, so he did well. But on the other, he dreaded the necessary interaction with a full class of people he barely knew.

Rhett did indeed get a couple of the dates. The big man, who introduced himself as 'Brian' curiously unfolded the cloth over Rhett's basket. "Oh. What are these?" He picked up one of the little corn muffins, and he smelled it.

"Ah, nothing much. I took the Jiffy Corn Muffin mix. And I put in shredded sharp cheddar and jalapeno cheese, right into the mix before I baked them."

Brian's eyes widened, and he smiled. "Cheddar, jalapeno corn muffins?" He gingerly took a bite. Then he made a sound of approval. "It's good!"

Rhett looked for any sign Brian messed with him, but it really seemed he enjoyed the muffin. Rhett relaxed a little. "I'm glad you like it." He swallowed, trying hard to just accept the compliment. "It was really simple. I don't cook much."

"Neither did Grant." Aaron came around the counter, and he grabbed a muffin too. "Now everything Grant throws in the oven turns into something delicious."

Rhett smiled. His muffins almost disappeared before he even got one. 'Okay, I guess they really like them.' He could tell the group specifically tried to include him in conversations, and they also seemed to know when to back off. He slowly felt himself relax.

After a few minutes of snacking and chatting, Grant cleared his thorat.  "Okay. You guys ready for some games? After we've played for a bit, we'll have dinner." Grant stood in the living room, and he held a long, black, rectangular box in his hands.

"Cards Against Humanity?!!?" Georgette almost squealed. She loped into the living room. "Yes! Let's do it!"

"Oh god." Aaron rolled his eyes. "Here we go - Georgette's chance to prove she's the worst human being in the room."

The woman put her hands on her hips, and she glared at the redhead. "You're just mad because I win!"

Aaron made to reply, but then he sighed and nodded. Georgette smirked at him.

Rhett really didn't get out all that much. He'd never played the game, but he was a little loathe to admit that. 'They'll think I'm lame.' He glanced at Grant, and the man only smiled a little at him. Rhett realized that his anxiousness must have shown on his face.

"Well, we're gonna go over the rules again, just so we're all clear." Grant waved a finger at Georgette. "Writing your own white cards DURING the game is not permitted!"

Georgette made an innocent face. "Me?" Then she smiled, all teeth, like a shark.

The group laughed, and Rhett again felt his anxiety quell just a bit. They all sat down around the coffee table. Rhett took the end, right next to Grant.

Grant looked over at him briefly. Again, that reassuring smile came from the dark-haired man. Then he refocused on the group. "Okay. So, everyone gets seven white cards. I'm gonna go ahead and deal those out now."

Grant dealt, and he continued with the instructions. Rhett both listened to him explain, and he looked around at the faces.

Now and again his eyes would meet one of the men or women at the table. Always, he saw in them an openness and an acceptance.

'They're happy I'm here.' Rhett let the realization wash over him. He blinked, and a smile pulled at his lips.

Grant finished up with his instructions on how to play the game. "Okay. Got it?" There were nods around the table. Grant grinned. "Okay, I'll draw the first black card. Here we go." Grant drew a card from the top of the black deck, and the game commenced.

And for the first time in a very long while, Rhett Olson had a good day.


Author's Note: Please let me know your thoughts about the chapter at the following email address link.   Wayne Gray

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