The office door opened and Rett stalked up to the reception desk. He stood at attention, glaring over the head of the young man seated there. The receptionist greeted him with an open, welcoming smile, his eyebrows raised slightly as he waited for Rett to say something.
It didn’t take long for the silence to become uncomfortable, but neither man was willing to give in first. The silence was broken by a buzz from the intercom followed by a woman’s voice. “RJ, has my next appointment arrived yet?”
Keeping his eyes and smile on Rett, RJ reached over and pressed a button. “Yes, Doctor, I believe he has.”
Another door opened and Paige Nicholls stepped into the waiting room. “It’s good to see you, Paladin Sparks.” She gestured to her office. “Please, come in.”
Rett followed her inside but remained near the door, his posture rigid and and his jaw clenched. He relaxed slightly — only slightly — when Paige gestured to a plush chair against the wall that would give him line-of-sight to the door. He sat stiffly on the edge of the seat.
Paige collected a tablet from her desk and settled into an equally plush chair across from him. “So…” She studied the tablet. “Director Evans requested this evaluation when you were released from Ananke.”
“I didn’t want to do it.” Rett leveled his gaze on her, challenging her.
“You still don’t,” she replied smoothly. “Which is why I asked the Director’s office to make it a direct order.” She looked up and gave him a pleasant smile.
Rett rose to leave.
“Why are you afraid to return to duty?”
“I’m not afraid,” the paladin growled.
“Physically, you are fully recovered. You could have resumed your duties weeks ago. All you had to do was come in for a routine evaluation.”
Rett clenched his jaw. His fingers twitched, but he caught himself before he started to scratch his hand. “I don’t need an evaluation to tell me I’m broken.”
She looked up from her tablet. “Sit.”
Rett huffed in defeat and complied.
“Why do you think you are broken?”
He barked a bitter laugh. “You think I’m not?”
“I think we all are to one extent or another. I want to know why you think you are especially broken.”
Rett took a moment to study her before answering. “Any touch makes me flinch. Even if I initiate it. I can’t hug my wife for more than a few seconds. I get anxious — dangerously anxious — whenever someone is behind me. I can’t go back in the field like this.”
Paige leaned back in her seat. “Do you know why I’m here?” She waited until it was clear Rett wasn’t going to answer. “The Director’s office believed I was particularly well-suited to help members of The Order due to my own magic and work with guardians. I’ve been here over twenty years, and in that time I have helped innumerable acolytes — and less than a dozen proteges and paladins. Turns out you all have your own system for helping one another, and that’s fine.” She tilted her head. “So why isn’t that system helping you now?”
“Who says it isn’t?”
“Have you spoken with Paladin Creed about all this?” She pinned him with an expectant gaze.
Rett narrowed his eyes. “You already know the answer.”
“My knowing the answer and you saying it are two different things.”
Rett heaved an exasperated sigh. “Fine. No, I haven’t talked with Ken about it.”
“Have you talked with him about anything?”
“Because of your son?”
Anger flashed in Rett’s eyes. “Lincon Sparks made his choice and is no longer my concern.”
“You were captured and tortured for over a month. Your son was part of the rescue mission and saw what the Alfath did to you. You were held in detention for three weeks after your rescue, and when you were finally released you learned your son chose to stay with the Alfath. And the sprinkles on top? Lincon’s mentor — your closest friend — let him go.”
Rett averted his eyes and remained quiet.
“If it were me, I’d have a hell of a lot of concerns.”
“Everyone tells me there’s more to it. They say I don’t know the entire story. But nobody can tell me what I’m missing.”
“Have you asked?”
He growled in frustration. “I don’t want to hear whatever excuses they come up with for him.”
“You want to hear it from him?” At Rett’s reluctant nod, she continued. “Have you tried contacting him?”
Rett’s shoulders slumped. “I don’t know where he is.”
“Perhaps Paladin Creed could help there?”
Rett shook his head. “He doesn’t know, either.” The immediacy of his answer drew a quirked brow from the doctor, and Rett took a deep breath before elaborating. “He’s hurting bad. The only thing that would hurt this bad is losing someone dear to him — which means Ca… his daughter. He’s missing her.”
The doctor tilted her head slightly. “Do you think she’s the only one he’s missing?”
“You mean he’s missing me, too.”
Paige shrugged. “Pure speculation on my part. Like the rest of the Paladins, Kenneth Creed has yet to darken my door. Besides, we aren’t here to talk about him.”
“No we aren’t. We’re here for you to confirm I’m not yet fit for duty.”
Paige ducked her head slightly. “You’re right that you aren’t ready to go back in the field yet, but I don’t think you are as irreparably broken as you believe. The question is: are you willing to take the steps necessary to heal?”
Rett eyed her warily.
“Ultimately — ideally — you need to talk with your son. There are certain answers you need and he’s the only one who can provide them. But we also have to accept that you may never get that opportunity. Regardless, the first step is rebuilding the support system that has seen you through every other challenge you’ve faced for the past fifty years.”
Rett averted his gaze. “If you mean I should talk to Ken, it may be too late. I think I burned that bridge.”
The doctor arched a brow.
“You think I should talk to him anyways.”
Paige leaned back in her seat. “That, or you can come in here for staring contests with RJ three times a week. Your choice.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Wrapping up the session, Paige led Rett back to the waiting room and stepped aside to let him leave. She watched the paladin disappear through the door before turning to greet her next patient and ushered the young man back into her office.
“Thank you for seeing me.” Jason smiled nervously as he took his seat.