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Arrhythmia

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This was nothing unusual, to have a member of staff approach him at his desk and ask him for advice or help. He never turned them away, unlike some of his colleagues in other departments, and was actually secretly pleased to be presented with small challenges that wouldn’t lead to the requesting of scans and diagnostic tests, follow-up appointments, and someone kicking off because they didn’t agree with the diagnosis he’d given.

The last person to come to him had been one of the older secretaries, encouraged by her colleague, asking for him to just check that she’d dressed a bad scald to her arm correctly. Marco had clapped his hands together in delight, telling her to take a seat and show him what she’d done. He’d had nothing but praise for the way she had bandaged the rather sizeable scald to her forearm in plastic food wrap, and had informed her that she should keep it on while at work and then let the air to it in the evenings, but above all to keep it dry.

The time before that it was a younger secretary who had hobbled in without knocking, her foot stuck out at an awkward angle with a bloody toe, having just accidentally kicked the heavy metal door into the building. He’d grabbed the department’s first aid kit and had cleaned her up and sealed the small wound with a band-aid, giving her the remaining painkillers that lurked in his briefcase and getting her to flex her toes before deciding she wouldn’t need an x-ray.

But today, when a young man trotted in looking incredibly embarrassed, Marco had simply looked at him at first. He knew the secretary who accompanied him very well - she was Nami, Marco’s own personal secretary - but he didn’t recognise the man. Marco raised an eyebrow at his secretary, waiting for an explanation.

“Have you met Ace yet?” She asked, gesturing to the man who looked as though he very much wanted to leave. “He’s the guy who’s combing through the old follow-up lists for Dr. Thatch and trying to sort out that whole mess.” She sighed when Marco continued to look blankly at her. “The revalidation work? That Dr. Thatch has been working on for months? No?”

He knew Edward had been doing something - he certainly hadn’t been running clinics, at least - but he would have been lying if he said he’d paid much attention to what was going on outside of his own black hole that was his work. “OK?” He started tentatively, shutting up when Nami placed a hand on her hip and gave him that look that let him know he had probably said the wrong thing.

“Well, he’s got a bit of a problem,” Nami continued as Ace shifted his weight from one foot to the other, clearly uncomfortable, “and none of the other docs are here at the moment, otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered you. Would you mind taking a look at him?”

Normally, Marco would have been eager to see a problem outside of his speciality - cardiology - but the way Ace avoided his eyes made him question whether perhaps the young man would have preferred to talk to one of the nurses in the department; they were significantly better at dealing with nervous patients than he was.

“Sure,” he said, perhaps against his better judgement. “What’s up?”

Ace looked at the doctor for the first time since entering the room, and Marco wasn’t surprised to see the defiant and angry look there in his eyes. People tended to look at him like that in clinic when they felt vulnerable and hurt, even though they knew he was there to help him, not judge whatever was affecting them.

“Something’s wrong with my skin,” Ace mumbled as Marco gave him his full attention. “I’ve got these great big splotches all over me and I don’t know what they are. I feel diseased.”

“Right,” Marco said slowly, the vague symptom description not a lot to go on. “Where exactly are these splotches?”

“Everywhere,” Ace said, gesturing to his abdomen, “literally everywhere from my chest to my thighs. And they’re itchy, too.”

Marco nodded and looked to Nami now, who read her doctor’s expression correctly and left the room, closing the door behind her as she went.

Marco settled back into his chair as Ace looked around at the loss of his colleague, slightly panicked. “Have you been in contact with anything you wouldn’t normally be, like different plants or maybe a change in your laundry detergent?” Marco asked calmly, drawing Ace’s attention back to himself.

“No, neither.”

“Any changes to your diet?”

“No.”

“And you’re otherwise healthy?”

“Yeah, I’m good.”

Marco thought for a moment, then asked, “would you mind if I had a look at them?”

Ace grimaced. “They’re hideous, but I guess, sure.”

Marco smiled kindly, reassuringly. “I’m sure it’s nothing I haven’t seen before,” he said, and Ace seemed to relax a little at this.

“You can’t get many skin-related problems coming through your door as a cardiologist,” Ace said as he unbuttoned his pale yellow shirt, fiddling with the buttons more than was probably necessary.

“No, but sometimes symptoms of underlying problems show up in places you wouldn’t expect,” Marco pointed out, “plus, skin complaints are quite common in general medicine, and I saw all sorts during my time in training.”

“So you’ll know what this is?”

“Yes, most likely.”

Ace hesitated, keeping his shirt closed tight as he dithered. Then he pulled it open, revealing his chest and abdomen to the doctor. His body was indeed covered with ‘splotches’, angry-red patches of sore-looking skin spattered across him with dustings of broken blood vessels between the patches where Ace had obviously been raking his nails over irritated skin.

Marco looked at him closely, noting Ace’s impressively prominent abdominal muscles and wondering just how long the man had been in this state before looking for help. Marco had the distinct feeling that Ace had mentioned it to Nami in conversation and she had taken it upon herself to get him looked at.

“This,” he said after a few silent seconds, sitting back in his seat, “is a form of psoriasis. It’s a relatively common skin condition. It isn’t contagious, so don’t worry. Have you ever had this happen before?”

“No,” Ace replied, closing his shirt and beginning to button it up again. “I’ve never really had anything wrong with me.”

Marco rolled his office chair back to his desk and pulled out what he and the other doctors fondly called The Bible, a medical book with every medication prescribable detailed inside, the doses they could be prescribed at, and symptoms or conditions that required the medications. He flicked through until he found the section he was looking for and skimmed down the page.

“Have you been under any stress recently?”

“I’m always stressed,” Ace said with something of a laugh.

“More so than normal, then?”

The young man didn’t answer, and Marco looked up at him in the absence of a reply. Ace looked drawn and tense, and a flicker of concern lit in Marco for the man. He took that as a yes.

“I’ll give you a prescription for a steroid cream that should clear it up,” Marco said, opening a drawer and rummaging through it. “Use a light layer over each red patch once a day, and let me know how you’re getting on in a couple of weeks. They might not be completely gone by then, but they should be a lot better.”

Marco frowned into his drawer, unable to find that damn prescription pad. One of the nurses probably had it again. “Sorry, can you ask Nami to check the nurses’ office for the prescription pad? It usually winds up in there when not in here.”

Ace ducked out of the room in a heartbeat, very clearly glad to be away from the doctor. Marco couldn’t say he blamed him; the psoriasis was severe, the worst he had ever seen in person, in fact, but he hadn’t felt it necessary to share that with Ace. It was definitely caused by stress, there was no doubt about it. Marco’s ideal advice would have been ‘stop being so stressed’, but if useless sentences like that had ever worked then there would have been no use for the entirety of the psychology department.

Nami came back in after a moment, waving the familiar small pad of paper at her doctor. “Lookie what I found buried under a stack of paper on Robin’s desk,” she said brightly, handing it to Marco. “You should keep it locked away, y’know.”

“I do,” Marco sighed, scribbling out the prescription and tearing it off the pad; he hoped the hospital’s pharmacy would be able to read his writing this time. “But Robin must know where I keep the key to these drawers.”

He got up and passed Nami at the doorway before pausing and turning back to her. “Where does he sit?” He asked quietly; he had already forgotten Ace’s name, and he had no idea if the man even shared an office with the secretarial team or not. Remembering names wasn’t his strong point, even occasionally having a lapse in memory and calling Nami by the name of his old secretary from years prior, much to her immense irritation.

Nami sighed and nodded towards a small office down the corridor, the one where the department’s registrars worked. “He’s not a permanent member of the team so he’s desk-hopping for now,” she explained. “He’s going to fix up Dr. Thatch’s mess and then get assigned somewhere else. His dad’s Roger Gold,” she said, giving Marco a significant look; Roger Gold was the CEO of their hospital, “so he basically gets assigned wherever takes his fancy, no questions asked.”

Marco looked impressed; he hadn’t even known Roger had a son. “And he fancied sitting in a tiny office, pouring over a list of patients?” He asked in a hushed voice, not wanting to be overheard. Nami shrugged.

Marco entered the small office to find Ace sitting alone at his desk, checking his phone. He jumped a mile when he noticed the doctor beside him, dropping his phone before locking the screen and looking up with a scared expression. Marco found this odd; he didn’t care if the guy was on his phone, he wasn’t his manager.

“I’ve done your prescription,” Marco said, choosing to ignore the glare that Ace gave him, “but I need to add in your details. That OK?”

Ace nodded and handed Marco a pen for him to fill in the little box at the top of the form. Ace gave him his birth date and address, watching as the pen nib hovered over the name section.

“Ace Gold,” the young man said with something of a sneer at the name. Ah, yes, that was it.

“Roger Gold’s your father, right?” Marco asked conversationally as he wrote the somewhat unusual name before signing the prescription.

“Biologically, yeah.” Ace took the prescription that was handed to him, looking it over. “He’s a bit of a shit father figure, if you ask me.”

Marco assumed Ace meant that Roger had perhaps never had much time for him or any siblings he might have, what with his job probably keeping him away from the family quite a lot.

“That prescription’s only good at this hospital’s pharmacy,” Marco explained, changing the subject as Ace very clearly didn’t want to talk about his family, “so make sure you hand it in to them and not your regular pharmacy, OK? Feel free to drop in and see me if it gets worse or you have any questions.”

Marco gave the young man a smile and was a little surprised to get one back in return. It suited him far better than the frown that had clouded his face before.

Marco left the room and stopped at his office to pick up his briefcase and log off the computer, checking his watch and realising with a start that clinic was due to begin in 10 minutes. He’d have enough time to wonder over to the outpatients department and pick up a coffee before checking into his clinic room for the morning.

“I’m off, Nami,” he told his secretary, popping into the much larger office where the secretarial team sat together. “Don’t forget to email me the dates for the next joint clinics with respiratory.”

“I’ve already done it!” Nami huffed. Marco laughed and thanked her as he left.

 


 

Ace and his psoriasis didn’t cross Marco’s mind again for the next two weeks, the whole event wiped from his thoughts that morning as he had gone about his usual morning clinic. One of his new patients, who had been referred to him for episodes of what were thought to be odd syncope, had slid from their chair to the floor in a tonic-clonic epileptic seizure, and Marco had had the good fortune of being able to find a neurologist colleague also in clinic at the same time to come and assess and take over their care. The rest of that morning had been a blur to him after that.

“So how’s your validating thing coming along?” was the sentence that made Marco remember Ace again for the first time in two weeks. He hadn’t seen him around the offices at all, which he supposed wasn’t unusual given that he himself didn’t frequent them much; the majority of his time was spent in clinic or in meetings, after all.

“All right, I guess,” Edward Thatch replied through a mouthful of lunch, “depends how you look at it, really. They’ve got me making a Powerpoint presentation about the lists from two years ago and how it’s all supposedly sorted now. The secretaries are going nuts with all the appointments that their manager’s asking them to book; my own’s come complaining at me several times but it’s out of my hands now, I’m just doing what I’m told at this point.”

They sat opposite their mutual friend and colleague, Trafalgar Law, vascular surgeon, in the hospital’s enormous canteen, tucked away in a corner of the section of the room that was reserved for staff who weren’t keen on mingling with the public. Hardly any of the senior staff within the hospital ever ate there - it was mainly teams of physiotherapists and admin support who took the time to socialise a little with their colleagues - but Marco, Thatch, and Law made a point of taking lunch together on Fridays to catch up if they could.

“Total waste of my time, if you ask me,” Thatch continued, shaking his head at the indignation of his task. “I haven’t run clinic for a few months now and I miss my patients. Yeah, you heard that right. I hate it. I feel like admin support instead of a doctor.”

“Sounds fun,” Law grinned, spearing a fry and munching on it as Thatch heaved a sigh. “Why were you roped into this in the first place?”

“When I had that problem with my gallbladder I had to take time away from clinics to recover, remember?” Thatch looked affronted at the mere memory of the incident. He had been unwell for a while, generally feeling run down and sick in the lead up to being rushed to the ER for an emergency cholesystectomy. “My secretary cancelled my clinics for two months, as asked. Well, the higher ups quite liked it when I came back early to have a crack at catching up with my admin without having the stress of clinics going on, and they sweet-talked me into helping with this. Now they’re having my secretary cancel clinics on a rolling monthly basis while they keep me locked up and doing their dirty work for them.”

“You could just say no, y’know,” Marco pointed out, grinning at Law as Thatch huffed and gestured at him with his fork, spaghetti swinging wildly from it.

“I tried, they said no,” he grumbled, “but on the bright side it won’t take much longer now that I’ve got Ace working with me.”

”Who?” Asked Law, raising an eyebrow.

“Ace, this guy they plucked out the air from somewhere. Nice guy, early-to-mid-twenties at a guess, very efficient and does what he’s told without complaining. I’ll be sad to see him go.”

“Couldn’t they have just got him to do the whole thing instead of you?” Law frowned, clearly wondering how this oversight had happened.

“Nah,” Thatch waved a hand dismissively, “they needed a doctor to check every case to see if the patients still need to be followed up or if they could be discharged, and bingo, here’s a doctor with loads of free time, apparently.”

“Ah, that’s right, you did say so before,” Law remembered.

They finished up their lunches and put their plates away on a nearby trolley to be collected, and Marco and Thatch bade Law goodbye as he left for the theatre changing rooms to get dressed into his scrubs for his surgical list that afternoon.

The two doctors wandered back over to their offices away from the main hospital building, taking the leisurely route for a change and enjoying the early summer sunshine as they chatted about Thatch’s weekend plans with his kids.

Thatch ducked into his office as they opened the door into the cardiology corridor, grabbing up his briefcase and car keys and hurrying back out before Marco had even unlocked his own office door.

“I’m going to make a break for it,” Thatch explained in a hurry at Marco’s raised eyebrow, “I can’t spend another minute at that damn computer today, Marco, I’ll lose my mind. If they come looking for me, tell them Emily’s been taken sick or something, I don’t know.” Emily was Thatch’s youngest daughter of three, and Marco knew her to be extremely excited for her fast approaching eighth birthday party.

“Have fun,” Marco grinned as Thatch clapped him on the shoulder and strode back down the corridor, calling goodbye to his bemused secretary as he passed their office.

Marco opened the door to his office and popped open his own briefcase, dropping his wallet in there before collapsing into his desk chair with a sigh. Friday afternoons were his designated admin time and they never failed to leave him feeling slow and sluggish, especially in the warmth of summer. Nami was away today for her sister’s wedding, she had reminded him yesterday afternoon, adding an orange sticky note to his computer monitor to remind him of this fact as he was certain to have forgotten by the Friday morning.

“Dr. White?” A woman - Thatch’s secretary - knocked on his door and entered. She was a nice woman in her mid-fifties, a strong-willed individual with the patience and firm approach needed for keeping someone as all over the place as Thatch in line.

“Hi, Miranda,” he said, turning his computer on and crossing a leg over the over. “Wondering where Ed’s rushed off to?”

“How did you guess?” She asked with a wry smile, crossing her arms. “Ace was looking for him while you were at lunch; he’s not going to be happy when he finds out he’s swanned off of his own accord.”

“Emily’s sick,” Marco lied, his sheepish expression a complete giveaway as Miranda raised an eyebrow at him. “OK, no, she isn’t, but he probably would have flung his computer out of the window if he’d stayed here. He’s sick to death of this work.”

Miranda hummed in agreement. “He’s not the only one,” she confessed, turning to leave the room. “I’ll leave you in peace, then.”

Marco made very little progress with his paperwork that afternoon due in part because of the general warmth and sleepiness that always came after his lunch with Thatch and Law, and also due to the copious amounts of emails he had received since the morning from an array of people - requests for ward visits, reminders about a conference he was to run next week, advice requests from junior doctors, and even an email from a patient who was also a member of staff, taking it upon herself to ask him personally if she could be seen in clinic sooner than she was due. Marco replied to them all slowly, copying Nami into each and every one of them and feeling slightly sorry for filling up her inbox during her absence.

He stayed late that evening, long after the secretaries and other doctors had all left, having no desire whatsoever to leave the comfort of his office and return home, if he could call it that. The lonely two-bedroomed apartment he had could hardly be called a home, serving only as somewhere to sleep. Thatch always told him that he should buy a nice house and do it up to his liking - he certainly had the income for almost whatever he wanted - but living alone in a house seemed so much more lonely than living alone in an apartment.

Marco thought of the ale in his fridge that he would drink, alone, upon returning home. Of the inevitable takeout he would get but hardly touch, and the film on Netflix he would likely fall asleep to. He heaved a sigh and took out his phone from his pocket, wondering if Law would be around and up for whiling away the night with him in a bar.

He got a response to his text within minutes, but his shoulders sagged at the reply:

Can’t, out for Gerard’s 60th already. Maybe next weekend?

Marco sighed and started texting Thatch instead. He should have remembered that one of Law’s surgeon colleagues was having his birthday drinks tonight. Thatch’s response was just as disappointing:

Emily is actually genuinely sick. No lie. So’s Fiona. Feel free to come over and nurse them with me though

Marco smiled despite himself as he replied, telling his friend he hoped his daughter and wife got better soon but declining his offer.

He could go and see his father, he supposed, although he had probably left it too late. He glanced at his watch and realised he had - it had just turned 7 PM which meant that his father would be at bingo with the rest of his social club, as was their Friday activity.

A knock at his door almost induced a heart attack as Marco jumped violently - he had been certain that no one was still in the department as Vista, one of the other doctors, had told him he was the last to leave before heading out.

“Yes?” He called, trying to keep his voice calm as his heart rate started to slow after the shock. He was immensely surprised to see Ace opening the door, looking strained and worried as he entered the small office. “Ace!” He exclaimed, “I didn’t realise you were still here. How’ve you been?”

Ace didn’t reply at first, standing awkwardly with his back leaning against Marco’s bookcase next to the door and not quite meeting his eyes. “Sorry for ignoring you the last couple of weeks,” he said unexpectedly, causing Marco to furrow his brow; he hadn’t realised Ace’s lack of appearance had been intentional. “I don’t like doctors looking at me. It makes me really nervous.” That much had been abundantly clear during their single brief meeting two weeks ago, Marco acknowledged, but he didn’t say anything. “I was too embarrassed to see you afterwards.”

Marco understood the sentiment but couldn’t hope to relate. He considered the psoriasis neither hideous (as Ace had described it) nor something to be embarrassed about, but years of experience told him that people rarely handled their symptoms in a clinical manner as he might.

“I was talking to my dad,” Ace changed the subject in an unusually bitter tone, spitting the words out as if they were vile to taste, “up in his office in the Raftel Building.” That explained why Vista hadn’t mentioned him still being in the department when he had left, Marco realised.

“Aren’t you going to go home with him?” Marco asked, assuming this was a reasonably normal question given that it had to be well and truly past Ace’s normal working hours and that travelling to and from work in the same car was far more economical than going alone, although he admittedly had no idea if Ace lived with Roger or not. Ace’s face twisted into a grimace of loathing and Marco regretted his question immediately.

“I’m not getting in a car with that man,” he said angrily, “I’m not going anywhere near him if I can help it.”

The young man’s attitude was alarming to say the least, and Marco suddenly felt completely out of his depth with him. He didn’t know what to say or do, settling with a pathetic, “oh, OK then,” in order to fill the silence.

He had never heard anyone speak about Roger Gold like this with such venom, and given that Marco’s knowledge of the man beyond his title was limited to what he had seen in meetings with the rest of the medical division, he had extremely little to go on.

Ace seemed to realise the position he had put the doctor in as he met his eyes at last, his features relaxing as he stared into cobalt blue, shame written across his face.

“Sorry,” he said in a rush, “you don’t need to know my family problems. Why are you here so late?” He was obviously grasping for something else to talk about and Marco was certain this was not why he had come to look for him so late in the day.

“I was finishing up going through my emails,” Marco said, leaning back in his chair as it creaked a little at the change in position, “and weighing up my options for the night.”

“Yeah? What’ve you gone for?”

“Well, I’m torn between going home and getting drunk to Netflix, or getting drunk in a bar and then going home and passing out to Netflix,” Marco said easily, figuring there was no harm in being honest with this man. If it had been one of the secretaries or one of his doctor colleagues he wasn’t particularly close with then he would have lied and made up something far more eloquent.

There was no point lying to Ace; he had no reason to want the other man to think well of him, given that he was sure to be leaving the department soon and they were neither fellow doctors nor had a proper patient and doctor relationship.

Ace looked slightly taken aback by Marco’s honesty. “What about your wife?”

Marco snorted at the assumption. “I’m not married.” He held up his left hand and wiggled his fingers, proving the lack of a wedding band.

“Girlfriend?”

Marco actually laughed at this one. He hadn’t had a girlfriend since he was a teenager, and that had ended in utter disaster. “Nope, completely single and not interested.” Ace looked puzzled and Marco took the opportunity to divert the topic away from his ruin of a love life. “Are you up to anything fun tonight? Going out somewhere, maybe? Feel free to sit down, by the way; you don’t have to hover by the door, I’m not that scary.”

Ace shook his head as he took the empty seat in the room that people - usually Nami - used when they wanted to speak to Marco. “I’m not doing anything interesting,” he said, hands clasped tight in his lap as he looked nervous again, “just going home.”

That tiny flicker of concern ignited within Marco again as he studied Ace’s face, the young man’s expression pained again. Marco wasn’t sure if it would be appropriate to ask if things were OK at home, not when they hardly knew each other. It was one thing to admit to planning on drinking himself to sleep and quite another to pry into Ace’s private life. So he changed the topic, hoping it to be one they could discuss easily.

Marco was very wrong.

“So how did you get on with the steroid cream?” He asked, genuinely interested. “Did it clear up the psoriasis?”

He knew he had said the wrong thing immediately as Ace’s shoulders stiffened and his head ducked, looking at his hands. Had he made a mistake? Had he prescribed him something that had actually made it worse? Marco had been sure he’d prescribed the right medication for the condition, he hadn’t had any doubts at the time, and panic stabbed at his stomach as he watched Ace intently. Dermatology would have an absolute field day if Ace got referred to them and they found out a cardiologist had got to their patient first and made things exponentially worse with his meddling.

But then Ace put him out of his short-lived misery with a nod. “Yeah, it cleared it up, all right.” But Marco knew there was more to that sentence, and as a doctor he needed to know what it was.

“But?” He prompted. Ace frowned and his freckled cheeks colored.

It took several tense moments for him to answer, his hands fidgeting in his lap as he clearly worked himself up to answering the doctor, but he finally answered.

“The patches you saw are almost completely gone,” he began, brow furrowed deeply, “but… more keep appearing. They won’t stop. Every day there are more new ones and so I used the cream on them, but the next day there’s more and more and I ran out of cream a few days ago because they just seem to be multiplying and I don’t know what to do.”

He looked up at last, eyes desperate and searching Marco’s face for an answer, embarrassment at his condition evident in his flushed cheeks. Sympathy and concern twinged Marco’s heart and he had to stop himself from reaching out to the man. In this moment he was a patient again, and Marco was a professional.

This was unusual; Marco knew enough about the condition to know that much, but he thought he knew the cause, at least.

“You mentioned last time that you were under a lot of stress,” Marco said, amazed at himself for remembering this; Ace had not in fact confirmed this verbally, if he remembered correctly, but his face had said it all. “Is that stress ongoing? Are things getting worse?”

Ace nodded and, to Marco’s horror, he sniffed and his eyes welled up with tears.

“She won’t get better,” he said, his voice trembling as he wiped furiously at his eyes. “My mother’s sick and Dad doesn’t care. He won’t do anything for her and he just leaves her in pain, not giving a shit that she’s suffering so long as he can carry on being the CEO of this fucking place. He has no time for her, he won’t even tell anyone that she’s ill and he made me swear I wouldn’t bring it up. How could I not?”

Ace laughed weakly, tears breaking free and dribbling down his cheeks despite his continued wiping of his hands to his eyes. “How could I lie to you and make up something bad enough to make this stupid condition not get better? I thought that was why they wouldn’t go away but I- that’s why I-”

Marco wheeled closer and put a hand to Ace’s arm despite himself. He understood. This was why Ace hadn’t asked for help in the first place and why he hadn’t come back to Marco when the patches of fiercely red skin didn’t stop appearing. Marco found it impossible to believe that Roger Gold would neglect his wife to the extent that Ace was describing, but whatever was happening it was enough to make the young man physically react this powerfully.

“Can I ask,” Marco said quietly, gripping Ace’s arm a little tighter to try and reassure him, “what’s wrong with your mother?”

“She has cancer,” Ace gasped, fresh tears spilling down his cheeks as Marco twisted behind himself to grab a packet of tissues from his briefcase and offer them to Ace, who took one gratefully. “It started in the large intestine and she had surgery to remove some of the intestine, but it came back. She had more surgery but then it came back again. She’s had chemotherapy and radiotherapy and they left her so sick. They’ve told her it’s back again now and they can’t do anything else for her. She’s in a hospice and my dad won’t go and see her. He never sees her. She gets mad if I go to her every day - like, really mad - so I can’t go today. She says she wants me to live my life and to enjoy myself instead of spending all my free time with her. I went to ask Dad to go and see her for once and he kicked off, yelling at me about how I haven’t thought about how this is affecting him - I don’t care how it’s affecting him!” Ace suddenly looked furious, “how can I care about him when she’s dying?”

Ace’s flow of dialogue came to an abrupt halt as Marco hugged him tightly, going against his professional instinct and holding his colleague close, patting his dark hair as whatever had been holding Ace back snapped and he gripped the back of Marco’s shirt in response, crying in earnest into his shoulder.

Now was not the time to tell Ace that his father most likely very much required love and support, that Roger was most certainly not staying away from his wife out of disinterest or a lack of love. Ace didn’t need to hear about how people dealt with grief in very different ways. He just needed an outlet for the misery he must have kept to himself for an incredibly long time, a shoulder to cry on until he had no more tears left, someone to comfort him when he was so vulnerable.

Marco would be as good as anyone else in that moment, he figured.

He held Ace for a long time, stroking his hair and hushing him quietly long after the tears subsided and Ace’s shoulders stopped shaking. Marco vaguely wondered how long it had been since the guy had told anyone about this or if he even had someone to comfort him through it, like a partner or a close friend. The way Ace had spilled everything to him, an almost complete stranger, made Marco guess that this was not the case, which, if true, spoke volumes of Ace’s loneliness when he needed someone the most.

“If you’re not doing anything tonight,” Marco said quietly, “you’re more than welcome to join me for a bad takeout and probably equally bad films, y’know. I have a guest room if you want to stay over, too.”

Marco didn’t want Ace to be alone like this if he could help it.

Ace finally pulled away gently, wiping at his eyes a final time with the tissue still clutched in one hand as he sat back into the chair and huffed a small laugh. “You hardly know me,” he said, sounding amused despite himself, “and I’m not going to be good company. Why would you want me around?”

Marco shrugged. “Don’t all friendships start with neither knowing the other well?” He asked enigmatically, smiling as Ace laughed lightly. “C’mon, we can be bad company together. I’ll even bore you to sleep with pictures of my cats.”

“You have cats?” Ace asked, brightening up a little as he stood, watching Marco as he powered down his computer and collected up his briefcase.

“Yeah, two. You like cats?”

Ace smiled warmly. “I love them.”

And that seemed to settle the matter. To their mutual surprise, Ace accepted Marco’s offer and they were soon in his car - it turned out that Ace lived close enough to the hospital to walk in every day - and speeding away to a night of drinks, food, and conversation, Netflix all but forgotten.