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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.

 

Chapter Text

It was a truly wondrous feeling, waking up and knowing he wasn’t alone in the apartment, Marco concluded the next morning. He wasn’t alone at home for the first time in… how long had it been since Thatch last fell asleep on the couch? Even though he was very much on his own in his king-sized bed, Marco could hear the faint rumbling of snores coming through the wall from the guest room. He smiled to himself, allowing a moment to just listen to another person be so close by before he rolled out of bed.

Ace really had ended up going home with him, and they had had far more fun than Marco had anticipated they would.

They had picked up plenty of alcohol on the way back, Ace jumping out of the car and darting into the shop they pulled up alongside, and Marco had ordered pizza from his phone as he waited for his new friend to get back. They had eaten together at Marco’s glass-top table in his large modern kitchen, Ace revealing that he was actually a pretty disgusting dinner guest while munching through twice the amount that Marco managed before looking to the kitchen wistfully for something else to snack on.

They had talked about everything and nothing for hours as they drank, Ace eventually relaxing enough to get down on the floor to play with Marco’s two beautiful Maine Coon cats, Dusk and Dawn, when they wandered over for attention, Ace positively squeaking with delight when he discovered that Dawn was perfectly happy for him to rub his face into her soft, fluffy tummy.

And there they both were now, charcoal-black Dusk curled up on Ace’s chest, soft gray-tabby Dawn sprawled out across his belly, both rising and falling with the young man’s gentle breathing. Marco leaned against the doorway of his spare bedroom for a long moment, watching the happy sight of the three of them sleeping so peacefully in the mid-morning sun that streamed through the gap in the curtains.

It really was nice having someone else there. It gave Marco a reason to actually get up and face the day rather than lie in bed and contemplate life and all it’s meanings yet again.

He hummed to himself as he showered quickly, noting the lack of a hangover for perhaps the first time in at least a year, maybe more, this free Saturday morning. He had drank less than he usually did on a Friday night that didn’t require him to go anywhere the next morning, pacing himself better as he talked with Ace rather than necking bottle after bottle in his quest for oblivion.

Marco pulled on a pair of loose black gym pants over underwear after his shower, pausing as he weighed up going topless (as he often did when alone) before deciding against it and pulling on a blue tank top that did absolutely nothing to hide his muscular shoulders and arms but did cover up the tattoo on his chest that so very few people knew of.

He padded barefooted into his kitchen, tugging open the fridge door and pulling out a carton of eggs, milk, butter, and some bacon and setting them on the counter. He realised that he didn’t know what Ace liked to eat other than pizza, but judging by how much he had drank the night before he would be in need of some serious hangover food.

Marco had never had a guest get so merry that they rolled around on his living room floor with the cats completely shamelessly, and it had honestly been a nice change of pace. Ace had called them his princesses as he had kissed Dusk’s back and Dawn’s belly repeatedly. Marco chuckled at the memory of the man making a fool of himself, happy that he had cheered up after the misery he had shown at work.

Marco felt good.

Ace, however, did not.

He awoke to the smell of bacon cooking, rising from his sleep like a zombie coming back to life, groan and all, upright before he was really aware of what was going on. Dusk jumped gracefully from his chest as her warm bed sat up, Dawn slipping sleepily off him and to his side before rearranging herself comfortably against his thigh. Ace looked from Dawn to Dusk, who had jumped to the floor with a chirp, and blinked blearily at them.

“Morning, ladies,” he said thickly, his mouth dry and head dull with fog. He looked around and spotted a glass of water and two Aspirin on the night stand which he gratefully snatched up and swallowed in one, wiping at his chin where a little had spilled in his haste.

Ace took a moment to look around the room as he blinked, slowly but surely remembering where he was and why. The room was reasonably large, light, and airy, painted a soft pale blue with a built-in closet into the wall opposite the window. He sat in an incredibly comfortable double bed with fresh cream colored satin sheets, and from his position he could see through the open door into the short corridor that led to the living room and kitchen.

He was in Marco’s - the cardiologist’s - home, and it was Marco that he could hear whistling to himself over the sizzle of bacon frying. Ace’s heart squeezed with shame as the memory of crying into the doctor’s shirt slammed into his mind’s eye in perfect clarity, followed immediately by the image of himself laughing at Dawn the cat while mimicking her upside-down position on her back.

On the floor.

On Marco’s living room floor while he watched.

What the hell was wrong with him?

Ace swung his legs out of the bed reluctantly, sad to leave it’s comfort and Dawn, who was lounging calmly on top of the sheets. He glanced down at himself and looked away again instantly, the ever present red marks on his skin making him loathe the sight of his body. He didn’t care if it was a common condition or if Marco had seen a billion cases of it in his life - Ace thought it was disgusting.

He grabbed up his work shirt from the floor where he had thrown it and pulled it on, buttoning it up and lamenting not having anything else to wear; he felt ridiculous as he pulled his work pants on as well, thankful that Drunk Ace had not removed his boxers the night before, being sensible for once and keeping them on.

Scratching Dawn’s ears and stooping to pet Dusk before he left the room, Ace padded down the corridor slowly towards the promise of food.

“Morning!” Marco said cheerfully, positively beaming at Ace as he winced; he felt delicate, to say the least. “Ah, sorry,” Marco said more quietly, grinning as Ace took a seat at the large glass-top table, “how’s your head doing?”

“About as well as you’d imagine,” Ace said dully, running his fingers through his hair and feeling gross all over. “Thanks for the water and pills.”

“No problem. Are you up for some breakfast? I’m nearly ready to dish up.” Ace’s eyes lit up expectantly and Marco could not wipe the smile off his face no matter how hard he tried. “Do you like scrambled eggs? Bacon?”

“Is the pope Catholic?”

“And how about beans? Toast? I don’t have any mushrooms or sausages otherwise I’d do those for you too, sorry.”

“So it’s more of a Half English than a Full English fry up?” Ace smiled, watching Marco’s back as he busied himself with dishing out the food onto a plate at the counter, chuckling. Ace’s eyes slid over the doctor’s muscular physique, appreciating the well-defined shoulders and biceps that his crisp work shirts normally hid so well. “Kinda surprised you’d advocate frying stuff, though, what with being a heart specialist and everything.”

“Moderation’s the key to happiness,” Marco said sagely, glancing over his shoulder at his guest, “having something like this once in a while won’t do you any lasting harm.”

Ace honestly didn’t care if it killed him on the spot in that moment as Marco set down a plate brimming with his breakfast, handing him a knife and fork too. Ace set to work at once, uttering a rushed word of thanks as he dug in almost frantically.

“I noticed last night too, but you really do pull some interesting expressions when you’re presented with food,” Marco said as he poured them both a coffee, handing one to Ace.

“Ah love eet,” Ace managed around a huge mouthful of toast and egg, earning a snort of mingled amusement and disgust from Marco in response.

Marco didn’t add that he was impressed that Ace managed to stay so in shape - he could clearly remember the abs the younger man had sported when he had examined the psoriasis - and guessed it was down to a combination of being blessed with a fast metabolism and many, many hours spent at the gym.

Pulling a chair out from under the table opposite Ace, Marco sat down with a bacon sandwich and his cup of coffee. Ace looked incredulously from the offensive sandwich to Marco’s face, swallowed hard, and said, “that’s all you’re having?”

Marco huffed a laugh. “Yeah, this is a lot for me. I don’t get hungry in the mornings.”

Ace gaped at Marco as if he had just announced he didn’t need air to survive. “How? I’m hungry all the time.”

And he went right back to eating as if he had starved for a week; Marco chuckled and took a bite of his own breakfast.

What Ace didn’t voice was his amazement at the fact that Marco had cooked for him. Just him. Granted, it wasn’t a difficult meal to throw together, but he had done it with the sole intention of making sure Ace ate well. Something in Ace’s chest sparked into life at this thought and he felt warm all of a sudden.

“How did you sleep?” Marco asked as Ace cleared his plate in record time, grabbing for the coffee and taking a sip. “I hope the cats didn’t harass you too much?”

Dusk appeared right on cue, wrapping around Ace’s legs with a purr and making him jump slightly. He reached down and petted her soft head as Dawn wandered over too, sliding up alongside her sister and sniffing excitedly at Ace’s fingers.

“They were fine,” Ace said happily, giving Dawn some attention too, “I think they slept on me all night. They were there when I fell asleep and there when I woke up, at least.”

Marco’s smile grew broader as he rested his stubbly chin in his palm, his food forgotten as he watched Ace’s elated expression when Dusk cheekily jumped up onto his lap, nose in the air as she sniffed for scraps.

This was really. Fucking. Nice.

“Good. They like it when people come over; they think they can sucker them into giving them treats.”

Ace hummed in thought, deciding whether or not he should pry into his senior colleague’s life more than he had already pushed it. A little more couldn’t hurt, surely? “Do you have people over often?” He asked innocently, holding Dusk back as she noticed Marco’s abandoned sandwich and twitched in its direction.

“No,” Marco said, also noticing Dusk’s interest and picking up the sandwich, taking a bite. He lifted his gaze and met Ace’s, much brighter and focused now that he had filled his alcohol-sodden belly with ample quantities of food and the Aspirin had started to kick in. Ace found he wanted to drop his gaze but couldn’t, staring into deep blue for a long while as Marco chewed, waiting for him impatiently. Ace couldn’t help but feel like Marco was deciding whether to tell him something, but he couldn’t guess as to what.

“Ed - Dr. Thatch - will stay over occasionally if he drinks too much to drive home,” Marco said eventually, “but he hasn’t been over for a while. One of the vascular surgeons I’ve known for years pops in every now and then, and my sister will stay over if she’s in town, but-”

“You have a sister?” Ace looked interested at this bit of information about Marco’s family. “Sorry,” he added quickly, “I just can’t imagine doctors with, like, siblings and parents. No idea why. What’s she like?”

Marco took his phone out of his pocket and flicked through a few photos, finally settling on one and holding it up for Ace to see. In the photo, Marco had his arm around a beautiful woman with long, wavy, platinum-blonde hair that was so white it looked icy silver. She had the same full lips and dark blue eyes as her brother as she smiled at the camera, holding Marco close around the waist at what looked like a wedding, judging by their smart attire and the champagne flutes in both of their free hands.

“Wow,” Ace said softly, drinking in the photo, not only taken in by the woman’s striking beauty but also how handsome Marco looked in his dark gray suit. “She’s beautiful. What’s her name?”

“Whitey.”

Ace’s eyebrows went skyward and the soft feeling that came with looking at the doctor’s family photo disappeared. “You’re telling me your sister is called Whitey White?” he snickered.

Marco laughed, making Dusk jump and leap softly from Ace’s lap. “No, sorry, that’s her nickname. Some teacher she was close with in high school called her Whitey and it stuck ever since. She’s married now and her surname’s Bay, so it isn’t so bad. Her name’s Katrina.”

“Lovely name,” Ace smiled, watching Marco as he flicked through his photos, the warmth in his chest growing.

It shouldn’t have, but it only hit him now that Marco, this doctor who he had hardly known before last night, had a family, a whole life’s worth of history, that he didn’t know about. Marco had not sprung into being as he was before Ace now, a fact that should have been obvious and was logically sound, but Ace had never taken a second to look at any of the doctors he had ever met as people rather than just their titles. They had mainly talked about Ace the night before, or had shared stories about funny patients they had come across; Ace hadn’t asked Marco anything about himself, although admittedly Marco hadn’t seemed in any hurry to share, either.

He found himself wanting to know more.

“Is Whitey a doctor, too?” Ace asked, looking at Marco over the rim of his coffee cup as he took another sip. Marco looked up from his phone at the question.

“No, she’s a sonographer,” Marco replied. He suddenly looked apprehensive, much to Ace’s surprise.

“Oh, so she scans pregnant women’s babies?” Ace couldn’t see what could be wrong with this profession; it sounded really rewarding.

Marco shook his head. “A lot of the midwives do that in her hospital,” he said. “No, she scans for malignancies, mostly in the kidneys and liver.”

Ace was silent, the implication in the word ‘malignancy’ numbing him for a moment as Marco obviously waited for him to react, for Ace to withdraw into himself again and lose his glow.

But he didn’t. Ace’s face instead split into a truly radiant smile, expression soft as he said, “so she helps save people too, huh? I bet your parents are so proud of you both.”

He had stunned Marco speechless, he could see it. He couldn’t deny that talking about cancer in any form was difficult for him, but Ace respected the people who spent their lives diagnosing and treating the condition. They, as far as he was concerned, were perfect, wonderful, irreplaceable individuals who really weren’t appreciated enough for their work.

It was the surgeons who he had no love for and who he blamed for his mother’s fate.

“So, Dr. Thatch comes here to drink, too?” Ace changed the subject fast, having no desire for Marco to see his vulnerability again so soon. “Have you been friends for a long time?”

“Oh,” Marco looked surprised, clearly caught off guard by the sudden shift in topic, “yeah, we went to university together. I’ve known him since we were eighteen; we sat next to each other in our first lecture and have been together ever since. You would not believe the luck we had throughout the years. We were only apart during our junior doctor days.”

“I thought he was older than you,” Ace admitted, grinning, “since he’s more lined right here.” He pointed to his forehead as Marco returned the grin, relaxing back into the conversation.

“That’s what having three kids will do to you,” Marco said fondly. “Has he told you about his girls?”

“I knew their names before I knew his,” Ace said. Thatch had treated Ace to far too many photos of his three daughters - Sophia aged eleven, Bianca aged nine, and Emily aged seven - on his first day working with him, either not noticing or not caring that Ace lost interest after the third photo of the auburn-haired children.

“It’s Emily’s birthday next weekend,” Marco remembered, once again mentally scolding himself for not getting her a card and present yet. “I’ve got to get her something today. What do eight year old girls like?”

Ace shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine,” he said, very glad that he didn’t have to shop for a child’s present, “something pink?”

“She says she’s too cool for pink nowadays.”

Ace grinned, running his fingers through his hair again and reminding himself of how filthy he felt; he always felt gross after drinking.

“Do you mind if I use your shower?” Ace asked as he stretched, groaning a little at the motion. He met Marco’s eyes again and realised exactly what that innocent question entailed. “If that’s all right, of course,” he added shyly, nerves surging out of nowhere at the thought of being naked and exposed and naked in the doctor’s home. Completely naked. Here. Where Marco got naked every single day.

Ace could hear his heartbeat in his ears for a second as his cheeks flushed.

“Sure, there’s a spare towel in the guest room closet you can use,” Marco said, completely oblivious to the route Ace’s brain had taken as he reached over to collect up his plate and cutlery. “Feel free to use whatever you need, there’s shampoo and body wash in there already.”

Ace thanked him and headed to the guest room without another word, locating the towel with ease and sitting on the bed with it clutched in one hand, the other petting Dawn as she followed him in. He would need to keep those kinds of revelations in check from now on.

 


 

Marco drove Ace back home just before midday, shouting down the younger man’s protests and insistences that he would call a taxi so that Marco didn’t have to go out of his way for him, arguing that he needed to head out anyway to get something for Emily’s birthday. Ace had relented, cheeks a furious red as he strapped himself in and let the doctor take him home, not admitting that after seeing Marco’s richly furnished, obviously luxurious apartment he was in no rush to show off the small, far more modest place he rented near the hospital.

Nerves began to settle in for a completely different reason as Marco pulled up and parked just outside the building. Ace decided he would get changed out of yesterday’s work clothes and then drive straight to the hospice his mother was residing in, determined to stay with her until the evening today rather than let her talk him into leaving after barely an hour again.

“Well, thanks for everything,” Ace said, fidgeting with the seatbelt a little more than necessary, delaying the moment when he would have to leave. He glanced up and met Marco’s calm gaze, feeling his chest constricting without warning. “I’ll see you on Monday. Hope you find something nice for Emily.”

A hand to his arm stopped him as he went to open the door - Ace froze and looked back around to the doctor, breath caught in his throat as he saw the expression there. Marco didn’t want him to go either, and he was hiding it badly.

This was a curious development.

Ace leaned back towards him slightly, time feeling like it was slowing as his brain kicked into overdrive, frantically trying to determine what to do in a split second. It was insane - completely and all-consumingly insane - but Ace was momentarily drawn to those slightly parted lips, thought about reaching out a hand to run along the stubbled jawline before him -

He was halted in his internal whirlwind of impulses and confusion as Marco let go of his arm and held his hand out. “Give me your phone for a second,” he said, apparently blissfully unaware of what the other man had been thinking, “I’ll give you my number.”

“Oh, right.”

Ace shoved a hand in his pocket and unlocked his phone as he pulled it out, handing it to Marco and watching him type in his number and save it. He took it back meekly, looking at the number on the screen as his heart raced.

“Feel free to call me if you need someone to offload to or if you want to come see the girls again,” Marco smiled kindly. “I’m free all of next weekend at the moment, but the weekend after I’m away for a conference. You’re going through a lot right now and I want you to know that I’m happy to listen if you need to talk. I doubt there’s anything I can do other than feed you, but I’m here if you need me.”

Ace felt his face burn and his heart clench. He looked at Marco and the question ‘why do you care so much?’ almost left him. He could just about understand why Marco had decided to socialise with him the night before - he had all but admitted himself that he had had no plans, after all - but Ace could not fathom what made his company appealing to the doctor. As far as he was concerned, Marco was way out of his league, the professional gap between them laughably enormous.

Marco seemed to know what he was thinking this time. “I mean it,” he said seriously, “I’m happy to listen if you want to talk. I’m sure you have friends or relatives you’d much rather talk to, but if for any reason you think I can help, I’ll pick up. I’m also happy to talk at work if I’m in the office. I’ll put in a prescription for more of the steroid cream too; you said you’d run out, right?” He was privately impressed that he had remembered that sliver of information.

Ace nodded. “Thanks,” he said, “for being so nice to someone like me. Don’t feel you have to because my dad’s basically your boss, though.”

“I don’t give a damn who your father is,” Marco said, looking genuinely surprised that Ace had brought up Roger.

“Well, thanks all the same,” Ace said, slightly cheered up by Marco’s reaction.

As he watched the sleek silver Mercedes drive away a moment later, Ace felt lost and helpless, confused and wildly conflicted. He was so torn between deleting Marco’s number and never imposing upon him again, on locking away those flutters in his stomach that announced the beginnings of feelings that he knew would not be returned… And between calling Marco immediately, telling him to turn back and do something, anything, to numb the pain of seeing his mother slowly dying once again.

Ace trudged inside slowly, trying to parse the complexity of his conflicting emotions, unaware that Marco was doing almost exactly the same thing as he drove away.

 


 

She looked so small again today, her freckles standing out in stark contrast against her pale skin as she watched him approach, her once beautiful strawberry-blonde hair lying in a plait on her pillow. Rouge’s eyes swam with love as Ace pulled up a chair beside her bed, leaning over to kiss her cheek as she reached out a weak hand to touch the freckles she had passed on to him, fingers delicate against his skin.

“My boy,” Rouge whispered, tone gentle yet tinged with scolding, “haven’t I told you already that you don’t need to come here so often?”

“Tell me once more, as ever,” Ace smiled at her, the expression not quite reaching his eyes. “I missed you, Mom. How have you been?”

He took her raised hand in both of his, clasping it between his palms and lacing his fingers with hers. Affection for his mother always came so easily, so readily, especially now. Rouge squeezed his fingers back in response.

“We had fish for dinner last night,” Rouge said, “with mashed sweet potato. It was really lovely; not a combination I would have thought of myself. And Ines plaited my hair this morning, look - she said that she’d bring in some ribbons from home tomorrow to tie it off with. Won’t that look nice?”

“Yeah, it will,” Ace replied, making a mental note to thank the Dutch nurse for her thoughtfulness when he next saw her.

They sat in silence for a moment, Rouge watching her son with adoration etched into her features as Ace stared at their linked hands, unable to meet her eyes just yet. No matter how often he visited, no matter how long she continued to outlive the oncologist’s original prognosis, the sight of his mother lying in her bed was always a difficult one to take in at first.

Before she had become sick, Rouge had been a passionate woman who fiercely loved her husband and son, always ready to sacrifice anything for them. No ask was too big, no favor was too much, and Rouge had supported Roger throughout his career as he had gained ranks in management, doing the same for Ace when he had become old enough to begin working. She had never wanted anything for herself, her happiness derived from doting on her family.

How had a woman so vibrant and strong-willed ended up here, waiting to die as a shadow of her former self?

“I hope your Friday was more interesting than mine,” Rouge prompted Ace to engage with her, a kind smile on her lips as he looked up at her. She never liked it when he slipped into silence, knowing that he was thinking difficult things and tying himself up in knots inside. “Did you do anything?”

Again, the memory of crying wet and noisy into the cardiologist’s shirt surfaced, and Ace felt guilty for it, not only for imposing on Marco but also for not being strong enough to keep himself together. However terrible he felt would be nothing compared to what Rouge had to be experiencing, facing the very certain possibility of death every time she fell asleep.

“I had dinner with someone from work,” he said, leaving out the part about drinking so much he had treated Marco to a detailed account of how he had broken his elbow at age 19 by tripping over a tree root. It had not been a particularly thrilling or even interesting tale, but Drunk Ace had really wanted to tell Marco about it, for whatever reason drunk people ever did anything.

“Oh?” Rouge suddenly looked more alert, keenly eyeing her son. “Someone nice? Was this your first date? Tell me everything, darling.”

“Jeez, Mom,” Ace laughed gently, patting her hand, “it wasn’t a date. We went back to his and had pizza, that’s all.”

“Who is he? Oh, no,” she looked worried, brows knitting over deep walnut eyes, “it wasn’t that doctor you’re working with, was it? Sweetheart, you said he’s married, you can’t date him.”

Ace couldn’t help laughing; Rouge looked so serious. “Christ, no,” he chuckled, “Dr. Thatch is nice and all, but no. It was one of the other doctors, Dr. White.”

Route hummed as she obviously tried to recall the name. “I don’t think you’ve mentioned him before,” she said slowly, “what’s he like?”

Ace had indeed not mentioned his formal introduction to Marco two weeks prior, nor had he told his mother about the psoriasis covering his chest, abdomen, back, and thighs. He knew she would weed the cause of the red patches out of him and then blame herself profusely, and Ace would not do that to her.

“He’s…” Ace gestured vaguely, casting around for a sufficient way to describe Marco. Ace would privately describe the blond as very caring, a bit forgetful, dedicated, and unexpectedly ridiculously hot… but he certainly wasn’t going to tell Rouge any of that. “He’s interesting,” Ace settled on.

Rouge’s eyes positively twinkled; Ace hadn’t seen her look this excited for months, since before her terminal diagnosis. She looked like her old self again momentarily, her expression reminiscent of a time they would never get back.

“Is he single?” She asked, ignoring how Ace rolled his eyes and groaned. “He must like you if he took you back to his-” She gasped, a soft inhale of breath as her eyes went wide, “oh, Ace,” she looked mortified, “you didn’t sle-”

“Please tell me you have a higher opinion of your only son than that, Mom,” Ace laughed, shaking his head at her. “We had dinner, we drank a bit, I played with his cats and we went to sleep. In separate rooms.”

Rouge actually looked let down, as if she had been tempted with some exciting juicy gossip only to have it snatched away before hearing it. “Well, are you seeing him again?” she asked.

“Yeah, at work on Monday, if he’s around.”

“Darling, you know what I mean. Are you having another date with this Dr. White? He is single, isn’t he?”

“Yes, he is, and no, we haven’t arranged anything.” Ace didn’t let his mother in on the internal conflict he felt about Marco; that was trivial in the grand scheme of things, really.

He appreciated Rouge trying to distract him from the sorrow he held because of her ill health, but Ace didn’t enjoy trying to make out like life was wonderful and good while she was not. It felt incredibly disrespectful, regardless of how often Rouge protested that he still needed to enjoy life.

“Well, that is disappointing.”

Ace frowned slightly at her tone, studying Rouge’s face as she blinked at him. The laughter was gone, replaced instead by very obvious sympathy and love. Ace felt his cheeks heating up under that gaze. “How so?” He asked, although he knew where this was going. Rouge always turned their conversations around like this.

“My love,” she said with a sigh, “you have to live your life. Don’t wait for chances to find you; find them. You don’t know what is in your future, and this illness has made me look at life differently - no, don’t pull that face,” she said gently, squeezing Ace’s fingers between her own as he opened his mouth to interrupt.

“Mom, please—”

“Let me finish. I wish you could see your life as I do. You must take every chance you can and enjoy yourself. Who knows, maybe this doctor is the one for you? Maybe he’s fallen completely head over heels in love with you already and wants nothing more than to be with you? Maybe he is destined to be just a good friend instead, one who will be there for you when I no longer can? You need people in your life, Ace; surround yourself with as many good, kind people as you can.”

“You say that like I don’t have any friends already,” Ace mumbled, although he was smiling despite himself. “And I think you’re jumping the gun a bit with Marco. It was just some takeout pizza.”

But Rouge had always had a habit of knowing there was more to a story than what her son told her. She simply smiled knowingly at him, letting the subject go.

“I think,” she said, looking to the window at the other end of the room, “I would like to see the gardens. The wild corn flowers are in bloom among the poppies at the moment and they’re simply gorgeous in the sun. Would you be a dear and fetch a wheelchair?”

Ace jumped up at once, leaving the room in search of a nurse to help them as his heart sunk into his stomach. Left unsaid was Rouge’s lack of fight to walk unaided - until Thursday, when he had last seen her, Rouge had been declining the wheelchair when it was offered to her, insisting that she didn’t need it. She had coaxed Ace into taking a turn around the main garden then, clutching his arm the entire way around and stopping for a break at every bench, her shuffling gait uncertain and unconfident.

She was getting markedly weaker by the day, now. He would have to find a way to get Roger there as soon as he could, if it was the last thing he did. They would both regret it for the rest of their lives if he failed.

Chapter Text

You need to go see Mom. She asked for a wheelchair straight away this time. She can barely walk. She’s getting worse.

Roger stared at the brief text from his son, not really taking in the words anymore. This was new. Not the text update - Ace regularly sent them despite also sending threats that he would stop communication entirely if Roger didn’t go to his wife - but Rouge showing any kind of weakness was.

He ran a hand through his thick hair and frowned at his phone. He had typed out a reply to Ace, rewriting and deleting and tapping it out again, but he couldn’t face sending it. Their chat history was almost entirely one-sided, just Ace sending him updates every couple of days and Roger leaving him eternally on read. It always went like this. He always tried to reply, typed out paragraphs of misery, of anger, of heartbreak, before deleting them and remaining silent. Feeding Ace’s belief that Roger did not care.

How could Ace possibly believe that he didn’t care? It was absurd, beyond the realms of reason. Yes, he supposed it didn’t look good, him avoiding Rouge and indeed Ace himself where he could, but could his son not see why? Could he not grasp that the pain of facing the woman he had devoted his entire being to was just too much?

Roger was fully aware that he would regret it for the rest of his days if he did not gather his courage in time. He would never, ever forgive himself if he stayed away until it was too late. Rouge was his everything, she always would be, and this was going to ruin him no matter what he did.

Roger was not a weak man by any stretch of the imagination. Roger was self-assured, was powerful, ambitious, clever and diplomatic. He could talk his way into - and out of - just about any situation. He never gave in. He had led this hospital through financial ruin and into incomparably better times almost single-handedly, taking the helm and attending meetings he was told were too lowly for the CEO, spoke to business partners and lawyers himself that his PA or the executive committee would have normally dealt with. Roger did not shy away from putting himself out there, laying his neck on the line and doing what had to be done.

But this… this was something else entirely. This was where the fierce man’s one single chink in his armour lay.

He knew what he had to do. He knew. He just didn’t know how to go about breaking down the barriers he had built up to do so. He didn’t have his son’s courage or his wife’s iron-clad bravery, clearly.

Roger sighed long and hard as his phone went dark, automatically locking after five minutes of inactivity. There was no escaping this. If she really wasn’t even attempting to walk now, then Rouge had taken the first step down her final steep slope. There would be no coming back from it. Not that there had ever been any chance that she would, but when she had continuously persevered through physio, had outlived her original prognosis of a month to five… Well, it gave Roger the blind hope that a miracle would occur and she would get better.

He should have never got her booked into the hospice. It was a fine place, the best that his vast income could afford, and the care she received was leagues better than anything he could have hoped to achieve at home. He had done the right thing for her from a medical point of view, but that had been the point of no return. He had not gone to visit since Ace had driven her there a month ago.

A soft knock on his office door pulled his attention back to the room. “Yes?” he said sharply.

Roger’s PA, a smartly dressed woman with a blonde bob in her late 30s, poked her head around the door. “Mr. Gold,” she addressed him, not faltering under the intense glare she was subjected to, “the board of directors have begun to arrive. I’ve directed them to conference room A. Shall I tell them you’re on your way down?”

Roger heaved a deep sigh and laid his forehead to his clasped fingers, a rare display of fatigue that his PA had indeed never witnessed. She looked at him questioningly, her professional mask slipping a little. “Mr. Gold? Is everything OK?”

“Everything is fantastic,” he said gruffly, raising his head again to meet her eyes. She didn’t know anything about Rouge; Roger strongly suspected that if he told her then she would try to comfort him, and that wasn’t something he could deal with. “I could murder a cup of coffee, though.”

That got rid of her.

Roger unlocked his phone again and read Ace’s last text once more, jaw set as he clenched his teeth. He rose from his chair and strode across the room, pocketing his phone and pulling the door open. He would find a way to change his attitude, he had to, it was absolutely imperative that he did now.

He would bite the bullet and go visit Rouge. Somehow.

On the other side of the hospital site, on the second floor of a smaller building than the one that housed the corporate offices, the cardiology department was alive with activity for once.

The secretaries had decided during that morning’s briefing that they needed to do more together as a team. And what did every team within the hospital enjoy doing more than anything?

“We’re going to the canteen for breakfast,” Nami explained to her bewildered doctor as she stood in the doorway of his office, hand on hip, “as part of our new team building exercise. We’re taking Ace with us too since he nearly started salivating at the mention of breakfast, so do let Dr. Thatch know if he gets here while we’re still out, OK?”

Marco nodded as Nami beamed at him. That explained the raucous noise coming from the secretaries’ office next door to his own. He had never known a group of women to be so devoted to food in all his life.

He bit his tongue as he thought about asking how Ace was that morning, having not seen him yet and never receiving a call or text from him over the weekend. Not that he had actually hoped he would. Of course not. The new prescription of the steroid cream sat in Marco’s briefcase, having been picked up at a pharmacy in town while he was on his errands on Saturday - the perks of keeping his hospital ID on himself at all times.

“Do you want me to bring back anything for you?” Nami asked, grinning as Marco’s eyes lit up. “A nice big cup of caffeine from Starbucks, maybe?”

They were fortunate enough - or unfortunate, depending how you looked at it, Marco supposed - to have a Starbucks in the massive outpatients department in the main hospital building, right en route to the canteen.

“Yeah, please,” he pulled his wallet out of his pants pocket quickly, watching as the rest of the secretaries filed down the corridor past Nami, “just the usual. And put yours on my card too, as thanks.”

Nami’s grin widened; Marco wondered if she, too, had noticed the trend that he offered to pay for her coffee as well whenever she picked up one for him. Smart woman.

Marco’s heart seemed to skip a beat as Ace tried to pass behind Nami as well, bringing up the rear of the line of secretaries. He glanced into Marco’s office and gave him a nod, earning a small wave back from the doctor. Nami’s arm shot out in front of Ace’s chest, stopping him from leaving.

“Look what we got,” she said, waving the credit card that Marco had handed her in Ace’s face. “Marco’s card. Wanna go have fun?”

“I’m right here, Nami.”

Ace laughed at Marco’s raised eyebrow. “You’re brave, trusting her with that.”

“Yup,” Nami’s eyes positively twinkled, “I know his PIN and everything. Oh, the joys of working for a senior physician who isn’t old enough to be my grandfather. You younger ones are always so trusting.”

“I’ll have it back if you’re going to be like that,” Marco played along, quite used to this routine, holding out his hand to her. Nami slipped the card into her pocket with a cheeky grin.

“Marco said he’ll treat the team to breakfast.”

“Seriously?” Ace asked, amazed; Marco bit his lip to stop himself laughing openly at how gullible the young man was.

“Uh, not quite,” he corrected, “Nami’s picking up a coffee for me and getting herself one. Feel free to order something too, if you like.”

Ace’s cheeks colored slightly as Nami reached for the door handle, suddenly noticing that the rest of the team had left without them in their quest for a good breakfast, not waiting for the stragglers.

“Oh,” Marco added before they could leave, Ace’s flush of color reminding him instantly, “I need to see you when you get back, Ace. It won’t take long.”

Nami looked from Marco to Ace quizzically as Ace nodded, the blush deepening. Did he have to do that? Marco was really becoming fond of the pink underlying the freckles.

“See you in a bit,” Nami said, “be good while I’m gone.”

Marco chuckled. “Have fun.”

The door snapped shut and he was left in peace again, the department silent around him save for the ringing of one of the secretary’s phones on the other side of the wall.


 

Ace was quiet as they headed over to the canteen, he and Nami soon catching up with the others as they strode after them. Nami and Marco’s teasing exchange kept replaying in his mind. He had known that almost all of the doctors and surgeons within the hospital had a great working relationship with their secretaries - management always did their best to match a doctor with a secretary who was of a similar personality to them, after all.

He had also known, had he not, that Marco and Nami got on particularly well? Had he not seen them together many, many times before the day he was introduced to Marco? Seen the way Nami would tease him and he would play along? Or the way she spoke so casually to him? This bothered Ace and he couldn’t quite label why, couldn’t quite dispel the way Marco tended to grin so fondly at Nami from his memory.

At least working in cardiology was proving to be a solid distraction from his mother, as he had hoped it would be… except maybe for very different reasons to what he had imagined.

He munched on his breakfast in silence as he brooded and let his imagination take him to dark places. He had let his stomach do the choosing rather than his brain and had ordered a huge helping of waffles with syrup and blueberries; the women had made a fuss of his choice, voicing their envy that he could plow his way through such a sugary meal without having to worry.

He looked up at Nami, who was sat opposite him, and watched her as she laughed at something that Miranda, Dr. Thatch’s secretary, said. Marco had said he was single, and he knew Nami to be single, too. He also knew Nami to enjoy the luxuries of life, never one to shy away from splashing her cash on things that took her fancy. Now that he thought about it, a doctor would be well placed to fund a lavish lifestyle…

“What’s got you pulling a face like that?” Nami asked quietly, smiling at Ace as he blinked at her.

“Face like what?” he asked.

Nami gave him her signature knowing grin. “You look like your waffles have offended you or something. What’s up?”

Embarrassment set in as he suddenly felt thankful that they were seated at the end of the long table. “Oh,” he said feebly, dropping his gaze back down to his plate, “just thinking about Dr. White, that’s all.” Nami immediately looked intense, her interest well and truly piqued. Ace’s mind caught up too slowly, taking a second to realise what he had said and how it must have sounded.

“Oh, really?” Nami said, leaning in closer as Ace fumbled for words. “What about him, particularly? I know loads about him so I’ll give you the dirt.”

“Well, that’s just it,” Ace mumbled, poking at a blueberry with his fork, “I was thinking about how you two get on so well, and…” he trailed off, frowning, deciding how to voice his barely half-formed thoughts. He looked up into Nami’s questioning face and blurted out inelegantly, “you call him by his first name.”

Nami leaned back in her chair and laughed, long and loud, gaining the attention of her colleagues. Ace was mortified as they looked from the laughing redhead to his flaming cheeks, trying to work out what on earth was going on.

“Oh, dude,” Nami said, chuckling, “yeah, I do, because I’ve worked for him for years and I consider him my friend, that’s all. And he’s Marco, he’s so laid back he’s almost horizontal, for goodness’ sake. I think he’d drop dead of shock if I called him Dr. White. Oh honey, did you think I have a thing for him? Or he has a thing for me?”

“Who’s got a thing for who now?” Miranda asked.

Nami giggled at Ace’s silently pleading eyes, begging her not to tell. “Ace thinks me and Marco want to get it on,” she said, betraying him.

“I don’t!” Ace lied as the other women laughed or cooed at him, temper flaring, “I was just asking—”

“Nami is so not Marco’s type,” one of the younger secretaries, Vivi, grinned at Ace, leaning forward to look down the table at him, “she’s lacking a, um, certain something that he would require.”

“And he’s not mine, either,” Nami snorted, “no offence to him, he’s lovely, but—”

“But he’s a doctor,” Ace stressed the word as if doctors were an entirely different species to them, “and we’re just normal people. Isn’t it weird for us to be so—”

“Hey,” Nami cut him off, her eyes betraying the faintest hint of sympathy for her wound up co-worker, “he’s a normal guy too. All doctors are. They’re just people like you and me, except they’re super interested in one thing and have taken that interest as far as they can. Don’t go inflating their egos anymore than necessary, they have patients to do that for them.”

“Yeah,” Vivi agreed, “you should hear them, Ace. ‘Oh, please tell Dr. Rose that he’s my hero, he’s like an angel to me’. They’re so sweet, but the docs really do get arrogant if they know.”

Ace returned his attention to his waffles, ramming them into his mouth with such aggression that Nami looked pained as he ate. He felt so stupid. He himself had spent time with Marco as just two regular people, not as doctor and admin support, and it had been fun and natural. No, that wasn’t what had been bothering Ace, and that wasn’t what he had meant to say, not really. Sure, he did have trouble wrapping his mind around the fact that the doctors weren’t some kind of deities to worship and tiptoe around, but he wasn’t ignorant of the fact that they could get on well with people from different roles.

“Right,” Miranda chimed in, “you should listen to Ed when he gets going on his fishing. I have never heard anything more boringly normal in my life. It’s so much easier if you don’t think of them as cardiologists and just think of them as guys who like to do boring guy stuff. Seriously.”

Mentioning Thatch triggered something in Ace’s memory. “It’s his daughter’s birthday soon,” he said before he could stop himself, “Marco doesn’t know what to get for her.” The women fell silent, Nami and Miranda goggling at him. He looked from one to the other, confused by their looks of surprise. “What?”

“When did he tell you that?” Nami asked, eyebrows raised, “he text me on Saturday asking for help after he spent ages wandering around a toy store. That was the first I’d heard about it.” Left unsaid was why would Marco confess something like this to someone he was only supposed to know in the context of prescribing medicine for a couple of weeks ago.

Ace leaned back in his chair, no longer hunching over his now empty plate, suddenly feeling very undeservedly smug. “He mentioned it in passing.”

Nami wrinkled her nose in disbelief. “Really? You usually have to ask him really specific questions to get anything personal out of him. Either that or happen to be the first woman to respond to his panicked texts, apparently.”

“Ah, did he ask his sister, too?”

Nami balked. “How do you know about her?”

Ace grinned at her, the smugness breaking out onto his face. “He mentioned it. In passing.”


 

Thatch, much to Marco’s amazement, strolled into the department not too long after the hoard of secretaries and Ace had left, meaning he was in early for once.

Marco himself was always ridiculously early, often the first in the department just after 7 AM with a coffee ready in his metal travel mug. He liked the peace and quiet of the department when he was alone; the same could not be said about Thatch, who enjoyed taking breaks and gossiping with the secretaries at random intervals throughout the day.

The state of their desks said all that was needed about how they functioned as individuals - Marco’s was clear of paper and ornaments, save for a single photograph of his cats pinned to the wall beside him, whereas Thatch’s keyboard frequently threatened to go missing under the landslide of paperwork he permanently had covering his desk. No wonder Miranda frequently got migraines.

“Yep,” Marco heard Thatch say, presumably on the phone, as he jingled his keys outside his office door, “I know sweetie, I know, Daddy will be home on time tonight. Yes, I promise. No, Daddy’s at work now, Daddy can’t— can’t you ask Mommy to do it? No, Emily, no, don’t take the phone to her if she’s in the shower—”

Marco chuckled to himself as Thatch tried to keep the exasperation out of his voice as he talked to his youngest daughter. He loved listening to the conversations Thatch would have with his family, missing having trivial chats like that of his own with a loved one. Whitey wasn’t one for phone calls, and his father would get confused when using the telephone.

“Oh, Marco?”

Thatch had heard him, popping his head around his door; Marco had forgot to close it properly after putting a piece of paperwork on Nami’s desk for when she came back.

“Yes, Uncle Marco’s here Emily, do you want to say hello?” Thatch smiled encouragingly at Marco as he held the phone out to him, silently pleading with him to take it when Marco shook his head and leaned away from the phone. Conversations with the children that called him their uncle could be long and meandering, and he never knew how to end the conversation without upsetting them.

“Hi, Emily,” he said in a brightly cheerful tone, taking the phone that was thrust into his hand, “how are you? Not long until the big day, is it?”

“Nope!” Emily chirped down the phone, “I’m going to be eight on Saturday, Uncle Marco! Eight!

“Wow, already?” Marco said, wheeling his chair into the middle of his office to watch Thatch flounder with his office door key in the corridor, “that’s gone by so quickly. I remember when you were just a tiny baby straight out of your mommy.”

Marco, as Thatch’s best friend to the point of being like a brother, had indeed gone to visit Fiona in hospital when she had had each of the girls. He’d been a constant in all of their lives, always there for birthdays, joining the family for Christmas for the last two years, and generally being a good uncle to the three girls wherever he could. He’d even done the school runs when Thatch had been abroad for last year’s worldwide cardiology conference (having been delegated the duty of attending as their hospital’s representative) and Fiona had been giving a morning lecture at the city’s university.

“I’m not a baby anymore,” Emily’s pride was obvious through the phone, “Daddy said he’d get me my own phone now.”

“That’s so grown up, Emily.”

“Yeah!” Emily paused, listening to someone else in the background. Marco waited, recognising the tone as belonging to Fiona; she must have finished in the shower and discovered her daughter on her phone again. “Uncle Marco?”

“I’m still here.”

“Are you definitely coming on Saturday?”

Marco frowned. Saturday? Emily’s birthday. Had he agreed to see her on her actual birthday? No, not that he could recall, but that didn’t prove anything. He couldn’t check for certain as his diary was still at home, dammit, open on the kitchen table where he’d left it the night before, most likely underneath one of the cats by now - their smudgy pawprints on the glass table top were all the evidence he needed to know what they got up to when he wasn’t there.

“Of course I am,” he improvised, having no idea what he was agreeing to, “if you’d like me to, of course.”

“Yeah, I would! But I’ve gotta go now, Mommy’s yelling for her phone back. Bye-bye!”

Marco couldn’t help smiling as Emily hung up, watching the call disconnect on the screen.

He had told Ace he was free that weekend, he remembered too late. Because he had been free.

“Ed,” he called, frowning at his friend’s phone, “what’s Emily doing on her birthday?”

Thatch strode into the office looking harassed, his tie in hand and halfway through knotting it. Getting in early clearly didn’t suit him at all.

“We’re taking the girls to an amusement park,” Thatch said, taking back his phone as Marco handed it to him, “and then she’s having a party with her school friends at the ice rink on Sunday. Why? Did she just ask you to come along?”

“More like she phrased it as if I’d already agreed to it. I remembered too late that it was new information.”

Thatch chuckled. “Smart girl. She wants her favorite uncle there and she knows how to go about booking him. You agreed, I assume?”

Marco shrugged, sighing. “I didn’t want to make her think I’d forgotten. But it’s fine, it’ll be good fun. I’m not doing anything else.” The words stung as he said them, hanging bitter in his throat as he thought of Ace. He had been mulling over a half-baked idea of asking the young man round again, or maybe out for dinner somewhere. He hadn’t got past the point of figuring out how to stress that it wasn’t intended as a date, just a way to take Ace’s mind off his difficult home life for an evening.

Thatch hummed, unconvinced, as he pulled his tie loose and started on it again. “Don’t feel you have to, though. She can’t go getting her way all the time, the little madam.”

“She can for her birthday,” Marco smiled, “really, it’s fine, I’d love to. If that’s all good with you two.”

“Oh, definitely,” Thatch said, “another pair of eyes to watch the girls is always welcome, you know that. Plus, you can take them on the rides that Fiona and I won’t touch.”

“Ah, so that was the plan all along, huh?”

Thatch grinned at his best friend. “You got me, mate.”

Voices at the entrance of the corridor pulled the doctors’ attention outside, Thatch leaning out of the doorway to see what was going on.

“It’s a stampede of secretaries!” he gasped comically, covering his mouth with his palm in mock horror.

“Good morning to you too, Ed,” Miranda said dryly as she passed him.

“Where have you all been? It’s nearly 9 AM, ladies - oh, and Ace too. Good. Come join me in my study, young man, and allow me to show you the progress I made on that infernal spreadsheet over the weekend.”

Marco groaned as Thatch left, shutting the door to his office and leaving him alone again. He had wanted to speak to Ace before he had to go to a meeting with one of the respiratory doctors at 10, but if Thatch really got into the swing of things then he wouldn’t get the chance. He had clinic that afternoon, and the meeting with Alec would likely take them to lunch time as they had a veritable mountain of mutual patients to discuss.

He nearly sustained another heart attack as his door swung open again, making Marco jump violently in his seat.

“Here’s your coffee!” Nami said brightly, setting the cup on Marco’s desk, not missing his reaction to her entry, “one massive latte, full to the brim with caffeine and certain to keep you awake for the rest of your life.”

“Thanks for that,” Marco said, taking his card back as Nami handed it to him, “I’ll let you know if I have to admit myself with palpitations, all right?”

“Sure thing,” Nami grinned, the joke a standard one that they made almost every time Marco had a Starbucks coffee, “I’ve got the arrhythmia nurses up on the ward on speed dial, so keep an eye on your pulse.”

Laughing lightly at the familiar response, Marco picked up his coffee and took a sip.

Nami remained stood in the office doorway, eyeing him with an unusual expression on her face and looking like she very much wanted to say something. Marco raised an eyebrow at her, waiting for her to speak, but nothing came. Odd. Nami was never usually one to be quiet around him, always keen to fill him in on the latest departmental gossip or tell him about her weekend, whatever took her fancy, and Marco was always ready to listen. So to have her look at him with such searching interest was… odd. Yes, that was the best way to describe it.

“Everything all right?” Marco prompted, not breaking eye contact with his secretary.

Nami hummed in thought, clearly weighing up her response before delivering it, leaving Marco ignorant through the dragging seconds as she pondered. Finally, as if choosing her words carefully, she said, “are you friends with Ace outside of work? Because he said something at breakfast that made me think maybe you two…”

Marco’s stomach clenched and his head swam momentarily in that all too familiar panic response, the primal part of his brain demanding that he shut the conversation down and run. It was an innocent question posed by someone he trusted, really trusted with his personal information, but would she see it the same way as he did? There was every possibility that upon learning that Ace had gone back to Marco’s, Nami, who had never set foot in Marco’s apartment or ever socialised with him outside of work nights out with the rest of the team, would spread the gossip like wild fire, the story twisting and taking on a life of its own as it was embellished and elaborated upon.

The thought scared him. Flashes of memory raced through his mind as he looked up into her kind eyes, remembering his previous secretary from back before Nami had started, remembering how he had thought nothing of clarifying for her that the partner he lived with back then had been another man. How she had taken that exciting bit of gossip about her doctor back to the others. How the stares had started, how the comments of ‘such a waste’ had been made when they hadn’t realised he was there…

And when somehow, out of nowhere, rumours surfaced about himself and Law, of all the people in the hospital they could have picked. Law, his good friend, his long time colleague, his professional go-to for all surgical referrals and queries. One of the secretaries had apparently spotted them out for a drink one weekend and assumed too much, making quick work of spreading the discovery.

And then someone had brainlessly decided to divulge that bit of information to a male patient, the worst possible kind of male patient that could have ever learned that their cardiologist was gay. It should have been insignificant information; no tests or procedures he ever carried out in clinic were invasive, not to mention he always had a healthcare assistant present in the room, and really, did it matter? Was it in any way remotely relevant? The complaints team had thought so, honoring the patient’s demands to have their care swapped to another doctor. Thatch had refused to take them on when asked, but one of the others picked them up when pressured.

And now everyone - except Ace, apparently, judging by his previous assumption that Marco had a wife - in the department knew, and perhaps it went even further to spread to the whole medical division. Maybe even the entire surgical division, too.

But it shouldn’t matter, shouldn’t be a topic of gossip like some kind of grand reveal at a show, and as Marco studied Nami’s expression for a second he knew in his heart that she was one of the people who didn’t think it was of importance. She had been told about him when she joined the team; he knew because she had asked him to lay the rumours and gossip to rest and give her the truth. Bold. Accepting.

And yet…

He couldn’t run the risk of something so harmless turning into a topic of interest, warping into a scandal and potentially hurting Ace, never mind himself.

Despite the fact that if he was honest, he wouldn’t mind getting to know Ace in the way that his colleagues might conclude he already did.

“No,” he said after a slight pause, swallowing back the nausea of the past and focusing on the conversation, “I’m not friends with Ace.” It hurt to say that, like he was putting to bed any possibility of them actually going somewhere with this. Why did he always have to hurt? “What did he say?”

“He knows about Whitey,” Nami said, “which struck me as strange. I haven’t heard you talk about her for a while. And he knew you had been stressing over Emily’s present, but I’ve never known the two of you to talk, really. So I was just wondering if maybe you guys had secretly hit it off, or something.”

Damn Nami for picking up on things. Damn her for not letting said things slide. A wry smile tugged at the corner of Marco’s mouth as he figured that it was traits like these that made her the best secretary he’d ever had.

He couldn’t say anything to reveal Ace’s reasons for coming to him in the first place - Marco was certain that no one else in the team knew about Ace’s family circumstances. So he would have to do the one thing he hated doing to people who he cared about - lie.

“Nami, really, are you jealous that I talk to people beside you?” He grinned easily at her. “It’s not a crime, you know, to mention one’s sister to a co-worker.”

Nami looked a little taken aback, the beginnings of shame showing on her pretty face. “I know,” she said, her cheeks tinged strawberry, “but I didn’t think you two had ever—”

“And you know he practically lives in Ed’s office when he’s around,” Marco interrupted smoothly, a flutter of remorse for the redhead tickling in his chest at her evident discomfort, “Ed must have told him about my panic over Emily’s present. I think you’re reading into this too much.”

It was the easiest way to protect himself, protect Ace, from any potential backlash and gossip. Or maybe he himself was thinking too much about an outcome that may not come to pass. Maybe he had no right to be lying to Nami.

Yep, he was really thinking about this way too much.

“I was only asking,” Nami huffed, folding her arms, “you don’t need to be so defensive.”

Yes, actually, he did. Maybe. Probably not.

“Um…”

An uncertain voice behind Nami made her step out of the way, revealing Ace to the pair. He looked distinctly wrong-footed, like he had heard something that he shouldn’t have and had been caught while doing so, which was probably exactly what had happened.

“You said you wanted to see me,” Ace mumbled, not quite meeting Marco’s eyes, “and Dr. Thatch is done showing me his spreadsheets, but I can come back later if you two are busy.”

Marco could practically feel his heart swell at the sight of Ace. This was not good. He was getting attached far too quickly despite himself, despite his raging internal conflict on what to do. He was being pulled both ways, half of him screaming to just get to know the young man better and maybe finally have someone in his life who wasn’t Thatch or his family, and the other half reminding him of the past and the hold that everything still had over him.

Continued friendship could lead to ugly rumours.

Dating could lead to even worse rumours, not to mention dragging up other parts of the past that Marco would really rather leave untouched. Assuming, of course, that Ace was even remotely inclined towards him.

Marco sighed. He was too old for this nonsense.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said, trying to keep his voice warm as Ace finally looked at him, soft gray meeting cobalt blue, “come in. And Nami,” he nodded to her, the warmth in his voice spreading to his smile, trying his best to convey to her that all was well, “thanks again for the coffee. I’ll try and catch you before clinic this afternoon, OK?”

Nami did not look like she was ready for their conversation to be shut down so abruptly, but she recognised the dismissal and left, touching Ace on the arm briefly as she passed. She shut the office door softly, leaving the two alone.

Ace hesitated, as if working himself up to something, reminding Marco strikingly of before they had got to know each other better. Again, that spark of concern ignited within the doctor and flickered to life, larger than before, Ace and his struggles now starting to become more and more significant to him despite the conflict he felt.

“I picked up more steroid cream, as promised,” Marco said, relieving Ace of the task of speaking first. He reached down into his open briefcase and plucked up the box, the tube clattering inside it. “Let me know straight away when you run out this time; pharmacies won’t dispense it in large quantities so I can’t get much at a time, so make sure you let me know.”

Ace took the box from him gratefully, his fingers brushing Marco’s in the process. Marco’s stomach felt like it was flipping at the light contact and made him yearn for more.

He couldn’t help it, his heart ruling over his brain despite the internal struggle he had been going through since dropping Ace off on that past Saturday morning, despite the new added panic of not wanting to risk bringing anything to the attention of their co-workers. Marco was exhausted, fed up of feeling like a teenager again.

“Thanks,” Ace said, pocketing the medication, “I will.”

They smiled at each other for a moment, the silence hanging awkward as both held back from bringing up what they really wanted to talk about. Marco gestured to the spare seat, inviting Ace to sit down, as he took another sip of his coffee. Ace sat with a sigh, leaning forwards to rest his elbows on his knees, eyeing Marco with interest instead of his previous obvious discomfort when in the doctor’s office.

“I’m sorry I didn’t text you,” Ace said, surprising Marco, “I wanted to, I just didn’t know what to say.”

“That’s fine, don’t feel you have to,” Marco assured him quickly, glad that Ace had at least thought about it, that he hadn’t made a mistake. “Did you visit your mother on Saturday? How is she?”

Ace’s eyes brightened, alert and on edge in an instant. “She…” he hesitated, clearly casting around for the right words. “She was both good and bad.”

“Oh?”

“She was really interested in our Friday night,” Ace smiled at the memory of Rouge being so excited, reading between the lines and seeing what Ace had began to hope would someday come to light, if he could ever be that lucky, “I’ve not seen her that animated for a long time. You’d think I’d told her I was engaged or something, the way she carried on about it.”

Marco smiled, glad to hear something positive about Ace’s mother’s situation. However - “and the bad part?”

Ace’s face fell a little, the sadness creeping in again. “She’s getting weaker,” he said quietly, dropping his gaze and looking at his hands, “she’s the type of person who would struggle through anything and insist she was all right, no matter what. That’s why it took so long for her to get diagnosed in the first place, because she ignored her symptoms and didn’t tell me or Dad that something wasn’t right.”

“She sounds very strong-willed and selfless,” Marco said, wheeling his chair closer to Ace, tissues at the ready in his briefcase should Ace need them.

Ace nodded. “She hates worrying anyone,” he said, tone soft, “so she hides her pain. So when she asked for a wheelchair to go out and see the gardens…” he took a deep breath, exhaling slowly before continuing, “she’s a fighter, y’know? She must be really bad to not even try and pretend she could walk that distance.”

Marco understood this, had seen it in the elderly and frail, in the sickest of his patients throughout the years. They were always so resilient, the strongest of character and the most caring of those around them, often not concerned with themselves anymore and only looking to appear fine to their loved ones. He would never forget his brief spell in the ER as a junior doctor, working a night shift when a young man had come in after being hit by a car, suffering major organ damage. The bravery the man had shown, jaw locked to refuse his definite pain from escaping in his voice, no fear in him as he had slipped under the pull of the morphine, never to resurface.

People could be so incredible in the face of adversity.

“Will you see her again after work today?” Marco asked, remembering how Ace said he would try to see his mother every other day where possible. But Ace shook his head.

“No, not tonight,” he said, looking saddened and very much like this was against his wishes, “her parents - my grandparents - see her on a Monday and she’s usually too tired for me after they leave. She struggles with too many visitors at once - it overwhelms her - otherwise I’d take the day off and go with them.”

Ace looked up from his hands, eyes intense and staring deep into Marco’s own. Marco, to his own astonishment, felt his cheeks heating up under that gaze. He raised his coffee to his lips again to distract himself from that realisation.

“So I was hoping,” Ace continued, his voice a little harder, a little more assertive, “that I could take you up on your offer and see you again tonight. If you’re not busy, of course.”

Ace smiled at the way Marco’s eyes widened, the doctor clearly not expecting this. He didn’t know where this assertiveness was coming from, but he far preferred it over the nervous, fidgety young man he had first met nearly three weeks ago.

“Sure,” he said, his mouth dry all of a sudden despite the coffee, responding on impulse as rational thought poked at his mind, reminding him of the raging inner turmoil he had gone through just minutes beforehand. He hadn’t expected an offer from Ace at all, caught completely off guard by it. “I’m free. I won’t finish up here until around 6, though. You go home before that, right?” Ace nodded. “I can pick you up from your apartment after I leave, if you like. What do you want to do?”

Ace hummed in thought. “I was thinking of going out for dinner. There’s a really nice place that does this amazing steak just outside of town,” he said, drumming his fingers on his chin, “or there’s Bill’s nearer to your area - they do these incredible enchiladas with so much cheese you could drown in it, or—”

Marco chuckled as Ace reeled off more and more good restaurants, his knowledge of their menus revealing just how much he enjoyed food. It was endearing, really, watching him perk up so quickly after talking about his mother. Marco only wished that there was something he could do to take away Ace’s pain altogether, to somehow wave a magic wand and make Rouge all better again.

He knew what it felt like to watch a loved one suffer, and he wished there was some way to help Ace through this other than keeping him company.

“We’ll go wherever you want,” Marco said, grinning at Ace’s excitement, “but that first place does sound good.”

Ace grinned at him. “Great, I can’t wait,” he said eagerly, “you’ll love it, I’ll bet. I last went there with a group from the gym and they couldn’t stop raving about it afterwards.”

Marco glanced at his watch as he raised his cup to drain the last of his coffee, noting with a start that it was getting close to 10. But talking to Ace was so nice, so comfortable, that he really didn’t want to leave just yet.

Marco listened happily as Ace told him all about his group of friends at the gym he visited, knowing full well he would forget the names of Zoro, Sanji, Franky and Brook within the next ten minutes but loving hearing Ace chatting so casually again. The young man warmed him, made him feel relaxed and open to the possibility of this becoming a regular thing.

His worries were washed away in the face of actually being in Ace’s company, his brain frantically working to rationalise that this could be done, that their friendship could be kept separate from their work life with a little forward thinking. He would just have to be careful this time, keep everything limited to himself and possibly Thatch instead of brazenly believing that nothing could possibly go wrong.

Marco hoped that Alec didn’t mind waiting ten minutes or so for him.


 

Ace was a bag of jittery nerves by the time he actually thought to text Marco that evening, recalling far too late into the day that the doctor didn’t actually have his number and thus wouldn’t be able to contact him if he forgot where he lived. Ace pinged him a short message to let him know who it was and that he was ready whenever Marco happened to arrive.

He stood in front of his mirror, trying to smooth down his hair yet again. The thick locks simply did not want to lie flat, curling out at the tips and making his appearance more unruly than he wanted.

He couldn’t believe he had actually done it. He had successfully asked out Marco the cardiologist on a date. Rouge would be so proud of him.

No, not a date, he mentally snapped at himself, frowning at his reflection, Marco won’t see it like that. This is just two people from work having a meal. Just like he does with Dr. Thatch. Just like I do with the guys.

But it wasn’t, or at least Ace very much hoped it wasn’t.

He had spent the weekend fumbling through a hurricane of mixed emotions, switching from silent sadness and hot, feverish panic over his mother’s deteriorating condition to nervous excitement followed by sickening guilt when thinking about Marco.

Ace liked him; there were no two ways about it, no way he could pretend he wasn’t enticed by the doctor’s kindness and compassion, and equally no way he could forget how attractive he was. Ace had thought about those defined arms and shoulders late on the Sunday night, what with Saturday being filled with worry for Rouge. He had let his imagination wonder extensively, going further to picture firm abs and solid pectorals above him, against him, soft skin against his lips as he had writhed beneath his bed covers, gasping sharp as he brought himself to orgasm.

It had taken Ace all kinds of willpower to look Marco in the eye first thing that Monday morning.

And now here he was, struggling into a pair of tight black jeans that made his ass look incredible, if he did say so himself, bouncing up and down on the spot as he pulled them up over his muscular thighs. Damn Sanji for insisting that leg day was as important as arm day.

Ace snatched up his phone as it buzzed, heart leaping with nerves and excitement as he read Marco’s text: here.

Ace looked at his reflection again as he wriggled a foot into his first shoe. “Calm,” he told himself seriously, “stay calm. Don’t be an idiot. Relax. It’s just two guys getting dinner after work.” And then his face split into a huge grin, unable to help himself.

“Chill, chill, stay extra chill,” he muttered as he got his second shoe on and grabbed up his keys, wallet, and phone, shoving the latter two in his pocket and opening the front door, “no eating like a horse, no Luffy stories, no dumb shit.” He had to make a good impression, had to try and overwrite the nonsense he had demonstrated when drunk last Friday, such as meowing at Dusk and Dawn.

Good grief.

Ace’s stomach was alive with butterflies as he exited the building and saw the silver Mercedes sat waiting for him on the curb. He hurried round to the passenger side and slid in, slightly breathless as he smiled at his da— at Marco.

“Gray really suits you,” Marco said as Ace strapped himself in, eyeing the smart shirt that he had changed into, “matches your eyes.”

Ah, so maybe Marco did consider this a date after all; Ace didn’t think he had ever complimented one of his male friends on their appearance. The closest they ever got was refraining from insulting each other. Ace positively vibrated with nerves, willing himself to stay calm.

They arrived at the restaurant quickly, the work rush hour thankfully over, and parked up easily. A young waitress seated them, giggling nervously when Marco thanked her with a smile. She didn’t see the dark look Ace shot at her back as she left with their drinks order.

“I’ve never been here,” Marco said, looking around happily at the rustic design, “it’s really nice. How did you first find it?”

Ace barely stopped himself from uttering the phrase ‘me and the boys found it while cruising’, grappling for a more eloquent way of putting it. Man, he had not been on a date in a long time, his etiquette was all but gone. “My friends from the gym and I were really hungry after an extended HIIT session one day,” he said, mirroring Marco’s relaxed posture and dropping his chin into his palm, “so we drove around and happened upon this place. I think we ate our entire salary’s worth, it was so good.”

Marco chuckled. “So do you go to the gym a lot?” he asked, “I’m guessing you must do if you have such a good group of friends there.”

“Yeah, we go five times a week,” Ace replied, “we usually do three hours a day, so I spend a lot of time with them. They’re great guys, they work around my schedule with Mom and everything.”

Marco looked impressed, his gaze momentarily dropping to the front of Ace’s shirt, presumably picturing the hard muscles hidden underneath, Ace noted somewhat smugly. “That’s a lot of time spent in the gym,” Marco said, “is it your main hobby?”

“It’s my only hobby. I’d ideally go every day, but then I’d have less time for errands and for Mom.”

Marco hummed, eyeing Ace. They dropped into silence for a long moment, Marco continuing to simply watch the younger man with a small smile on his lips. Ace stared around the room, watching the other diners with little interest, feeling that cool blue gaze upon him.

“So what’s it like, working for Ed?”

Ace blinked back to Marco, heart thumping as he was pinned by that relaxed gaze. He didn’t really want to talk about work. “It’s not too bad,” he admitted, “he himself isn’t actually a problem. All the secretaries warned me about him when I started, saying he was chaotic and difficult, but he’s been fine, considering all the stuff he has to do.”

Marco’s smile broadened. “He’d be happy to hear that.”

They were interrupted by the waitress bringing their drinks over and asking if they were ready to order. Ace, somehow, hadn’t even looked at the menu yet.

“Give us another five minutes,” he heard Marco say as he busied himself with the menu, frowning as that damn giggle left the woman again.

Ace’s stomach growled as he looked at everything on offer, wanting it all and having no idea how to choose. Was it impolite to order a starter, main, and a dessert? He had no idea, but he wanted all three. But what if they ended up back at Marco’s, or back at his, and one thing led to another and he was expected to perform on a bulging stomach?

Ace’s cheeks flamed red behind the menu, thankful that he had stood it up so that it hid him from Marco’s view. That wouldn’t happen. Definitely not. It was too soon, and this was not a date. And besides, the odds of Marco actually being into men were very slim, despite what he hoped, Ace reminded himself with a frown.

Would it be weird to ask him outright? Yes, Ace scolded himself immediately, yes, that would be creepy and very weird.

They ordered when the waitress came back, fluttering her false lashes at Marco and returning Ace’s haughty stare as she took their choices. Ace felt really proud of himself for not ordering a starter, deciding to err on the side of caution and not stuff himself stupid no matter how insistently the cheesy garlic bread starter had called to him.

“OK then,” Ace piped up, sipping his foamy beer and setting it back down, “question time. Where are you originally from? Your accent’s not local, after all.”

“I relocated up here from a tiny little town you won’t have heard of from right down south,” Marco smiled, “I grew up near the sea but did my training in the capital, so I guess my accent’s a mixed bag, really. I don’t even know anymore.”

“So how did you end up in this city, of all places?”

Marco shrugged. “I qualified and so was looking to take a job wherever one was offered, no matter where in the country,” he replied. “Two cardiologist posts came up here at the same time, so Ed and I applied, saying it would be hilarious if we got them and ended up together again. You should have seen our faces when we were both offered the positions. That night was the most drunk I’ve ever seen him, including his wedding day.”

Ace took another deep gulp of his beer, setting it down again as Marco snorted at him. “What?”

Marco leaned over the table towards him, reaching out and gently swiping his thumb along the top of Ace’s lip. “You’ve given yourself a beer moustache,” he grinned, eyes narrowing with his smile as Ace’s own went wide. He sat back in his chair and, to Ace’s numb shock, raised his thumb to his own mouth and licked the foam that clung to it right off.

Holy shit. That image would be recalled later tonight, Ace was certain.

And that, strangely, seemed to be all Ace needed to relax him properly, finding it easier to talk to Marco as they slipped into conversation about their mutual favorite series on Netflix that had just received a third season. Ace was so engrossed in their conversation that he hardly even felt excited as their food was brought to the table, his enormous slab of steak and fries bringing him less joy than watching Marco laugh at something he said.

Ace ate slowly for a change instead of munching through everything at his usual pace, taking his time as Marco did and stealing glances up at him whenever he dared. He really was handsome - the neatly shaped stubbly beard along his jawline, his blond undercut, his full lips that must feel divine to kiss… Ace felt scruffy in comparison, aware that his hair probably needed a trim and that his freckles lent him a childish charm, not a manly edge.

He realised too late that Marco was looking at him questioningly, had caught him staring at him vacantly. “Is there something on my face?” he asked, raising an eyebrow as Ace gathered himself.

“Hm? No, no, I was just…” Just what? Ace couldn’t finish the sentence. Just thinking about kissing you, don’t worry. No. He filled the silence with the last of his steak, barely tasting it as he felt Marco watching him now instead.

“You were staring at me all slack-jawed.”

“No, I was just…” Ace repeated uselessly.

Marco grinned at him, a grin that Ace hadn’t seen before on the doctor. One laced with a hint of hunger, hunger for him, a look that he hadn’t been subjected to by anyone for quite some time. It made him want to squirm under that gaze but he held fast, heart beating, waiting for Marco to say something.

“Has anyone ever told you,” Marco said in a low voice, leaning in closer to Ace over the table, that grin still in place, “that you’re really bad at lying? You blush all under your freckles.”

Ace spluttered, fumbling momentarily for words, “I’m not- I wasn’t-”

“And I think it’s really cute.”

Ace shut up. The air seemed to hang thicker between them, heavy with expectation.

Surely not. Surely there was no possible way that Marco, that Cardiologist Marco, could think that someone like him was in any way desirable. OK, sure, Ace was aware he had a nice body thanks to how much he enjoyed the gym - he had worn these jeans specifically to show that off, dammit - and he thought his face wasn’t too bad, but seriously? He was just a nobody.

Ace licked his lips nervously, searching for a good response to something like that but only coming up with blatantly inappropriate private thoughts that were really better off staying private.

He was spared the burden of responding, though, as their waitress popped up again, chirping, “are you ready to see the desserts menu?”


 

They drove back to Ace’s apartment building in comfortable silence. Marco had paid, casually waving away Ace’s card as he had tried to split the bill, giving the blushing, giggling waitress a really rather generous tip that had Ace glowering at her.

Ace’s heart hammered against his ribs as Marco killed the engine of the Mercedes, his expression half-hidden in the dark of the late evening. Ace wanted to kiss him. That fleeting impulse he had felt last time he had been dropped off at home had grown, swelled, multiplied and expanded within him, wanting nothing more than to seize Marco by the front of his shirt and devour him.

And yet Ace made no such move. He couldn’t, frozen in place as his mind went right back to overthinking. It would be a disservice to Rouge, enjoying himself so thoroughly right now. It could backfire spectacularly; he could have read Marco wrong and then destroy this friendship and their professional relationship, however minimal it may be. He’d probably be too embarrassed to see Marco at work again and would request he was moved to a different department prematurely to his work finishing up in cardiology.

And yet…

And yet…

Marco was looking at him, silent, waiting, and Ace was sure he could hear his heart slamming into his rib cage.

“Thanks for this evening,” Ace ventured tentatively, breaking the swelling silence, “it was really kind of you to pay.”

“No,” Marco said, his voice low and quiet, “thank you for inviting me. I was worried about you after Saturday, so it was nice to see you so happy today.”

Ace felt warmth flood his chest at these words. He wanted to kiss Marco so badly.

He shuddered as Marco laid a palm to his knee, turning in his seat slightly to look at Ace properly, and Ace was certain his heart was going to burst out of him like that scene from Alien that had terrified him as a child.

Marco seemed to hesitate, blinking as he thought, and Ace waited for him. Waited for him to move his palm from his knee to his cheek, or his chin, or to cup between his thighs, if Marco so wished, Ace would take anything. But Marco seemed lost for words, unsure what to do. Ace could see his chest rising and falling under his work shirt, breathing a little quicker than would be standard, belying his state of mind. It gave rise to a sense of boldness within Ace, the flicker of flame lashing at the restraint of his self-control—

“Well, then,” Marco said in the split second before Ace decided to act, stopping him, patting his knee awkwardly, “I’ll see you tomorrow. Text me if you need anything at all.”

He needed him, Ace thought as he reluctantly said goodnight and slipped from the car, once again watching the doctor drive away with a heaviness in his heart and, this time, a tightness in his jeans to accompany it. Damn. It.

He wandered into the building, mind reeling yet again with thoughts of the cardiologist and what could have happened, what he should have made happen, yet also feeling a little bit glad that he had not acted. Ace thought of Rouge again, guilt gripping his stomach as he unlocked his front door. She would be thrilled if he ended up dating Marco properly, he knew with complete certainty, but he couldn’t quite shake the feeling that to do so would be some kind of betrayal of her suffering, the emotion complex and difficult to work out.

But it didn’t matter, he sighed as he realised, it didn’t matter either way. Nothing had happened. He would see what tomorrow brought… after he took care of the problem in his pants.

 

Chapter Text

Marco couldn’t sleep. He lay on his back, staring at the black ceiling, his eyelids heavy but brain whirling with incessant activity.

He had called Ace cute.

Ace, his colleague, a man who was in no way small or demure or dainty… Cute.

To his face.

Marco groaned, palms covering his eyes as the memory of Ace’s surprised expression filled his mind. What had he been thinking?

But that was an easy question to answer. Marco had been thinking about how much he enjoyed Ace’s company in that moment, sitting with him in that busy restaurant and being so normal with him. How easy it had been, how right it had felt, being there with him.

And how he had thought it appropriate to reach out and run the pad of his thumb over Ace’s top lip, bringing the beer foam to his own tongue…

Marco sighed into the silence of the bedroom. Ace had felt good to touch, so soft in that fleeting second of contact. It had been too long since he had last felt someone’s lips and been warmed by the sensation of their skin to his own.

His out of town one night stands since his ex had been full of regret, nothing more than seeking out another person’s comfort and heat for a few hours before turning cold to their insistences of another round, or offers to swap numbers and do it again some time. Marco cringed when they kissed him, the smell of the alcohol on their breath suffocating him and threatening to kill the moment every time. He hated the mere thought of a hookup, sick of himself every time he went to bed with a stranger from a bar, despising giving in to his base need for sex, if only occasionally, while his heart wanted nothing but to hold someone dear to him.

That someone had always, without fail, taken the form of his ex partner. Marco would demand total darkness to make it easier to imagine he wasn’t entwined with someone whose name he didn’t know, or was inches deep into another who he would never see again.

But now, as he curled his fingers around his half-hard cock, it was not Shanks whose name Marco groaned.

Ace.”

His touch was light, teasing, working over himself almost delicately to help give rise to the rapidly building tension within him. This, he could cope with. This was private, for himself only, not to be put out there in the open to be judged like calling the young man cute. Ace would never, ever need to know about this.

Marco rolled his hips up into his hold, sighing into the increased friction. What would it be like to fuck Ace? No wait, not fuck, that was too carnal - to have sex with? To make love to? Marco snickered at this last thought despite himself. Whatever he called it, it would probably be immeasurably satisfying.

He would start gentle, deliberately not touching Ace’s hard, aching cock in favor of fingering him open slowly, so slowly. He’d revel in the feeling of the drag and pull of those warm walls squeezing his fingers so tightly, not curling them in search of Ace’s prostate, not yet, not too soon, losing himself in the gasping sounds the younger man would definitely be making.

Marco’s breath hitched, imagination running wild, and he could almost feel Ace around the fingers stroking along his erection, gripping tighter and pumping a little faster along the forbidden path his thoughts were taking him.

Ace would moan as Marco bit into the insides of his thighs, tight muscles flexing under the skin against his tongue, leaving bruises to the freckles that surely had to pepper his skin there too. He would mark him up, cover him entirely, rival the psoriasis that still plagued Ace’s torso and chest. And oh, that chest…

Marco’s hand sped up as he groaned. His tongue flickered across his top lip, wanting to taste the nipple that he imagined sucking between his teeth when he moved up Ace’s stunning body. Ace would press down on his fingers and up into his lips, crying for more, for his dick to be touched, but Marco wouldn’t give it to him. Instead he would finally crook his three fingers back in on themselves, stroking and pressing and rubbing against that smooth bump under the anterior wall within Ace, and Ace would writhe, breathless, shuddering as he was subjected continuously to pleasure unlike any he had felt before.

He was close, dangerously close, and so was Ace within his mind, the man leaking precum all over his washboard abs as he cried Marco’s name. Marco would not relent, fingers working so smoothly inside him, feeling the pulse and swell of that tiny organ at his fingertips as he kissed Ace. Ace’s mouth would be so hot, so willing, so needy, his tongue wet against Marco’s as he spasmed into orgasm, intense, harsh, ripping through him with such force that he would see stars behind the curtain of his closed eyelids.

“Shit, ah, Ace—

Marco would milk his prostate, pulling all manner of sobs and pleadings from him, grinning wickedly when Ace finally realised he had come dry. They’d slip straight into round two, Marco sucking that dripping head between his lips before—

Marco’s hips twitched up, exhaling sharply as he came hard into his fist, imagination in overdrive; he swore he could feel the heavy press of Ace’s cock against his tongue in that moment.

He lay in near silence, his breathing the only sound in the room as he slowly came down from his high. That had been intense and new. Marco had not thought about Ace like that before. He rolled to his side and grabbed up a tissue from the box on the night stand, wiping up the mess on his stomach and chest.

And several miles away, in the heart of the city not far from the hospital, the real Ace actually was moaning Marco’s name into his pillow, also letting his thoughts wander freely all over the doctor’s naked, sweat-streaked body.


 

Marco couldn’t help but feel thankful that he was out of the office all day on Tuesday. Facing Ace would have been a real challenge for him after thinking of him so intimately the night before.

Guilt had wrung the doctor dry afterwards - he was getting too caught up too quickly, Ace was vulnerable at the moment, and he certainly didn’t need some man who was nineteen years his senior lusting after him right now, even if it was in secret.

Jesus, when had he got so old? Was he really already 43? Where had the time gone? He had qualified at 37, almost 38, had been the baby of the department when he joined, but now Dr. Cornelia Spade had taken that title from him after joining the team earlier in the year at age 38. Five years younger than Marco and Thatch.

Five years…

Marco allowed his mind to wander, staring blankly at the ECG reading he was meant to be giving a senior opinion on. It was normal as far as he could tell anyway, struggling to figure out why the junior doctors here on the ward were having such a hard time with it. Maybe they were brand new. When had the last rotation been?

Christ, he needed to focus.

But that was proving hard as his mind went right back to thinking about the events of five years ago. Back when Shanks had still lived with him. Before everything had changed and Marco had slipped into depending a little too much on alcohol to help him sleep.

To help him forget.

But when he was around Ace he was able to forget. He was able to put it to rest and entertain the prospect of being happy again, of taking care of someone else, of putting them and their struggles before his own ghosts. Everyone alive had struggles and difficulties of some description - Ace’s were just very present and very concentrated, in a way. Like all the sadness he would ever experience was going to be concentrated into one event in his life, much like what Marco figured had happened to him.

If he ever believed in such supernatural nonsense, of course.

Marco was pulled from his deep thoughts as a small, vein-knotted hand was placed over the back of his own, and he blinked rapidly to look into the face of one of his elderly patients. And, thankfully, she was one of the few who he knew well enough to remember the name of.

“Gloria!” he said happily, genuinely pleased to see the face of such a lovely lady.

“Dr. White,” she smiled at him, raising her arms to give him a hug; Marco was careful not to knock the cannula in the back of her hand as he stooped to give her a quick hug. Marco generally avoided patient contact unless it was part of his investigations, but for the elderly he - and most all doctors - would make an exception if they instigated it.

“I would say it’s nice to see you, but,” Marco looked around the busy cardiology ward from his spot at the nurses’ station, “I’d be much happier running into you at a fancy coffee shop instead. What’s happened?”

He hadn’t seen the tiny 80-year-old woman for a few months now, and last he had known she had had a TIA - a mini stroke - but was recovering extremely well from it.

“My dear boy,” Gloria said, patting Marco’s hand fondly, “I was admitted to that ward just upstairs yesterday morning. The… oh, what was it called? The nurse called it something funny…”

“AMIA?” Marco guessed, and Gloria nodded. AMIA stood for Acute Medical Initial Assessment and was the place where a lot of cardiac patients were first admitted to before being moved to the CCU, the Cardiac Care Unit, where they were.

“That’s it, yes,” Gloria nodded, “yes, you see, I had a heart attack, or at least my husband thought I’d had a heart attack, and so I was brought to hospital by two very nice young gentlemen in an ambulance from my local doctor’s after we saw her. But dear, I think I was rude to them, I didn’t say thank you for their help.”

This was what he liked about her, what made her stick out from the rest. Selfless, sweet, and wholly unconcerned about her health in general, being far more invested in taking care of her husband with Parkinson’s disease. She had tried to chat with Marco during an angioplasty he had performed on her some years ago, asking about his cats and how work was going, but the conversation had been a struggle due to the sedation. She’d tried anyway.

“You had a heart attack?” Marco asked, frowning, worried.

Marco was on the ward round that morning, meaning he would assess each patient on the ward individually with his team of junior doctors, the registrar, and nurses. All of the cardiologists (and all doctors and surgeons in all specialities) took it in turns to take ward round. It was due to begin within the next half an hour, so he would have found out about Gloria then anyway.

“Yes, dear,” Gloria said, “I thought something was funny so I went to my local doctor, Dr. Burke - she’s so lovely, a real addition to the surgery - and she said it sounded like a heart attack and that I needed to go to the hospital with the paramedics. Well, you can imagine my surprise when she told me that; I thought my husband was just being dramatic! And so the first person I thought of was you, obviously, but a different cardiologist assessed me yesterday. A big fellow with a moustache.”

“Dr. Rose?” Marco asked, thinking of Vista.

“Yes, that was it. When I asked for you he told me you would be down here this morning, so I’ve been awake since 6 AM waiting for you.”

Marco felt flattered as he looked into her sweet beaming face, but said, “you should be resting, not waiting up for me, Gloria.”

She sighed, but the smile didn’t fade from her face. “Yes, that’s what the nurse kept telling me,” she looked at one of the nurses busying herself with a patient nearby, a middle-aged woman with a severe face, and frowned a little. “I told her I felt fine and she needed to stop worrying, I wanted to see my nice boy before I have my shower, thank you very much.”

Marco chuckled and patted her hand. “Well, I’m glad I got to see you, but I would be a lot happier if you were to relax in bed for a while. Heart attacks are serious things.”

Gloria hummed in agreement. “I learned last night that they’re called myocardial infarctions,” she said with an air of pride, “isn’t that interesting?”

Marco thought of Gloria and her amazingly upbeat approach to life for the rest of the day, checking in on her again before he finished on the ward around midday and left for lunch. Her heart attack hadn’t been a particularly severe one, it transpired when Marco read her notes, and if her tests came back as satisfactory then she would be able to go home within a couple of days. Marco sincerely hoped they had someone to rely on to look after her husband in her absence.

“Don’t you dare,” Thatch shot at him as they ate lunch together on a bench outside, the early summer sunshine too nice to pass up, “don’t even think of offering to check in with that patient’s husband. You’ll earn a reputation and they’ll all want you.”

“I wasn’t going to,” Marco snapped, taking a bite from his sandwich, “I’m just concerned, that’s all. I can’t remember if they have children or if they live nearby or anything. I just know her and a bit about the husband.”

He had thought about emailing the Parkinson’s disease specialist nurse in the neurology department to ask whether she was aware that one of her patients was potentially left without care while Gloria was in hospital, but he had realised he didn’t even know the gentleman’s name. That would be just a touch too embarrassing to deal with - ‘hello, one of your patients might need some support for a few days, not sure who he is but yeah just a heads up’. Even Marco could see how that would go down. And he was confident that Gloria herself wouldn’t want to trouble the young nurse…

“Yeah, well, leave it that way,” Thatch said warningly, “you can’t save them all, Marco. Just stick to looking after the ones that come through your door.”

Marco, of course, immediately thought of Ace.

“I will,” he said quietly.

His afternoon was a wild blur of giving a half an hour presentation on cardiology as a whole to university nursing students from the local college, getting caught up talking to an HCA - healthcare assistant - who wanted advice about her father, and heading to the cath lab to supervise his registrar performing a routine angioplasty that ended up being trickier than they thought and needed him to step in and salvage. Really, if he was honest, he should have urged the reg to persevere for longer before he offered to step in, and he would probably get a telling off for it from the Head of Medicine when he found out, but Marco was soft-hearted and fond of this reg.

All in all, Marco could easily say he preferred his office and clinic days to this.

However, the perks of days like this were that he got to leave earlier, and so when 4 PM rolled around he got into his car in the staff car park and shut the door to the outside world, sighing into the peace and quiet. He pulled his phone out of his pocket, checked it for the first time since Thatch had called him to meet for lunch, and saw a text waiting for him. His heart leapt when he unlocked the phone and saw it to be from Ace, sent half an hour ago.

Hope you’re ok. Didn’t see you round the office. Dinner didn’t make you sick, did it?

Hope you’re OK…

Marco’s face split into a grin, beaming at his phone like an idiot as he took in the words again and again. Ace had been thinking about him. Ace hoped he was OK. He’d been keeping an eye out for him. Marco felt like he was about to combust with happiness over such a short, simple text.

He text back:

I’m good, was on the ward in the morning then had loads of other stuff to do. Tuesdays are busy days. Back in tomorrow but clinic in the morning. You ok?

He barely refrained from adding an X to the end of the message, catching himself before he sent it.

Nami could have easily told Ace of Marco’s whereabouts at just about any given time in the day, since she had all of his appointments saved in his shared calendar. She could have given Ace a summary of the day and he would have had no reason to text. But he hadn’t asked Nami. He’d gone straight to Marco himself because he wanted to be in contact with him, Marco could only assume. And even something that simple warmed the doctor’s heart just that little bit more, made him push the guilt and the memories and the thoughts from the morning back a little further into the corner of his mind.

Marco nearly dropped his phone when it buzzed mere seconds later, holding it up to read Ace’s speedy reply:

Glad you’re not sick! I’m driving to mom in a bit then gym after. Catch you tomorrow :)

Marco wanted to frame that smiley and look at it forever.

Cute. Cute. Ace was so very, very cute.

Movement outside the car caught Marco’s attention, pulling it away from his phone screen. He looked up to see a man passing in front of him, and he recognised him in an instant - that moustache and those eyebrows could be spotted anywhere.

Roger Gold, the CEO, Ace’s father, strode past, completely unaware of Marco staring at him in amazement. Marco hadn’t seen Roger in person for a while, never really having any need to meet with him personally, and he was fairly confident that Roger would not recognise him if he noticed him.

Roger looked strangely harassed and drawn, Marco thought, more tense than he remembered seeing him. He watched with interest as Roger stopped beside his own car not too far away and unlocked it, but he froze with his hand on the handle and seemed to pause. Marco frowned to himself as the seconds slipped by and Roger remained as he was, appearing to simply gaze at his own reflection in the expensive car’s tinted window.

Just as Marco was contemplating getting out and asking if he was all right, Roger straightened up, locked the car again, and strode back the way he had come, looking downright furious and intimidating. Marco sank lower in his seat as he passed, getting the distinct impression that to be spotted now would be to embarrass the powerful man, because something had just happened.

He debated texting Ace to tell him, but what good would that do? What would he say? ‘By the way, just saw your dad, he walked to his car then walked away again, see you tomorrow’. Marco snorted at the thought of it and turned on the engine after checking that Roger had left their floor of the multistorey.

Marco had absolutely no way of knowing that this had been Roger’s first attempt at going to see Rouge.




Roger stormed back into the Raftel Building after swiping his key card against the monitor, wrenching the door open with unnecessary force. He pounded up the stairs to his office, ignoring his PA’s confused splutter as he crossed in front of her desk and shut himself up in his office again.

He had failed. Spectacularly.

Roger dropped into his chair behind his desk and simply allowed himself to sit, to breathe heavily and frown deep at the shame of not being able to even get into his damn car. His heart fluttered in his chest with what he could only assume was anxiety, an emotion that he was not accustomed to in the slightest because Roger Gold did not do fear in any capacity.

Or so he had thought.

He raised a trembling hand to his forehead and pressed it there, felt the damp of the sweat that coated his skin.

As he had stood at his car, it had felt like a knife had been shoved into his gut and twisted as he thought of where his journey would end once he began to drive. How the hell did Ace manage to go through this every other day? Roger couldn’t even face it once, nevermind continuously like his son. It was shameful that he couldn’t do what Ace did. Or maybe Ace didn’t go through this at all, didn’t get that panic response as he was leaving to see Rouge, and it had just become a normal part of his life by now.

Roger looked up as a knock sounded at his door, biting back the anger he felt as his PA’s head poked round the door. Sometimes he wished she cared less.

“Mr. Gold?” she asked, tone tentative, “I thought you were done for the day. You said you were leaving a bit early, so…”

She trailed off under his severe gaze, clearly regretting her decision to check in with her boss. Roger heaved a sigh, feeling the slightest tinge of sympathy for the blonde woman.

“I changed my mind,” he said, voice rough, “I remembered something I needed to do. I’ll leave early another day. In fact,” he sat up a little straighter, suddenly determined to not let his future self get away with failure once again, “put it in my calendar, won’t you? I’ll be leaving at four on Thursday instead. Can’t do tomorrow; I’ve got late meetings with the chiefs of service for medicine and surgery. Blasted fools can’t sort out their nonsense for themselves.”

Everyone knew how medical and surgical physicians notoriously did not see eye to eye, forever bickering about anything and everything and thinking that their division was more deserving of room allocation or whatever else was the flavor of the month. Surgeons tended to refer to physicians as having an easy desk job with no worries, whereas physicians were quite open about their opinions that surgeons were nothing more than barbarians who enjoyed butchering people. It was all ridiculous, really, and Roger didn’t need to be involved in whatever this particular gripe was about, but as always his habit of getting involved had won over once again.

His PA nodded and left him in peace again, and Roger suddenly wished he had asked her for a cup of coffee. He didn’t want to leave his office and go to the kitchen to make one himself, not when it risked meeting others and being forced into cheery small talk with them. He wasn’t up for that right now. Maybe he really should just invest in a coffee machine in his office, Roger conceded with a small sigh.

He took out his phone and unlocked it, taking a moment to gather himself before opening his chat history with Ace. There was no turning back anymore, Roger understood with a grimace; he had laid the foundation work now and he was going to see it through. He tapped out a message to his son and pressed send before he could overthink it and delete it, as was always the case, and he finally, at long last, broke Ace’s chain of one-sided messaging:

I’m going to the hospice later in the week.




Wednesday morning rolled round far too quickly for Marco’s liking, finding his two furry alarm clocks climbing on his chest and pawing at his face after what felt like barely minutes of sleep. He snatched up his actual alarm clock from the table beside his bed and groaned, his feeble hope of it actually still being the middle of the night shattered by the reading of 6:25 AM on the illuminated face.

He heaved himself up after coaxing the cats off him, both purring wildly in anticipation of their breakfast. Marco showered and dressed quickly before feeding the girls and making himself a coffee, sitting at the kitchen table to read the news on his phone with his mug in hand.

Only he didn’t take in the headlines announcing death and misery, or how political opponents were sneering at each other over today’s apparent big fiasco. Marco’s eyes slid out of focus as he allowed his mind to wander, to think about what he had done last night.

He’d thought of Ace again instead of sleeping, the alcohol in his system stealing away any semblance of restraint as he had rolled with his fantasy. This time he had imagined the man underneath him, knees bent and belly pressed to the bed as Marco pinned him down and devoured him. He had sworn he could taste the sweat on Ace’s back as he had licked up his spine in his mind, felt those thick muscles twitch against his lips and Ace’s warmth grip his cock as he’d worked himself to orgasm.

Marco groaned into his palm as he pressed it to his face. This needed to stop. He couldn’t let it continue, despite how surprisingly satisfying it was and how intense of a high he got from it. Ace deserved better than that. Not that Ace had any way of knowing how Marco’s thoughts had roamed his body for the last two nights, but…

Marco headed to the hospital with his mind reeling with Ace, excited by the prospect of seeing him today and of speaking to him rather than communicating via painfully short texts. He really hoped he would be able to catch him before morning clinic after taking advantage of the early morning silence of the department.

Only the department was not silent, nor was Marco the first to arrive that morning, which was intensely unusual. And to make things even more strange, it was Thatch who was there before him.

Marco frowned at the keys dangling from Thatch’s ajar office door, and was sincerely tempted to take them and hide them; he was forever telling Thatch to not leave them in the door, yet his words seemed to fall on deaf ears.

“Did you sleep here or something?” Marco asked as he pushed the door open, and he nearly dropped his travel mug of coffee in surprise when his eyes met those of Thatch’s youngest daughter, Emily, and then her older sister, Bianca.

The girls beamed at their uncle before Emily launched herself off her chair at him, squealing, “Uncle Marco!” and seizing him round the middle in a bone-crunching hug. Bianca followed, smushing her sister into Marco as she flung her arms around the pair of them.

Thatch chuckled, once again fighting with his tie and looking tired and drained. Marco couldn’t say he blamed him, given that he was in work a solid two hours before he usually appeared, and if the girls were with him it meant that Fiona hadn’t been at home to get them ready so early in the morning.

“I’m taking them to school in a bit,” Thatch explained as Marco looked at him questioningly, “Fee got asked to take over some professor’s lecture this morning up north; he had an accident on his bike yesterday, poor old boy, so she agreed. I dropped Sophia off with her friend on the way here, but these two,” he shot his two younger daughters what Marco could only describe as a Dad Look, making the auburn-haired children giggle madly, “won Daddy over and convinced him to bring them to work first.”

“You’re too soft on them,” Marco said fondly, pulling out a chair at the desk that Thatch had in his office for meetings. Emily clambered into his lap as soon as he sat down, swinging her legs happily.

“Tell me about it,” Thatch groaned, abandoning his attempt on his tie and flinging it onto his paperwork-strewn desk, “they tried to convince me they wanted to see where I work, which was obviously a lie because they’ve been here more times than I can remember, but then Emily let slip that they just want to eye up Ace.”

Marco looked at the two girls in surprise as they spluttered in furious embarrassment, Bianca squealing for her father to shut up immediately and Emily flushing red.

“Ace?” Marco asked, feeling himself starting to color just by saying his name, which was monumentally stupid, “why on Earth do you two want to see Ace?”

“We don’t!” Bianca shrieked, covering her ears and glaring at Thatch, “Daddy, you promised you wouldn’t tell anyone!”

“When I mentioned a while ago that we had a new boy in the department, they all took a huge interest once they learned he isn’t ‘an old man’, as they put it,” Thatch said, laughing at his daughters’ aghast expressions.

“Daddy said he’s really handsome!” Emily said, swivelling round in Marco’s lap to look up at him imploringly, and Marco smiled at her, thoroughly amused, “and we’ve never seen a good-looking doctor before.”

“Congrats, Emily, you’ve just broken your Uncle Marco’s heart,” Thatch chortled.

Emily heaved a dramatic sigh and rolled her eyes at her dad.

“Ace isn’t a doctor,” Marco said, “he just helps your dad out a lot with his work because he’s a bit silly.” He flashed Thatch a grin as the girls giggled. “And handsome? Really? Is that how you’d normally describe your co-workers?”

It was how Marco would describe Ace, that was for certain.

Thatch snorted a laugh, “they twisted the phrase ‘pretty young and a nice guy’ to mean ‘I work with a Greek God of a man’. Go figure. They haven’t shut up about him for weeks.”

“Dad!” Emily cried as Bianca clamped her hands over her ears again, apparently unable to bear the embarrassment her father was subjecting her to.

“What? You haven’t!” Thatch shot back, clearly enjoying embarrassing his girls in front of Marco, “all I’ve heard since last night is how you two were so excited about meeting him! I’m surprised Sophia didn’t want to come too, she’s the one who seemed most interested in the poor lad at first.”

“Soph’s got a boyfriend,” Emily dragged out the word like it was something disgusting, “she wants to go to school early with Sara so she can see him; he gets dropped off early by his mom. God, Daddy, didn’t you know?

It was Thatch’s turn to splutter in outrage this time, looking to Marco for confirmation that what his youngest was saying was true, but Marco just shrugged at him, grinning. Ah, children and their little lives. Marco remembered how Bianca, at only six years old, had proudly announced one evening at dinner when Marco was visiting that she had kissed her boyfriend that afternoon. Thatch had flown into a rage while Fiona had laughed and asked if Bianca wanted to bring the little boy over one day after school to play.

“She’s only eleven!” Thatch wheezed, looking from daughter to daughter to Marco, as if hoping someone would announce it was a joke, “what’s an eleven-year-old doing, having a boyfriend?”

“Probably the same as you when you were eleven,” Marco shrugged, “same as most kids do when they’re that age. They’ll call each other boyfriend and girlfriend and then never even get to holding hands. It’s nothing to worry about, Ed, they’re just kids.”

Thatch grumbled and grabbed up his tie again, glowering at Marco. Marco was right, and this was nothing to worry about at all, but Thatch was extremely over-protective of his girls around boys in their school. Marco didn’t like to think about what would happen when Sophia started dating for real in a few years’ time.

“Anyway,” Thatch said with the air of a man grasping for his dignity, “girls, don’t be creepy around Ace, all right? Be on your best behaviour, both of you.”

Bianca sighed and Emily looked up at Marco again, her expression telling him that she thought her dad was a complete idiot. Marco chuckled at her and patted her on the back, changing the subject.

“Not long to go now, huh?” he said, referring to how Emily would turn eight in a few days.

Emily positively shook with excitement at this, her eyes alive with the prospect of her birthday looming. “I can’t wait to see what you’ve got for me, Uncle Marco,” she said, “you always get the best presents.”

“Wow, thanks,” Thatch muttered sarcastically as he successfully knotted his tie this time, tugging the knot up to his throat, “who’s getting you a phone, Emily? Remind me of that one.”

Emily flashed a radiant grin at Thatch, two rows of little white teeth showing. “Other than you, Daddy, of course,” she said. Thatch nodded approvingly.

Marco bounced his knee to get Emily’s attention again, earning a squeal of laughter from her as she was jiggled. “Anyway, I need to get started on my work,” he told her, pulling an exaggerated sad face at her fierce pout when she looked up at him, “but I’ll say goodbye before your dad takes you to school.”

“Can I come and sit in your office, Uncle Marco?” Bianca asked hopefully as Emily hopped off Marco’s lap.

“No, you’ll leave him alone and stay in here with me,” Thatch said before Marco could open his mouth, “your uncle is a busy man, girls, so leave him be.”

“And you’re not?” Marco grinned at Thatch, who just raised an eyebrow at him.

“But Daddy,” Emily whined, “you’re so boring.”

“Are you determined to break my heart, dear youngest of mine? Are you?”

Marco chuckled as he left Thatch’s office, closing the door behind him to muffle the sounds of Emily’s retort at her father. He turned to unlock his own office, and as he did so, Ace came through the front door of the department.

Marco’s heart and stomach both seemed to dissolve at the sight of him, looking effortlessly attractive in his pale blue work shirt with the top two buttons undone, his thick black hair tucked behind one ear. Ace looked up at Marco staring at him and flushed, stunned, as he tugged his earphones out of his ears.

“Morning,” Ace said in a would-be casual voice, “you OK?”

Marco nodded a little too vigorously, gesturing to his office door. “Just going in,” he said feebly, even though it was obvious what he had been doing. The faint hint of concern in Ace’s eyes pulled him in, made it so that Marco couldn’t stop staring at him. Had he always been that beautiful? Had his eyes always been such a dark gray?

“Uh,” Ace mumbled, looking to Thatch’s door with the keys still in the lock, “I take it Dr. Thatch is in already? That’s a new one.”

He reached for the door handle but was stopped by Marco grabbing his wrist. Ace blinked up at him, confused, and Marco forced himself not to stammer.

“Not yet,” he said quietly, so that they wouldn’t be heard through the door, “my office.”

He led Ace into his office by the wrist, dropping it like Ace was on fire when he noticed he still had a hold of him. Ace closed the office door behind himself with a click, looking thoroughly confused.

“Everything OK?” he asked, frowning at Marco.

“Yes, fine,” Marco said hurriedly, realising how weird he must be coming across and willing himself to stop behaving like a teenager left alone with their first crush. “Just to give you a fair warning, Ed’s brought two of his kids in.”

Ace’s face lit up, which Marco had to admit made him look positively adorable. “Which two?”

“Bianca and Emily, the two youngest,” Marco said, “Ed mentioned you to them and they’ve decided they want a formal introduction. Don’t ask why, I don’t really understand how little girls’ minds work. They seem interested in you because Ed’s colleagues are usually old men or his secretary. Or me,” he added, shrugging. “But don’t feel you have to see them if you’re not comfortable around children or something.”

“Are you kidding?” Ace laughed, “I love ‘em! I want a whole bunch of my own one day.”

And indeed, Ace actually looked excited by the prospect of meeting Bianca and Emily. Dammit, he was cute. So stupidly, impossibly cute.

“And also,” Marco said, wanting to take advantage of this brief window of time they had together, “how was yesterday? How’s your mom?”

Ace’s expression shifted, but Marco couldn’t quite read it. He looked both intense, like he really wanted to tell Marco something, and yet also, strangely, a little withdrawn, as if he were hurting. Marco looked at him curiously, close enough to be able to make out every single freckle that adorned Ace’s cheeks and the bridge of his nose.

“Later,” he said, meeting Marco’s gaze, his expression relaxing a little as he looked at him, “after you’ve finished in clinic. I want to talk to you about it properly, and here’s not really the place for it. Do you wanna…” he hesitated, absent-mindedly scratching at his forearm as his licked his lips, stalling, “do you wanna meet for lunch? Starbucks is right opposite the clinic rooms, so…”

Yes, absolutely yes, Marco wanted to say. A lunch date with Ace? Yes. Getting to sit and watch Ace’s face and listen to his voice under such innocent circumstances? Double yes.

But panic, that same panic he had felt on Monday when talking to Nami, squeezed at his chest. It was one thing to be seen around the hospital with Thatch, Law, or any of his medical team from the wards or outpatients, but to be seen with Ace, who was completely unknown to the wider hospital? The rumours would start again for sure, even after all this time, even though the gossip and stares had been over five years ago, happening right after he had joined the department.

This was stupid, and Ace so very clearly wanted to meet up with him, his dark eyes shining as he looked up at Marco so intently. Ace didn’t know any of what had happened in Marco’s past, knew literally nothing whatsoever, and it was going to stay like that.

“How about we walk to the shop just off site,” Marco suggested, “we’ll pick up something from there and find somewhere to sit. I don’t much enjoy being stared at by my patients who leave my clinic and end up in Starbucks before they head home.” That much was true, at least; there had been several occasions where he had popped in to get a drink or a sandwich, only to find himself queueing beside a patient he had just given difficult news to moments earlier. That was always awkward to the nth degree.

Ace seemed fine with this compromise. “OK, just text me when you’re done and I’ll meet you outside the clinic rooms,” he smiled, “it’s a date!”

Marco’s eyebrows shot up, amused by the way Ace immediately tried to retract those last words.

“No, wait, I didn’t mean— not a date date, I mean—”

Cute.

Marco chuckled and patted Ace fondly on the arm, not daring to do anything else. “Sure. I’ll see you later for our not-a-date-date-lunch-date. Have fun with the girls.”

And he opened his office door for Ace to leave, the young man’s cheeks crimson and eyes bright.




They met outside the clinic waiting area as planned, Marco feeling his heart skip in his chest at the sight of Ace reading the whiteboard with today’s morning clinics scrawled across it. Ace beamed at him and fell into step beside him, asking how clinic had gone.

Marco chuckled, already bursting to tell his co-worker about one particularly unfortunate - yet also incredibly hilarious - patient.

“So this new referral, an old boy, comes into the clinic room and sits on the bed, which is strange because I offered him the chair next to the desk, right,” Marco grinned at the memory as they left the atrium and emerged into the midday sun, “and, well, it isn’t unusual for older patients to get a bit confused about their appointments, not if they’re seeing lots of different specialities in a short space of time. So this poor old man got this appointment confused with his first appointment with the lower gastrointestinal surgeons, and—”

“The butt surgeons?” Ace interjected eloquently, and Marco snorted a laugh.

“Yes, them.” That was how he would now refer to them for the rest of his days. Privately, of course. “Well, anyway, the poor man didn’t listen when I told him we were here today to discuss his heart concerns, and he sort of waves aside what I said and goes, ‘son, it’d be much quicker if I just showed you what I mean’, and so he wriggles off the bed, pulls down his pants, bends over and—”

Ace threw back his head and howled his laughter, causing a few members of the public nearby to jump in fright.

“So what the hell did you do?”

“What could I do? I just sat there in horror! Thank goodness the HCA had her wits about her and hoisted his pants back up again. I was expecting to pop a stethoscope to this man’s chest and listen to his heart, maybe take his pulse, and instead I saw—” Marco cleared his throat as Ace continued to laugh at his enormous misfortune. “Well, let’s just say that yes, he does indeed have a prolapse.”

Ace snorted so hard he actually doubled up, stopping short and gripping his knees as his shoulders shook with laughter. Marco couldn’t help himself and started too, chuckling at the sight of Ace finding his ordeal so hilarious.

They bought lunch at the small corner shop as planned, Marco grabbing a sandwich and a drink, Ace loading up with a foot long sub, two packets of chips, a pack of sushi that ‘looked interesting’, an apple, a banana, and a smoothie. Ace had the good grace to look a little sheepish when Marco raised his eyebrows at his mountain of food.

“I’m a bit hungry today,” he said with a smile.

“A bit?

Ace giggled.

They found a bench a little further down the road from the shop just inside the grounds of a park. Ace spilled his food onto the bench between them as they sat and ripped into the sub immediately, leaving Marco feeling a little wounded by how he didn’t seem at all bothered that they couldn’t sit shoulder to shoulder.

“Oh, right, I gotta tell you,” Ace said, his cheeks full, “you’ll never guess what Dr. Thatch’s kids did this morning. Go on, guess.”

Marco shrugged, trying to imagine what they could have possibly done to Ace, someone they were very keen on meeting yet also very shy about. “No idea. They didn’t ask you to be their boyfriend, did they?”

Ace laughed, waving his hand as if to dispel the words from the air. “Nah, nothing like that. They’re great kids, I can see why Dr. Thatch dotes on them. They have such sharp senses of humor.” He took another bite of his sub and watched Marco sip his drink, eyes following the bob of his throat each time he swallowed. “They asked me to come along with them on Saturday for Emily’s birthday party.”

Marco nearly, nearly, spat his mouthful of diet Coke out.

“They what?” Marco spluttered, staring at Ace’s grin in amazement.

“Yep,” he said cheerfully, “right before they left for school. Dr. Thatch encouraged it, said it would be fun if I wanted to tag along.”

“Seriously?”

“Mhm.”

Marco bit into his sandwich to give himself a moment to think, frowning at Ace’s smile. What the hell was Ed doing? He had never asked any of their other colleagues to join them for any of his daughters’ birthdays before, nor indeed did he ask them to do anything outside of work other than occasionally get dinner, go for a drink, or maybe go bowling against other specialities for a bit of a laugh. This was downright fishy. Ed wouldn’t allow the girls to ask Ace along just because they were working closely together at the moment - Miranda hadn’t been invited, and she had known the girls for years, always chatting with them and exclaiming happily at their toys that they proudly showed her. Unless, of course, the girls had invited her and Marco was none the wiser… although somehow he couldn’t see that being the case.

“And what did you say?” But Marco could already tell, could see the answer in Ace’s eyes, and could feel his own cheeks coloring before the younger man even opened his mouth.

“I said I’d go, of course,” Ace beamed, confirming Marco’s assumption, “can’t let a little girl down on her birthday, can I? And I love amusement parks, I haven’t been to one for years. The only problem is I don’t know what to get her. What does she like? What did you go for in the end?”

Marco felt himself telling Ace about the bike he had bought for Emily after getting Thatch’s permission to splash out on a nice mint green one with a little basket on the front, shutting down his worries that he would upstage her own parents before learning that they had already bought her a smartphone. He heard the words leave him, but his mind was doing a kind of somersault, reeling at the thought of spending a whole day with Ace in such a date-y setting. They could innocently share an ice cream… or go up in the ferris wheel together… or go in the haunted house… Marco wasn’t so proud that he wouldn’t pretend to be frightened just so he could hold Ace’s arm…

“Marco?”

“Hm?” He had been gazing vacantly at Ace, losing himself to his imagination. “Oh, I got her a bike. Not a pink one, she’d throw a tantrum, probably, but it’s got these sparkly tassles on the handles that are removable for when she decides she’s too cool for those, too. I was going to get her this dolls seat that can be attached to the back for her to put her dollies in - she’s really into baby dolls at the moment, says she wants to be a midwife when she grows up - but I didn’t know if that’d be overkill.”

Ace’s face shone with excitement, clearly inspired by Marco’s present. Marco so very wanted to kiss him, he looked so sincerely sweet in that moment. He had it bad, and they hadn’t even been friendly for a damn week yet.

“How about I get her a helmet to go with it?” Ace asked, “you didn’t get one of those, did you?”

Ah, no, he hadn’t. That was pretty important.

“And I can get her that seat thing too, if you show me what you looked at.”

“Sounds good to me. I’ll send you the links to the ones I found.”

Marco had imagined doing an enormous range of things with Ace over the past few days, but shopping for kids dolly bike seats together was certainly not one of them. He smiled at Ace though, felt his heart soften at how domestic and nice this was, and how warm it made him feel to be able to talk about something like this with someone again, even if that someone wasn’t his boyfriend yet.

Yet? Marco’s heart seemed to beat harder at the thought. He rubbed at his chest distractedly as Ace finished his sub and tore open a pack of chips, offering the bag to Marco. Marco took one, then a second with a smile as Ace shook the bag insistently at him. They sat in silence for a moment as Ace munched his way through the bag, quite content with people-watching together until Ace piped up again.

“You asked about Mom earlier, right?” he said, reaching for the apple now, and Marco had to refrain from asking if Ace intended to eat everything he’d bought right now, because the answer was almost definitely yes.

“Yes - how was she?”

Ace took a bite of the apple and chewed, obviously thinking about how to answer that.

“She was pretty good, all things considering,” he said when he’d swallowed, “she was all excited to show me these ribbons one of the nurses, Ines, had brought from home to tie in her hair. She used to have lovely hair, really thick and wavy, but thanks to the chemo she lost loads of it so it’s all thin and brittle now.” Ace took another bite before continuing. “But she’s actually happy with that, y’know? She’s so happy she didn’t lose all of it. She really thought she would, and so did I, but she still has enough to plait and brush.”

“Your mom really does sound like she can find the positive in anything,” Marco said, impressed and pleased with Rouge’s resilience.

Ace nodded. “You got that right. She’s always been like that, so I don’t think it’s her putting on a brave face or anything. She really does see everything as a cup half full.”

“And how about the wheelchair situation? Any changes there?”

“Nope.” Ace finished the apple and put the core in the trash can beside the bench, heaving a sigh when he turned back to Marco. “She hasn’t walked further than the bathroom since last week. Her palliative care doctor wants to see me and Dad together to talk about her end of life plans again, now that… well… it’s looking like… y’know.”

Marco did.

“Which leads me onto this.”

Ace pulled his phone out of his pocket and showed Marco a chat history between himself and Roger that seemed painfully one-sided, all sent from himself bar a single one-liner. Marco read it aloud.

“I’m going to the hospice later in the week…” Marco looked up at Ace, gaping at him. “Is he really? When?”

“No idea,” Ace said, frowning and sounding annoyed all of a sudden, “look, he didn’t respond when I asked him. I said we could go together if that makes it easier for him, but he’s just gone right back to ignoring me again. I don’t know why he has to be like this.”

Marco understood, even if he didn’t agree with the way Roger was handling things. Still, It was a huge step for the man to even text Ace, nevermind actually go and visit his wife.

“And how do you feel about this?” Marco asked, looking at Ace seriously. There was no way that any of this was easy for him, no matter how upbeat he seemed most of the time.

“Well, glad, obviously,” Ace said, frowning at Marco in what appeared to be thought more than irritation or sadness, “if he actually goes through with it, of course. She wants to see him so badly. Every time I walk into the room I can see she hopes it’s him at last. She deserves better than him.”

Ace balled his fists in his lap and sighed, dropping his gaze from Marco’s concerned face. Marco reached out to him on instinct, laying his hand over Ace’s curled fist and giving it a small squeeze.

“People deal with things like this in different ways,” he said softly, noticing the way Ace’s cheeks colored under his freckles in that really rather lovely way that they so often did. “Roger is hurting just the same as you are right now, I can promise you that. You deal with it by facing your mother head on, and by extension tackling your grief and pain continuously every time you see her. Roger is bottling it up, and he’s setting himself up to get all that pain that should have been spread out through the weeks and months in one fell swoop. It’ll likely break him when he does finally see her.”

Ace just looked at Marco’s hand on his own, expression impassive and blank. Marco had wanted to say this to him right at the beginning when he had first found out about Rouge, but the timing hadn’t been right and would have only hurt Ace more, but he needed to hear it.

“He isn’t avoiding her - or you - because he doesn’t love you both. It’s quite the opposite, I’m sure.”

“You’re sure?” Ace looked up at him, something akin to a challenge resting in his eyes, like he was daring Marco to try and convince him of something he already knew the definite answer to. “Are you speaking from personal experience or professional here? I mean this with no offence, honestly, but even if you were to see thousands of grieving patients, you can’t really know what it feels like or how you’d think about things unless you go through it yourself.”

He had a point; a very good point, in fact. Marco had wanted to avoid making this about himself, had had no intention of ever bringing up his past and speaking of his own loss again, burying it deep down and continuing to live with it as he had been for years now. He had dealt with it at the time - poorly, admittedly, and wasn’t getting much better at it, given his nightly sleeping aid in the form of alcohol - and he didn’t want it to override anything that Ace was feeling right now, here in the present. But if it could help Ace to understand Roger’s side…

“Both professional and personal,” Marco said calmly, his voice holding steady as he looked into those deep gray eyes, “I’m no stranger to loss of a loved one. I can relate to how Roger is dealing with this because it isn’t too far off how I handled… it,” he finished lamely.

Ace stared at him, clearly taken aback by this. Marco felt Ace unclench his fist under his palm and he made to pull away, but to his surprise Ace just turned his hand over and held his gently. Butterflies erupted in Marco’s stomach at the feeling of his hand in Ace’s, at the look of tender concern there on his features all of a sudden, a stark contrast to the frown that had been there seconds ago.

“Who was it?” Ace asked, “I mean, was it someone close to you?”

Marco nodded. “The closest.” But he didn’t elaborate, instead giving Ace’s hand a squeeze. “It was a long time ago and doesn’t matter anymore, I just wanted you to know that Roger really isn’t staying away because he doesn’t care or anything like that. He’s hurting too, and it’ll be harder than he can imagine to go and see your mother in the hospice, but he needs to do it. He won’t forgive himself if he doesn’t.”

Ace sighed, seeming to accept what Marco said, even if he didn’t fully believe him about Roger. “This isn’t going to end well, is it?” he said heavily.

“It’ll never end,” Marco said quietly, “not really. They never leave us, the people we love. But it does get easier with time. It’s cliché, but it really does. You just have to make the most of the time you have before the inevitable happens, and remember that you’ll always love her. And I know you said she keeps telling you this, but you do have to live your life as well. There’s nothing to be found in dwelling on memories and ‘what if’ scenarios forever.”

Ace gave Marco’s hand a gentle squeeze back before saying, “are you speaking from personal experience again?”

“I am.”

“Then…” Ace paused, gathering himself before continuing, “I guess I’ll need someone experienced in these matters to stick around and help me, won’t I? If they feel up to it, of course.”

Marco’s heart pounded in his chest and his face felt hot at Ace’s implication, wishing his brain wouldn’t leap to a conclusion that involved the two of them as a couple. That was a step too far, even for him, seeing as they really still didn’t know each other all that well. But a lot had happened in such a short amount of time, more than anything he’d experienced with anyone else since Shanks. They had got swept up in their feelings then too, and it had worked out then, hadn’t it?

“It depends on you,” Marco said at length, “grief is a very personal thing. I didn’t want anyone near me when… and I’d imagine Roger will withdraw as well. But if you find that you want someone around,” he smiled at Ace, sincere and open, and Ace mirrored him, “then I’m sure the person of your choice would be more than happy to be with you.”

Ace dropped his gaze to their hands, cheeks ablaze, and he slowly, hesitantly, shifted his fingers to lace between Marco’s. Ace didn’t look at him, even when Marco did a double take from their interlocked fingers to Ace’s down-turned face, and even the tips of his ears started to color.

So. Cute.

“Thank you,” Ace mumbled.

Marco didn’t reply. He settled back against the back of the bench and watched the world go by, alight with nerves and excitement and concern for the young man beside him.

He’d do what he could for Ace when the time came, would provide him with whatever support and help he needed, and he would be there for him. He wouldn’t leave him alone to hurt, not if Ace wanted him there.

And something told him that Ace definitely would.

 

Chapter Text

Ace couldn’t settle to anything that afternoon, counting and re-counting and re-re-counting lines upon lines of patients who had somehow been missed for follow-up the year before. Two hundred… three hundred… shit, he lost count again… didn’t anyone in the system build team know how to add numbers to all of these entries?

He leaned back in his chair and heaved an enormous sigh, earning a curious glance from the registrar who he shared an office with whenever the young doctor found a moment to spare for admin time. Ideally, Ace would be sat with Thatch in his office so that they could work together more easily, but the spare desk in there acted as a meeting table for the department. Thatch’s office was regularly taken over by anyone from the head of nursing to the divisional chief of medicine for meetings; word got around quickly when a potential meeting spot in a private office presented itself, meaning that those in the know could bypass the irritating room booking system and not have to fight over one of the designated meeting rooms in the building. Plus, there wasn’t a computer at that large, circular desk. Not that Ace particularly minded - when Thatch was off and about doing god knows what, Ace quite liked being left in peace at the end of the corridor.

But desk allocation wasn’t his problem right now. What he needed was to speak to someone about the cause of the butterflies that simply refused to settle in his stomach.

He had held Marco’s hand. And Marco hadn’t pulled away. OK, sure, given the circumstances it wasn’t an entirely unusual response, and yes, really, Ace did appreciate his empathy and his calm presence during these difficult times, but… it was so difficult to not lose himself to the nervous energy that coursed through his body whenever he was near the cardiologist.

And he desperately needed to talk to someone about it before he burst and started giggling like one of Thatch’s kids.

He shot a sideways glance at the reg to check he wasn’t watching before pulling his phone out of his pocket and tapping in a message to the one person who would have to listen to his problems whether he liked it or not.

Deuce, Ace typed, Deuce omg help me I’m dying I need to talk to you like right now save me

That was sufficiently vague enough to pique Deuce’s interest and lure a reply out of him, surely. Ace set his phone down on the desk and stretched.

He nearly screamed when his phone vibrated loudly on the wooden surface of the desk, making the poor reg jump violently as Deuce’s name flashed up on the screen in a phone call. Ace snatched up his phone and rejected the call, apologising profusely to the reg as the man massaged his chest over his heart and frowned at Ace.

And Deuce called him again.

Ace spluttered his apologies yet again and left the office, slipping out of the doorway just right of him and hiding in the stairwell that served as the fire escape route out of that end of the building. He answered the call and held his phone to his ear.

“What?” Ace hissed, keeping his voice down even though he didn’t actually need to now.

“Don’t ‘what’ me,” Deuce’s snappy reply came, “you said you were dying and then rejected my call! What’s going on? Are you OK? Where are you?”

OK, so perhaps being that dramatic hadn’t been a good idea. Deuce, Ace knew only too well after being his best friend since they were teenagers together in school, was fiercely protective of Ace. There wasn’t much he wouldn’t do for his best friend, but he also wouldn’t stand for any nonsense from him.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Ace soothed, trying not to laugh at Deuce’s overreaction, “I’m at work. It’s all good. I just wanted to talk to you about something.”

A pause. Then Deuce huffed, “so you’re not in immediate danger? You were just being dramatic?”

“Yeah, sorry, but listen, I gotta tell you—”

“It’s not about your mom, is it?”

“What?” Great, now Ace felt guilty. “No, no, she’s OK, I just wanted to—”

“Oh,” Deuce’s tone had changed completely, coming flat and deadpan through the phone, “I think I hear the nurses calling me. Bye.”

And Deuce hung up. Ace rolled his eyes and opened his recent calls to ring him back.

If there was one thing Deuce didn’t have any patience for, it was Ace when he got too excited. If he wasn’t suffering and was perfectly safe in his office at work, then Deuce wouldn’t feel the need to interrupt his own shift on the general surgery ward in his role as a first year junior doctor.

“I swear I’ll give you a real reason to think you’re dying,” Deuce growled when he picked up Ace’s second callback, and Ace just laughed at him down the phone.

“Sorry, but I really do want to talk to you about something,” Ace pleaded, “please Deuce, you’re my bestest friend in the whole world and I love you and you’re the best doctor ever and—”

“Jeez, all right, shut up.” Ace cackled at Deuce’s obvious embarrassment; he could almost feel his furious blush through the phone. Deuce never could handle it when Ace - or anyone - showered him with praise and affection. “I can’t talk right now unless it’s an emergency. You free after work? We can talk after I’m done here.”

“Yeah, sure,” Ace said, grinning, “I’ll wait for you in Starbucks in outpatients. I wanted to go there for lunch, but…” ah, the fluttering sensation in his stomach had returned. “I’ll tell you about it when I see you.”

“See you there, then,” Deuce grunted, “and by the way, ‘bestest’ isn’t a real word.”

Ace chuckled as Deuce hung up again.

He was looking forward to gushing like a schoolgirl to his bestest friend.


 

Ace waved across the coffee shop at Deuce when he saw him arrive, holding up the two drinks he had bought already. Deuce’s order was always the same - a medium flat white espresso - and Ace had it ready for his arrival so he wouldn’t have to wait in the long queue.

“Thanks,” Deuce said, taking the cup that was thrust at him and pulling a chair out opposite Ace, “man, today was hell incarnate. I’m so glad it’s over.”

“Why? What happened?” Ace asked, suddenly feeling guilty for bothering Deuce at work during a hard day.

Even though they worked in the same hospital, it was rare for them to get the opportunity to see each other. Deuce’s shift pattern changed weekly, often including very late finishes, weekends, and night shifts, whereas Ace worked a comfy 8-4 weekday pattern. And as was the standard for all junior doctors, Deuce’s placement was on a rotation around different departments every three months - at the moment he was placed on the general surgery ward, but before that he had been on the fracture ward, and he had no idea where he would be going into his second year. It sounded like enormous fun to Ace, but Deuce always complained about it, saying he was looking forward to finishing and getting settled somewhere permanent.

“Nothing in particular, it was just really busy. Luckily I got your message right when things calmed down, but they ramped up again afterwards.” Deuce pulled his lanyard with his ID badge on up over his head and dropped it onto the table between them, and Ace snatched it up immediately.

“Wow, you look furious in your photo,” Ace grinned, inspecting the ID, “what did the photographer say to make you look like that?”

Deuce frowned at him. “He told me to smile.”

Ace snorted a laugh. That was so typical of Deuce - whenever he was told to smile for a photo he panicked and sort of pulled a pained grimace. It had made for some really interesting school photos back in the day.

“Look at mine compared to yours,” Ace said, taking off his own lanyard and holding it out for Deuce, “I’m all smiley-smiley and you look like an escaped convict.”

Deuce pulled a face at the tiny photo of Ace beaming at the camera before setting it down on the table on top of his own. “You always were photogenic,” he grumbled, tugging at the front of his mint green surgical scrubs absently. “So anyway, what mad situation have you landed yourself in this time? If you need help with heaving a fridge up to your apartment again you can forget it; I can’t believe I didn’t give myself a hernia last time.”

Ace chuckled at the memory of Deuce shouting just about every single swear word known to man when Ace had enlisted his help on moving day a couple of years ago instead of paying for professionals to haul his stuff over.

“I wouldn’t even dream of asking you with something like that again,” Ace smiled.

He picked his cup up and took a sip of his drink, suddenly feeling the return of those butterflies again. Where to start? He hadn’t told Deuce anything about Marco yet, their texts over the last week or so being sparse due to Ace’s worry about Rouge and Deuce not being the most talkative of texters. When he wasn’t at work on the ward he was either studying or writing fantasy fiction, and so Ace often joked that Deuce used up all of his words in those endeavours and left none for texting.

Ace’s stomach gave a nervous sort of jolt as he opened his mouth to speak again. “You know I moved to cardiology a while back?” Deuce made a sound of recognition in response. “Well, a few weeks ago I started talking to one of the doctors, Dr. Marco White. He’s really nice and he helped me out with a problem I had, and one thing led to another and I went back to his last weekend and got really drunk.”

Deuce raised an eyebrow. “Please don’t tell me you slept with a senior physician.”

“No!” Ace felt his cheeks ignite at the thought of it, at the thought of Marco lying between his thighs, draped up his body, damp with sweat and seated deep inside— “Why is that everyone’s immediate thought, huh? Do I really come across as that easy?”

Deuce shrugged, finally looking amused. “What else am I meant to assume when you lead with a line like that?” OK, that was a fair point. He probably could have phrased it better. “And you were easy not so long ago; I distinctly remember your nineteenth birthday where you went missing and I had to—”

“Yeah, well,” Ace interjected hastily, not wanting that particular night’s events recalled; he would probably die of the shame, remembering what nineteen-year-old Ace had thought to be a great idea, “that was just a phase. I had a lot of learning to do back then. It was character building, a journey of self-discovery! And if you must know, I haven’t slept with anyone for…” he paused to count on his fingers, muttering to himself, “ten months, Deuce! And I don’t even care! I hadn’t even thought about dating and everything until all this kicked off.”

“Settle down,” Deuce rolled his eyes at his friend, “you’re getting off track. As much as I love discussing your current total lack of a sex life, I’d rather hear more about this doctor you didn’t sleep with.”

“You started it.”

“I know, I know. So this Dr. White guy took you back to his because…?”

“I told him everything about Mom,” Ace said, fiddling with the lid of his cup in an effort to distract himself from Deuce’s expression of mild amusement at his expense, “I just blurted it out and started crying on him. But he didn’t freak out. He asked me back to his because he didn’t want me to be alone after that, and I thought, well, why not?”

Deuce looked a little hurt at this. “You wouldn’t be alone. I would have come and got you, you know I would.”

“Aw Deuce, I know, and I appreciate it. But I’m allowed to make other friends, y’know,” Ace laughed, “and honestly? He was lonely. He thought he was being all subtle by mentioning that he planned to get drunk on his own at home, but it was so damn obvious he was miserable himself. He lives in this really fancy apartment all by himself with his cats, and there’s no photos on the walls or anything, no ornaments or personal things. Nothing. It’s really strange and kinda sad.”

“Whereas your apartment looks like you had an explosion in your closet,” Deuce muttered, grimacing at the memory of the last time he visited, “I hope you haven’t asked him back to your place without having a really thorough clean up; it’s disgusting.”

“Very funny,” Ace said dryly, “and no, he’s only ever been outside the building.” Ace had more sense than to ask Marco back without doing exactly what Deuce said. Living alone had its perks, but keeping the place tidy all by himself wasn’t one of them, especially as there was no one else there to be bothered by him leaving things dotted all over the place.

“So you got drunk with a lonely doctor,” Deuce summarised, pulling Ace back from his thoughts of the state of his home, “and then what happened?”

“And then…”

And then he had started to develop feelings for Marco. It had actually started on the first day Nami had pulled Ace along to Marco’s office, if he was being honest. He had never seen a doctor of Marco’s level do something for someone off their own back like that before, and when he had learned that Marco had a habit of checking over anyone in the department who had a medical problem or query, it had only made him like the man more. Sure, he hadn’t enjoyed showing Marco the psoriasis on his body one bit, but now he knew and he had even gone out of his way to get Ace more medication for it.

And he cared about Rouge, despite never meeting her. He cared about how her condition affected Ace and Roger, and despite all of his lapses in memory that drove Nami to insanity, he never forgot to ask Ace about his mother.

“God, Deuce…”

Deuce blinked at Ace in alarm as his face sunk into his palms and he sighed.

“Wow,” Deuce said, the shock in his voice plain as day, “that bad, huh?”

Ace nodded into his hands. “I think I’m falling in love with him.”

It felt foreign on his tongue to say it out loud, and it brought a dash of crimson to his freckled cheeks, but it didn’t feel wrong, so to speak… just strange, but in all the best ways imaginable.

Because it was true. Ace had never felt like this about anyone before, and certainly not in this sort of time frame. He had dated previously, obviously, and his late teen years had indeed been a whirlwind of discovering himself by hooking up with random men and learning exactly what he liked. It had been fun, and exciting, and had been one huge buzz of adrenaline after another during those drunken nights out. But nothing, not even his short relationships that barely even touched on three months long in his very early twenties, could have ever had him reaching for the word love.

Ace looked up at Deuce between his fingers, and he wasn’t surprised to see the stunned expression on his best friend’s face looking back at him. He buried his face back into his hands with a groan through a loud exhale.

“Am I stupid?” he asked Deuce, his words muffled by his palms, “am I just some big idiot who’s mistaken appreciation for attraction? Is that what this is? Because I keep telling myself there’s no way I could like someone this much after such a short time, and we haven’t really done much of anything… but every time I see him I just want to…” Ace groaned another exaggerated sigh that had Deuce looking around them hastily to check they weren’t annoying anyone.

“I have no idea, dude,” Deuce said, clearly at a loss at what to say; while Deuce was Ace’s best friend they didn’t tend to have heart to hearts like this, although that was mostly due to Ace never finding himself in this position before, and Deuce was in a steady relationship with a girl he had met in his first year of university. “Maybe try talking me through it and see if you can make sense of it? It helps to hear yourself say things sometimes; I always understand medical stuff better when I try and explain it to Ann, and she does the same to me. C’mon, tell me about him, let’s start there.”

“You sure?” Ace asked, peeking at Deuce between his fingers to see him nodding.

“You wanted to talk about this, right? So talk.” Deuce took a sip of his coffee. “What does he look like? Describe him for me.”

“Ah, Deuce, what did I ever do to deserve you?”

“Absolutely nothing,” Deuce grinned at him, “you’ve been blessed despite being a total pain in the ass. I want to hear about the guy who’s got you, of all people, swooning.”

Ace sat up straighter and wrapped his hands around his cup again, thinking hard. How to best describe Marco?

“He’s really tall,” Ace started, feeling himself flush at just the thought of the doctor, “taller than me, anyway. And he’s blond with an undercut. He doesn’t look as old as he is - 43,” he added, seeing the question forming on Deuce’s lips, “he said he’s the same age as the doctor I’m working with, and Dr. Thatch was moaning about his age the other day, so…”

Ace could see what Deuce was thinking without him even having to say anything - this guy is too old for you. But Ace didn’t think he could care less about their age gap - if anything, it was their professional gap that he was concerned about. He knew full well that Marco didn’t look down on anyone who wasn’t as qualified as him (unlike other doctors that Ace had known in his previous placements around the hospital) but there was something about that level of achievement and intelligence that made him feel a little insecure from time to time.

“And he’s really fit,” Ace continued, not wanting Deuce to slip into his mother hen mode and start lecturing him about his choices in men, “he’s broad-shouldered and muscular and you don’t really notice it when he’s in his work shirts, but that morning after I stayed over… holy shit, Deuce, you should have seen him. He was like…” Ace gestured vaguely, “amazing, y’know?”

“Not really,” Deuce said, taking a sip of his coffee, “muscles aren’t my thing.”

“Yeah, but even you can appreciate a work of art when you see one,” Ace sighed with emphasis, “just like how I can see Ann’s gorgeous, even if she doesn’t tick any of my boxes.”

“She’ll be thrilled to know she has your seal of approval,” Deuce grinned. “Anyway, I think I might know who he is.”

Ace’s eyebrows rose, surprised. “Really? How?”

“Is he friendly with one of the vascular surgeons?” Ace just shrugged in response. “When I was there on rotation a few months ago this surgeon called Mr. Trafalgar brought in a blond cardiologist to review one of their mutual patients. It stuck out to me at the time because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a physician come up to review a surgical patient - they usually just communicate via email or phone when they have inter-speciality queries, right? Well, this blond doctor actually came to the ward and had an exchange with Mr. Trafalgar that made me think perhaps they were friends outside of work.”

Ace sighed again, looking to all the world like a maiden hopelessly in love. “That does sound like him. He’s wonderful, isn’t he?” he said dreamily, earning a non-committal grunt in reply from his friend, “that’s the kind of person he is, Deuce. He goes out of his way to help people who aren’t his problem, and he’s so caring.”

They sat in silence for a moment, both taking pause to drink their rapidly cooling coffees.

“And I think he likes me, too,” Ace said, continuing as if there hadn’t been a break in the conversation.

“Oh?”

“Yeah. I wasn’t sure at first - hell, I assumed he was straight - but I get these vibes from him that he does. Sometimes he just looks at me a certain way and it’s like he’s mentally undressing me. And then I just want to—” Ace made a violent ripping motion in mid-air, “rip his shirt off and—”

“Remember you’re in public,” Deuce growled, glancing around them and catching the eye of at least one curious member of the public, “and I’m sat here in scrubs. We’re technically still at work, so keep it clean, OK?”

“Sorry,” Ace grinned sheepishly and drained the last of his coffee. “And at lunch today - this is why I called you, actually - I held his hand.”

Deuce looked mildly impressed. “And he let you?”

Ace nodded. “We had lunch together and talked about Mom, and he said he’s lost someone close to him too. He didn’t say who, though, but I think it really hurt him because he looked so sad, even though he was obviously trying not to take the focus off Mom. He’s just…” Ace sank forwards again, burying his face in his folded arms on the table this time, muffling his voice when he spoke again, “he’s so sweet, and I wanted to ask him more, but he clearly didn’t want to talk about it and I don’t know why, because I need to talk about Mom with someone sometimes. I mean, I have you, obviously, but he can relate to it better - no offence intended, Deuce, you’ve been a hero through this—”

“Speaking of your Mom,” Deuce interrupted, cutting off Ace’s babbling, “are you not concerned that maybe you’re just using this guy to distract yourself from her?”

Ace looked up quickly, eyes wide with surprise. Deuce looked back at him levelly, serious, a small frown furrowing his brow above his thick-framed glasses. Ace was used to Deuce’s direct approach and inability to sweeten his words, but this still caught him off guard.

It wasn’t like Ace hadn’t considered this, hadn’t chased that very thought around his head many times over the last couple of days. He had battled with the idea that maybe his infatuation was nothing more than physical attraction and projecting what he wanted to see onto Marco, that in other circumstances he wouldn’t be interested and was only drawn to him now because the doctor had seen him at his most vulnerable and not turned him away. It wouldn’t be unheard of, clinging desperately to the first person who showed interest in one’s time of need.

But…

Even though the timing was horrible, and even though Ace wished he didn’t feel anything for him, he couldn’t deny himself what he felt. He knew how it must look, and how Marco would probably have the same reaction as Deuce if Ace ever came clean about how he felt, but he couldn’t convince himself that that was what was happening. Marco had just been in the right place at the wrong time, and Ace knew, when thinking about the doctor with no other factors involved, that he would want to be with him even if Rouge was healthy and happy.

“No,” Ace said slowly, gently, “no, Marco isn’t a distraction. In fact, being around him makes it impossible to pretend everything’s normal, because he brings her up unprompted when I’m not always ready for it. Working in cardiology was meant to be the distraction, since it’s so busy there, but,” he exhaled a small laugh, “instead I’m being asked about Mom’s condition almost every day. I love that he cares, I really do, but he’s definitely not providing me with some kind of escapism, that’s for sure.” And he honestly wouldn’t have it any other way, wouldn’t wish to change anything about the doctor at all.

“Well, that’s something, at least,” Deuce said, looking relieved, “I was worried because of the timing and all. But if you don’t think that’s the case, then that’s good enough for me.”

It wasn’t. At all. But Ace could definitely see why Deuce would think that.

“I want to know more,” Ace admitted, sitting up and resting his chin in his palms, “I want to know who it was that he lost, and I want to be there for him.”

Deuce made a displeased noise, frowning at Ace. “While that’s very sweet of you, you have to focus on yourself first,” he scolded, “and if he’s as great as you say he is, then he would tell you the same thing.”

“I know,” Ace said, “but you know what it’s like. I can’t stop thinking about all the little things I don’t know yet, and I want to learn them. And when I held his hand my heart felt like it was going to explode, Deuce, I like him so much. Is that normal? Am I weird?”

“Yes, but not because of that,” Deuce smirked at Ace’s frown, “that’s normal when people develop proper feelings for each other. I’m so proud of you, finally growing up and liking someone enough to question if it’s love.”

Ace stuck out his tongue at Deuce’s sarcasm.

“Give me your hand for a second,” Ace said, holding out his own on the table, palm up, “I wanna test something.”

Deuce rolled his eyes and placed his hand on Ace’s, watching with a kind of bored interest as Ace moved and linked their fingers together like he had done with Marco. “Feeling those butterflies yet?” Deuce asked.

“No,” Ace said, looking both relieved and pleased, “guess you just don’t do it for me.”

“Oh no, my heart’s breaking.”

“Tell me you love me or something. Go on, try it.”

“Ace,” Deuce said in that flat sarcastic tone he saved only for when his best friend was being stupid, “I’m in love with you. Please sleep with me. Ann doesn’t need to know.”

“Ah, I should have recorded that. Say it again for the phone.”

“Not a chance.”

Ace released Deuce’s hand with a laugh, suddenly feeling that nervousness deep down again that had nothing to do with Deuce’s fake confession. It was Marco, not just the gentle contact. He knew that already, of course, but it never hurt to confirm these things, just in case.

“So what’re you going to do about this?” Deuce asked him, cracking his knuckles in his fist and grinning at the way Ace grimaced at that habit of his. “You gonna tell him?”

“I don’t know,” Ace said, leaning back in his chair with a sigh, “it’s too soon, right? What would you do if someone you liked told you they wanted you after only knowing them for a few days?”

Deuce shrugged. “I told her I thought she was cute too and we went out on our first date there and then,” he said. “I met Ann on the Sunday, spoke to her on the Monday, went on our first date on the Tuesday, and we’ve been together for six years now. It doesn’t hurt to try.”

That was right. Ace had known that they had started dating really quickly, the detail getting lost in the intervening years. But their circumstances had been entirely different, what with them both being university students with no cares in the world other than their studies. Ace, however, carried the sorrow of a terminally sick mother, and Marco… well, who really knew.

Maybe it was best to go into these things without a plan, Ace concluded as Deuce looked at his wristwatch and announced he needed to head off for his train. Maybe it didn’t require any thought and he just needed to roll with whatever situation presented itself to him, to trust his instinct and go with what his gut told him was right.

And right now, it was telling him that that was Marco.

Was it too late to invite the doctor out for dinner again? Probably, Ace reasoned, yet he still typed in the question to his phone and sent it to Marco, impossibly emboldened in that moment by his conversation and admittance of how he felt. Marco probably already had plans, or wasn’t keen on going out yet again so soon, or Ace was being a nuisance, or—

He had to bite his lip to stop himself giggling like an idiot when Marco’s reply pinged up on the screen far too quickly, reading: phone conference just ending, I’ll meet you in the multistorey top level?

Yep, he had it so bad.

He sure hoped Franky and the guys wouldn’t mind him skipping out on gym tonight…


 

Thursday passed entirely too fast for Roger’s liking, finding himself subjected to ever-rising pangs of anxiety every time he caught sight of the time. His meetings flew by for perhaps the first time in his life, not one of the tedious things dragging on for a change and leaving him looking blankly at his notes, alone, once everyone had left the meeting room.

He was so nervous. He could admit to as much now, finally recognising his nausea as fear and not, in fact, the beginnings of a violent bout of D&V. But whatever his physiological state he would still do it, he would still go to her and see her and hopefully, fingers crossed, not break down at the sight of the love of his life slowly dying.

God, he missed her so much. Their huge house rang silent around him at all times now, the music from the radio he played in the kitchen not enough to permeate the aching loneliness of her absence. He had taken to sleeping in one of the guest bedrooms since the day she had left, unable to lie where she had and be reminded that Rouge would never come home again. A part of him wanted to sell the house and move somewhere smaller, somewhere where the memories of her touch did not linger, but equally he could not bear to part with the centre of the life he had built with her.

Roger had contemplated many, many times asking Ace to move back in with him, to give up that little apartment with it’s one small bedroom and minuscule kitchen and return to the family home. The only thing that stopped him was knowing full well that Ace would say no, would not want to come back to live with his father under any circumstances. Especially not now.

Ace had left home a couple of years ago for all the right reasons - at 22 he had been well and truly ready for his own space, and had only delayed because he hadn’t found the thought of living completely alone to be appealing. That friend of his with the glasses had ended up moving in with his girlfriend right when Ace had originally been planning on asking him to find a place to rent together, successfully setting Ace back by a year and leading to some very emotional talks with Rouge about whether he himself would ever find someone. As far as Roger was aware, Glasses-Boy never knew that Ace had spent ages working out budgets and researching areas around the city’s hospital that would give his friend safe access to work even during the middle of the night on his mad 12 AM starts.

But regardless of Ace’s feelings towards him, Roger did honestly want him home. Hell, he wanted to talk to him properly and tell him how much he loved him, his only son, and how proud he was of him for handling this all so well. Roger wanted a lot of things, not a single one of them being attainable with his vast wealth. He didn’t need - or want - money. He wanted his wife and son back home and happy again.

Roger tried to distract himself with thoughts of Ace as he left his office and made his way over to the multistorey, jaw set rigid with determination because this time he was going to succeed. He was going to do it.

He got into his car - a step further than last time - and started the engine. So far, so good. And this time, that blond doctor wasn’t around to see him claim victory over his own nerves.

Roger had noticed the doctor watching him from his car that Tuesday, and Roger knew exactly who he was. Not by name - that small detail escaped him and wasn’t important enough for him to try and recall - but he knew him by division and by speciality. He was a cardiologist, he was sure of it, recognising him from a meeting some months back where each speciality had sent a representative to speak on their behalf. As was so boringly routine, two of the surgeons had kicked up an argument against one of the medical gastroenterologists and a physician in elderly care, whining about funding and how surgery was infinitely more important than whatever they were taking up room for. The cardiologist hadn’t said a word - the only one from the medical division to not react to surgery’s bitching - and had just watched the exchange with a bored expression. Roger had privately thought he had the right idea to not get involved.

Roger grasped onto this stray thought as he drove, desperately trying to distract himself with something so mundane so as to not panic and let the anxiety take control.

That doctor probably knew Ace, Roger realised, given that that was where Ace was based now. Roger had seen to it that his son was moved to wherever he showed interest, shouting down his protests that he would interview fairly like anyone else and handling his transfer paperwork personally. It had definitely been a misuse of his position, he knew that, but it had been one tiny portion of his life that he was still in control of, something useful that he could still do for his son. It was a shame that Ace hadn’t seen it the same way, calling him interfering.

Maybe he was.

The tires of Roger’s car squeaked as he pulled into the car park of the hospice. He glanced over the other cars there already, noting with the faintest hint of relief that Ace’s crumbly second-hand red Peugeot was not present; why the man had turned down Roger’s offer of a brand new, far better car was still beyond him, saving up on his own to get his little 308.

Roger slammed the door of his car shut with unnecessary force, shoving a hand through his thick hair and taking in the sight of the hospice. It was a beautiful building, old and classy and renovated to modern standards, set far enough out of the way of the nearby town to allow for peace, yet close enough for the residents to get to the shops with the care staff or their visitors should they want to. Roger knew (thanks to Ace’s text updates) that soon after Rouge had moved in she had walked with Ace to the town, stopping for coffee before going to a flower shop.

Ah, he should have bought her flowers. Was it too late to quickly go into that town and find the shop that Ace had said Rouge fell in love with? Roger hesitated, confident that if he left now for any reason he would not find the strength to return.

He swallowed, exhaled a breath to calm himself, and walked up to the front doors.

The receptionist looked up as he approached, smiling warmly at the intimidating glower Roger knew had to be set on his face. He couldn’t find the strength to smile back.

“Good afternoon,” the middle-aged receptionist said, “are you here to visit someone?”

Roger nodded, not trusting his voice to remain steady. He could feel his hands beginning to shake and felt furious with himself for it. This was ridiculous. This was absurd. If Ace could do this multiple times a week, then by God he could do it himself today.

He suddenly realised he was sweating.

The receptionist pushed a small book towards him that was full of names, dates, and signatures. “Please fill out the visitor’s book, if you don’t mind,” she said cheerfully, and when Roger looked at her blankly she added, “it’s for fire safety more than anything, so we know who’s in the building at any given time. All these rules and regulations,” she tutted and rolled her eyes, smiling at him. Roger attempted a smile back.

His heart gave a lurch as he went to write his name, catching sight of Ace’s dated two days previous a few lines above. He scanned up, then turned the page over to the previous one, seeing his son’s signature repeated again and again, dated every other day or occasionally every three days. Proof that he really did come here, that he really was with his mother as often as he said. Not that Roger had ever doubted him - why would he? - but to see his scruffy scrawl of a signature beside his printed name over and over… something threatened to well up inside Roger. He turned the page back and touched Ace’s most recent entry, feeling the tiny indent that the black pen had made as Ace had run it over the paper.

“Ah, yes,” the receptionist said, watching Roger the entire time, “that young man comes here all the time. Such a nice boy. He brought us girls some muffins recently, said he thought we would like them. They went down a treat, let me tell you! Do you know him?”

Roger ducked his head to avoid her searching gaze, focusing on writing his name. “Yes,” he managed, his voice barely a croak in his throat, “he’s my son.”

“Oh, how wonderful,” the receptionist exclaimed, and Roger couldn’t help glancing up as she clapped her hands together, “Rouge will be happy to see you!”

The receptionist - Mary, her name tag read - led Roger down a long, airy corridor that had floor-length windows running the length of it, letting the late afternoon sun pour in. They passed a sitting area full of homely couches and chairs where a resident was chatting with people that Roger assumed to be his family. He caught the man’s eye and nodded at him before looking away quickly; the relaxed, peaceful gaze of the terminally ill man set him on edge for some bizarre reason.

“Here we are,” Mary said gently, coming to a halt at a room that bore Rouge’s name along with a drawing of a red hibiscus flower, “shall I see if she’s ready for visitors, or would you like to go on in first?”

Roger wiped at his forehead, dragging his palm over the sweat that beaded there. She was on the other side of that door. She was here, and she was breathing, alive, having no idea that her husband was so close to her for the first time in so long. He tried to calm himself but felt the fear grip his heart like a fist, leaving him feeling curiously choked and light-headed.

“I’ll wait,” was all he managed.

He honestly wanted to leave as Mary nodded kindly and knocked on the door twice. His body felt numb and yet also vaguely like he was floating, like this wasn’t reality, as Mary’s voice drifted to him as if from far away. “Rouge, dear?” he heard her say, “I have a visitor here for you. Would you like me to let him in?”

Roger couldn’t hear Rouge’s response, but it must have been positive as Mary turned back to him and said with a smile, “whenever you’re ready. She’s just finishing up the chapter of her book.”

On some distant plane of thought Roger was aware that he should thank the receptionist, that she hadn’t had to accompany him all the way down here in the first place and could have just given him directions to Rouge’s room. Perhaps she knew from Ace, or maybe Rouge herself, that Roger coming here was a big deal for him, or maybe she had figured it out for herself, finding it unusual that Rouge’s husband had never visited yet understanding why.

It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered other than stepping into that room.

Roger took a deep breath and moved forwards.

His breath caught in his throat at the sight of her lying there, looking thinner and paler than when he had last seen her the day Ace had brought her here. She was bathed in the warm glow of the sun from the window of her room, making her look as if she were some kind of angel visiting from above.

Roger’s hands shook as Rouge carefully placed her bookmark to her page and closed her book. She looked up with a smile, so very obviously expecting to see her son, and her soft brown eyes went wide as they locked with his.

He couldn’t move. He couldn’t say anything. And neither could she, apparently, simply staring at him as if to blink meant to lose him in that instant. Roger felt simultaneously cold and hot, as if ice was freezing his insides yet sweat rolled down his back under his shirt.

“Roger,” Rouge breathed after several tense seconds, her voice thin to his ears, “I’ve missed you.”

And everything that had held him back, every fear, every ounce of pain, everything that he had built up to guard himself from something that he could never hope to stop from coming for him shattered in an instant at her words. It fell to his feet, freeing him and giving way to the surge of love, of complete and utter adoration for his wife, for the one and only love of his life, and he gasped for breath like a dying man.

He strode towards her, eyes alive with determination and a hardened resolve, and she looked back at him with the exact same expression as he dropped to his knees beside her bed, ignoring the chair, pulling her in for a hug that he hoped would be gentle enough for her fragile body.

Rouge ignored his attempt to handle her like precious glass, throwing her arms around his shoulders and holding him as tight as she could manage. She was weak, he could feel it, but beyond that he felt her heart beating against him, frantic and pained and yearning for him.

And he broke.

Roger buried his face into Rouge’s thin shoulder and let the tears come, let them fall unhindered to stream down his cheeks and nose. His shoulders shook and his breath left his lungs in a wheeze, and she was no better off against him, clawing at the back of his shirt and shaking in his arms. He didn’t care how he looked, he didn’t give a damn if the whole world saw him right now, because nothing mattered at all except for her, for the feel of her again and her good heart and her lips pressing a kiss to his wet cheek.

He tried to speak, tried to tell her he was sorry, he was so, so sorry for abandoning her, that he would never think of leaving her again. But the words would not come, his throat too tight to the waves of emotion and the shuddering breaths he could barely pull from the air. He cupped the back of her head and held her as close as he could to himself, tried to speak again but could only manage a vague, wet gurgle.

She knew what he was trying to say.

“It’s OK,” she whispered, kissing his shaking shoulder, her breath labored under her own tears, “it’s OK, my love. Everything’s OK.”

It wasn’t. It never would be. Never again.

But in that moment, for that day, at least, he believed her. She was here, she was real, and she was holding him as he howled against her skin with pain he had never known before. It went beyond what he felt upon learning her diagnosis. It eclipsed the weeks, months of denial and numbness. It was everything he should have felt, delivered all at once.

It would be worth it. It would be so worth it. Because now he had her, and he would treasure every second with her, and he would love her until he could love no more, and then some.


 

Ace hurried through the double glass doors of the hospice, smiling at Mary as he grabbed up the pen to dash off his entry into the visitor’s book.

He’d got held up at work by accident, completely losing track of time as he had found a terrible excuse to sidle into Marco’s office (“can you read Dr. Thatch’s writing here? ‘Cause I can’t”) and proceed to flirt like his life depended on it. Marco had flirted back, and Ace had maybe giggled a little too high-pitched at something very unfunny the doctor had said before he had happened to catch sight of the time on Marco’s computer and raced off after a hasty apology and explanation.

He really hoped Rouge didn’t mind him being a little late today. He figured once he gave her the gossip from the last couple of days she would forgive him - Rouge was well and truly invested in the ‘love story’, as she called it, that was blossoming in her son’s life.

“Well hello, Ace!” Mary beamed at her favorite visitor, “and how are you today?”

“Good, thanks,” Ace said a little breathlessly, “yourself?”

“Oh, I’ve had the best afternoon,” she said happily, “simply brilliant.”

“That’s great,” Ace replied distractedly, not really taking in what she said in his haste. He flipped open the book and started to write his name as usual, but something about the name above his caught his attention.

Ace blinked, confused.

Roger Gold.

Dated today, barely an hour ago.

And there was no entry next to the ‘sign out’ time column.

He had visited her. He had done it. Roger had really gone and done what he had promised and he was still here right now. Ace looked up at Mary, wide-eyed, and she beamed back at him.

“The best afternoon I’ve had in months,” she said calmly.

Ace dropped the pen and bolted for Rouge’s room; Mary didn’t even bother to shout after him that running wasn’t allowed. She’d let it slide just this once.

Ace tore down the corridor and came to an abrupt stop at his mother’s door, gasping for breath and buzzing with adrenaline. He swallowed, trying to gather himself before entering, stopping his hand from reaching for the handle and just barging in without hesitation. If Roger was inside then he needed to be cautious, because he had absolutely no idea what state his father would be in right now.

But he had to confirm he was there with his own eyes.

Ace took another steadying breath before opening the door slowly, listening for any sounds of crying, or arguing, or anything at all.

But all he heard was Rouge’s voice, soft and loving, singing something indistinct.

He pushed the door open wider and entered.

He drank in the sight that greeted him hungrily, his chest constricting. Roger was sat in the chair beside Rouge’s bed, the chair pulled as close as he could get it to her, and he had his head in her lap and arms around her midsection. She sang to him a song that Ace recognised from his childhood, the one from a film that Rouge loved that she would always sing after bathtime. She would wrap Ace up in a huge, fluffy towel and hold him in her lap, rocking him back and forth gently as she sang to him. He had forgotten this memory completely until now, until he heard that song again.

Rouge looked up and saw him standing there, watching them, and she smiled at her son. Without pausing, she raised a finger to her lips to indicate Ace had to stay silent. He watched as she ran her fingers through her husband’s hair lovingly, combing through the thick locks that she had used to trim herself before she had got ill. And still she sang, her voice quavering slightly:

“Somewhere over the rainbow
Way up high
There’s a land that I heard of
Once in a lullaby

Somewhere over the rainbow
Skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true”

It was beautiful in Ace’s opinion, hearing his mother’s voice singing once again; he bit his lip and pressed his fingers to his mouth to keep silent, to stop himself sniffing at the touching sight. Part of him wanted to go and join them, to settle on Rouge’s other side and cuddle up to her like he used to do so long ago, and perhaps make peace with his father and hold him too. But the longer he watched Rouge running her fingers through Roger’s hair, the more obvious it became that he was interrupting something intimate, a moment meant just for the two of them.

There would be time to talk to her later. The chance to reconcile with Roger would present itself at some point, too. This was by no means Ace’s last chance to see them together, and he knew, with absolute certainty, that Roger would now come to see Rouge regularly, perhaps daily.

The strain and ache of it all drained from Ace as he backed out of the room, mouthing ‘love you’ to Rouge when she smiled gently at him. He could now share it with his father at long last. It wasn’t entirely on him anymore, and just the thought of that gave him some relief.

The tears came silently as he left the hospice, hot and insistent down his cheeks. Tears of relief, of a strange, ill-formed happiness, and not of sorrow. He got back into his car and sighed, running his fingers through his hair and breathing deep, slow, steadying breaths. He felt strange, the emotions running into one and confusing him.

Ace pulled out his phone and, without really thinking it through first, called Marco. He needed to hear him, needed him to help sort out this confusing mix of happiness, relief, and something far more undefinable, and he wiped at his eyes as the call connected.

“Ace?” Marco sounded worried already, probably because he knew Ace had gone straight to the hospice after picking up his car from home.

“Hey,” Ace said, trying to keep his voice steady, “sorry for calling. Are you busy?”

“No, no, I’m just about to go home. Is everything OK?”

Ace smiled, touched once again by the fact that Marco cared so much. “Dad’s with Mom right now,” he said, and his voice cracked despite trying so hard to sound normal, “he went to see her like he said.”

He heard Marco gasp, and Ace pressed his free palm to his face, trying to keep it together.

“I’m so relieved,” he sighed into the phone, “she looked happier than I’ve seen her for so long, Marco. He had his head in her lap and she was singing to him. Picture perfect, y’know? Thank God he did it. I’m just so—” he swallowed, the lump that had settled in his throat seeming to swell, “I’m so—”

And he heaved a sob, trying with all his might to keep himself calm, but it was close to impossible.

“Are you OK to drive?” Marco asked, and Ace could hear the clips on his briefcase being snapped closed in the background, “no, of course you’re not. Wait there, I’ll come and get you; send me a pin of your location.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Ace breathed a laugh despite himself, “I’m fine, I’m just emotional. It’s like a… a dam’s been broken inside me or something. I was so worried h-he’d never see her again. But he’s there, and sh-she’s so happy, Marco, fuck, she’s—”

Another deep, rattling breath in, released slowly as Marco took the opportunity to speak.

“Seriously, wait there.” His tone was authoritative, the subject not up for debate. “I’ll drop you off tomorrow to pick up your car. Let me know where you are and I’ll be with you as soon as I can.”

Ace smiled, aching to see him yet not wanting to cause a fuss. “I’m not ruining your plans for the evening, am I?”

He heard the door of Marco’s office shut and the jingle of keys from underneath the doctor’s incredulous huff of laughter. “I don’t think drinking myself to sleep counts as a plan.”

The bitterness in his tone stung, and Marco seemed to realise this, as he added, “sorry, that was totally unnecessary. Look, it’s OK. I want to do this.”

Ace finally agreed, sending him the location information as requested once he had hung up. He laid his forehead to the steering wheel with a sigh and worked to control his breathing properly, still not fully understanding why he couldn’t calm himself. This was good, it was exactly what he had been pushing for for so long, and it was precisely what they all needed.

It wasn’t long before Ace saw the familiar silver Mercedes pulling into the car park, and he got out of his car to greet Marco. He trotted over to him as he got out too, smile in place and tears gone.

“Hey, thanks for this,” Ace said as Marco turned to him, “it’s really good of you. Sorry to be such a—”

And then, out of nowhere, Marco pulled him into a hug so tight that the air in Ace’s lungs was forced out.

And the tears began to well up again.

“Don’t,” Ace mumbled, trying to push Marco away in a half-hearted shove to his shoulder, “I’m fine now, really.”

“You’re not.”

Marco pulled him back in, his arms tight around his waist and his chin resting on Ace’s shoulder, and Ace shyly moved to loop his arms around Marco’s neck, hugging him back. He nuzzled his face into the doctor’s shoulder, cheeks hot despite the situation and feeling the tension in his body slip away little by little. The tears followed as well, leaving him despite his best efforts to rein them in, and he squeezed Marco a little tighter.

“I’m so relieved,” Ace repeated, his voice muffled into Marco’s shirt, “he would have regretted it if he hadn’t— I would have never forgiven him—”

“I know.” Marco’s voice reverberated through Ace’s body, low and comforting and wrapping him in a sense of complete security along with the hug. Ace relaxed against him a little more, closing his eyes as Marco began to comb his fingers through his hair gently, not unlike how Rouge had been doing to Roger. “Give him tonight to be with her, and then take it from there. It might take him a day, it might take him a week, but he’ll contact you, you’ll see. Let him do it; don’t let him know you saw him today.”

Ace nodded against him, understanding. That had been Roger’s moment with his wife, not something that should have been intruded in on or shared with anyone else. It was private and important that it remained as such.

“Thank you,” Ace said quietly.

Marco patted his head affectionately. “Any time,” he said gently, “I’ll always come for you.”

And Ace had never, ever wanted to kiss someone as badly as he did in that moment. He felt himself fall a little more in love with the doctor at these words, love his selflessness and his care. He wanted to pull him down and press their lips together and tell him that no one had ever made him feel so secure, so cared for, in his life.

But instead he cried tears of emotional fatigue, of relief, and of gratitude, hot and salty and wet into Marco’s shirt once again.