Medical school wasn't everything that it was cracked up to be. Of course, he'd known that going in- the pre-med undergraduate program hadn't been extremely kind to him. Not that he'd expected it to. Ever since he'd chosen to be a doctor, way back in middle school, he'd known he was in for more than a few long years of hard-work. It might have helped if he'd had some tragic backstory reason for wanting to become a doctor. A parent who'd died to early to cancer, or a little sibling with some debilitating condition that made medical care necessary for the rest of their life. But it felt disgusting to him to wish for that; people's tragedies weren't just motivation for others to learn and grow from. And he just wanted to be a doctor, and maybe help people where he could.
As a resident, he didn't have a lot of time to himself. Most of his days were spent in the white walls of the Niklaus General Hospital, rushing to and fro with the rest of the student doctors at the behest of their supervisors. On his days off, he poured over textbooks and medical journals, trying to re-learn everything he'd already forgotten from med school or supplement his knowledge. He didn't know what kind of doctor he wanted to be yet, or even if he did want to specialize at all. Matt wasn't sure about a lot of things; he only knew he wanted to be a doctor, and that at all times, there was a crushing, debilitating exhaustion that weighed his body down.
It was this exhaustion that had him blinking every few seconds, trying to appease the burning in his eyes. He'd been awake for 18 hours, and while that wasn't the longest he'd ever stayed up, his shift was following several other days of long hours and little sleep. There was nothing to be done for it beyond downing another cup of coffee and praying he could make it through the next hour. It was close to the end- all he had to do was make his rounds with the senior doctor, checking on a few of the patients who'd been admitted that morning to see how they were doing. Easy stuff, if you'd actually slept more than two hours.
Dr. Jenson was easy to work with though. He was quick to laugh and slow to anger, unless you'd made a mistake that could have cost somebody their life. Matt had been down the hall when another resident had accidentally almost given a patient a triple dose of their medication under Jenson's watch. That lecture had been extreme, but deserved. He'd never heard the man raise his voice again after that.
The ward was almost dead silent- it was two in the morning, and all the patients in their individual rooms were asleep or watching TV with the volume turned way down. The nurses were sitting at their stations, filling out charts or entering information on the computers, giant cups of break room coffee balancing next to their files. They looked up only briefly when the two entered the ward, seemingly unconcerned with their sudden arrival. Matt nodded at them, trying to copy Jenson's cool, calm demeanor, but inside his body was screaming for sleep. Only a few more hours and then he could go home. He was looking forward to spending time out of the hospital, even if it'd be in his shitty little apartment, bundled up in a blanket, unconscious.
Jenson stopped to grab a few of the charts and bent his head over them, leaving Matt to stand awkwardly in the middle of the floor without anything to do. One of the nurses stood up and grabbed a cart with a blood pressure cuff and a thermometer, pushing it quietly into one of the rooms nearby. There was another door slightly open, and inside he could see all the fresh towels, sheets, and blankets lined up neatly, ready for use.
"Come take a look at this." Jenson waved Matt over and he jumped at the chance to distract himself. It was almost eerily silent in the ward. The chart was a list of diagnoses, medications, and treatments, but it was still more interesting than standing around.
Out of the corner of his eye, something familiar moved. A face with vitiligo and green eyes at looked at him from out of one of the patient rooms. He jumped in surprise and snapped his head over to where he'd seen his friend Theo, but he was gone- all that was in the patient's room was the low glow of a TV and the steady lights of the monitors. It wasn't the first time his eyes had played tricks on him when he was working on so little sleep- every so often he fooled himself into thinking his friend was just around the corner, when in fact he'd never been there at all. It would concern him, if he hadn't had work to do, and so he looked back at the chart, resolving to text Theo tomorrow about the weird visions of him he kept seeing at the hospital.
In the next few seconds, things happened very quickly. An alarm broke the silence of the ward and everyone's heads shot up to see a blue light in front of a patient's room begin to flash. The gentle glow of the TV in that room was replaced by the lights snapping on as three nurses shot up from their seat and raced their way inside the patient's room. Jenson wasn't far behind him, already screaming out orders for the crash car. Matt's heart raced in his chest and he dropped the file he was holding, sprinting into the room after his mentor, although he wasn't sure exactly what to do. He'd never been part of a code before- never even seen one happen up close. As a newbie, you stayed far away from any of them and prayed to god one didn't happen in your vicinity.
The doctor began chest compressions as a nurse pulled the crash cart into the room. Matt flattened himself against the wall to make room for it, watching with wide eyes as his mentor kept calm. The man lying in the bed was middle-aged, with a skin pallor that reminded Matt more of the corpses he'd dissected in med school than a living person. He vaguely remembered the man being admitted this morning; he'd been having heart trouble, something about an uneven rhythm. He couldn't remember the guy's name, and that felt like utter, abject failure.
There was no doubt in his mind that this man was going to die. Matt's eyes stung as he watched the code, unwilling or unable to blink and miss a moment of this man dying. Like a terrible disaster, he could see the end of this person's life and was unable to stop it. Unable to do anything but stand there with his tired eyes, struggling to remember this person's name.
When the shock paddles went off for the second time, Matt fled the room. He wouldn't be missed- no one was going to ask a first year resident to do anything during a code besides shut up and get out of the way. He ran down the hallway, dodging doctors racing to help and patients who had stepped out of their rooms to see what all the noise was. No one stopped him- he supposed that a doctor in a lab coat, racing from a code, wasn't that unusual. They probably assumed he was off to fetch something life-saving, something that could revive the man lying on the bed with the pale skin and stuttering heart. Instead he was running to the men's bathroom. He slammed the door behind him and locked it, turning to face the empty room with no semblance of composure. Matt managed two deep breaths before he began to cry, sinking down to the floor with his head in his hands. The exhaustion of the last few hours was back, pressing down on him until he could do nothing but sob. He was completely useless, despite how long he'd spent studying and preparing himself for that exact moment. He'd spent years reading and learning, locked away inside as his friends lived full lives and graduated, leaving him behind. He'd wanted to help people, wanted to maybe see people smile or hear a 'thank you' from someone he'd helped when they needed it most. Hell, he'd wanted to feel powerful too. To know that someone's life was depending on him. That was the shittiest way to feel, as a doctor- it made you arrogant and stupid, thinking that you could never make a wrong move. He'd pushed that part deep down, quieting it for as long as he could, but he was too tired to make the effort to hold it.
He didn't have the best intentions of being a doctor- he'd wanted to be important, to do things that other people couldn't. And still he was helpless in the face of a man dying, helpless to do anything but stare and struggle to remember his fucking name. He felt like if he'd at least been a good enough doctor to remember the man's name, he might still be alive.
One hand dug around in his shirt and pulled out the necklace that was hung around his neck at all times. It had been a birthday present from Theo, a few years back- a glossy black feather strung on a silver chain. Theo said it was a good luck charm, something that would bring him happiness and health over the years. They'd both known it was something more when the other man had handed it over, a rare smile glancing across his lips, but neither had said a word about it. It was good for calming down though. Matt liked to run his fingers over the soft down on the feather, feeling his skin glide over the gloss of it like it was brand new. Like Theo had only given it to him yesterday.
Gifts from Theo usually lasted like that. He had a coffee mug that didn't shatter, no matter how many times he'd dropped it on his way out the door, and a medical textbook that seemed to update itself that he'd been gifted after he complained about the cost of buying new books every semester. He'd long moved on from the puppy-dog crush he'd had on his friend, but now he harbored a certainty that Theo wasn't exactly who or what he presented himself as. Every part of Matt wanted to reject that thought as being wholly untrue, but when he opened his book to find a new section on the exact subject he had a test coming up for, it was hard to ignore.
Mentioning anything to that effect to his friend felt utterly wrong though, so he kept his suspicions to himself and returned the gifts as best as he could. Now he could only hope the feather had the same sort of properties that all Theo's other presents had; that somehow it would do more than just be a feather that hung on a chain.
Someone knocked on the door of the bathroom, three light raps on the wood, and Matt jumped, tear-stained face shooting up at the noise. From this angle he could see himself in the mirror, all red and gross, and he looked away almost immediately to stare at the door.
"O-Occupied." He stuttered out, managing to sound only half as pathetic as he felt.
"I know." Said a familiar voice.
Matt struggled to his feet quickly and unlocked the door with shaking hands, staring at the person on the other side in disbelief. The smaller man slunk forward quickly and he was forced to move aside to Theo into the bathroom, only barely remembering to relock the door behind him. The calm face in front of him was welcome, but unexpected; how Theo had gotten past hospital security was beyond him. This late at night, there weren't supposed to be any visitors or non-staff wandering the halls.
He sunk back to the ground, head swimming with the desire to ask why and how his friend had even known to show up. Briefly his mind wandered to the vision he'd seen of Theo in the man's room, but touching those thoughts was like wrapping his hands around a red-hot iron. A fresh wave of tears streamed down his face and all the questions died in his throat as Matt wrapped his arms around his knees and buried his face in the fabric of his scrubs.
Air brushed over his reddened skin as Theo moved to sit next to him, leaving a healthy amount of space between the two. Even from this distance though, Matt could feel the chill he radiated creeping through the air. It slipped over fevered, soaked cheeks like it had a mind of its own, and he had to admit he cool breeze felt nice.
Theo said nothing for a long while, seemingly waiting for Matt to get ahold of himself before going any further. But that silent presence at his side helped, made him aware of life outside of his own misery and the small world of the bathroom. Helped him remember to focus on his breathing, on syncing it up with the steady breaths that Theo took as he waited.
Eventually the sobs turned to hiccupping. Matt was the first to speak, as usual.
Turning to look at him for the first time, his friend frowned, the patterns in his vitiligo shifting in response to the expression.
"For what?" He sounded genuinely confused, and the young doctor couldn't help but laugh lowly and gesture to himself, the picture of abject misery huddled on the bathroom floor.
"You don't have anything to be sorry for." Theo said lowly and shrugged his shoulders. For the first time in their friendship, it was Matt who broke eye contact first, hands bunching in the fabric of his pants until their knuckles turned white.
"The hell are you doing here?" He asked without any malice, looking down at the patterned linoleum floor. The tiles of light blue and yellow were too cheery to be in a hospital.
"Had a feeling something was wrong," His friend murmured, shifting slightly. "I can go if you'd like me to."
"No, its- its fine." He paused. "I'm fine."
Theo snorted and Matt instinctively shot him a dirty look, unappreciative of being called out on his bullshit.
He had no idea how to answer that question. He wanted to, but any explanation he could think of sounded worse and worse.
He forgot doctors couldn't cure death. He had been on a power-trip for years in college and was only now brought crashing down. He had forgotten a patient's name and it upset him so much he had to hide in the bathroom at work. He was tired and throwing a tantrum befitting a two-year-old.
"Patient died." Was what he went with instead, turning his eyes back to the water stains on his scrubs. Theo nodded slowly, pursing his lips in thought.
"Had you become friends?"
"No. I don't-" Matt's words caught in his throat and he took a moment before continuing, afraid that the waterworks would start again. "I don't… Remember his name."
There was no tone in his friend's voice, but it was easy to imagine the other judging him for his lack of knowledge, judging him for being so affected by this unknown man's death. Doctors faced death every day; how was he supposed to become one if he couldn't handle it?
"I don't understand what's wrong." Theo stated, blue eyes searching for a hint in the redness of Matt's face. He was always so blunt when it came to emotional matters; not that he ever really discussed his own emotions. It was always Matt, pouring his heart out, trusting that the other actually cared about what he had to say without ever getting a clue that he did beyond gentle advice or simple attentiveness.
"I don't really either?" Choking out the words, he took a deep breath in and out before climbing to his feet once again. Unsteadily, he made his way over to the sink and grabbed a paper towel form the dispenser to dab at his face, uncomfortable with the salt-crusted tear marks on his skin. Matt avoided looking at himself in the mirror, instead watching Theo in the lower corner of it as the smaller man tilted his head in acknowledgement of what the doctor had said.
He still looked the same, after all these years. So handsome that Matt's heart had stopped every time he looked at him, once upon a time.
"I couldn't-", "You know-"
They both stopped, waiting for the other to continue. Eventually Theo did.
"You know there are things doctors cannot cure."
"That's not… I know. I just-" He took a deep breath. "I just. I was useless. And now I'm a fucking mess. Why did I even become a doctor?"
Theo raised an eyebrow.
"I assume its because you wished to help people."
"Yeah, sure. I did. But… God, this sounds so fucking bad. Fuck. Promise you won't, like… Judge me?"
A short nod.
"It felt. Good. To be able to, uh… I dunno, make people better? But like, not in the way its supposed to feel good, because you're a nice person and all you want to do is help people and stuff." Shakily he sat back down against the wall, the cool tile nice against his fevered skin.
"I felt. Powerful. Eight years of my life because I wanted to feel like I was actually strong and could do stuff when other people couldn't. And now, the fucking second I can't actually do anything, I lose my shit.
Theo was quiet for a while, but Matt knew better than to take it as rejection. There were a few voices outside the bathroom, nurses talking about something in hushed whispers. He wondered if the code was still ongoing. Hell, maybe the guy had survived, maybe Dr. Jenson had been able to shock life back into his heart and get him stable again. Maybe he was sobbing in a bathroom for nothing.
"You're making a fundamental assumption that's wrong, I think." His friend eventually said, looking away from Matt as he started to speak.
"There are very few people who go into the healing profession with completely pure intentions. Almost none, I'd say. They are there for money, or power, or the image that being a doctor affords them."
Matt started to protest but Theo put up his hand, shushing him.
"I'm not saying that they are completely selfish, either. I'm saying that in all things, there will always be another motive that humans have. They themselves may not be aware of it, or they may not wish to acknowledge it, but it is there. And you aren't different Matt, no matter how much you might want to think of yourself as such."
"I don't- I don't want to be different, that's not it! I just… Couldn't do fucking anything. I couldn't do anything to help that guy, or even remember his fucking name as I watched him dying. And I don't know if the reason I'm crying is because this guy died, or because I'm just now realizing that I'm… not as good of a person as I thought I was. And it makes me feel even shittier if it's the second, because that was a real person that died, and all I can fucking think about is my own goddamn problems."
"Did you want to help him?"
"Wha- Yeah, of course I did!"
"Then you are a good person."
Matt stared at Theo for a few seconds, before rolling his eyes and looking away.
"Its not that simple."
"Because I didn't want to help him just to help him!"
"Who says you have to?"
His hand crept under his shirt to rub at the smooth feather on its chain, the brush of its plumes comforting against his fingertips.
"…I don't know."
"If you do a good thing for someone, no matter your intentions, has a good thing been done?"
"I guess? Well- No, no actually. Because you could just be setting someone up to get hurt to further your own goals."
"Were you doing that?"
"No. But I could have been."
"But you weren't."
Theo reached over and placed a hand on his shoulder, waiting until Matt looked over at him before he continued. It was rare that his friend initiated contact, and his cold touch was as delicate as a feather.
"Matt, you can help people. And those people that you help will still be cured regardless of whether you had the best intentions when curing them."
"You just have to understand that you will not be able to be the perfect image of a doctor that you have in your mind. There are illnesses and injuries that you cannot cure, and there are fundamental things about yourself that you cannot change, no matter how hard you try or hate yourself for them. Part of being human is accepting that.
It was quiet in the bathroom for a very long time as Matt tried to process Theo's words, his fingers still gripping the feather tight beneath his scrubs. The bright colors of the tile burned his eyes and the chill of his friend's touch was beginning to ache against his skin. Nevertheless, he didn't want Theo to let go: it felt like the only thing holding him to the world right now was the steady pressure on his shoulder.
"…I wanted to help."
"…I know. I'm sorry." There was true remorse in his voice. Matt looked sideways to find Theo also staring at the floor, lips turned into a frown.
"What are you sorry for? I'm the one crying at you."
Theo didn't answer him, instead looking up to meet his gaze briefly. In the harsh light of the fluorescents, the vitiligo markings on his face reminded Matt of something that was hard to put his finger on. He was reminded of thinking this before, puzzling about their shape late at night and wondering why it was difficult to remember their shape when he wasn't looking directly at Theo.
A skull was overlaid on his dark skin, eyes and nose slotting perfectly into the hollow sockets outlined by the vitiligo. It wasn't the first time he'd had the realization.
Eventually Matt spoke, releasing the tension that had built up during the silence.
"I really don't want to go back out there."
Theo nodded in understanding.
"You have a few more minutes before they'll miss you." He sounded so sure that Matt felt awkward about asking him exactly how he knew that.
"How'd you get here anyway?"
Shrugging his shoulders, the smaller man looked away and drew his dark leather jacket closer around himself.
"I was working."
"You work in this hospital?"
A part of Matt wanted to ask more, but he felt like that would be stepping into territory that was dangerously close to things he would rather not know. It was easier to think of his friend Theo as he was, and not wonder about all the strange things that happened while he was around.
"Okay." He paused. "…I really need to get some sleep tonight. I think I'm delirious."
Theo laughed quietly and Matt felt just the tiniest bit of accomplishment. He shifted and stretched his legs out from their bent position, feeling the joints in his knees crack in protest. The sound reverberated throughout the room and Matt found himself laughing a little too.
"I'm getting old, dude. My back's gonna hate me for sitting on the floor for so long."
He glanced at his friend, who slowly and deliberately stretched out his own legs without a sound.
"Oh, fuck off. We can't all bathe in the blood of virgins to stay eternally young."
Another snort came from Theo, his second of the night. That was probably some sort of personal record.
"I merely sleep more than three hours a night."
"Oh, well, yeah, that would be ideal but…"
He trailed off, unsure how to finish his sentence. Eventually Theo rose to his feet and offered Matt a hand. He took it, and the smaller man easily pulled him upright, displaying a strength that didn't belong in such a thin, little body.
Turning to go, Theo zipped his jacket up and unlocked the bathroom door, before stopping momentarily to turn back to Matt. There was urgency in his voice that slightly alarmed the doctor.
"…You know I'm not a vampire, right?"
It was Matt's turn to snort, and by the time he got himself under control again, his friend was gone and he was alone. Dr. Jenson knocked on the bathroom door.