Marco didn't see the fatal blow strike home. He was holding off Vice-Admiral Garp and trying to keep track of his division when it happened. But he heard the howl of grief. He saw the sudden burst of flames. And he knew.
His opponent must have understood as well, because he just looked at Marco with tired resignation in his eyes. "Get him out of here," Garp told him, before vanishing into the fray.
It didn't take Marco long to find them: Ace's ring of fire was a beacon guiding him forward, leading him to the dreaded confirmation of his horrible guess.
There was so much blood. Too much blood – more blood than any single living being should even contain. Ace was drenched in it, and Whitebeard…
His captain lay on his back in an ocean of his own life-force, an arm wrapped protectively around Ace who knelt by his side, head bowed.
"–no regrets Ace, my son. Don't dishonour your father's memory like that."
Marco took a step forward – to what end, he had no idea. He knew better than to hope that Whitebeard could be saved (so much blood) and yet in his mind, heart, and soul he could not believe that his all-powerful captain was truly dying.
Whitebeard turned that fierce, loving, commanding gaze on him and Marco read death in his eyes. "Marco. You make sure the crew get out safely. Forget about revenge this time, my children's lives are more important. Your lives are my greatest treasure – so take care of yourselves! Choose a good captain to follow and keep sailing to your hearts' content!" A massive hand clapped him on the shoulder and Whitebeard smiled at him.
Then the world's strongest man drew his last breath.
It wasn't until a minute later that Marco even realized he was crying. He shook himself, dashed the tears from his face and reached for Ace, still bent motionless over their father's corpse.
"Ace, come on, we have to go-" a hand grabbed his arm and he whirled around, changing to flame-
-only to be stopped by Strawhat Luffy's steady gaze, five feet away.
"He'll go when he's ready."
Marco understood, he really did, but "We don't have ti-"
"We have time." There was no arguing with those eyes (the fire in them so like his brother's…the protectiveness so like–), no reasoning, so Marco took his place beside the other pirate and held off the Marines while Ace grieved his father's sacrifice.
Eventually Ace staggered to his feet, eyes blank, face ashen, and Strawhat punted the latest Marine across the harbour even as he turned to his brother.
"Come on Ace, the old guy said to get your crew out, so let's go!" He snatched two of their shocked crewmates seemingly out of thin air with his unnatural arms and dumped them at Marco' feet. "You guys take care of the body, I'll make a way to the ship – it's the big one with the whale, right?" And without waiting, he started punching his way through the fighting throngs, hollering all the way.
"Okay Beard-Pirate guys, time to go! Your captain said so! Iva-chan, I'm going with Ace's crew. You gonna be okay?"
"Ve shall be fine Strawhat-boy, I vish you vell!"
"Jinbei! You coming?"
"Go! I will cover your escape!"
In no time at all, it seemed, they were back underwater, fleeing the disaster of Marinford. By some miracle, or cosmic joke at their expense, only their captain lost his life. A fact that was quick to makes its way through the crew, checking the burgeoning elation of having Ace back and casting a pall of grief over the fleet.
They held Whitebeard's funeral two days later. As other members of the crew choked out eulogies over the crackling of flames on the funeral barge, Marco heard a solemn voice to his right softly say:
"Beard guy, thank you for taking care of my brother. I'm sorry we never got to fight each other to be Pirate King."
It was not the most elegant speech Marco had ever heard, but the sincerity behind the sentiment from this odd boy nearly undid him. Not that there was a dry eye among them that day.
It was a difficult week for the Whitebeard pirates. After the funeral their allies left for their old haunts in the New World but under Marco the crew sailed listlessly, vaguely towards Fishman Island, but not always in a straight line. The spectre of their future choice – to choose from amongst the crew a new captain and sail in his name, or to each go their separate ways and say goodbye forever to the Whitebeard pirates – weighed on souls already heavy with grief. And Ace – bright, loyal, spunky Ace – their brother, comrade in arms, the grinning commander of Whitebeard's second division, did his work in silence, unable to even meet their eyes.
Through it all, Luffy was a spark of life and light that lifted some of the gloom that had taken hold of them. Eager to help out, always ready with a grin for those who could stand it – and it never failed that he knew just who would be comforted by a smile and who'd be broken by one – Luffy was everywhere at once, rocketing from ship to ship with messages when the Den-Den Mushi couldn't be trusted, begging food from the kitchens (on all three ships) and singing improvised verses of Bink's Sake to himself and he worked:
"Gonna go and find my crew
We~e'll be together soon
And sail on Sunny-Go!"
Most of his time, however, Luffy spent with Ace. Where none of the crew could reach the grief-stricken man, his brother could. He talked to Ace or, more often, shared his silence; somehow convinced him to eat (simply, Marco thought, by sticking food in Ace's hands and holding it there until he ate), and slept half-draped over his brother wherever Ace's narcolepsy (the only reason he slept at all) caused him to pass out. While Ace's crew was at a loss for how to comfort him (or even get him to look them in the eye dammit) Luffy breezed along, a tiny irrepressible hurricane of energy and sunshine, unperturbed by Ace's voicelessness and strangely respectful of his brother's right to a broken soul.
All this endeared him to the crew: his vitality, his helpfulness, his friendliness, the unassuming and gentle care he displayed towards Ace – but he was not one of them, an outsider apart from their grief. Until the incident with the Marines.
Three days after Whitebeard's funeral a small fleet of Marines caught up to them. Five ships, insignificant, barely even a workout. The – drained and mostly hung over – crew had started to half-heartedly prepare for battle when Luffy had leaned over the side of the crow's nest and yelled at the other ships:
"Hey! These guys are grieving, come back later!"
The answering cannon ball almost took out Whitebeard's Jolly Roger.
Seven and-a-half minutes later, a pissed-off looking Luffy had slingshotted himself back aboard the Moby Dick and the Marines – minus a ship – were running for their lives.
Under massive headaches and grief-induced apathy, most of the crew was a little impressed. And, despite themselves, the tiniest bit amused.
By the end of the week, Luffy was sharing smiles with far more of the crew, and snatches of Bink's Sake could be heard on all three ships. Laughter was muted and bittersweet but present. And yet nothing could be done for Ace.
Marco tried. He explained to Ace that if it had been any other member of the crew they would have raced to the rescue just the same and Ace would have been at the very front of the fight; that in letting him go alone after Teach they were as guilty as he was; the they were a crew, they had to lean on each other; that would he please just look us in the eye goddammit! But Ace would not hear him and Luffy shooed him away.
"He needs some time."
Time. Fuck. How much time? Damn Ace and his stubbornness. Damn him and damn his propensity for picking a direction and following it with every last shred of his life until he burnt out. He'd decided to take Whitebeard's head and almost killed himself in the attempt, then he'd decided to sail under Whitebeard and that had nearly killed him. Now he was grieving Whitebeard to death and it was killing the rest of them. They could rescue a captured crewmate, they could fight the World Government's forces, they could beat the everlasting crap out of anyone who dared lay a hand on one of their own. But soul-crushing guilt and grief could not get their asses kicked.
And still Luffy behaved exactly as he had since he first set foot on the Moby Dick: making friends with the crew and standing silent in Ace's shadow. It was maddening that the only person who could still connect with Ace would not use the opportunity to comfort him or...do something.
Jozu more patient in his own way than Marco sometimes, figured it out. One day, while Luffy was begging Yanick for his (fourth) lunch, the third division commander took the weapons he was sharpening and sat next to Ace. Not quite as close as Luffy always planted himself, but near enough to be sensed, to be acknowledged or ignored. To no one's surprise Ace didn't so much as look at him. But the crew took their cue from Jozu's example and from that moment on someone was always close by, leaving Ace to his quiet but making sure he knew he was not alone.
And that's when Luffy threw his brother off the ship.
He'd come to Marco in the morning and requested that they stop at the first island they saw. Marco was bemused but couldn't see any reason not to, and furthermore by this point he was inclined to humour their strange guest. They spotted a tiny spit of land at lunch-time and when Marco asked Luffy if it was what he had in mind, the glutton swallowed his entire lunch in one rubbery gulp and, under the stunned eyes of the entire crew, catapulted Ace into the centre of the island.
"We'll be about half an hour," Luffy announced to the shocked deck before slingshotting himself after Ace. "Maybe forty-five minUTES-"
A patch of trees prevented them from seeing what was going on, but thirty minutes later they saw flickers of fire jump from the middle of the island, and forty-five minutes after that, Ace, one arm slung around a lightly toasted Luffy, appeared on the beach.
No one ever asked what happened, and neither of them offered any details, but Ace started to be himself again.
Not long after – inevitably, Marco thought with some regret – Luffy informed them he was leaving. "I have to go find my crew and then we have to go get our ship at Shabondy. Can I borrow a boat?"
Luffy was right; it was time for them all to go home. So they loaded up a life-boat with water and lots of meat ("Trust me, he'll eat this much" "Hey, we know – we've seen him eat!") and dropped him within sight of Shabondy.
"Thanks Beard-Pirate guys! Have fun in Fishman Island! And Ace! Say hi to Shanks for me if you see him before I do!"
They watched him row away far longer than necessary, that impossible little speck of sunshine, off to light another corner of the world
"He looks like he knows what he's doing," Jozu commented wistfully, "do you think he has an actual plan or does the world just rearrange itself before him?"
Ace snorted, " Oh, he has a plan: he's going to be Pirate King. The rest can figure itself out as he goes along." But there was a fond smile at the corner of his mouth and a light in his eyes they had all been missing for far too long.
Marco looked at them: solid dependable Jozu, brilliant vibrant Ace – no longer consumed by grief and the stronger for it – to the crew, where the 4th commander waited to be chosen (and they would have to find another ship somewhere, three was too cramped). None of them could fill Whitebeard's shoes. Could replace him. Could possibly lead his crew in his stead.
But perhaps, working together, they could still make the world tremble at their old man's name.
It was a start.