There were some plagues that left no stone unturned, and the devastation they caused was something else entirely. Being on the Grand Line for as long as he had, Ace had seen almost everything imaginable, and he was used to ravaged lands and plagues of various kinds.
Coming back from negotiations with one of their former enemies (now allies thanks to Ace’s brilliant talking and fire skills, if he did say so himself), Ace was met with a terrible scene aboard the Moby Dick, one he’d never ever considered before.
The deck was silent as Ace secured his boat and jumped on board, looking around worriedly. He thought he saw someone up in the tallest watch post, but they didn’t come down. Ace frowned, fear bubbling in his chest.
It couldn’t have been an attack. The only people who would be brave enough to attack Whitebeard’s home ship were the marines (and well, brave wasn’t quite the word Ace would use if he was honest), and there would be signs of a scuffle if they’d attacked. Not that they would be able to win anyway.
If it wasn’t an attack, though, then Ace had no idea what it could be. Heart pounding, he opened the door that led inside, hoping Whitebeard would be able to give him answers. He raced down the corridors and eventually found himself just outside Whitebeard’s door.
Swallowing his panic down, Ace knocked on the door. There was silence, terrible silence, and then the door swung open violently, one of the nurses bustling out hurriedly and slamming the door behind her.
“Get back to your room!” she ordered, dark circles under her eyes and voice shrill. “I swear if you cause another break out of this fucking thing-“ she paused, lowering her mouth mask as she finally seemed to realise it was Ace.
“Oh thank god you’re back,” she said, shoulders slumping in relief. She leant back against the door and Ace’s eyes widened. What on earth had happened since he’d been gone?
“Someone came back and brought a disease with them,” the nurse, Hisa, said. She shook her head, thanking one of the other nurses as she passed over coffee to them both. They’d retreated to (apparently) the only sanctuary on the ship – the doctor’s rooms. The doctors were busy treating patients at the moment and so it was the nurse’s time to rest, something they all seemed thankful for.
“Mai-sensei was the one to diagnose it,” Hisa said, sighing. “But by then it was too late and everyone started dropping like flies. It’s not deadly, but it brings on a terrible fever and there’s no cure for it.”
Ace winced; he hadn’t been ill in a long while and he didn’t particularly want to now.
“You can prevent it though,” a voice said, the door sliding shut behind the head doctor, an older woman named Mai. “We developed a preventative injection and I administered it to those who were not infected.”
She gave Ace a haughty look. “By the time you boys were all done it was just my team who were not infected. So you’re going to pull your weight and help us out, starting with the commanders and Whitebeard themselves.”
Ace held still as one of the other nurses approached, syringe in hand, and he bit down his fire as the needle sank in. His arm tingled for a moment and then it was gone, his body apparently now protected.
“Go give them their lunch. And I don’t want to see any dishes that aren’t taken by the patients. They might not like the soup they’re getting, but it has the important nutrients they need.” There was a somewhat wicked smile on Mai’s face, and Ace felt the impeding sense of doom. He suddenly wished his negotiations hadn’t gone as well as they had.
“You’re a great help to us all!” one of the nurses said, and the others nodded in agreement. They all looked exhausted, even Mai – and Ace swore she never slept and never looked anything other than sternly well put together. This illness had to be bad, and he owed it to his nakama to take care of them.
“Just leave it to me!” Ace promised cheerfully, and tried to ignore the looks everyone shot him as he left for the kitchens. They were caught between pity and delight and Ace really had no idea which one terrified him more.
Ace knocked on the door and poked his head in, narrowing his eyes in the gloom. It was strange not to hear Vista’s booming voice or see him practicing his swordsmanship, and Ace took a soup pot with slight trepidation, moving into the room.
“Vista?” he called, looking around trying to find him. “It’s Ace. I’ve brought you some lunch!” Ace put on a cheerful tone, wondering where Vista could be. Had he made a dash for the loo or something?
“Ace?” a croaky voice called, and the lump that Ace had mistaken for a pillow uncurled slightly, Vista peering at him in the darkness. “Is that really you? You came back?”
Ace took a step closer and nodded. “It’s really me,” he agreed, and Vista began nodding in earnest, clutching his covers to his chest.
“I knew it,” he said imperiously, though the image was somewhat ruined by the tears streaming down Vista’s face and into his few-day-old beard. “No one agreed, but I knew it. You would always come back from hunting sea turtles!”
“Um,” Ace said, wondering how delirious this fever made them, and he set the soup on Vista’s bedside table, helping him up into a sitting position. Of course, this allowed Vista to hug him tightly and cry against his chest which was interesting and not particularly what Ace had been aiming for.
“It’s okay,” Ace assured him, patting Vista’s back gently, trying to steer him towards the food. Eat and sleep, eat and sleep, eat and sleep was the mantra the nurses had drilled into him and Ace needed to take that literally if he wanted to get to everyone in good time.
“You were gone for hundreds of years,” Vista bawled, pulling back to wipe his nose and eyes with his arm. “Hundreds of years,” Vista said in a whisper, looking down and growing silent. Ace looked at him and then the soup, grabbing the container and taking Vista’s hand.
“Here’s the magical soup I brought back – but you mustn’t tell anyone else,” Ace mock-whispered, glad that Vista was heavily in his fever-fantasy and probably wouldn’t remember this theatrical performance. “I stole if from the sea turtle king and… it’s the soup of friendship!”
Vista’s eyes widened and he looked at the soup, bringing the edge of the cup-container to his lips.
“Yes,” he said quietly, sipping at the soup. Vista closed his eyes and smiled brightly, humming to himself. “I can feel the friendship!”
Ace didn’t question too much what that meant and finished up in Vista’s room. He tidied up tissues and brought another cool flannel (from a convenient store that had been pushed into his trolley by the kitchen) out before tucking Vista in and taking his empty soup carton.
“You get some good sleep now, okay?” Ace said, and Vista nodded, eyes already shut. It wasn’t long before he was fast asleep and Ace smiled, exiting quietly and wiping his forehead with the back of his hand, already feeling tiredness creeping up on him.
“I’m glad you’re not ill,” Jozu said as he stretched, claiming he’d been in bed too long without doing at least some exercise. “It’s horrible. I’m in a good patch now, but you should have seen the first 24 hours. I don’t think I’ve ever thrown up so much.”
Jozu paused, eyes filmy and skin clammy. “Who else have you given soup to?”
Listing a few other commanders and others Ace had popped into sort out on the way, Jozu sat down heavily looking at Ace with a furrowed brow.
“I’d say try and foist the ones you have left on someone else, but it looks like they got rid of them onto you. Thatch should be okay, he’s fairly chilled out when he gets ill, but the others…” Jozu trailed off, yawning. “Maybe you should get ill just to avoid it.”
Ace shot him a sympathetic smile, thinking it was probably just the illness playing Jozu’s words up. He pointedly ignored the memory of all the medical staff practically jovial that he was taking on certain people, because no, they couldn’t be that bad, surely.
“It’ll be fine,” Ace brushed off his worries, setting Jozu’s empty soup container back in his trolley. “I can always come and hide in here if not though, right?”
Jozu shook his head with a smile, resuming his stretching and leaving Ace to see himself out. It couldn’t be that bad… could it?
Leaving Thatch’s room and feeling positive about the last two patients he had on his list, Ace headed towards the captain’s room. He didn’t bother to knock and smiled when he saw Whitebeard was awake, reading something.
Or… trying to read if the squinting and swaying was anything to go by. Whitebeard was in a bad shape, sweaty and red-faced, and he looked up at Ace, eyes barely slits as he narrowed them, trying to see who it was.
“Hello,” he greeted, and Ace rolled his eyes. “I’m not ill, you know,” Whitebeard said, sitting up straighter – he still continued to sway slightly, breathing heavy – and nodding a few times.
“Oyaji,” Ace said, sighing. He doubted Whitebeard would listen, and he seemed determined to prove he was anything but ill. “I’ve got you some soup.”
“Soup is for sick people,” Whitebeard shot back instantly, eyes half-closed as he fought not to drift off to sleep. “I’m not sick so no thank you.”
Ace grabbed one of the soup containers (they were more cold than warm now, but everyone was sick and hadn’t even seemed to notice so no harm done) and moved to the chair beside Whitebeard’s bed. It looked as though he’d been trying to read an old newspaper, though it was upside down, and Ace reached for it.
“No,” Whitebeard said, snatching the newspaper up and away. “I’m not ill, I can still read.”
“Oh really,” Ace muttered, waiting until Whitebeard lowered it and pointing to a random word. “What does that say then?”
Whitebeard looked down, eyes narrowing again. He looked at Ace, and Ace felt the smug creep of satisfaction inside of him.
“It says Whitebeard is not ill,” Whitebeard said, smiling brightly as if it was the best thing he’d ever said. He gave a laugh, sweat dripping down his temple, and the laugh descended into a cough a moment later, a chesty cough that sounded painful.
“Oyaji please,” Ace said, worry beginning to creep in. An illness like this might not kill any ordinary man, but Whitebeard was old and his immune system compromised. The medical team weren’t on high alert so Whitebeard had to be fine, but Ace still couldn’t help but worry. He couldn’t lose Whitebeard.
“You need to eat this soup and you need to rest,” Ace said, and Whitebeard looked at him. They stared at each other in silence for a minute or so, Ace refusing to back down.
Eventually, Whitebeard sighed and looked away.
“I might be ill,” he conceded, taking the soup Ace offered and sipping at it sullenly. “Only a little bit though. And no one else is allowed to know,” Whitebeard insisted, and Ace smiled, nodding merrily.
“Of course not,” he said, with absolutely no intention of keeping Whitebeard’s ‘revelation’ just to himself, even though the medical team all knew Whitebeard was ill.
“Now, did you want me to read to you or would you like some peace while you eat?”
Whatever that meant.
“I’m coming in,” Ace said as he knocked on the door to the room he shared with Marco. “How are you feeling?”
Now, Ace had expected Marco to be on Thatch or Jozu’s level, calm and happy and, well, not too ill. What he was met with was an eye opener, and Ace stood with the door open for a moment, not sure where to look first.
The room was a mess. Clothes were everywhere and the floor was littered in scrunched up tissue. The bed was in disarray, a lump in the middle looking to be where Marco had stowed away, and Ace was having a hard time matching this room up to the perfectly clean one he had left.
“What happened?” Ace asked, though it was rhetorical. He knew what had happened of course.
“Ace?” a weak voice called out from the lump of covers, the mound shifting just enough that Ace could see a face poking out. He closed the door and brought his trolley closer, already understanding the laughter Mai had given and why Marco had been stated to be a difficult patient.
It was rare – very very rare – that Marco got ill or felt pain. Now that he was ill, he was going to be utterly pathetic.
“I’m dying,” Marco said simply, lower lip wobbling as he stuck his entire head out of the covers. He was red-faced and covered in a sheen of sweat. He also smelt terrible, and Ace wrinkled his nose, wondering if it was too soon to try and get Marco in the shower.
“No you’re not,” Ace replied, reaching for the soup. If he could feed Marco quickly, he could get him off to sleep quickly and then he’d be free. Marco would get better quickly and Ace wouldn’t need to deal with the despairing Marco he was sure was coming.
“No Ace, you don’t understand,” Marco said, an arm emerging from his cocoon. He took Ace’s hand in his own clammy one, shaking his head slowly. “I can feel it, death has called me and it won’t let go.”
Ace fought a smile. Okay so it wasn’t easy, but it was funny.
“You’re really not going to die,” Ace promised, and Marco looked so torn by his reply.
“I’m secreting poisonous liquid,” Marco insisted, and Ace bit the inside of his cheek. “It means I’ve been marked. I won’t be around for much longer Ace, it’s terrible,” he practically wailed, and Ace wished he had a video den den mushi just so he could show this to Marco when he was back to his senses.
“That’s just sweat, Marco,” Ace said gently, freeing his hand from Marco’s and pressing the soup in his hand. “Have this to eat and I promise you won’t die.”
“It’s too late,” Marco said, turning his head away and grabbing for the covers. “I know it. I always knew my time would come, oh Ace!” Ace jolted as Marco’s arms wrapped around him, squeezing him tightly. “I don’t want to die. I really don’t.”
Fighting hard not to roll his eyes or laugh, Ace hugged Marco back with one arm, the soup in his free arm.
“You’re really not dying,” he said, and Marco looked up at him, blinking slowly. “If it makes you feel better, I’ll stay here to keep you company and prove you’ll be okay.”
Marco was silent for a moment, but he eventually nodded and took the soup, sniffling as he drank slowly. Ace watched him carefully, expecting Marco to fall asleep while he was eating, and it wasn’t long before he had to snatch the soup away, Marco curling up with his eyes closed.
“I’m sorry I’m dying,” Marco said quietly, and Ace really did laugh. “I’m a bad person. Marco stop dying. Stop it.” He paused and Ace took the opportunity to change into comfier clothes quickly, dumping the trolley outside the room as he’d been instructed to when he’d done.
“How’s your dying status?” Ace asked as he grabbed a pillow from where it had been thrown on the floor, throwing it onto the bed.
“Miserable,” Marco replied, uncurling and watching Ace with miserable eyes. “I’m still dying. I’m sorry.”
“You tried,” Ace said kindly, allowing Marco to wrap around him when he slipped into bed, stroking Marco’s back as he snuffled and wheezed, trying to clear his sinuses enough to settle into a sleep.
“I’ll try and stay alive,” Marco muttered, and Ace smiled to himself, yawning.
“So will I then,” he promised in return. It didn’t matter that it was eerily quiet, or that Ace was sure he’d be doing a lot of rounds to help his recovering crew mates. They were family, and putting up with the sick was what family did, no matter if they refused to believe they were ill, thought they were dying or simply got on with life.
After all, they’d taken such good care of him, a little hardship for a few days was nothing in comparison.