Ace broke down on the fifteenth day. On that glorified boulder of an island, after he's scraped up and eaten every last palmful of tough, salty lichen he could find, Ace rolled onto his elbows and screamed.
Marco was at his side in an instant, because the furthest points of the island were only a half hour's casual stroll apart. For the past four days, at Ace's request (well, red-faced spittle-flying demand would be more accurate, but Marco took it as graciously as he would any request he didn't quite agree with—so, with a long, flat stare and the clear motion of holding back a sigh before doing as asked), they had spent all their time at these two opposite points. But now, four days after their five days after their six days lost at sea, they were right back at where they started: Marco, right there in Ace's reach.
“I hate you,” came tearing out of Ace's throat, high and dry like the whipping circuits of wind unceasing in the sky above them. And around them. All around them like one of those goddamn glass domes goddamn Thatch put over his goddamn desserts. Ace had seen a fly trapped under the dome once, had let it out with a snickered comment about Thatch's cooking. And karma's a whole, unfair bitch, because where was a giant hand to lift this dome of wind when they needed it? Why could he never go unpunished?
And so he said again, for good measure: “I really fucking hate you Marco, you know that?”
Marco's hand dropped into Ace's field of vision, offering to help him up—but Ace could hardly bear to look at Marco right now, much less touch the man. After a long moment, the hand retracted. But Marco's feet didn't. They were bare by choice (Ace wondered snidely, bitterly if there was an awful reason why), straw sandals abandoned by the bald apex of the island. Ace's own shoes were a shredded pulpy pile on the shoreline; he had spent the better part of day eleven boiling and chewing down the leather lining, and spent the foggy grey morning of day twelve being violently sick from it.
Marco wasn't saying a word. Hadn't said a word, since before Ace yelled about not wanting to see his fucking face four days ago. Since Ace plunged his dagger into the sand just out of reach of the highest tides, and refused to touch it.
Marco's refused to touch it too. That hasn't escaped Ace's notice.
“What's your fucking problem?” Ace's voice had gone and cracked—their last freak thirty-second rainstorm was two days ago, and the hot midday sun had carried away with it all the puddles of collected water on the island's pockmarked surface. The skin on Ace's elbows and knees and feet were all dried and cracked. This had never been a problem since he ate the Mera Mera no Mi, but then again, he hadn't ever gone for prolonged periods of time dying slowly of dehydration either. Ace was learning all kinds of new things about his body, his fruit, and the extent of his abilities.
Marco, apparently, wasn't. He knew all there was to know about his limits—rather the lack of them. He'd done this sort of thing before, he said.
(Ace didn't know any further details, because that was the point he told Marco to shut the hell up, he didn't want to know any more.)
“What the hell is wrong with you,” Ace continued, venom spewing from every wheezing word like he was Magellan himself, “that you'd make me—that you'd threaten me with this?”
An angry, choked-off huff from Marco, but still no words—he just spun on his heels and started back the way he came from. Made sense, really; this wouldn't be the first time Ace would pop off on a fuming tirade over the state of affairs, and this wouldn't be the first time Marco ignored it and let him be.
From his sightline with the blurring edges, Ace thought the skin around Marco's ankles looked painfully dry and crinkled. But no open wound, no blue flames. Ace had started this fight of sheer bullheaded stubbornness, but damned if it didn't look like Marco would win it. Because that would be how it eventually played out—no ifs ands or buts about it. Ace was already on his hands and knees, stomach roiling with the sour burn of pure bile and mentally begging for relief. He was halfway to jerky already, and however sorry a state Marco ended up—well, that phoenix was the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card. Ace had already known, four, and five, and maybe even six sorry fucking days ago—he would pass out, and by the next rain, Marco would win.
Well. Thatch didn't call him the saddest, baddest, and most tenacious bastard I've ever met for nothing. Ace would die to make that title count.
The moment he caught his feet under him, Ace took off at a run. And Marco—smart, clever, Mr. I've-been-recruited-by-every-single-Yonko himself—sprinted right after him, having already caught on to what Ace was going to do. Ace was stepping off from sand, while Marco had already reached the boulder's smooth surface. Even with the last pathetic spurt of fire behind him, Ace was still slow to the dagger. Marco's fingers wrapped around the grip of the dagger—seastone-lined, like all respectable sharp-edged things Ace kept on his person—yanking it right from the ground.
Ace got there moments after, and, taking advantage of Marco's unshakably trusting bodily instincts, got his own grip on the dagger and first, nicked Marco's cheek, and second, shoved the blade right into Marco's neck.
Marco died in a gory spray of blood, and Ace was careful to quickly pull the dagger out, not letting the seastone linger. The bloom of blue that sprouted right after Ace cut Marco's cheek immediately spilled down to the larger, more lethal cut. One of the first “battle hacks,” as Haruta called them, that any Whitebeard commander learned on the Moby Dick was that Marco's phoenix could even bring him back from the dead. Provided that, of course, the flames were already healing something before the fatal blow. So should Marco's life ever be in imminent danger, it was the job of the nearest commander to deliver some kind of physical injury to Marco's person. It would, in the most awful of ironies, save the man's life.
Something else that Ace learned about Marco's phoenix—information volunteered by Marco himself so generously, eight days ago—was that slow-dawning natural ways of dying, like dehydration or starvation, would not trigger any healing flames on their own. But, should a cut or a bruise occur anywhere on Marco's body, at any magnitude, during the process of slow-dying, bits of the slow-death would be healed as well. Marco could ostensibly survive completely without food or water indefinitely, as long as he kept banging his elbow into the nearest rock hard enough to bruise or something.
And then the biggest magic trick of all. Combining the logic of literal-life hack one and two, Marco had concluded that, if a healed bruise could buy him half a day from slow-death, then a full revival could probably reset his whole constitution. This was day seven, and, before Ace could even register the obviously demented man's usage of the word “probably,” Marco had drawn Ace's dagger, cut his own arm, and then efficiently induced self-exsanguination. He had come back to life—fully hydrated and no more hungry than he would be on an average morning after waking up—to a hyperventilating Ace.
That time, Marco had held Ace in his arms, apologized until both their throats were raw. This time, Marco came up swinging, and the dagger clattered away on the stony surface of the island from the force of the punch.
Dodging Marco's still-slightly-discombobulated grab, Ace pounced on the knife, and would've gotten it through his own throat too, had it not been for an untimely fit of dizziness. Lack of water and food had made his narcolepsy infinitely worse, and Ace woke back up to the sunset. They were at the apex of the island, where the biggest potholes in the stone were. A storm cloud—the one Ace had been watching drift closer and closer for the past fourteen hours—was nearly overhead, and Marco was watching him wearily, the dagger in its holster, now tightened around Marco's belt.
“I'll die,” Ace spat, not bothering to get up. “I'll fucking kill myself before I let you—”
“That's enough,” Marco said quietly. His voice cut sharper than any knife, and Ace could already feel the dam breaking. He was breaking, and Marco was letting him. “We've been arguing about this for what, eight days now? Enough already.”
“Great, so we're on the same page? Then hand over the dagger already.”
“I won't let you kill yourself.” Speaking calm and steady, Marco must've thought himself some damn kind of oracle. Like he had an absolute grasp of future events. Ace wanted to kill him again for it. Again and again, also for his own assurance that whatever happened, Marco could spring back no worse for the wear. His ankles were without blemish again, flesh full and skin hydrated. “Fight me for it all you want, but now I got fifteen days of full R&R on you. You can't win, Ace.”
And it must've been that tone, or those precise combination of words, or even just the fact that Marco had said his name like that—Ace choked. Hard. And he knew he'd lost the fight. And that moment with its resounding crack—tears started coming, as violent as blood.
“You told me,” Marco was continuing to say, as if he hadn't already won his three rounds in the ring, “about your promise to your brother. Your youngest brother. And what about Sabo? The sheer amount of luck that was required to find out he's still alive—”
“Shut up. Shut up, shut up, shut up,” Ace begged.
“Ace, you have to live.” For all that he was just healed, brought fully back to prime condition, Marco sounded so tired. Ace heard the soft scrape of the dagger leaving its sheathe, heard the dull, this is what I have to do and I'm ready to face all of the consequences quality of Marco's tone. “Survive for your brothers, all of us—”
Ace somehow found the strength to grab for Marco. Without fifteen days of starvation and spotty hydration, Marco was much faster, and held the dagger out of reach. But Ace clung on.
And Marco's voice had broken too. Had gone feral, like wolves were tearing themselves out of his trachea.
“And what the hell do you want from me, huh?!” he was yelling. “What kind of monster do you think I am, that I could just let you die, when there's fully something I could do, and it would cost me nothing? And you—Hah, you're a real piece of work too, you know that? You would kill yourself—you would give up your whole life before you would let me save it. Shit, I feel so goddamn sorry for the poor bastards who love and care for you—god forbid we should try to do something about it! God forbid I should, I should make even the smallest sacrifice of comfort on your behalf, because it's all about you. It's all about Portgas D. Ace and his bloody fucking crusade to find meaning in his life when we're right here, when we're—”
And Ace clung and clung, drew his frigid fingers up until he touched Marco's jawline. Almost laughed at the ridiculous way it moved under his fingertips. Moved his hand until he touched Marco's lips, and pressed at the soft skin until Marco finally shut up enough to hear what Ace was whispering.
“Don't do it in front of me,” he choked out, voice strangled with grief. Somehow, this felt more like an admittance to death than the dagger at his throat. “I can't, I can't watch.”
His fingers remained on Marco's lips, even as Marco went still. The blood under Marco's skin wasn't still, and Ace released, pressed, released—watched the pink flood in and out of the white flesh it was encaged by. Thunder cracked.
When Marco understood, he began to nod. Kept nodding, like he was scared Ace's consent would drain away, quick and red, the moment he stopped agreeing.
“Alright,” he whispered. The dagger slid away on the rocky ground, and Marco gathered Ace up in his arms. “Alright, yes. I'll do it when you're asleep. It'll rain soon—have some water, and when you wake up, you just have to get this to boil. And I'll do the rest while you look away.”
As much as Ace instinctively recoiled from the apparent cowardice of looking away, he still—reluctantly—nodded. And then Marco was hugging him tighter, sighing deep breaths of relief. No, wait, those were sobs, full ones that started in the lungs and sent shockwaves through every single organ outwards from there.
“I'm sorry,” Marco said urgently, more desperate gasps of air than vocal cord closure. Ace slowly brought his arms up to hug at Marco too, held his palms flat against the heaving flesh of Marco's back. Felt nauseous for it—so nauseous. “I was angry, lost my temper. I shouldn't have said all that to you—”
Ace wondered if Marco could feel him shaking, could feel the way Ace couldn't decide to flinch toward or away from touching Marco.
“It's okay, it's okay—”
“I'm so sorry Ace, but this is the only way. It's, I know this is, I know, you have to survive, it's the only way.”
But he didn't know. He didn't know, and Ace knew that Marco didn't know. But Ace didn't feel like beleaguering that—what would be the point? He had already given in. He had already agreed to the worst act of brutality he'd ever been asked to do, and whether or not Marco truly understood the magnitude of it didn't make a smidge of difference. For the first time since he's joined the Whitebeard pirates, Ace truly wanted to die. He didn't want to die. Ace wanted to die because he didn't want to die.
The rain spared Ace from forming a reply. It came like it had always come—violent and splattering. The wind dome above was generous with bringing things in, just not with letting stuff out. Twice, in their fifteen days of starvation, had Ace seen an unfortunate seabird lashed to death and brought into the barren boulder island. Both times, the corpse had fallen out to sea before either Ace or Marco could snatch it—the inertia from the wind was so big. It was witnessing that twice that made Ace forbid Marco from even trying to approach the dome. Even if Marco could heal from the cuts and broken bones, one wrong angle and he would be sent crashing into the sea. And all that's left to do would be for Ace to walk right into the sea and stop breathing alongside him.
Water bore down on them like punishment, but Ace tilted his head up and let his mouth fall open gladly. Marco didn't bother. He just adjusted them until Ace was basically lying across his lap, head braced on his knee. Ace drank and drank, and Marco watched. He watched with a sad, grateful little smile that Ace couldn't look too long at. So Ace just kept his eyes closed, let the water splatter through his parched, grated throat, until he fell asleep.
He woke before dawn to the coppery smell of blood, but didn't see any. Not on the rocks, not in the water, not on Marco's bare arms and legs. Marco wore a careful expression, and kept his body angled so that Ace couldn't see what was behind him. The dagger was far, at the edge of the island, and Marco was all braced for a fight.
Ace didn't say a word, just put his hands to the rock on either side of the deepest stone divot. It was filled with last night's rainwater. Summoning the barrel-bottom bits of his leftover strength, Ace lit his hands aflame and began the process of heating the water to a boil. A makeshift pot.
When the first bubbles came, Marco instructed Ace to close his eyes. After a long, blank stare, Ace complied. In the dark behind his eyelids, Ace heard the soft plink, plink of ingredients hitting the water. He figured it was safe to look when he heard soft powdery grating, and watched Marco sprinkle pinches of salt crystals into the boiling water.
“Sea salt,” Marco explained, sounding a bit sheepish. “Figured it'd be better this way.”
And Ace just continued not talking, not even having to explain how wholly stupid Marco's statement was, because nothing could make this better. The fact that Marco had thought this through enough to harvest salt didn't do a single thing to make anything better, and Marco knew that. They just both watched the water as it boiled, and darkened, and thickened.
“Okay, it's done.”
Ace's hands flickered off like Thatch's ever-obedient stovetop fire, and he instantly regretted it. His visceral, bone-deep rejection of this, of all this from yesterday came limping back, and Ace stumbled to his feet. Shutting away his fire was like an acknowledgement. Okay, it's done. It's done, it's done, Ace had done this. Ace had let this be done, and however much Ace wanted to fight again, to shut Marco out again, now that there was the scent of cooked meat in the air—the scent of food—Ace could cry from the hunger pangs. His knees buckled, and Marco pulled him back down to sit again.
“Ace, eat.” Ace didn't think he'd ever seen Marco so fully imploring. Marco begged with his whole body, shoulders and wrists tense and his elbows and knees akimbo as he begged, full-bodied, for Ace to eat. “We don't know how long until the Moby Dick finds us. You have to eat. You have to survive.”
Ace reached, and found one last point of protest, which sounded immediately absurd the moment it left his lips:
“I don't have anything to eat with.”
A smile cracked across Marco's rigid expression. He reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a seashell, foraged from the beach, scrubbed clean and wiped dry. He handed it over.
And what was left for Ace to do, beside obey? His hand shook as he reached to scoop for the steaming stew—he didn't think they'd stopped shaking since last night. The shell was white, chalky and bright even as it dipped beneath the liquid line. There was a thin layer of fat sitting atop the stew, and when Ace pulled the shell back up, three cuts of dark brown meat sat in his makeshift spoon. He wondered where Marco got the meat from.
He brought the shell to his lips, and wondered, for just a second, if he should tell Marco to look away. He wondered if this was as weird for Marco as it was for him. It must've been weirder. It must've been so much fucking weirder to watch a man you loved as family about to eat your—
Ace held his breath and shoved the lot into his mouth. He chewed. He swallowed. He tasted the fat and the salt and it was just boiled meat in water, but it was also the best thing he's ever tasted, to Ace's starving body.
But it was also Marco. God, this was Marco.
“Don't,” Ace pleaded. The shell hit the bottom of the divot with a muffled crunch, before Ace scooped up another mouthful. Stuck it in his mouth, emptied the shell. Repeat. “Don't say, I don't know what you want to say but please don't say—”
“You should chew,” Marco said anyways, not meeting Ace's eyes. “Or you'll cramp.”
Ace's laugh might as well have been a sob. The tears were already there anyways. He chewed—god did he chew. All the while he kept shoving more and more between his teeth. For once, it was actually more polite for him to not offer Marco any.
“There's a lot here,” Ace pointed out. “A lot. What the hell did you do, slice up your entire thigh?”
“I don't think I should tell—” Marco started to wince.
“Good. 'Cause I don't want to know.”
“Good,” Marco echoed. Then he was back to looking grateful, as Ace steadily emptied the divot. “That's good.”
And it was. Ace begged and begged his body to gag, for his stomach to reject the ill-gotten food, but the damn traitors did no such thing. His body consumed the food as quick and easy as it had always consumed the number of strange meats Ace had subjected it to. Amphibians, arthropods, worms and larvae and jellies all went down without a hitch—why should human be any different? Worse still, with his stomach warmed up now, Ace's typical appetite came roaring back with a vengeance. One long, loud growl, and Ace was back on his feet.
“Hey,” Marco said, hurriedly hopping up alongside Ace, “there's still more water, I could—”
“No,” Ace said, eyes stinging with tears. Marco immediately shut up, hands stalling midair in their reaching out. Good. Ace couldn't imagine touching Marco at all now, or ever again. After this he didn't think he could ever touch Marco's fingers without wondering if he had—if what he had eaten was—
“I'm gonna go for a walk,” Ace declared, tone measured and slow. “I'm gonna walk the perimeter of this island, and no offense, but I really would like to not see you during this walk.”
Which was basically a repeat of Ace's request four—now five—days ago. Marco, participate in this ridiculous dance of keeping directly across from me around the island at all times, so the vertical uplift of the island's center portion can render you invisible. So I can pretend you don't exist, while I work through the terrible mess of my feelings on this particular subject.
“Alright,” Marco agreed after a moment's thought. He looked on sadly at Ace's cheeks, the trails of tears Ace was paying no mind to, but Marco clearly wanted to caress away. But he only indicated with a nod of his head in the direction behind Ace. “Start over there, won't you?”
Behind Marco was the glint of growing dawn light on Ace's dagger. Marco was still scared Ace will try to end it all. Privately, Ace thought that would just be stupid. He had already done the worst, what would the logic be in killing himself now? Should Ace get his hands on that dagger, the most Marco would have to fear was some evisceration, some self-disembowelment as a symbolic gesture of cleansing or whatever, Ace supposed. But still, it would be after the fact, too little too late. Stupid. Ace had never been one to process regret in that particular way.
But whatever made Marco happy. With one last nod, Ace turned his back on Marco, and walked for the first time in fifteen days with a warm and full belly. He was still hungry, but it was the manageable, anticipatory kind of hunger. That kind that gave Ace more energy in order to get faster to his favorite food, his favorite meats. God, he ate Marco, and it only made him more hungry.
And then Ace began thinking, strangely, of Sabo. Sabo had all been Ace could think about, fifteen days ago, since the first moment he got news of the Revolutionary Army officer's name. Not just any officer—the Chief of Staff. Dragon's second in command. Ace only had tiny scraps of evidence, and even those were flimsier than tissue paper. But he had to try.
In fact, that was why they set out on this doomed mission to begin with. Marco had offered his company as the only commander who knew Ace's identity as Gol D. Roger's son (well, that was the reason Ace told Marco he could accept, anyways, when really, Ace just relished the chance to be with Marco one-on-one for the entire duration of the trip) (look how well that ended up), and Ace had accepted. But bad luck and an impromptu rescue mission and more bad luck later, here they were. Their check-in was scheduled for twenty days after departure, and it would still take the Moby Dick around four, maybe five days to retrace Ace and Marco's steps to the stupid deserted island. Ten more days of on-and-off water with no food. Marco would've survived, but Ace would surely have died.
You're a stupid piece of shit, Sabo would tell him, foul-mouthed as always. Wanna know why? Because only stupid pieces of shit would almost let himself die when a perfectly good solution to his death was right in front of him.
If you had to eat my flesh to survive, would you do it? Ace would snap back.
Hypotheticals are pointless, Sabo would reply primly. You either do it or you don't.
Well, I did it. Happy now?
Not more happy than your Marco, I bet.
Ace shook his head clear of Sabo's voice. He looked down at the trail of footsteps in the sand behind him, and then the trail of footsteps ahead of him. His own behind, Marco's ahead. Footsteps like a dance guide, all while he and Marco danced circles and circles around each other like some stupid metaphor.
It's only a metaphor if you know what it means, Sabo laughed at him.
Shut up, asshole!
No you shut up. And go get your man, dumbass.
So once again, Ace started sprinting in the sand. He headed straight for the rocks this time, got good purchase, and all but vaulted himself across the highest point of the island. Marco on the other side looked surprised and not a little concerned, like he was anticipating another attack.
Instead, Ace tackled him in a full-body hug, and squeezed his arms around Marco like teeth. He buried his nose in Marco's neck, into the very joint he had stuck the dagger last night, and inhaled deep. Ace breathed and breathed until the shakes went away, until Marco no longer felt like meat between his hands.
“I still don't know what the hell this changes or doesn't,” Ace said breathlessly, “but I love you. You know that, right? I love the crap out of you, I must, to have let you talk me into eating you—”
“Thank you,” Marco exhaled, coming to life under Ace's arms. He hugged Ace back just as tightly, clung to each other like gum to teeth. “God, thank you for, for understanding. And I you, I love you—”
“—yeah, no shit you love me, you cooked your own flesh and fed it to me for crying out loud—”
“—I just, you need to live Ace, I need you to live, what use is this stupid fruit if I can't even—”
“—shut up and kiss—”
Their lips, when they met, where surprisingly gentle. Like two humans, Ace supposed, kissing. Just kissing. Cherishing the press of sensitive, living skin against each other, the rush of pink to and from the white—
Ace bit down, and Marco was so slow on the flinch, that the wound was already gone in a burst of blue before Marco's hand reached it in an absentminded touch. The only evidence was the smudge of blood on Ace's lips, which he lapped away.
“What,” Marco said slowly, “still hungry?”
“Just,” Ace replied, “payback.” Then, “I know I'll have to eat again at some point.”
“Nine more days at least,” Marco confirmed. “Barring some kind of miracle.”
When asked later, Ace would blame his sudden question entirely on Sabo's bad influence, even if Sabo was, for now, just a voice in his head.
“Did you like feeding me?”
And poor Marco, mouth agape and entirely caught out, just turned redder and redder.
“What, I don't—I, it's not—how—I mean I certainly don't mind—”
“God,” Ace muttered, drawing Marco back into another, deeper kiss, “you're such a fucking freak, you know that?”
Marco pulled away just enough to point out, “you're the one still chewing on me.”
“So we're both fucking freaks,” Ace was big enough to acknowledge. He licked at Marco's bottom lip, pulled it between his teeth, and felt Marco shiver at the bite. “But you know what?”
“...You're still gonna be the one to explain to Thatch why I'm going vegetarian for a while.”