Title: Underneath the Underneath

Words: 3950ish

Notes: I have had wicked writer's block these past few months, coupled with some personal problems and a sheer lack of wanting to do absolutely anything except read. This was my attempt at forcing something creative out of me.


Underneath the Underneath


"I said, calm down."

It had been an accident. A stupid, completely avoidable accident. Something so idiotic it should have been laughed at and used as fodder at the next story-telling/drinking contest they held.

Anything but this, Marco thought, watching as head nurse Whiskey checked the heart monitor of one of the DeCalvin brothers. Rappa was unconscious; his brother Nappa was pacing at the end of the bed, his anger over what had happened still red-hot.

"That little bastard's just gonna get away with it, then?" Nappa snarled, whirling around and facing Marco again, fists clenched.

Marco felt a surge of his own anger rise up against the tone and the name. "Watch it, Nappa," he said sharply, and a slight flick of his haki against the older sibling made the other sailor pause for a moment. "It was an accident, and you know it."

"An accident that almost killed my brother!"

"An accident that could have been avoided if Rappa hadn't decided to be a poor loser," Marco replied with a shrug. "He raised a gun to Vista."

"He wouldn't have fired!"

"Ace didn't know that!" Marco snapped back, his patience finally starting to slip. "He lost the duel fair and square, and pulling his gun was the dumbest move he could have made!"

Nappa glared. "He was proving a point," the man growled. "Vista relies too much on his sword and his belief in the sanctity of the duel; he forgets that someone with better observation haki and lower morals could kill him with a shot the second his back is turned."

Marco couldn't argue with that logic, but the way it had been handled was fair game. "Enough, Nappa. It was a friendly duel, he lost, he pulled a gun, and he was attacked by one of our newer members who didn't know Rappa wouldn't shoot. Ace was being protective."

"He-"

"Your brother would be dead right now if Ace had wanted him to be."

At that Nappa paled considerably and his eyes darted back to his sibling. Rappa was covered with second-degree burns on his broken arm, a smaller third-degree burn on his chest, and a broken jaw from a devastatingly strong punch that had almost blurred into him from out of nowhere. Ace was a strong opponent when sparring, but his amiable nature had almost caused half of the Whitebeard commanders to forget that the super-rookie had made his way into the New World from the East Blue in under six months, kicking ass and taking names the entire way.

If Ace had wanted to kill Rappa, his firefist would have gone through the allied co-captain's throat, searing his windpipe and breaking his neck in the same instant. It was a deadly shot that Ace reserved for the worst of the marines or attacking pirates they faced. As it was, Rappa was healing rapidly, and was only out due to the pain meds Whiskey had put the man on.

"That's enough," Whiskey cut in, straightening from where she had rehung Rappa's IV with a new flow of antibiotics. "Nappa, I told you – your idiot brother is going to be fine. I just don't want to listen to him whine about the burn on his chest. I'll wake him up in two days when it has a chance to mend a bit. He's lucky your people are blessed with such fast healing."

There was a sigh of relief from the angry DeCalvin brother. Marco nodded. "Thanks, Whiskey."

Nappa shot Marco another glare. "Just keep that brat away from me and Rappa."

Marco levelled a bland look at him. "Giving me orders now?"

The other man flinched, and Marco let it go, turning around and leaving the infirmary. Thatch and Izou had immediately disappeared with Ace after Marco had turned around to check on the DeCalvin's. The Phoenix rubbed his forehead as he remembered the sheer panic and rage on Ace's face when Rappa had aimed the gun at Vista...


o0o


"Bang, bang, commander," Rappa said softly, a dark grin on his face. "You lose. Drop your sword."

Marco watched with a frown as Vista looked first stunned, and then angry at the allied captain. But before anyone could say anything else, there was a flash of flames erupting from the sideline, and suddenly Ace appeared in front of Rappa, knocking the gun away hard with his left hand. The audible *snap* of bone was heard in the air and Marco was already moving. He didn't get there in time to stop Ace from landing a one-two combo on the man, though – he winced as Ace's right fist slammed into Rappa's chest, followed near instantly by his left into the man's jaw with an audible crunch. Then Marco was on top of Ace, pulling him away.

The teen was enraged, screaming something about not shooting his brother, and had fought against Marco like a young wildcat. Marco had had to use a fair amount of strength to keep Ace from breaking free and rushing back over to Rappa who was already being bundled onto a stretcher pulled from Blamenco's cheek pouch.

Then Thatch was suddenly there helping him, and together they wrangled the teen back, pushing Ace up against the railing. Marco opened his mouth to snarl at Ace to back the hell down when he took in the look on Ace's face and realized with instant clarity that Ace wouldn't hear anything he said. Ace's eyes were horrifyingly blank, locked onto something only he could see. His skin had gone from its normal healthy tan to a chalky-white, and tears were pouring down his cheeks as he shrieked and fought them.

The tears, more than anything else, had alarmed Marco the most. Ace never cried.

Behind him, he could hear Rappa's brother, his co-captain Nappa roaring in fury, and he looked at Thatch, saw that he had Ace in his grip, and turned to face the other man before he could add to the confusion.

Izo slipped past him and joined Thatch in murmuring soft plea's and comforting whispers to their youngest brother, but all Marco could hear as he made his way over to the enraged Nappa was Ace pleading for them not to hurt his brother, for his brother not to go, that he couldn't leave them again.


o0o


Marco shook his head and headed to the commander's hall on the second deck. He knew Thatch would have taken Ace directly to his or Marco's room, or even Izou's, rather than the second division bunk Ace usually stayed in on the third deck. Sure enough, as he approached his room, he saw signs of their passage – tiny scorch marks on the floor, wet drops which meant Ace had still been crying, and that just tore at his heart. His door was closed but he could hear Thatch pleading gently with Ace to come back to them and that made his stomach clench.

He knocked lightly as he opened the door slowly, not wanting to shock anyone. Thatch was sitting on his bed, wrapped tightly around Ace who was swaddled in Marco's sheets, staring blankly at the wall. Izou was in the process of bringing another blanket over and as Marco joined them, laying a hand on Ace's shoulder, he realized why: Ace's skin was cool, practically icy compared to his normal body temperature.

"Shock," he said grimly, and Thatch nodded.

"June and July just left. They gave him a sedative but he burned through it automatically. He hasn't heard a word we've said, as far as I can tell."

Izou rubbed his eyes, apparently uncaring of his makeup. "July gave me a pill for him to take when we can get him to focus on us long enough that he can control his fire. Sleep is what will help him the most, but he's still practically catatonic." He looked tiredly at Marco. "Rappa?"

"He'll be fine," Marco said, and both Izou and Thatch let out a small sigh of relief. Thatch rocked their youngest back and forth slightly, humming under his breath. Marco sat next to them and ran a hand through Ace's hair. Ace didn't blink, eyes still watching something only he could see. Tears were still beading his long lashes, but they weren't falling anymore. "Did he say anything else?"

"He was screaming about his brother," Thatch said softly, rubbing his hands up and down Ace's arms in an attempt to warm them. "He was apologizing for not saving him, that he wasn't going to lose another brother, and to drop the gun." Thatch watched Marco with dark eyes. "Any of that ringing a bell?"

Marco pinched the bridge of his nose. "A little," he said, exhaling sharply. "He has a little brother named Luffy, still at home on their island. He's alive though, as far as I know."

"Of course he is. According to Ace, that kid is going be our king some day," Thatch said with a quiet laugh.

Ace suddenly blinked hard, eyes scrunching. "Luffy..."

Thatch pulled away enough that he could see Ace's face. "Ace?"

Apparently mentioning Luffy's name was the key to breaking through to their youngest. Marco leaned forward, reaching out to grip Ace's cold fingers. "Ace, Luffy is okay. He's back at home on your island, remember?"

"What..." Ace blinked again, slowly, and his eyes seemed to be coming into focus. "Luffy? Mar...Marco?" He looked down at the arms still wrapped around him, and then slowly turned his head so he could see the fourth division commander. His voice was soft and confused. "Thatch?"

"Don't forget me," Izou said, flicking Ace's jawline gently with the backs of his fingers. "Welcome back, Ace."

"Where'd I go?" Ace mumbled. His body began shaking. "Why'sit so cold?"

Thatch returned to rubbing his hands up and down Ace's arms, trying to chafe warmth into them. "You went into shock, kiddo."

"Shock...From what?" Ace was quiet for a moment. Then suddenly he bolted upright, and only Thatch's grip kept him from leaving the bed. "Vista!"

"He's okay, Ace," Marco said firmly, pushing against Ace's chest until the teen gave in and settled back into Thatch's hold. His muscles were still rigid with tension but he wasn't actively pushing back. "You and Rappa, on the other hand..."

"Rappa?" Ace sounded confused.

Ace had only been introduced to the DeCalvin brothers that morning, Marco reminded himself. It was natural that he might have forgotten their names. "The one who was duelling Vista?"

"The man you tried to flambe?" Thatch added, frowning as it became apparent that Ace wasn't remembering what had happened.

Ace looked completely bewildered. "What are you talking about?"

Marco frowned, exchanging a quick look with Izou who nodded slightly and disappeared with the mini Den Den out into the hallway. "Ace, what's the last thing you remember?"

"Vista was fighting that Rapper guy," Ace murmured, wrinkling his brow. "Then..." Ace suddenly paled. "There was a gun! He threatened my brother, he was gonna shoot Luffy, he took my brother-"

The teen was suddenly gasping for air, panic trying to close his throat. Thatch was right there, hugging Ace and shushing him. Marco gripped Ace's chin lightly with his fingers, forcing Ace to focus on him. "Everyone's okay, Ace. You're okay, Vista's okay, your brother isn't here – he's back at home, remember?" Ace was still panting with with mingled rage and terror but his eyes were focusing on Marco again. Marco held up the pill July had left. "You're in shock, Ace, and July left this for you to take. It will help you sleep. I need you to not activate your devil fruit, okay? Can you do that or do you need help?"

Ace was still shaking. "I don't think... I can't..."

Marco nodded, and walked over to his desk. Taking a cloth from inside the drawer, he used it to pick up a small, thin circlet of metal and then returned to the bed. Ace was allergic to sea stone but only had severe allergic reactions when it got into his bloodstream – Whiskey had been very thorough in her testing. Prolonged contact over several hours could result in a rash on the contacted areas, but they wouldn't need to leave it on that long. Just until Ace fell asleep. He held up the bracelet. "Can I put this on your wrist, Ace? Just until it kicks in. You need to sleep – it will help with the shock."

Ace eyed the bracelet warily but eventually nodded. Marco slid it on, making sure to keep it loose, and then handed him the pill. The fiery teen swallowed it dry. It took nearly five minutes before Ace's eyelids were drooping and as he dozed off in Thatch's arms, Marco tugged the kairouseki bracelet back off and set it on his nightstand.

"PTSD anyone?" Thatch murmured, turning to lay the kid out on Marco's bed. Marco assisted him, lifting Ace's legs to straighten them out and give Thatch a chance to scoot out. "That was fun."

Marco snorted. "Not the word I would choose," he said mildly.

Izou came back into the room, smiling when he saw Ace's head turned to the side, snoring into Marco's pillow. "July said as long as he was sleeping, there's nothing else we can do for now. Sleep will help a lot, but eventually we'll have to get him to talk about it."

Thatch nodded. "Has he ever had a reaction like that to guns before?"

"Not that I've seen," Marco said thoughtfully, thinking back on all the missions he'd been on with Ace and second division in general. "Guns are a part of almost every battle we have against the marines, and Ace has been on several missions where there was gunfire."

"Kingdew said he was remarkably calm under fire during one of the early missions he was sent on, back when he first joined," Izou pointed out. "He assumed it was because Ace's devil fruit prevented him from being shot, and very few Paradise marines have access to kairouseki bullets."

"I remember. I also remember Kingdew asking me to give Ace the 'complacent logia' lecture." Marco shrugged. "So it's only when shots are fired at a family member?"

"But we – and Ace – have seen that happen just as often as sword fights," Thatch protested. "Why would he freak out over a gun being fired at a family member today and not any time before?"

"Maybe it's not just the gun," Izou murmured, eyes widening as he obviously thought of something. "Maybe it was because a family member was shooting at a family member."

Marco blinked. "He was upset about his brother being shot, said 'not again'," he realized. "I know Luffy's still alive, but maybe his brother was shot at when they were younger. Add in that it was a family member..."

"Doesn't Ace have Marines in his family?" Thatch asked. "I know he said something about it, and a lot of his defensive moves look like they came straight out of the Academy. Maybe one of them pointed a gun at them when they were younger. It could have been a combination of factors – being a pirate and having gun-happy marines for family, plus Vista being threatened by another family member-"

"Trauma isn't usually neat and linear. A lot of things probably got mixed up," Marco said with a sigh. He shot the slumbering teen a fondly exasperated look. "You are determined to be the biggest troublemaker, aren't you?"

Thatch snickered. "Well, he is the youngest. I think that's kind of a given."

Izou waved his hand at them and headed for the door again. "I'll go let Pop's know, and see if he'll talk to Nappa. If Ace had an anxiety attack, it's not really his fault. Ace was just being protective, and it's not like he knew the DeCalvin's before today. He's only been with us for a short time, even if it does feel like he's been here forever. It will take time for him to learn what it truly means to be considered a part of the Whitebeard family."

That much was true. Had Ace been with them longer, he wouldn't have lifted a finger at Rappa; he would have known Rappa was simply proving a point during his spar with Vista (who did have a habit of leaving fellow swordsmen alive behind him, even if they didn't show his level of honor) and the gun had just been for show.

"Tell Pops, but I'll go talk to Nappa," Marco said. "It's my job, and Pop's doesn't need anymore excitement tonight."

Izou shrugged. "Your call, Marco."

"I'll stay here," Thatch said. He was still watching Ace with worried eyes, though he was a lot more relaxed now that the kid was sleeping soundly. "Just in case."

Marco nodded and followed Izou out of the room.


o0o


Thatch had eventually left to help with dinner, but Marco had expected Ace to still be sleeping peacefully when he stopped back at his room. Nappa had still been angry, and Marco had been obliged to let Pops know the other captain's state of mind when giving his report. Pops wasn't overly worried about Nappa – the man was a hothead on his best days, and he would eventually cool off. He had been more concerned about Rappa's condition, as well as Ace's.

Rappa was doing just fine, Whiskey had already sent her report to Pops to go with Izou's, and Marco had just needed a few minutes peace with his father before going to check on the brat currently taking over his bed. He hadn't expected those few minutes to be the perfect time for Ace to escape.

"Damn brat," he murmured, shaking his head and then expanding his observation haki. Ace was tricky to track down with haki – something about how he'd had to learn to hide from the shitty gramps when growing up or else he'd have been killed in training – but the familiar flare of his devil fruit was easy for a bird made of flames to pick out. Then Marco blinked, realizing where Ace was headed.

He was just outside the infirmary.

"Shit." Marco turned around and darted down the corridor. The last thing they needed was a fight on the lower decks.

"Marco?" Izou met him in the hallway, one elegantly shaped eyebrow raising in blatant curiosity at the Phoenix's uncharacteristic hurry.

"Ace."

"Infirmary?"

"Yep."

"That little hooligan," Izou cursed.

"Sounds about right."


o0o


Marco and Izou strode up to the infirmary doors and paused as they noted Whiskey standing calmly in front of them. "Whiskey?"

The nurse had her arms folded, as though daring them to charge past her. "Calm down, commander," Whiskey said, sending Marco a sharp look, even as she waggled her finger in warning at Izou. "Everything is under control."

"Ace and Nappa?" Izou asked apprehensively.

Whiskey snorted. "See for yourself." She gestured to the cracked-open door, and the two commanders found themselves leaning forwards.

Ace was standing in front of Nappa, bowed at the waist, apologizing for his attack on Rappa.

Well, Marco thought faintly, this is a surprise.

"... then I saw the gun and suddenly I didn't see your brother anymore. Or even Vista, for that matter. I saw something else, and all I could think of was getting that gun away so my brother would be safe." Ace swallowed hard. "I have no excuse for hurting Rappa. I'm sorry."

There was a long silence, and then Nappa rubbed his face. "Actually, that sounds like a pretty good excuse. Goddammit, I can't even be angry anymore."

Ace's head snapped up. "What? No, I—"

"Ace, you're a powerful kid, but you're still just a kid," Nappa cut him off with a sigh, and Marco watched with relief as the larger man seemed to relax a bit. "Hell, to be honest I didn't realize you were seventeen until Marco told me. You had a panic attack because my brother stupidly pulled a gun during a sword fight. Under any other circumstances, I'd be pissed at you for not trusting the family, but you just met us today. And if you had a panic attack that badly, that means there's something floating inside your brain that you need to talk about."

Ace's lips pressed together, thinning under the pressure.

Nappa snorted at him. "I didn't say you need to talk to me, brat. You don't even know me. But I'll make you a deal. I'll forgive you for beating the shit out of my brother, as long as you tell someone – one of the commanders – what the hell today was really about. You can apologize to Rappa yourself when he wakes up. Square deal?"

The teenager was still looking at him with a wary, unsure look. Marco exchanged an amused glance with Izou, nodded at Whiskey who stepped aside, and then pushed the door open. "He accepts."

Ace spun around in shock. "Marco!"

Behind Marco, Izou glared. "Why am I suddenly so forgettable? Did I not spend two hours this morning making myself look fashionably fabulous? And yet you forget me twice."

A deep blush rose on the teen's cheeks. "Sorry, Izou." Then the blush was replaced by anger. "But what do you mean, 'he accepts'? I can handle my own deals!"

"Ah, but would you?" Marco sidled up next to him and ruffled Ace's hair, grinning mildly as he growled and pushed his hand away. "I happen to think Nappa has made you a very generous deal, considering what you did to his brother."

And there was the guilt again. Marco watched it slide across Ace's face, plain as day. "I didn't mean to."

"We know," Izou said with a sigh. "But that doesn't change the fact that it did happen, and therefore you need to make reparations. A simple conversation is a small price to pay, I should think."

"Fine," Ace grumped. His eyes flicked to Marco's, almost hesitantly. "Marco, would you..." His voice trailed off, fraught with uncertainty.

Marco smiled and ruffled Ace's hair again, making the younger man squawk and jump away from him. "Sure, Ace. We'll talk after dinner, okay?"

The teen nodded, and then bowed again at Nappa before leaving the infirmary. Izou rolled his eyes and gestured at him as he went. "I'll make sure he gets there and eats without passing out.

Marco nodded. When they were gone, and it was just him, Nappa and the unconscious Rappa left, he reached out and gripped Nappa's shoulder lightly. "Thank you."

"For what?"

"You could have been a lot harder on him," Marco said calmly. "Thank you for hearing him out and giving him a chance to explain."

"Feh," the man snorted. "God, he's so damn young, Marco. I thought he was at least over twenty. Having PTSD at that age... it ain't right."

"Having PTSD is never right," Marco said with a casual shrug. "But at least we found out about it here on the Moby, while he was relatively safe."

"Yeah," Nappa said with a sigh. "Go on, get lost birdbrain. You'll need food to power yourself through a conversation like that with that brat. He just screams trouble all over."

"Don't I know it," Marco said, waving as he left the room.

No doubt he was in for an interesting conversation after dinner, but Marco couldn't help but look forward to it. Ace was a contradictory bundle of surprises and pitfalls, but underneath the prickly armor was a brother Marco was eager to learn more about. Each layer peeled back from Ace's defences revealed more and more just how remarkable the young man was.

Marco couldn't wait to learn it all, of course.

They had all the time in the world.


End


...except of course they didn't and Akainu needs to die in the series. Seriously. Just DIE. If he isn't killed by the time Luffy becomes Pirate King, I swear we fans need to launch a petition and start a 'Death to Akainu' campaign against Oda. Who's with me?