Shoutout to MomoTheDreamer again. Beta'd by ghostperson.

Quick note: I've got family obligations the next few days and will have limited time to write. As such, the original plan to finish and post chapter 8 by Monday will not be happening. I hope to have it out by Tuesday, but it might be as late as Friday depending on my work schedule. Sorry about that, amici.

Ace of Cups, reversed - Emotional loss, blocked creativity, emptiness...

September 1520

Loguetown was very busy, Noir noted. Merchant vessels of varying sizes and capacities, and a host of Marine ships. Good, she had options then. The merchant she'd hitched a ride with had been more than grateful for a Marine presence, but he unfortunately did not travel into the Grand Line, so Noir would have to disembark.

The Marine base would be her first port of call. If she was fortunate, there would be a vessel returning to the Grand Line in the next few days. If not, well, she could easily obtain the beris necessary to pay for transport with another merchant. Even if they were as greedy as the last one.

At the fork leading to the Marine base, Noir paused. She'd never seen it, and it was the anniversary… She might not get another chance.

Instead of going right, Noir took the left street, ambling along until she came to a large square. Tourists milled around. Noir tuned out the chattering adults and squealing children, gazing at the blatant addition to the town center. A tall platform, steel supports and a wooden floor, large enough to hold three people. It was weathered with age and exposure to the elements, but careful maintenance showed in the cleanliness and lack of rust.

It was strange. Noir remembered watching the broadcast from a Marine base in West Blue. She remembered desperately wishing to be somewhere else, anywhere else, but that room of cheering Marines. A futile wish. She'd been a Warrant Officer. Her absence would have been noticed, and questions would have been asked.

Noir's nails dug into her palms as her hands curled into fists. You promised, she snarled to herself, you promised you'd protect her!

A difficult promise to fulfill when dead. And Rouge had paid for that with her life.

Snarling at a dead man wouldn't change the past. Noir turned and left.

"Can I help you, Miss…?"

"Rear Admiral Portgas D. Noir."

The Chief Petty Officer - a pretty little thing, violet hair, silver eyes - didn't blink. "What can I do for you, sir?" Noir felt an approving smile curve over her face. This one had spine. Good.

"I'd like to speak with the base commander, please." And by the deep blue sea, let it not be Captain Masser. She did not have the patience to put up with his bullshit. Cost be damned, Noir would find a civilian ship to take her to the Grand Line.

The young woman rifled through a neat stack of papers, finally plucking one free and scanning it. "Captain Smoker is currently free, sir. Would you like an escort?" She asked, already scribbling information down on a small slip Noir recognized as a visitor's pass. Understandable. Noir was still on vacation.

Noir's brows rose sharply. Smoker was the base commander? Well, that was new. Last they spoke, Smoker had still been a Commander stationed in South Blue. They had some catching up to do.

"That won't be necessary." Now that she was paying attention, Noir could feel her former subordinate's Haki. The aura curled around itself lazily, that same hazy sense that somehow felt like smoke despite the intangible nature of aura. In fact, Noir was well acquainted with that serene quality to Smoker's aura. "Does Captain Smoker still rock balance?"

"Yes, sir." The Chief Petty Officer replied. Her expression gave nothing away, but her aura shifted in confusion.

Noir nodded to the woman and strode off down one of the halls. Most Marine bases were built in a standard layout, so Noir had no difficulty finding the office designated for the base commander's use. It was a delicate balance, opening the door softly enough that she didn't disrupt Smoker's attention, but not so soft that she startled him when he finally did take note of her presence.

Sure enough, Smoker was at his desk, two cigars clenched between his teeth and gaze narrowed as he carefully placed irregularly shaped stones on top of each other in ways that should not have stayed up. It appeared today was for delicate work. Noir had seen Smoker work with rocks her size before, building monoliths that seemed to defy the laws of physics at first glance.

Once Smoker had finished the last piece in front of him, Noir spoke up from her spot against the door frame. "That still makes my brain hurt." Looking at the sculptures, they did not look like they could stand without adhesive or wire keeping everything together. Trying to wrap her head around how they remained upright always gave her a headache.

"It's a hobby for the intellectual." Smoker replied.

She pulled a face. "You are so cruel to your poor old captain."

Smoker deadpanned at her. "I'm certain you'll survive."

Noir pushed away from the doorway and gave her subordinate a firm hug. "Congrats on your promotion. How long?"

"Two months." Smoker set a kettle of water on the small hot plate in the corner of one bookshelf, and dug out a bag of tea leaves. "Former Captain Masser was found to be taking bribes from pirates in exchange for entry into the Grand Line." Noir scowled. That rat bastard.

A comfortable silence fell. Noir watched Smoker bustle around his office, setting out tea cups and steeping the tea leaves after the water boiled.

"So what brings you to Loguetown?" Smoker finally asked, pouring them both a cup of tea and setting the pot between them. Noir took a deep breath of the steam rising from her cup. Silver needle tea. Smoker really did have excellent taste.

"Do you have any transports returning to the Grand Line?"

Smoker grunted and opened a drawer. Rifling through it, he withdrew a thick file. "Two days." He told her. "They're taking reports from East Blue directly to Headquarters. I'll arrange for you to escort them."

She nodded. "Thank you."

The file disappeared into a drawer. "Rumor has it you were pregnant." Smoker said.

Noir choked on her tea. "What?!"

The white-haired captain gave her a dry expression, even as he handed her a napkin to mop herself up. "You took a year long vacation when you hadn't taken a single day in over a decade."

Well, he wasn't wrong. "I was not pregnant." Noir growled. She wasn't even currently in a relationship! And while she had no issues with one-night stands in general, Noir would never engage in one herself. If this was Garp's idea of a joke Noir was going to incinerate his rice crackers and sake.

"So what brought the Queen of Cards to East Blue then?" Smoker asked.

Noir glared at the use of her epithet among the Marines. "I needed to get away from idiot colleagues." She said. Preferably before she lost her temper and resorted to bashing skulls against the rails. Her poor ship didn't deserve the abuse.

Unfortunately, Smoker was long immune to Noir's glare. "And you needed a year for that?" Skepticism dripped from every word.

"I no longer have the urge to make myself a monkey-skin coat." She grumbled into her teacup. Well, mostly. She might still shave Garp's beard. "So yes."

Smoker conceded to her point with a nod. Noir had always loved that about her former subordinate. Both of them highly valued privacy. So long as it did not break the law nor endangered his subordinates, Smoker was content to let things lie. He knew Noir, knew there was more to coming to East Blue than simply escaping while she cooled her temper. But Noir made it clear that she did not want to talk about it, so Smoker dropped the subject.

"Your nephew joined up with Whitebeard." And sometimes, Smoker was too sharp for her peace of mind. Putting together Ace's arrival on the Grand Line with Noir's abrupt vacation was well within his mental capabilities. "He refused to join the Shichibukai and joined the Yonko a few weeks later with his whole crew." Noir put one hand over her face and sighed. Of course he did. That would be Roger's blood - all or nothing, never in between.

"What's his bounty now?" Joining a Yonko's crew would've automatically increased it, because Yonkos didn't accept any two-bit pirate on the Grand Line.

He handed her Ace's bounty poster. "Oh for fuck's sake." She swore. A quarter billion beris?

"What will you do?" Smoker asked. Noir sighed again. She'd been wrestling with that question for the past twelve months.

Noir had to choose: family or duty. As much as Noir wished, she couldn't be a Marine and protect Ace at the same time. On one hand, Ace was family. He was Rouge and Roger's son. Her nephew!

…Her nephew that hardly had any Will to live. Noir had already mourned Ace once, over twenty years when all she had was her duty to the Marines to keep her going. Noir didn't think she would bear to mourn Ace a second time. And with Ace's reckless disregard of his own life, it was really only a matter of time.

It was selfish, but Noir couldn't attach herself to a dead man walking.

I'm sorry Rouge, Roger. But I can't. Not again.

"I've been a Marine for twenty-one years." She told Smoker. "I won't turn my back on that now."

Smoker was not worried about his old captain. At all.

Even though her blonde hair was now streaked with silver, new wrinkles lined her forehead and mouth, and exhaustion lingered in the line of her shoulders… Nope.

He was… concerned. Just a bit.

Of course, Smoker knew to keep his concerns to himself. Noir did not appreciate being mothered, even when it was done with the best of intentions.

But in Smoker's opinion, Noir should retire. Twenty years of service was more than respectable, and if she was still this tired after a year of vacation she clearly needed to take more time off. But it was Noir's choice to make. It was one of the first things Noir taught him - that personal choice was important. You didn't take it away from someone, even if they ended up making bad choices.

Noir was currently giving his men a lecture on Haki. The three different types, how to recognize them, and how to counter them in combat. Most Marines didn't learn about Haki until they reached an officer rank, but Smoker would rather have his men prepared and never need it, than encounter it and not know what they were facing. And if anyone could be called an expert on Haki, it would be Noir.

This was the third lecture today, and she was scheduled to give another two that afternoon before the transport left at dawn the next morning. Or rather, she had been scheduled to do so, until one of Smoker's men came running up to him with a report of a pirate ship bound for port.

"Retrieve Rear Admiral Noir." Smoker ordered. Venting on pirates usually improved Noir's mood. It was a form of stress and anger management she'd passed onto him.

Making his way outside to the balcony overlooking the bay, Smoker accepted a spyglass from the Marine on duty. He looked through it, and easily spotted the jolly roger, still flying high. Pirates - too proud to think that lowering their jolly roger might allow them to easier escape Marine scrutiny. No skin off his nose. Made it far simpler to catch these bastards.

He didn't recognize the flag, not off the top of his head. Then again, Smoker hadn't yet been in East Blue long enough to memorize all the pirate crews that might attempt to enter the Grand Line.

Sharp thuds announced Noir's presence via those ridiculous boots she insisted on wearing. Smoker didn't care what Noir said; wearing heels of any height into combat was dumb and he would have no sympathy when she eventually rolled an ankle. Throwing a scowl at the boots in question, Smoker handed the spyglass off to his former captain. Noir looked through it and promptly scowled. "Why the hell are those idiots still sailing?" She demanded.

His interest peaked. Noir knew them? "Who are they?"

"The Sea Dog pirates." Noir grumbled. "Captained by some arrogant asshole I didn't bother to remember the name of."

Smoker grunted. Now that was a familiar name. The captain, Ward Samuel, had a decent bounty for East Blue at 12 million beris. And perhaps Noir would be interested in an old challenge. "Whoever has the least amount of pirates captured buys the drinks."

"The captain is mine." Noir stated, collapsing the spyglass and setting it aside. Her fingers grazed over her dagger and cards, loosening them in their sheaths.

"No Haki."

Noir scoffed. "Not on your life, Captain Logia." She took off, coat flapping behind her.

"Ensure civilian safety." Smoker barked at a nearby Marine. He took off after Noir, because dammit, that woman drank a lot of alcohol.

Please review!