Title: Edge of the Blade
Rating: PG
Notes: As always, a big thank you to my beta, shayhayred!

On the first day of her first vacation, just before the sun began to rise, Fong Shaolin was warming up in one of the many practice rooms at the Academy. She was used to sharing it with other students when the Academy was in session, but this morning it was utterly deserted, despite the fact that it was the only one left open during the break. Halfway through her warm-up, however, someone else came in.

Early morning training normally ran on an etiquette of studious disinterest, but Shaolin did note that the other student was a man named Tousen, from her own classes. She said nothing to him and didn't try to make any eye contact, but finished warming up and began working one of the intermediate katas with a practice sword. As she moved, she felt her muscles bunch and then spread. There was the usual tautness on her lower back, where she had been burned as a child, but it would become more supple as the morning wore on. Everything else was in order, and she began to train in earnest.

About an hour into practice, she realized that Tousen had stopped moving. He was staring at her… if that was the right word for what a blind man did. Without stopping, she addressed him.

"Do you want something?"

"I was wondering if you would like to spar," he said politely.

She slowed, stopped, curled her lip. "I don't want to hurt you," she said. Which wasn't entirely fair; he was perfectly competent in classes. But he had never faced the ninja techniques, and she was not in a mood to limit herself.

"Really. I need the practice." He smiled, a bit ruefully. "I haven't had very much experience against real opponents."

"Very well, then." She surprised herself. "Let's begin."

She began in the standard shinigami style that had been pounded into her over the last year. There, he easily matched her stroke for stroke. She began paying more attention to him, moving a bit faster, but he kept up with her. One of his jabs actually made contact with her shoulder, and she hissed. She had refused to learn the standard style when she first came, until they told her it would jeopardize her future standing with the squads, and that only motivated her to learn it well enough to defeat everyone she sparred with. Tousen, however, had obviously been practicing.

He tapped her again, this time against her left side. When they sprang apart, Shaolin's teeth were bared. This had gone far enough. She adjusted her stance to the ninja position. "Come on."

This time, she blocked all of his strokes effortlessly, and tapped him three times in two seconds. He shook his head when they separated, looking a bit stunned.

"Is that… the ninja style?" he panted.

"You've never seen it before, have you?"

Without warning, she attacked again. He anticipated her, which was more than she expected, but his parries were still woefully inadequate.

They went on all morning. When they finished, the sun high in the sky, Tousen was much better at blocking her sword, though he still had a lot of trouble when she brought her feet and fists into play. They were both tired, but Shaolin felt alive, for the first time in a long time. She bowed, then turned and started in the direction of the women's baths.

"Wait," Tousen gasped. "I would like… to do this… again."

Shaolin stopped, her back towards him. She was silent for a moment. "I will be here tomorrow at the same time," she said finally. "If you are here, I will spar with you."

-----

The nice thing about Tousen, Shaolin thought, was that he never wasted time on unimportant things. The other students were capable of chattering on and on about the most banal subjects, but she and Tousen could spar for an hour and go for ramen afterwards without exchanging a word. It was a sensible friendship.

What this meant, of course, was that when they did speak, it was only about important things. Questions about classwork, occasionally, though they were both in the highest percentiles of the class. However, the bulk of their discussions, by far, centered on the merits of various fighting styles.

"It isn't right," Tousen said. "To use stealth and underhanded tactics to defeat an enemy."

"Would you rather we face all our enemies in duels? Do you really think that justice is served when the strongest person wins?"

"That's not what I'm saying. It's best to solve problems with negotiation. With fighting, if there is no other choice. But it has to be fair."

"Straightforward fighting is stupid," she replied. She used her chopsticks to emphasize her points, having long since forgotten that he couldn't see them. "First, your precious justice won't always be served unless you think the person who wins is automatically in the right. Second, there are always things that can be accomplished more simply and effectively when they are done quietly. And third, because the ninja arts work, and ultimately contribute to the cause of justice."

"As long as they are used correctly, of course."

"Of course. That would be where justice comes in."

"That… makes a lot of sense. Thank you, Fong."

Another thing Shaolin admired was how Tousen really thought about what other people said, and sometimes changed his mind based on their arguments.

-----

They kept to the same schedule. Training during the third watch, a quick dip in the baths as the sun started to come up, and then a small breakfast of rice and miso soup at the ramen shop down the street. Nobody watching would have guessed that this was the last day they would do so.

Today, it was raining, and so they flash-stepped from the Academy training building to the shop. Shaolin never felt quite comfortable with flash-step; she knew that Princess Shihouin was known as the God of Flash, and it always felt a little bit like she was trespassing on her mistress' domain. But a ninja had to be quick, and there was something exhilarating about dodging between raindrops.

Something in her posture must have prompted the question.

"Covert Ops, then?"

He already knew she was going to Covert Ops, just as she knew that he'd be going to the Fifth Division. Shaolin frowned.

"You know that I am."

"I only… it seemed as if there was something else…"

Shaolin took a long sip of water. When she felt that she could speak again, she sat it back down on the table. "I had four older brothers. None of them were able to complete more than three missions."

"They were dismissed? Or…"

"Yes." She took a breath, fought the urge to run out of the place screaming. "Every one of them died."

Tousen was quiet for a long moment. Then: "I'm sorry."

"Don't be." She drank another spoonful of soup. "They were weak."

"And you are not weak." It wasn't a question.

"Well, I suppose we'll find out." She finished the last of her rice, then stood and left without saying goodbye.

Somehow, though, when she received her official shinigami robes and was processed into Covert Ops, she wasn't as nervous as she thought she would be. She took her grandmother's name. She completed her first mission, and her second, and her third. And after that, it was easy.

-----

Though Covert Ops was somewhat removed from the Thirteen Divisions, Soi Fong occasionally found reason to be in their territory. One day, after delivering a message to the Vice-Captain of the Tenth Division, she bumped into Tousen.

"I hear you've been doing well, Soi Fong."

"And you also," she replied. He was Fifteenth Seat in his division already, and it was whispered that he would go even higher.

"Would you like to get lunch?"

They had never been what anyone else would call close. Only training, and brief conversations relating to it, had kept them together. And when they graduated, even that link appeared severed.

But despite what other people might have thought, nothing had truly changed between them. Soi Fong accepted his invitation. And when Tousen asked Soi Fong what she thought about justice, she didn't respond as disdainfully as she would have to anyone else. She actually paused to think about it.

"Justice… is what we do as shinigami. It's making sure all the souls are safe and balanced."

"So… if you saw two different ways to go, it would be just to pick the one that saved the most souls."

"I suppose so," Soi Fong said dubiously. "What is this about?"

But Tousen seemed relaxed now, and devoted himself to his food instead of answering her question. Soi Fong mentally shrugged, and they fell back into their comfortable silence.

-----

The first day after Yoruichi left was the first day in centuries that Soi Fong did not rise before daybreak to train. She huddled in her bed, unsleeping, trying to make sense of this new world. She barely moved, even when her subordinates, and then her superiors, pounded at the door.

She wasn't surprised, at the end of that first week, when she felt Tousen approaching and heard his voice at the door. In truth, she didn't ever expect to be surprised again.

"What do you want?" she called. She had that much respect for him.

"To spar."

There were a few shinigami in the Ninth's practice room, but they quickly cleared out when their captain came billowing in. He grabbed two wooden practice swords, tossed one to Soi Fong, and settled into his stance.

Soi Fong simply stood there, holding the sword at her side. She felt like a rag, limp and wrung out. Tousen rushed at her; she began to parry reflexively, but much too slowly. He jabbed her stomach and she doubled over.

He spun around her, not giving her a chance to recover, and stabbed at the old burn on her lower back. She cried out in pain. He disengaged only for a moment, aiming a slash at her shoulder—and she blocked it, though only barely. He pulled away a few steps.

"She's gone, Soi Fong."

"I know," she murmured, "I can't find her anywhere."

"She betrayed you."

"She didn't take… she didn't take…"

"She doesn't care about her duty."

"What else is there for me?"

"Only justice."

Tousen attacked. Soi Fong parried, then parried again, and came out of the encounter unscathed.

"Your duty is to hunt her down, and bring her to justice."

He attacked again. Again Soi Fong parried. This time, she made a few offensive motions of her own, though none of them connected.

"She hurt you, but justice is kind. It will allow you to hurt her just as badly."

Soi Fong attacked this time. Under cover of some furious strokes, she kicked out at his kneecap; he was barely able to shift away in time.

"I will take command of Covert Ops. I will become a captain in the Thirteen Squads. I will become stronger than she. And then," breaking off in mid-sentence to launch an attack that ended in her blade at his neck, his at her stomach, "then, I will hunt down that fugitive and kill her."

They didn't say anything else to each other. They didn't have to.