A Resolve of Breaking Waves
A/N: ATLA/Bleach. Post Winter War for Bleach; assumes certain characters survive. About three years before canon for Avatar. I own nothing but a few crazy plot ideas.
He cut my hair.
The night wind blew cold off the northern sea, away from the tempering buffer of trees around Onsenzakura. Standing alone on the shore as the waves broke, Zuko shivered, and huddled a bit deeper in his cloak. He could keep himself warm with the breath of fire, he had-
But the wind was nothing, compared to the ice Uncle Iroh had slashed through his spirit.
He cut my hair.
He'd kept it together through the haze of their flight from the Fire Nation. Held on with the grim control he'd learned the days after his mother had vanished; say nothing, feel nothing, do nothing anyone could turn against you. Uncle wanted a quiet, acquiescent boy to drag out of the Fire Nation, and that was exactly what Zuko had given him.
Until now. When Uncle had drifted off to sleep, assuming he no longer needed to watch for an escape, and the night was quiet and empty.
The seashore wasn't home. But it was closer than anywhere else he could get. Would ever get, if Uncle had his way.
"Hair grows back."
Quiet. Like the shush of the waves. But unmistakably there.
I'm going insane. I'm going crazy, like my sister. Like Grandfather, a-and-
"No. I will not let that happen." Implacable as a rip current, pulling him where it wished. "You are not insane. You are not alone. You will never be alone again. You are only... grieving. Grief will pass. In its own time.
"Please. Tell me what is wrong."
"He cut my hair," Zuko whispered into the wind.
"Captain Unohana needed it to make the decoy gigai resemble you in such a short time-"
"That's not why he did it!"
"You don't... your body is a gift from your parents," Zuko began, haltingly. "You trim hair, sure. Shaving, that's for cleanliness, and soldiers can keep it short, but you don't - a noble doesn't-" His hand felt the ragged fringe where his phoenix tail had been, and he would not cry. The scar hurt less. Far less. "The only time - the only time..."
"Forsaking your clan. Or forsaking the world entirely." An unhappy rumble of water, like an echo of flash flood; odd counterpoint to the quiet rush of waves on the real world's shore. "I see."
"I'm not a spirit!" Zuko said fiercely. "I'm not a Fire Sage! I am the heir to the Dragon Throne!"
"The heir your uncle has declared dead."
"He won't even use my name anymore," Zuko got out, ignoring any dampness on his cheeks. It was salt spray. Nothing more. "It's just nephew, or that- that-"
"Alias," wave-rumble supplied.
"It's not an alias!"
Great. Shouting at the ocean. Please, Agni, let no one be close enough to hear that.
"No one is. You might not yet be able to sense human spirits, but I would. There is no one."
Oh. That was... good. If creepy.
That was... not the point.
"It's not an alias," Zuko whispered, staring up at the stars. "You don't... you don't know how he says it. How he looks at me. He's... trying to make that person me. Because I'm dead. He went to my funeral. All he sees is a spirit that was born into his family by accident. And spirits aren't supposed to be human. Or have families. So I'm not his family, I'm not a human anymore, and he's just wearing me down until I give up and let him take me to a temple and forget I was ever a person-"
"-And I won't, I'll die first, it'd be better, why didn't he just let me die if he wanted me dead - I'm supposed to be the heir, I'm supposed to lead our people-!"
"Zuko! Son of Ursa, and Fire Lord Ozai!"
It shook him. He tried not to shudder.
"I know who you are, Zuko. Whatever your uncle may plan, whatever he may call you - I know who you are."
Zuko winced. Agni, of all the things he didn't want to think about... "You know who I was."
"That, as well." Gentle, like wave-foam lapping at his toes. "I was born with you, centuries ago. I was born with you again, here. I was with you when you took your first, fighting breath, after that night of struggle. When you looked into Ursa's eyes the first time, and she loved us despite the pain. I wept with you in your pillow when she vanished. I reached with you to find the courage to face the next day. And the next, and the next, and all the pain you saw after. I have gloried in your resolve, to be the prince in truth, and learn what an heir of Fire should be.
"And I felt your horror, when you believed you had failed."
Zuko would not touch the scar. "I showed disrespect-"
"I am your sword!" Fury, fading into exasperated patience. "If you had meant to show disrespect to that bloody-minded, cold-hearted fire-leech who wishes to rule the world, you'd have leapt from that silly arena and burned the place down about their ears."
"But- but that's n-not-"
Comfort, seeping through his soul. Comfort he didn't deserve, like a kindly hand on his shoulder, pulling him into a hug-
He was caught in an embrace of sea and silk. And there wasn't anyone else here.
"Shh." Outside his own head, now, but the voice still held a rumble of waves. "I know your name. Just as you know mine."
"Nejibana," Zuko whispered. And looked up.
Spiky hair, blue and wild as the deep ocean. A face pale as his own, sea-green eyes glinting with wry humor. Silk robes that didn't belong here; like Rukia's, but dark as twilight, embroidered with silver-blue curls of waves and a sea eagle soaring over them. Striped scales of a venomous sea snake dangled from its talons, neck already broken where the eagle had brutally folded it in half-
"That's new," Zuko muttered. And tensed. He didn't want to remember. That other was so strong. So old. He didn't want to lose himself.
"You never will," Nejibana said gravely. "I know you. I will bear you up, should you falter." Those odd eyes creased in a chuckle. "It seemed appropriate. The snake of a creature that held us is dead. Even if Rukia did have to kill it twice."
"It is over," Nejibana said softly. "It is dead. Purified and gone, and we are free."
"At least I know those memories are from a monster," Zuko whispered.
He felt Nejibana's sigh in his own lungs as the spirit hugged him closer. "You are young, and wounded, and grieving. Be patient with yourself." Another breath. "And I think, perhaps - be a bit less patient with your uncle. We are warriors, not priests. A temple is no place for us."
"But if he just leaves me," Zuko started.
"Leaves us? In a temple? Hah!" The laugh tickled his bones. "First, my own, you are alive, not merely a spirit. Any wards they might set would be weakened. Second - you are young, but not untrained. I doubt there is any lock or guard a priest might set that you could not find a way through, even without me. Third, you are shinigami, and nothing merely mortal can hold Death's warriors if we do not wish to be held. And finally..." Fingers rubbed his back, comforting as sun-warmed water. "Yes, you are a noble lost in a foreign land, unsure of even how to barter for a cup of noodles. You know this, and you are right to be afraid. But so was Kaien, long ago, when Shiba fell from grace and landed in Rukongai. He survived. You survived. And so did Rukia, alone and lost on Rukongai's worst streets. I do not doubt she is learning the ways of this world even as we speak. She will return - and should we need her sooner, I will call Sode no Shirayuki." Nejibana rested his forehead against Zuko's, breath like sea wind. "If all else fails, my heart - we run."
Run. Oh Agni, it was tempting. He could feel the ghosts of other-memory clamoring with that word, shimmering wisps of the world blurring away at impossible speed...
Breathe in. Hold. Breathe out. And try to get his racing heart under control. "You make it sound so easy," Zuko whispered.
"Simple," Nejibana corrected. "Not easy." He eased his grip, glancing at the ocean. "What is that?"
Zuko peered through the night; dark sky and dark waves, lit by an odd blue reflection of starlight-
Not starlight. "Umi-hotaru," Zuko said, relieved; watching thin lines of blue light sweep across the ocean and vanish. "Little creatures. You usually see them in warmer water. The ones around the Fire Nation are a little more purple..." He wasn't homesick. He wasn't. "Must be some big fish out there, stirring things up... what are you doing?"
Reaching out a hand, Nejibana beckoned.
A slim wave curled out of the surf, carrying azure flashes of light like a shimmer of stars. It wove through the spirit's fingers, still flowing, glowing the soft blue of tales of waterbending healers...
Zuko groaned, irony like limon juice on his scar. "Great. My sword's a waterbender."
Nejibana tilted his head, and raised a brow.
Zuko's jaw dropped. "But - you - you!"
"Yes?" Nejibana's eyes glinted. Water twisted around his hand, braiding and coiling in glowing spirals.
"Water," Zuko said raggedly. Remembering, even if he didn't want to, fragments of how whispering power all too often ended with a youngster in the Academy. Or dead. "I couldn't call you, but you were still there. Your energy, and mine... every time I used my chi, I used yours, and you're water. You're why my firebending is so- so-"
"Unstable?" Nejibana suggested.
Zuko took a step back, shaking his head. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"Why should I hand you the key to your own soul?" Nejibana's gaze was unyielding. "Do you want to earn your strength, son of Ozai? Or would you rather just get lucky?"
"I don't need luck," Zuko said; sure, even if he was shaking inside. "I don't want it. I was born fighting. I'll fight." He swallowed, and tried to think. "I need to - to figure out how to separate what I'm doing. Your energy from mine. If I can do that..."
"Then fire should come to your call, freely," Nejibana nodded. "I have some ideas."
"Hakuda?" Zuko guessed.
"Forms meant to channel reiatsu should let you channel me," Nejibana agreed. "I have seen Lady Shihouin fight. It should work." The spirit smiled, relieved. "If so - then perhaps it will not matter that we cannot use shikai without drawing unwelcome visitors. You will still have my strength. All that I can give. Always."
Zuko swallowed the lump in his throat. "How can you... I let you down. I got us killed-"
"Enough." Water whipped back to the sea, as Nejibana rested a hand on his shoulder. "I, too, grieved Miyako and Sattouboufou. I wanted their killer. I wanted him dead." Wavelets trembling about his sandals shivered, and retreated. "We were grieving, and angry, and we made a mistake." A wry laugh. "And yes, it got us killed." A genteel, casual shrug; it is of consequence only to lesser mortals. "We will have to do better next time."
Zuko snorted. "As in, run away?"
"Or at least call for aid," Nejibana nodded, unperturbed. "That is the strength of the shinigami. Hollows are monsters, who exist and perish alone. We are human. We fight together."
I'm not alone. Zuko drew a deep breath, and breathed out the fear. Nejibana is here, and Rukia...
Rukia still carries my heart. If I need help, if I can't face Uncle's schemes any longer - she'll come.
It was like dropping lead weights to the sand. Even that rustle of other in the back of his mind quieted.
Cast off your fear. Face forward, and strike!
Captain Ukitake's words to Kaien. His to Rukia. Hers to whatever poor terrified recruit she ended up dragging through training, kami help the bastard. The shinigami had held their traditions over two thousand years, and he felt their shadows behind him like an anchor in a storm.
...Then again, given the Avatar statues in the temples hinted at millions of years, a few thousand wasn't so impressive anymore.
I could just go to sleep right here.
No, bad idea. He'd done that when he was much younger, on Ember Island. He never would have believed where sand could get when you weren't watching it. Ouch.
And I want to try this. "All right," Zuko stated. "Where do we start?"
Nejibana shimmered, and vanished. "Opening stance."
Right, beginning position, move - why was Nejibana laughing at him?
No. Not at me, Zuko realized, surprised.
"No one around you laughed at themselves?" Nejibana's voice was like a warm ruffling of his hair. "What a monstrous place you lived in." The zanpakutou sobered. "This isn't bending, Zuko. Tell me why."
Er. Um. Damn, it was like one of Uncle's questions.
But then, Uncle didn't mind if he fumbled his way toward the answer. At least, in anything but firebending.
"Bending is what we learned by watching other creatures touch the elements," Zuko began. "The first firebenders learned from dragons. Our forms are based on how they move. How they bend fire." He paused. "Airbenders learned from the sky bison, Uncle says. Earthbenders from the badger-moles; the stories say they can be huge. Waterbenders-" He hesitated. "They didn't learn from a creature. They watched the moon and the tides. Or so Uncle Iroh says. How does he know this stuff? It's not like other benders want to talk to us."
"A good question," Nejibana agreed. "One we should explore, later. For now - how is hakuda different?"
"It's... not imitating something," Zuko realized. "It's fighting. Without your sword."
"Exactly." A satisfied nod. "We are shinigami. We are human spirits. That is the core of our power. Now. What is the opening stance?"
Simple. Practical. As if you were walking down the street. Because that might be just what you were doing, if something went wrong.
Zuko stood, right foot slightly forward.
"So. Exactly so. Be easy in your bones. Be gentle. Imagine the swordsman's charge. You do not wish to hurt him, but you must survive him..."
Timing. Picture the sword raised, a gleam of light off steel as he stepped right and out from under the strike, stepping in again behind as blade and wielder rushed past-
Sandals sloshed in surf, and Zuko blinked.
"Hiraki. An opening movement, to simply avoid." Nejibana sounded intrigued. "There are more aggressive options. Why choose that one?"
"You said we don't want to hurt him," Zuko shrugged, stepping back out of the water. Wet socks. Ugh. "If somebody went after me in the palace like that, odds are he'd be out cold. With a dent in the wall, shaped like his head."
A wave-bright grin. "I like the way you think."
"The more I know, the more I wish we had burned that place down."
"What? No! It wasn't like that," Zuko protested. "I just- I wasn't good enough. Why would anybody want to waste their time hammering stuff through my skull when Azula was always going to be better-"
"Stop. Now." A rumbling roar, like waves from a distant storm. "I do not waste my time. You know how I am called."
Rankle the seas and skies. He could hear it, echoing from other-memory. He could all but taste it, the lightning-crackle of shikai unleashed-
"The seas and skies," Nejibana growled. "All of them. I am not a summer's breeze. I am not a candle-flame. I am storm, tsunami, the howling tempest! We crush our enemies! We drown them! We shatter them in breaking waves!
"I am Nejibana. And you have the strength to bear me."
He didn't feel strong. He never had.
But I have to try. Grimly, Zuko faced the water.
"The sea," Nejibana said dryly, "is not your enemy."
...He'd stop blushing. One of these days. The sea was a firebender's enemy. You could never turn your back on it.
I have to try.
Damp sand under his sandals, waiting for the next wave. The thick scent of sea-wrack hung in the air; smells land-dwellers thought were the sea, never knowing the clean, clear scent far from land...
My chi is fire. Nejibana's is water. Hold back the fire. Use the water.
Don't think. Just move.
Simple hiraki. Toward the land.
...Nothing. Only the shush of waves behind him.
Simple, not easy. Zuko huffed a frustrated breath. Again.
It was like trying to scoop up dry sand with open fingers. Most of his chi was held, and most of Nejibana's loose. But the rest slipped through and mingled.
You didn't get pinching candles lit the first time, either. Again.
He wasn't a genius. But if he had one gift, it was stubbornness. Stars wheeled, the night deepened, and he was going to make this work...
It was slippery. Counterintuitive; shinigami and zanpakutou were supposed to work together, not separately. But for one breath, he had it.
A deceptively gentle move, to gracefully whirl an attacker aside. Harmless on the training grounds. In the real world, sometimes fatal - especially if you whirled an irresistible force into an immovable wall.
Glimmering blue twisted with him.
"Yes! There. Again."
It was like trying to make those weird hand gestures the Fire Sages had made him practice for Grandfather's funeral. Muscle and bone just didn't want to.
"Hold the form in your mind. Remember."
And for one heart-stopping instant, he felt the wave. The pull of the tide, the push of the wind; the dragging annoyance of the shore, resisting its gnawing. Spirit-flickers of countless little lives surrounded by water...
Seawater swirled as he stepped inland, Nejibana's dance of waves and death.
"Enough for now. Let go."
Panting, Zuko wobbled on the sand, every muscle trembling. "Ow."
"If it were easy, they'd have to let anyone be a lieutenant."
Oh kami. No. No way. "...Ow?"
"Though you're nowhere near that level."
Oh good. He didn't remember exactly what a lieutenant was in Nejibana's world, but he had the distinct impression it was scary-
I'm not him. I'm not the genius you're looking for. I'm not.
But he'd argue with Nejibana about that later. For now - palm up, Zuko breathed out.
Fire blazed to life in his hand. Burning steadily, without the wavering red flickers he was used to.
Letting the flames die, Zuko plodded back up the beach. He had socks and sandals to dry, too few hours left to grab much sleep, and an uncle to face down. Oh, Agni.
In the morning. I'll talk to him in the morning. I can show him I'm a firebender, not a spirit. I'm me.
It'll work out.
A sea spirit. Iroh folded the spyglass up, unwilling to watch the waves twist to an inhuman will any longer. A sea spirit has taken my nephew's body.
Well. Taken wasn't, perhaps, the right word. He wasn't sure what word might be. Though if he ever encountered the power that had let part of the ocean be reborn in human shape, words would be the gentlest thing he would give it.
My nephew is dead.
He'd watched the hair burn with that false body of the spirits' making, taking what had been human and Zuko with it. He'd grieved. And avoided looking at his niece and brother as the pyre raged, afraid he would see the glee in their eyes and do something... drastic.
Since Lu Ten's death, he had honored the spirits. He could not leave this one at his brother's mercy. No matter how painful it was to see the boy. Well and whole, only red scars like finger-tracks from eye to hairline, where Zuko's face had been little more than seared flesh and bone-
Iroh stomped on the nightmare memory, with the precision honed by years of war. He would not look.
My nephew is dead.
Iroh had known it from the moment the fire struck. The moment he'd felt a shuddering in the world, as spirits moved. A swirl of black; an impossible white fire that had knocked Ozai back and blasted out half the arena wall...
He didn't remember how he'd gotten onto the dueling ground to gather up seared body and dazed, black-robed spirit. He did recall a glimpse of wide, eerily violet eyes, and something the white of mourning. And then the world had blurred.
Spirits. Why interfere then? Why not before my nephew-
He would not think of it.
He believed the spirit meant no harm. He did. But it had no place here. Not among humans. And the sooner this... Huo Shan Ti accepted that, the better.
Really, the spirit was already taking harm from life among humans. Why else would a sea spirit let an ice spirit call it volcano hawk?
Shaking his head, Iroh slipped quietly back into his room, so he could feign sleep when Huo Shan Ti returned. He didn't like deceiving a spirit, but... it was for the best. The shaman would come soon.
Be quick, Bi Mo. I do not know how many more days of this I can take.
Three days. Three long, interminable days, faced with a smile as armor and good manners as his attacking flames. The spirit seemed to be trying to behave. Proof enough it wasn't Zuko.
But at last Huo Shan Ti was out and away in a nearby clearing, and Iroh stood in their villa doorway, watching a gray-haired Earth shaman's careful approach. Step, pause, and step; the closer Bi Mo came down the gravel path, the more often he stopped and frowned, as if catching scents on the wind.
Finally he shrugged, brown robe wrinkling against his pack straps, and crossed the last yards to the threshold at a brisk walk. "Ye could not come over the border, old friend?"
"The spirit still thinks it is of the Fire Nation. And it is very wary," Iroh said dryly. Old friend, indeed. The shaman had no love of the Fire Nation, and they both knew it. Though he tolerated a fellow White Lotus, and the friendly words would disarm any listening neighbors. "Did we cross into enemy territory, it would surely suspect something." He sighed. "And it is a sea spirit. I was afraid to take it too far from the water."
"A sea spirit, ye say?" Bi Mo's voice creaked like a rusty gate as he stepped inside; too much ceremonial smoke, was all the old mountain shaman would say if asked. "Ye said before it seemed but a too-lively ghost. Such do happen, wi' the snow-women involved. Though most times the poor bastard thinks he's by a warm fire when his ghost-flesh is frozen as winter." He raised a gray brow. "Be ye sure it's a snow-woman wi' him?"
"I have seen her conjure flakes from the very air," Iroh said gravely. "By her face, she could be a woman of my own people. But those eyes... have you ever seen a mortal with eyes like amethysts?"
"Nay. Nay, that I've not." The shaman sighed, looking out at the path. "And the signs be not right for a ghost. The wee things of the earth, the birds - they flinch not, and live as though naught but living humans walk here."
Iroh tried not to wince. If even a ghost of Zuko had remained... "I need your help, spirit-friend."
"Do ye?" Bi Mo gave him an ancient, hard look. "It must be hard to see what ye see; mortal flesh, wi'out a mortal spirit in it. One ye knew. But the spirits have their reasons."
"Even with reason, a spirit cannot abandon its nature," Iroh argued. "It is a sea spirit. I saw it on the shore, when it thought I was not watching." He paused. "And it is trying to learn firebending."
That, above all, had been the final match to the pyre of his hopes. He knew his nephew's firebending. Knew it in every imperfect, limping, sputtering detail. That pure, clear-burning flame...
It is not Zuko.
"Hmm." Bi Mo rubbed gnarled knuckles against his beard, thinking. "Aye. That does happen, time to time. The spirits never do wrap their minds around what a human is. They only know we sometimes do what they cannot. And time to time, they grow jealous." He shrugged. "Where is it now?"
Iroh frowned, waving a hand around the villa's main room. "I had thought you would work here."
"Sun'll weaken a sea-child. Make it easier," Bi Mo said practically. "And trapping a spirit can be a bit hard on built things. The sooner we unravel it from the body, the better." He eyed Iroh. "So. Where?"
This isn't working.
The sun was shining, the sky was a punishingly clear blue, and the birds were singing the courtships of early spring. The world, obviously, did not give a damn that everything was going wrong.
Rukia chasing him around the clearing with a polished wooden stick, leaving casual bruises with every blow, was just icing on the cake.
She's so fast.
He ought to be faster. He wasn't. He ought to be able to block her. He couldn't. He ought to be better than this-
Yeah, right. Who do I think I am? Azula?
And that hurt. It hurt so much, because Uncle had given up. Uncle had told the world he was dead, which made Azula the heir - and Uncle knew what she was like. He knew!
I tried so hard. I tried! How can you give up? How can you leave our people to what she'll be as Fire Lord? How can you make me give up-
Blinding pain. His right knee folded like wet paper, and Zuko tasted dirt.
"Stay down. You've broken-"
No! Have to get up! Zuko pushed at the ground, fighting to breathe. Get up or there'll be pain - get up or get burned-
"Partner! Stay down!"
Deadlock. Pushed up on hands and the knee that wasn't screaming at him, Zuko froze. Stared into wide, startled violet eyes.
"This is Rukia, Zuko. Rukia. Not Azula. She didn't mean to hurt you. You know that."
No. He didn't. Because he tried not to remember, kami knew he didn't want to remember, but he could still feel spirit-steel sliding through flesh...
Slowly, every move visible, Rukia set her bokken down. Picked her way across the clearing, bare toes flexing in the grass. Knelt down, and reached for his leg. "It's all right," the shinigami said levelly. "You know I scored top of my class in kidou."
No. He didn't know. It felt true, but he didn't know.
Yet the green glow was washing away the pain, and as long as he didn't listen to the little crunches as she put his kneecap back together, he could stop thinking. Just for a little while.
"You have no focus."
Like always. Breathe. In and out. Get ready for the next strike-
"I think that's enough for one day."
No! He couldn't stop now. He had to get better. Had to find a way to beat her, had to get his life back-
Winter-killed grass was smoldering under his hands.
No control. No control, no skill, no focus - you're only dangerous to yourself, Azula crooned in memory. You'll never be a firebender, never be the true heir-
Cold water splashed him in the face.
Dripping, Zuko sputtered. Where - how did she-?
"It might be better not to ask," Nejibana mused. "I don't think that bucket's empty."
No. Not by the way Rukia shifted on her feet, counterbalancing a slosh inside iron-banded wood. Obviously targeting a second splash.
"She is not your enemy, Zuko. Tell her."
Tell Rukia he'd failed? Again? Kami, no.
"Who hurt you?" Rukia asked abruptly.
Zuko tried not to let his jaw drop. Is she kidding?
Rukia frowned, looking almost lost. "How old are you?"
A question that made sense. Kind of. "Thirteen," Zuko managed. Old enough to duel. Old enough to - no. He wasn't going to think about it.
"Thirteen." She folded onto the ground next to him, eyes dark. "You're not even as old as Ichigo was."
She shook her head. "I'm pushing too hard. I should go, you need to rest-"
He didn't have a clue how he'd moved that fast. He didn't know why he'd grabbed her, it was rude, you never touched a lady not of your family against her wishes-
But his arms were wrapped around her and his face was buried in her shoulder and he was babbling, he had to sound like a crybaby idiot...
"Don't leave me alone," Zuko managed, choking back the tears. "Please. You're the only one who says my name anymore. You and Nejibana. Uncle won't - he doesn't-" Oh kami, he was that close to wailing. "Please."
I'll get better, I'll try harder, I'll-
No. He wasn't going to promise anything like that. He wasn't going to lie to Rukia. He was trying. If that wasn't enough...
"Rukia would never be so shallow as to abandon a friend wounded on the field," Nejibana said firmly. "Be strong, Zuko. Believe. I know it is hard."
Rukia's hand was stroking his wet hair, like soothing a kitten-owlet dragged in from a storm. "Zuko. Your uncle won't use your name? Even away from other people?"
"He doesn't think it's me." Zuko gulped. "I'm trying. Nejibana and I, we figured out why my firebending blows up, and I showed Uncle I can do it right now. I asked him to teach me. He always wanted to teach me. But now he - he doesn't want me firebending. At all. Like I'm not supposed to anymore..."
Rukia pried him off her shoulder enough to raise a dark brow at him. "Your spirit arts blow up on you?"
"Not kidou. Bending." Zuko swallowed, trying to yank his tangle of emotions under some kind of control. "I bend fire. But Nejibana's water. The energies got all mixed up. Get all mixed up," he admitted. "Hakuda helps me keep them apart. For a little bit."
Rukia blinked. Leaned back a little, intrigued. "Show me."
They weren't near the ocean. But water was water, right?
"It should be," Nejibana agreed, as Zuko disentangled himself and rose. "Calm. Remember your stance. Flow..."
Keep it simple. Frontal strike. Entering throw.
The water still in the bucket twisted. And he suddenly had a dripping wet shinigami.
And Nejibana was giggling. No help there. "I'm-"
Rukia held up a hand; stop. Stood, and swiped her drenched bangs out of her face. "You did that in three days?"
"It took a while to figure out," Zuko said, still waiting for the explosion. "I know how to fight - I'm not as good as Uncle, but I know - but - hakuda's a lot different from bending."
"It is," Rukia said thoughtfully. "Though I've seen your soldiers, and they use the same techniques... but you're not a soldier, are you? And those in armor who do use fire - they aren't carrying weapons. Any of them."
"Fire is the superior element," Zuko said stiffly. "Those blessed with its power should use no lesser weapon. That's what-" He swallowed dryly. "What the Fire Lord says."
"Your father," Rukia murmured. Nodded toward the bokken. "Do you agree with him?"
He's my father. But- "What if you're in the middle of the ocean?" Zuko burst out. "What if it's night, and you just don't have enough chi to fight? What if you're buried under the earth, and there's no air for your flame? Earthbenders do that." He swallowed. "Cousin Lu Ten died that way. And after that... everything went wrong."
There was a tilt to Rukia's head that he somehow knew meant she'd be pestering him about that later. In gory detail. But she only nodded again. "This is my fault."
"What? No, Rukia-"
"I remembered who you were. I forgot to recall who you are," the shinigami said deliberately. "Whatever your spirit might remember, your body is human. And you have no sword-training." She stalked up to him, violet glaring up into gold. "Next time, tell me no one's taught you a technique!"
"I - um - okay?" Zuko tried. "I... have no idea how you're supposed to use those sticks. Bokken. I know, you show Azula anything once and she's got it, but - and I feel like I'm supposed to know..."
"We'll start with zanjutsu basics later," Rukia stated. "For now, show me that again. What else can you do with water?"
It's okay? Zuko whispered to Nejibana. When I knocked Mai into the fountain, she was really upset.
"Rukia grew up in Inuzuri. She's above anything as petty as noble dignity," Nejibana chuckled. "If you'd knocked a flaming apple off her head, she'd have just dunked you back."
Zuko didn't smile. But for the first time in what felt like forever, he felt like he wanted to.
First things first. She'd asked, and demonstrating techniques was serious business. So... uh-oh. "I think... I don't know how to get it out of the ground," Zuko confessed. "Can we get some more?"
"There's a spring over there." Rukia waved a graceful hand toward a faint path through the trees. "Nice little spot. I like that basin someone's carved of the stone. Though really, it's too high up to do laundry, what was the carver thinking-"
"You stole a shrine bucket?" Zuko yelped.
"They didn't have it chained down," Rukia sniffed primly, nose in the air haughty as any Kuchiki born. "Anyone could have walked off with it. We'll have to inform them of their appalling lack of attention to security."
"You're going to get me killed all over again," Zuko said, stunned. And snickered. Despite himself.
Rukia had shot him a sharp glance, rising on the balls of her feet, hands just a little white-knuckled. Then eased, as she blinked at him. "Don't laugh about it! I'm not going to get you killed."
"Not - not that," Zuko managed between giggles. Hysterical. He could hear it. But what the hell. "You! Spirit guardian! We give the bucket back, and - heh, oh kami - sages will never believe... savior of souls and thief of buckets!"
It wasn't that funny. He knew it wasn't. But it'd been so long since anything had been funny...
"Just - don't joke about it," Rukia whispered. "I failed you once. I don't - I won't fail you again."
The giggles died, as Zuko blinked at her. "You... think you...?"
He could see Rukia's terrified, tear-streaked face, as her sword slid home. He could feel it. "You never failed me."
"You say that." Rukia's voice was flat. "But you don't know." She glanced at him, and looked away. "You don't remember."
It was true. He didn't. He didn't want to; Kaien had been old, and brave, and gods, so strong. What did he have that could stand up to that?
But she's hurting, Zuko thought. He knew that icy determination not to care, not to feel, not to ever let anyone see that you were bleeding. That you just wanted to lie down and die, so it wouldn't hurt anymore.
She's hurting like I was, after Mom - after she was gone, and no one would tell me...
And no one could tell Rukia. Except him.
Nejibana. Help me.
The flood crashed over him.
-Oh gods it's crawling inside me, it's eating me, it ate Miyako-
-Captain? Captain, stop playing around and kill this thing! I can't fight it any more, I can't-
-Kuchiki! No! Run! Damn you, you Hollow bastard, I won't let you!-
-Just a sliver of will and control, just enough to shift the angle so the Hollow's leap sliced into steel-
Rukia was gripping his shoulders as he shuddered on the ground, gasping for air. Pale as she'd been that horrible night. But this time - this time - there was no blood.
"You were convulsing," she said shakily. "What-"
Zuko gripped her hand on his shoulder, feeling thin fingers chill with fear. "You never failed me, Kuchiki," he said hoarsely. "Get that through your head, you hear me? I was proud, and I was stupid. I wanted revenge for the dead so much..." He sucked in a breath, and shook his head. "I wanted to rip that thing apart for our dead, when I should have been thinking about the living. I screwed up, Kuchiki. Not you. I almost got you killed. I almost got Ukitake-taichou killed. It was my fault."
"No," Rukia got out, voice shaking. "No, I - I ran away..."
"Idiot!" He shook her hand, trying to shake in sense. "That's what I wanted you to do!"
"Use your training! Think!" He planted a hand on the top of her head-
Not tall enough, don't have the leverage-
Violet eyes met his anyway, dazed.
"A Hollow just ate a lieutenant and incapacitated a captain," Zuko said harshly. "It is an unseated officer's duty to do what will prevent that Hollow from escaping to cause more damage. Which means running like hell to get the Eleventh, so they can tear it to shreds!"
Her mouth moved, but no sound came out.
"You ran from a fight you couldn't win," Zuko said quietly. "You were getting away. So somebody would know what happened. How the Hollow attacked people. What it could do. How it destroyed a zanpakutou. So someone could back off, ring it with kidou-users, and blast it to smithereens. You did the right thing." He managed a wry smile. "Told you. I'm the one who screwed up."
Tears welled up in her eyes, and she clung to him like a drowning woman. Silent sobs wracked her, that hurt so much more than wailing; and all he wanted to do was tell the kid shh, it'll be okay...
Kid. She's not - I'm not - Nejibana, help!
Like dogging a hatch before the ship could flood. He felt cold and wet and shaking inside. The Hollow. Ukitake-taichou. Kuchiki. My student. My officer.
I shouldn't remember.
"I will hold you. I will never let you drown. But I will not take from you what you have gained. We paid for those memories in blood and pain. They are ours."
Good thing he hadn't looked for anything else.
"You stupid... had to watch..." The small fist was pounding his shoulder, painfully strong. "How could you do that to us? To Ukitake-taichou? We needed you so much."
Just let her cry. She should have cried years ago. "I'm sorry," Zuko started to say.
It felt like a door slamming.
Rukia jumped as if she'd been zapped with storm-static, diving for a bokken and rolling to her feet-
Almost to her feet. She shook her head, as if trying to shake off a blow, breathing labored. "Some kind of - ward-"
Bare-handed, fire flickering in his veins, Zuko stared at a gray-haired stranger in Earth robes. And Uncle, standing behind him, grim as mountains.
Though why wasn't as important as the fact that Rukia's pack was outside a silver-flickering line of force. With her spirit-glove. And that never-sufficiently-cursed Chappy.
We can't get out of our bodies. Rukia can't summon most of her power, and I - I don't remember mine...
"Ah." Set-faced, the stranger nodded. "Now that I have yer attention, spirits-"
"I'm not a spirit!" Zuko snarled. There was a headache building behind his eyes, but who cared about that when Rukia couldn't breathe? "You're hurting her!" Why isn't it hurting me?
"Because," Nejibana murmured, "you are not a spirit. At least, not one without mortal flesh to guard you."
And Rukia was in a gigai. A spirit creation. Oh, kami.
"Any ward can be broken. Feel the power. Find the source!"
"I know ye be a mite confused. That happens, when ye're away from what ye truly are..."
There. Not one source, but eight. Near ground level, in a rough circle around them. He must have walked around us while Rukia was making sure I was okay.
Which meant this spirit-worker had heard everything. That Uncle had heard everything, heard Rukia grieving, and could still do this-!
"Ye're not even listening." A sigh. "Oma and Shu, sea-child, ye need to face the-"
Fire blazed from clenched fists. Pure. Clear-burning. He only had to decide where to aim it.
"Don't!" Rukia's breath quickened. "It's not that bad. He just caught me off guard. I can break this."
"I do not doubt ye'll try," the elder murmured. "We've dealt with yer like before, snow-woman."
"No." Zuko stepped between Rukia and betrayal. "You haven't." Nejibana.
"I don't think either of us wants to run." Waves were cold; angry. "But there is no need for us to fight alone."
Call. Call anyone who'll hear. Zuko drew in a snarling breath. But no one's hurting her anymore!
Funny thing about wards. If you didn't build them otherwise, they tended to lapse into the form that required the least energy. Which meant a dome. Great form, efficient, scattering an opponent's energy across a yielding curve. Perfect... if you were warding something out.
A fiery, spinning kick - and spirit-energy shattered.
Zuko breathed, glaring defiance even as his head rang. Standing like he didn't care about the eight slips of warded paper now merrily burning to ash, as Rukia dove for her pack and pulled on a skull-marked glove.
"Fool!" A low hiss; he didn't have to look to know Rukia was glaring at him. "I could have shattered it! Your uncle would never have-"
"Thanks for the thought." Zuko didn't take his eyes off familiar dark gold. "But it looks like I'm already in trouble with my uncle."
Iroh shook his head. "Bi Mo?"
The elder glanced at him. At dying ashes. And, finally, at Zuko. "What sort of spirit are ye, exactly?"
Zuko saw red. "Damn it! I'm not a-"
"I think," a thankfully familiar voice interrupted, "there's been a misunderstanding. Hasn't there."
Captain. Zuko let out a relieved breath as a white-haired man in Kyoshi blue robes stepped into view. Finally. Someone with sense.
...Though given he seemed to recall Ukitake-taichou holding Rukia back after Nejibana had shattered, he wasn't as sure about that as he'd like.
Uncle was staring, as if he'd fished for a salmon and pulled in a sea serpent. "Who... what are you?"
Zuko hid a start of surprise. How could Uncle not know?
"Captains avoid exposing humans to their reiatsu," Nejibana reminded him. "Even with a limiter, our captain was... distressed, when he saw how badly you'd been injured."
Translation, there would have been sparks flying, fragile items flung about, and enough spirit pressure to hurt or possibly kill an ordinary soul. Not good.
"Unohana-taichou wasn't much calmer," Nejibana agreed. "They let Rukia deal with your uncle while they healed you. I doubt Iroh has seen either of them."
Oh, really? Zuko hid a smirk. This might be worth the headache.
Bi Mo stared at Ukitake. Then Rukia. Then him. Squeezed his eyes shut, and shook like a man trying to shake off a nightmare. "Ye play a mean game of Pai Sho, Iroh. And ye're always one to make a man's life more interesting. But ye are not paying me enough for this."
"A most unfortunate choice of words," Ukitake murmured. "Iroh. Why, in all the worlds, would you engage a shaman to bind your nephew?"
Uncle looked pained, but uncommonly stern. "Whatever you may be, my nephew was Fire Nation. His spirit is not - cannot be - that of a waterbender."
Ukitake raised a dark brow.
"I was working with Nejibana," Zuko got out. Every night. Oh, damn it.
"Four spirits?" The shaman looked aghast.
A feral gleam lit Rukia's eyes. Zuko gave her a dark look. "Whatever you're thinking of? Don't."
"But where are our manners?" Rukia trilled. "We haven't all been properly introduced!"
"He might not survive your introduction," Ukitake murmured. "Bi Mo. There are more than four spirits here. As you'd know, if you only counted."
The shaman gave him a narrow look.
Ukitake sighed. "That I have to remind a shaman of this... you are a spirit, Bi Mo. Every human being is a spirit." He paused. "Living humans simply have a body, as well."
"And do ye say the sea-spirit in that body was born to it?" Bi Mo said dryly.
"He was," Ukitake said, unflinching. "I knew him in another life. But he's not a sea-spirit. In this life, he is... Iroh's nephew." The shinigami captain eyed Iroh. "And you're frightening him. Badly."
At least Uncle looked guilty about it. But not convinced. Damn it. "Uncle, it's me," Zuko insisted. "I don't know what I did. I don't know what you saw. But I didn't die." I think. Never mind, keep going. "You wanted me to stay quiet, and I didn't have any better ideas, and F-father tried to kill me..." Breathe. Just... breathe. "Nejibana's a weapon." And my partner. And part of my soul. "Someone wants me dead, and my firebending's always been a wreck. What would you do?"
Because if Uncle Iroh expected him to apologize for learning to use Nejibana's power, his most honored uncle could respectfully sit on an iceberg and freeze. And if Uncle expected him to stop-
"Let's not swear to anything drastic," Nejibana murmured. "Yet."
"Well, these should be a bit less unsettling to the neighbors for practicing," Ukitake said cheerfully, taking a long, suspiciously shaped bundle off his shoulder. "Much of this place isn't like home at all... but I found some very skilled sword-smiths on Kyoshi Island."
Rukia took the weight of the bag, and violet eyes lit up like New Year's.
Katana, Zuko realized, feeling a thrill of his own. The captain found katana in this world!
...Meaning Rukia had even more reason to chase him around clearings laughing like a madwoman. Oh, joy.
"Don't break anything," Ukitake advised, smiling. Stepped back, and firmly gripped each of the other men by a shoulder. "Now, gentlemen... I think we need to talk."
Air blurred, and they were gone.
"Show-off," Sougyo no Kotawari's double-voice teased, as the two humans reacted to the fact that they were now standing on the very edge of the cliff the Sakura Falls plunged over. A good mile, at least, from his officer and former lieutenant.
Well, yes, Juushirou Ukitake thought back. Sometimes, you just have to make an impression. "Really, Iroh. What did you think you were doing? You've terrified the boy. He loves you, his world has fallen apart, and all he wants is for someone he trusts to act like a sane human being. And you try to bind and banish him?" Without looking, Juushirou pointed at the sense of Bi Mo's spiritual power; not as much as many humans in Karakura, but more than enough to cause trouble. "Don't think you can sneak off while we're discussing this. I'll believe you didn't know what you were tampering with. But your trap hurt them. And you will not make the same mistake twice."
The shaman froze. "What are ye?"
Better to explain, I think. "I am a shinigami," Juushirou answered. "A guardian and protector of the restless dead."
Iroh's face was carefully neutral. Which all but shouted that he still believed Zuko was among those restless dead. Kami, what do I have to do to convince him?
"So the spirit-lass is one of yer kind," Bi Mo thought out loud. "And not a snow-woman?"
"We have... different kinships with the elements than you do," Juushirou said carefully. "So, yes. She is one of my people. One of my officers, in fact."
"And the boy?" Bi Mo said warily. "E'en though he be alive?"
Juushirou sighed into the silence. "Yes."
"Ah." Taking a step back, Bi Mo leaned against a tree far enough from the edge to be stable. "Well. 'Tis about time!"
Juushirou arched an eyebrow. Noting, with no little amusement, that Iroh looked equally dubious. "I beg your pardon?"
"Mortal flesh and bone has searched for the Avatar nigh a hundred years," the shaman said in a huff. "Could mortals find him, he'd have been found. 'Tis more than time the spirits took a hand! He's as much your kin as ours." He gave Iroh a bitter smirk. "And 'tis one of Sozin's line who pays the price to carry their aid. Fair, and more than fair."
Iroh went very still. "I thought you an ally, Bi Mo."
"Do ye forget I am a shaman, first and always?" A bony finger jabbed toward the firebender. "Yer grandfather left Avatar Roku to die. Did ye think the spirits would never take their revenge?"
"You're wrong," Juushirou broke in swiftly, seeing Iroh pale. "This has nothing to do with revenge. Souls die. Souls are reborn. If Zuko had not come so close to violent death, he would have lived his life as a normal human. None of us would ever have known otherwise. That this happened-" he winced inside, Rukia's brief investigation of the royal family had been enough to know this would go over badly. "This was only bad luck. Chance."
"Naught that chances on Sozin's cursed line is luck." The shaman's gaze was unyielding as the Commander-General's. "A century past, they shattered the world. And now, spirit, ye are caught in the wreckage. Like the rest of us." He gave Iroh a dismissive glance. "Do not call me again, unless ye've found the Avatar."
Juushirou knew murder when he saw it in gold eyes. He caught Iroh by the shoulders, before skilled fingers held more than a shimmer of heat. "It's not worth it."
"It would be, for a moment," Iroh grumbled. Watched the shaman walk off, and took a deliberate, meditative breath. "You swear this is no revenge of the spirits?"
"I can't swear to that," Juushirou admitted. "We know so little about the spirits of this world. But I can tell you that if by some ill chance this is someone's revenge, it has nothing to do with the shinigami." He gave Iroh a sober look. "I knew Kaien Shiba as well as my own family. He would never have willingly participated in an act of revenge on an innocent."
"Innocent?" Iroh said skeptically.
Juushirou raised a dark brow. "Are you your grandfather reborn, then, with full knowledge of your crimes?"
"As I was a young man when Fire Lord Sozin died, I think that unlikely." Iroh's smile had a wry edge. "So. You say Zuko is himself, and a firebender. Yet your young lady wishes him to have a spirit's training."
"He needs it," Juushirou said plainly. Keenly aware this man had been a general, and survived a war that left Aizen's in the dust for sheer brutality. "So long as Nejibana rested in his soul, the spirits saw only a normal human. But a zanpakutou protects it shinigami. When your brother tried to kill Zuko-"
Truth. It's the only way I'll get through to him.
"When your brother's blow did kill Zuko, it shattered the chain of fate binding him to his body," Juushirou said quietly. "In that instant, Nejibana was no longer bound by mortal limitations. And he struck." He gave the general his own sardonic smile. "Fire Lord Ozai must have an extremely strong spirit. I've seen a Pale Fire Crash vaporize souls with the power Zuko put behind it. It's a wonder any of the arena survived."
Iroh frowned. "You said-"
"Zuko is alive," Juushirou cut him off. I'll pay for that later. "But for one moment, before Nejibana could strike, and then force his spirit to remember how to heal... yes. He was dead." The shinigami sighed. "His chain of fate is gone, Iroh. That cannot be undone, not while he still lives as Zuko. He is a shinigami, his power is no longer bound, and he must learn to use it. Before someone gets hurt."
Iroh regarded him for a long moment. "You lied to Bi Mo."
"Technically." And he wasn't at all ashamed. Try to bind my officers, will you? "You weren't entirely wrong. A spirit is possessing Zuko's body." He paused, smile wry. "That spirit just happens to be Zuko."
Iroh blinked at him. Shook his head, and rubbed at what had to be a splitting headache.
"I know," Juushirou said honestly. "Zuko is not the first living shinigami I've dealt with, and it's still startling. Humans and spirits aren't supposed to blur the line this way-"
Iroh raised a hand. Quiet. Let me think.
Patient, the shinigami waited.
Iroh let out a thoughtful breath. "He was dead. And is not. So what will happen now?"
"He'll live," Juushirou answered. "Like any other human." And one day he will die, and we'll see if your spirit world has the sense to let him go home. "But the spirits know he is not blind to them."
"And those who can see them are never free of their designs," Iroh grumbled. "That, I well know." His eyes narrowed, and Juushirou could almost see calculations falling into place. "What do you gain from this?"
Time to be blunt. "Captain-level shinigami are as rare as master firebenders," Juushirou stated. "It would be criminal to leave him untrained, prey for any hostile spirit that wishes to eat him. Kuchiki would kill me." Both of them would. Now that Byakuya had gotten past caring what the nobles thought of his adoptive sister, the young captain was as fiercely protective as Rukia herself.
Admittedly, Ichigo had made things easier. Not by rescuing Rukia from Byakuya's self-imposed vow - though that had helped - but by such an outrageously flagrant disregard for noble stupidity that Captain Kuchiki's most brazen actions now seemed sober, modest, and utterly respectable.
Iroh hmphed. "You seek a new recruit."
Very, very experienced general, Juushirou thought. "I can wait a lifetime." Humans had such short lives. "But if he's not trained... kami, General, there are so many things that want to eat shinigami-"
Pressure, Juushirou felt. Chill, and near his young officers-
A spectral howl shivered the sunlight.
Zuko bit back curses, tasting blood. He'd meant to yank the shaman out of Rukia's line of attack, so she could take the Hollow from behind. It should have been easy...
Human. Thirteen. What were you thinking?
Bi Mo might be thin and wiry with age, but the shaman out-massed a thirteen-year-old by far too much. He'd ended up rattling around the man's ankles, and claws were-
"This way, pyon!"
The mod soul in Rukia's gigai yanked the collar of Bi Mo's robes, and all three of them tumbled sideways. Claws gouged into earth instead, pebbles flying.
I'm never going to live this down.
Zuko spat out bits of turf, and tried to squash embarrassment down. Survival first. Outraged noble dignity later.
"A spirit of malice!" the shaman gasped.
Oh. You noticed, Zuko thought dryly.
Though he probably couldn't blame Bi Mo too much. From the moth-flutter of the shaman's spirit pressure, he wasn't seeing anything more than heat haze. Really angry heat haze.
Wish it was heat. I could do something with that-
Shaking his head, Zuko scrabbled free of the tangle of robes; turned it into a sweeping kick that seared the Hollow's black bristles with a stench of burnt hair. His stomach flip-flopped, remembering.
No, bad time to throw up, bad-
Steel, chill wind, and a thud. Sode no Shirayuki bit deep into white bone, sliced through.
Like ashes in a flame, the Hollow evaporated.
Finished. Getting to his feet, Zuko reached out with his senses, feeling for the chill stench of other Hollows. Didn't seem to be any...
"We are clear," Nejibana agreed. "Well done."
Are you nuts? Zuko dusted himself off, head down to hide a blush of shame. Rukia killed it.
"You are alive, unharmed, and you kept the shaman alive, allowing her to strike freely." A sense of a wry grin. "Not bad, for someone who hasn't yet seen the inside of the Academy."
Not yet, and not for a long time, if he had anything to say about it, Zuko thought. The world had gotten weird enough as it was.
"Gone," Bi Mo said, sounding less than certain. "What was that? It felt like an unquiet spirit. And yet..."
"It was a Hollow," Zuko said warily, one eye on Rukia as she slipped back inside her gigai and quietly coughed up the soul candy. "A ghost that stayed on earth too long. That got... corrupted."
"How can that be?" Bi Mo protested. "Aye, elder ghosts may be a bit uncanny, but the elements themselves take back spirits to be reborn..."
Full body-check hug. Kami, he'd missed that from Uncle. But...
"He believes," Nejibana murmured. "We know how persuasive our captain can be. How could he not believe?"
I wish I could be sure. "I'm okay," Zuko protested. "Rukia got it. It wasn't that smart."
"What level?" Juushirou asked, eyes on Rukia.
"Standard," she answered. "It might have Hollowed yesterday; it might have been here years. There's no way to know until we build a more extensive database."
"Hmm." The captain frowned. "That's taking longer than we'd like, given the limitations on large-scale reiatsu use-"
"This is yer fault."
Shinigami and firebenders eyed the shaman, hands moving toward fists or blades. The venom in those tones...
"Ghosts should linger three generations, no more," Bi Mo said sharply. "Then the elements themselves should draw e'en the most restless soul back to the spirit world. Just as they draw back the Avatar, to die and be reborn. For it is the spirit of the world who holds all in balance. And the Avatar is missing."
Juushirou looked at him, stillness before a storm. "For a shaman, you seem far more concerned with wounding souls than saving them."
"Then ye know little of shamans, spirit." Bi Mo's gaze was hard. "'Tis my duty to bring mortals and spirits back into harmony, so the kingdom may thrive. If one soul above all has drawn their ire... sometimes sacrifices must be made."
He believes that, Zuko thought, chilled.
"As Tousen believed in justice." Nejibana was wary. "Be careful of this man. We are shinigami, and forbidden from executing humans... but we may certainly strike in self-defense."
Hope it doesn't come to that.
Iroh's stance was balanced, eyes more cold than Zuko had ever seen them. "The Earth Kings outlawed human sacrifice centuries ago-"
"And where are the Earth Kings?" Bi Mo cut him off. "Safe behind their Dai Li, behind the walls of Ba Sing Se! They do not suffer from the Fire Nation. They do not watch as crops fail, or are plundered, and all the world bleeds!" A bony finger pointed. "All the world, save ye."
Reiatsu stirred with that gesture; a whisper, but enough to make Zuko snarl. "If you're going to curse my uncle, you'd better be fast." He let his hand drop to the sword Rukia had passed him; half a bluff, but half... definitely not. "They're shinigami. They've got rules about hurting humans. I'm alive."
The finger wavered. "The shinigami lord claimed ye as one of his-"
"Our captain would never prevent us from properly honoring our filial obligations," Rukia said silkily. "And it's certainly our duty to protect humans from malign spirit influences. Whatever their source might be."
"Taking the side of Sozin's line?" Bi Mo lowered his hand. "Ye will regret that, spirits. Ye will indeed."
"Enough!" Iroh slashed the air, gaze hard as steel. "Bi Mo. You know I have no more wish to further Sozin's war. I have lost my son, I have lost more good men than you will ever know, and I have nearly lost my nephew. Enough." He sighed. "I have left the Fire Nation. I do not believe I will be returning soon. What we will do from here..." Gold eyes narrowed slightly. "That, is a matter for family, and not shamans. I imagine you have your own concerns to tend among unquiet spirits. Which these are not."
"So ye say." Bi Mo hmphed. "Think on the elements, spirits, before ye choose a side."
"They're not on any side!" Zuko objected.
"They choose to protect the son of Fire Lord Ozai." Bi Mo gave him a long, cold look. "How much more of a side can any creature choose?"
"He's wrong." Zuko had waited until the shaman was gone to pace, but now the young man was more than making up for lost time. "I wouldn't do that. Soul Society doesn't get involved in living wars. I know that!"
"I know you would not," Juushirou said soberly. "You would not be here now if you were not a soul of great integrity."
He carefully did not look at Rukia. Who had a quietly bland look that meant no matter what Soul Society's laws required, she'd go down in flames before she lost Kaien's soul again.
Zuko reddened. "I'm not... that's just... it was wrong. What the generals were going to do. You don't just throw people's lives away for an advantage!"
"Not unless you have no choice," Juushirou agreed. Eyed Iroh; by age and experience, he should know how much danger his nation was truly in. "Was there a choice?"
The general was silent.
"You didn't say anything." Zuko looked as if his uncle had slapped him. "It was cruel, it was wrong, it was our people's lives - and you weren't going to say anything?"
"Your father would not have heard it," Iroh said heavily. "I failed at Ba Sing Se. All know I have no more taste for war. Nothing I could have said would have made a difference."
"You could have tried!"
"You promised you would remain silent," Iroh said bluntly. "That you were there to watch and learn. Not to provoke a battle you could not win!"
Zuko paled. "You think it's my fault."
Iroh grimaced. "I did not say-"
"You did." Wind swirled around the young man; Juushirou felt reiatsu pulse, before Zuko leashed it once more. "I wasn't supposed to say it? You weren't going to say it? That general was going to put new recruits in to get killed by earthbenders, and no one was going to stop him?"
Iroh sighed, an elder faced with all a young man's hopes for the world. "It is not that simple."
"When you are a bit older, you will see that things can be complicated-"
"No." Sparks flickered off Zuko's knuckles, blazing and dying in the air. "Damn it, no. All my life - all my life! - you've told me the Fire Lord has to do what's right for our people. That it's his duty. And all my tutors always said that the war is the Fire Nation's duty to the world. To make it a better place. To bring peace. The war is Fire Lord Sozin's vision, and it's our filial duty to see it through." He swallowed dryly. "Only you abandoned that duty. I know it was Lu Ten, I miss Lu Ten - but how could you dishonor Grandfather? Great-Grandfather?" His fists clenched. "What don't I see, Uncle? What are people not telling me? Why do you think I should have seen it coming?"
"No one," Iroh shook his head, determined, "no one should have seen that coming, nephew. My brother... he has never been a forgiving man, but it would have been a simple matter to let that general represent him in the Agni Kai..." He trailed off, unease evident as he saw his nephew's stricken face.
"Father agreed with him." Zuko winced. "And you knew it. And you didn't tell me."
Iroh did not retreat. "I have always told you your father was stern-"
Rukia cleared her throat.
Juushirou watched nephew and uncle glance at her, deeply amused. Iroh's look was only curious, barely distracted from his current woes. Zuko's - well. The young man had shifted into a relaxed hakuda stance, and if he wasn't half a breath from calling on flash-steps, Juushirou would eat Shunsui's flowered hat.
"It sounds like you were trying to be subtle." Rukia smiled at the general, and Juushirou tried not to smirk. "For some people? Subtle doesn't work."
"Rukia?" Zuko asked warily.
"What your uncle is apparently trying not to say," Rukia said evenly, "is that your father is said to have a vicious streak that makes Gin Ichimaru look like a friendly bunny."
"What? But he's-"
"I don't know if the rumor's true," she went on. "All I've seen was what happened when we found you. I don't know anything about Fire Lord Sozin's vision, or what might make this war right. Though if Earth Kingdom shamans really do sacrifice people to the spirits, I'd want to stop that, too." She paused. "I've only been traveling in this world a little while. But I think your uncle's right. This war isn't simple." Violet eyes glinted with predatory amusement. "And I seem to remember someone telling me, when he was thinking and not rushing off after revenge, that when a tactical situation looks wrong..."
"Like a Hollow that killed a third seat hanging around in plain sight, when it should have felt a captain and a lieutenant coming," Zuko muttered. "Right." He let out a resigned breath. "Hang back, observe, try to figure out what's going on. If it feels like a trap - it is."
For a moment, Juushirou saw astonishment flicker over Iroh's face, quickly covered by mild interest. So you're not used to Zuko thinking tactically. The captain tried not to grimace. And you let him into a war council filled with political vipers? What were you thinking?
"I have information on that," Sougyo no Kotowari murmured. "See the youngsters settled, first. Nejibana wishes very much to drown something, and I think Zuko has had enough for one day."
Indeed. "I would consider it a great favor, if the pair of you could educate Rukia on this world's history," Juushirou stated. "Shinigami are always careful, but if we are to spend any time walking visibly among human souls, we need to know more to blend in." Which should give you all the excuse you need to poke into everything, young one, he thought, satisfied. Your uncle is not telling you everything, and you know it. So find out.
"That should work," Sougyo no Kotowari agreed. "You've hooked his curiosity. Nejibana says that, above all, has not changed in his soul."
"That would not be unwise," Iroh mused. "I have brought some scrolls of our history, and sent for more. You might start there."
Zuko glanced between them both, then traded a wary look for Rukia's deliberately innocent one. "Right," he said at last. "Let's look at some scrolls." His voice dropped. "And some bandages..."
Juushirou smiled as the two tore off, Rukia's shameless run goading Zuko out of his reluctant trudge. "Young officers eager to work. We should enjoy it while it lasts."
"He is my nephew," Iroh said plainly. "Far too young to be an officer, yet."
"A prince old enough for a duel of honor?" Juushirou looked at him askance. "Rukia may have rank on him now, but he will be the shinigami on the ground if circumstances require calling for aid from Soul Society. He needs training in command as much as he does of spirits."
Iroh frowned. "You seem certain he will seek it."
A crown prince, your brother's heir, and you think he won't? Something was wrong with this situation. "He does what is right," Juushirou stated. "Shinigami will follow him. He has too good a heart to want to lead them badly."
"A good heart, indeed," Iroh murmured. "What was... Kaien... like?"
"Laughter on two feet," Juushirou smiled, remembering. "Oh, he was serious enough when it was needed. And most people didn't see him laughing. But the way he'd grin, when he confused some poor new recruit into forgetting what they thought they couldn't do, and just doing it..."
"You miss him," Iroh said softly.
"Every day." Juushirou had to look away. "How he handled Kiyone and Sentarou without releasing Nejibana and mangling them... not that he ever would have," he added belatedly. "A pair of subordinates who are honestly trying to do their best, and just can't seem to help bickering like brother and sister, don't deserve to be beaten unconscious..."
"A very bratty brother and sister?" Iroh looked interested. And more than a little amused.
"I wish I knew how he did it," Juushirou confessed. "They've always competed, but before Kaien and Miyako died... you know something!"
Iroh held up a hand; calm. "I suspect, only. From what little I have heard. Kaien and Miyako were their superiors, under you?"
"Kaien was my lieutenant, and Miyako was my third seat," Juushirou confirmed. "Kiyone and Sentarou tested roughly equal for fourth, so they shared the duties. It was enough work for two people. I am... not always in a condition to carry out my own paperwork, so much of it fell on Kaien, and the burden shifted downward."
"Spirits do paperwork?" Iroh chuckled. "I think, should you look back at the records, you may find that there were specific duties assigned to Kiyone and Sentarou. So each might excel in some areas, and so compete in a way that minimized the headaches."
"Oh." Juushirou blinked. Why didn't I think of that? "That will work?"
"I doubt it will do any harm," Iroh shrugged. And sighed. "I wish I had been able to do as much for Zuko and Azula. But history, tactics, firebending - in all the areas Ozai favored, she was his superior." He looked into the distance. "Perhaps she will soften now that she is acknowledged as the heir, and her excellence can be openly acclaimed."
Juushirou put that together with the wounds Nejibana and Sode no Shirayuki had already told Sougyo no Kotawari of, and hid a wince. If the laws of Soul Society allowed executing humans...
"Ozai may not be as vicious as Aizen was, but he has fewer tools to his hand," Sougyo no Kotawari agreed. "Nejibana is convinced this is why Zuko panicked. He believes Iroh has always seen him as Ozai's heir. An heir who never had the skills to take the throne, and never would. Ozai could have changed that by naming Azula as his heir instead, but he refused to do so. All the while he praised Azula, and said it was a shame she had such a fool for an older brother. Just as he had."
What a nightmare. How could anyone do that to a child? Any child, much less their own? So when Ozai's heir was declared dead...
"He expected Iroh to abandon him," his blade agreed. "Why should he not? The only one who has ever loved Zuko was his mother. And she is gone."
After assassinating Zuko's grandfather, if the pieces of memory Nejibana had put together were accurate. And he'd thought Soul Society's nobles could be evil.
"They can," Sougyo no Kotawari quipped. "It's lucky he was Kaien, and not someone like Byakuya. Zuko will survive this."
Yes. If his uncle would behave like a man with a nephew, instead of a disappointment. "Rukia will help teach him to defend himself," Juushirou stated. "But it will be easier for her to pass unnoticed once she knows your plans." Do you have a plan, General Iroh? Or is Zuko right; did you simply think you had a duty to see a spirit safely away, to wash your hands of it?
Because if you're not going to be his uncle, I swear I will kidnap Kisuke and have him build a gate with a reishi converter. And take that poor young man home.
"Hmm." Iroh stroked his beard. "Much as I dislike his assumptions, Bi Mo has a point. No mortal has been able to find the Avatar. If, indeed, the cycle is unbroken, and he yet lives. And if he cannot be found, we must think of another way to undo the harm the Fire Nation has wrought."
"You think this war is wrong, then," Juushirou said steadily. "But you've never told Zuko that." He nodded, as if to himself. "It's hard for anyone to realize one of their elders is wrong." And perhaps it was best to leave it there. Iroh was not quite convinced he was not an enemy. Not yet.
"You mean, he's experienced enough to see you're not harmless," Sougyo no Kotowari chuckled.
"My grandfather and father were very persuasive men," Iroh said, not quite denying it. "But not entirely persuasive. There are those, besides myself, who have grown weary of war." The general looked into memory. "I wonder. Jeong Jeong said he would never teach again, but a child who is also a spirit... I do wonder."
Juushirou tried not to frown. "You don't intend to teach your own nephew?"
Iroh winced. "I am not sure. No; I have heard your arguments, and I believe them. But I am not sure." He looked up, gaze etched with pain. "Of all elements, fire is the most unforgiving. If a teacher does not believe in his student..." He looked away, and smiled wryly. "And to find Jeong Jeong, we must travel through part of the Earth Kingdom. That, itself, may answer many questions."
"Dragons." Seated on Zuko's bed, scroll spread beside her, Rukia traced glowing colors, marveling at the stylized perfection of scales. Oh, they had whiskers, and wings, which Hyourinmaru had only when he wished to - but the form was unmistakable. "You have dragons."
"Had," Zuko said quietly. "A hundred years ago, they were all over the Fire Nation. Then... Fire Lord Sozin made it an honor to hunt them."
"But they're beautiful." Large, fire-breathing, and dangerous, yes - but what shinigami wasn't dangerous?
"Uncle..." Zuko looked lost. "He was honored for killing the last. Years before I was born."
She knew that pain. She'd seen it on Renji. In a mirror. Even on her brother, left bleeding by Ichimaru's blade.
How can everything I believe in be so wrong?
He was so young.
"Only in body," Sode no Shirayuki murmured. "He does not remember all, not yet - but Nejibana is always with him."
Rukia winced. "Do you... you miss Miyako, of course-"
"Not the way you think."
Rukia glanced toward that strained voice, alarmed. "Zuko?"
"She was... every shinigami it had devoured that way... was inside it." Zuko huddled on himself in his chair, chilled. "All of us, just - jammed together. Like someone stretched you out as strings, and tangled all your minds together, so you didn't know what was you and what was someone else - and it owned all the strings, it-" He buried his face in his hands.
"Zuko." She let the scroll fall, rose to catch him by the shoulders. Where was a bucket of water when she needed it?
"I'm okay." The face he lifted was tear-stained and pale, but sane. "I just - we would have done anything to get out of it, Rukia. To get away from all the other thoughts that weren't us. Kami... we would have done anything just to die." He swallowed. "It used that. All our hate. All our pain. It drank it all, and used that to kill. And laughed at us." A shudder. "I've always had nightmares. Mom never figured them out, and Father... what kind of firebending prince dreams about drowning in shadows?" He took a breath. "I miss how Miyako was when we were both alive. But if I met her now... I think I'd run screaming." Zuko looked at her, beseeching. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be." Rukia tried to keep her voice steady. "I saw it, when it pretended to be you. I fought it." She gripped his shoulders; I am here. "You know the truth now. And Aizen can never create a Hollow like that again."
"But Hollows are being created here." Zuko breathed out, and looked at her. "Do you believe Bi Mo?"
"That this Avatar, whatever he is, kept Hollows from forming?" Rukia frowned. "I don't trust him, but that doesn't make him a liar. Something must have allowed ghosts to pass on without a shinigami's help; Urahara's investigations show Aizen found a way to this world less than a century ago. Hollows ought to be everywhere. They aren't." Letting go, she stretched up onto her tip-toes, thinking. "People forget a lot of their lives. Even with Urahara looking... if souls from this world do come to Soul Society, it will take time to find them. We only found you because..." Her throat closed up.
She glanced away from that honest worry. "I hated killing you again. I know it wasn't really you, but - it wanted me to kill myself. I almost... if people hadn't been depending on me..."
"We're both a mess, huh?" Zuko gave her a shy smile. "Let me guess. Urahara found a way in here. Yamamoto-Genryuusai made a growly speech about finding out if a traitor tampered with a living world. The captains tossed it around for a while, and Zaraki wanted it, and everybody else knew that would be a mess. But Kurotsuchi was oh-so-quietly pushing it, so he wouldn't look as slimy when he offered to do it instead, he'd just need a few research subjects-" Zuko cut himself off, pale.
"Nii-sama said that's pretty much what happened," Rukia said levelly. Treat it as normal. It's not, it never could be - but it's not his fault. Nejibana will help. "Yoruichi pointed out you had a war going on here; delaying any soul from its proper destination would be a bad idea. She's captain of the Fifth, now. Their morale still isn't the best, but she's nothing like Aizen. It helps. Especially Momo."
Zuko looked down at his hands, and swallowed dryly. "So Kyouraku-taichou and Ukitake-taichou let them argue it out, and then... you volunteered, didn't you? You knew it was dangerous. But you said yes."
"I knew it was away." Rukia refused to flinch. "I thought... Ichigo rescued me, and we fought together, and I thought... Human and shinigami. Isshin and Masaki made it work. Why couldn't we?" Her eyes were stinging. Damn it. "But he needs to rescue people. And Orihime - she's a healer. She never wants to kill. She wants to be rescued."
"She wouldn't last ten minutes in the palace," Zuko muttered.
Rukia glanced at him, curiosity loosening the knot in her heart. "Does that still matter?" She didn't want to hurt him, but- "You're not the heir anymore."
"I know. I know. But I can't let Azula be the next Fire Lord. She... she hurts people." Zuko shook his head, shoulders slumped. "I don't know what to do, Rukia. I just - I can't let that happen."
She took a moment to think; Nii-sama and Ukitake-taichou both would have wanted that. But the decision was easy as breathing. "I'll help."
Zuko straightened, alarmed. "We're not supposed to-"
"As you said to Bi Mo, you're alive," Rukia cut him off. If there was one thing she knew about young men, feeling helpless was guaranteed to make them do something stupid. Like take up Urahara's offer to train them. Or storm all of Soul Society. "You can interfere. And I would be derelict in my duty not to help a fellow shinigami when he needed it."
"For as long as you're here," Zuko muttered. "A month? A week?"
She was not going to roll her eyes. He's hurt, and he's not sure who to trust. Be gentle. "You know our captain will assign me here longer than that. You need training." She gave him a wicked grin. "And haven't you realized what you've done?"
"I don't think so," Sode no Shirayuki murmured. "He grew up with bending."
"You channeled Nejibana's power without drawing him," Rukia stated. "You want me to think? You think! What would you do now, if another Hollow shattered your sword? You still have a weapon."
Zuko blinked, taken aback. "I... it's clumsy, Rukia. I wouldn't use it in a real fight."
"Every new technique is clumsy." She raised her chin, challenging him. "Are you a lieutenant, or a mouse? Practice. Learn what we can teach you. Figure it out." She let her voice drop. "We still run into incomplete arrancar with skin of iron. Lieutenants can handle that, but an unseated officer? If you can make this work, it could save lives."
Pale gold searched her gaze, shoulders stiff. As if he wanted to believe. He just couldn't be sure.
"He isn't," Sode no Shirayuki sighed; snow in a winter wind. "No one's ever needed Zuko before."
"I mean it," Rukia said plainly. "I want to learn this. Even if it is clumsy."
"If you mean that," Zuko said at last, "why didn't you teach people your Rukongai tricks?"
Whatever she'd expected, it hadn't been that. "They weren't - they're not proper kidou," Rukia stammered. "They're not anywhere near as powerful as you need to dispatch a Hollow."
"Nejibana says you can make a blinding flash," Zuko argued. "You can knock a man down, even an unprepared shinigami. And none of that needs an incantation." He spread empty hands. "I think... maybe I was waiting for you to find your feet. To realize it didn't matter that you were from Rukongai. But if anybody should talk about techniques that could save an unseated officer's neck..."
Her cheeks were burning. All this time, all the years she'd hated Kaien's stupid, suicidal pride-
And what did I do? One flash, and I could have distracted that Hollow from Ichigo. One bolt to just shove, and I could have knocked it off-balance.
But her old tricks weren't shinigami kidou, and she'd been so proud to be a shinigami. Proud. And stupid.
"I know they don't pack a lot of punch," Zuko went on. "But here? Where too much reiatsu can wake up more spirits than we can handle? I could use that." He glanced aside, shy. "Could you teach me?"
"I'm not sure a lightshow would help you with Azula," Rukia pointed out.
"It'd surprise her. You have no idea how valuable that can be."
Just a surprise? He was underestimating himself again.
By all accounts, Ozai was as vicious as Gin had ever been. And Azula took after him.
And you weren't able to escape them without dying. "We'll start tomorrow."
Zuko'd had almost as much practice hiding his emotions as a Kuchiki. If she hadn't been watching, she'd never have caught that sigh of relief.
Too bad it won't last. "What are you going to do about Azula?"
"I don't know." But this time, it wasn't a panicked answer, even as Zuko fingered ragged hair. "I need to know more about the inheritance laws. And if there are any heirs besides her. That's going to take time. But Father's not much past forty. Grandfather was in his nineties when he... Great-grandfather was over a hundred and fifty when he died in bed. We should have some time." He frowned. "The Fire Lord rules, but... if some of the things my history tutor hinted were right, he didn't have so much power over everybody until the war. I need to know why that changed." He glanced toward the front door. "I need to know why Uncle quit fighting. He's not a coward."
"He's not," Zuko insisted. "I don't know why he didn't help in the war council. But he wouldn't be afraid to fight anyone if he had to. He just tries to make it so he doesn't have to."
"Zuko." Rukia smiled a little. "I believe you. Ukitake's my captain too, remember?"
He reddened. "I'm sorry. People I know - I never know what to say to stay out of trouble."
"Why stay out of trouble?" She smirked at him. "No one here knows who you are, besides your uncle. Any trouble we find will be all ours." And not the kind started by nasty, rumor-spreading psychopaths.
"Lu Ten didn't mind trouble," Zuko said, half to himself. "But he left when I was eight, and then..." He looked down. Took a deep breath, and met her gaze again. "So what do you think we could pull off tonight?"
Inching around a rough pillar of ice, Zuko made absolutely sure the front door was shut, and staying that way. Ice, in early spring. Agni.
"She was trying for snow," Nejibana murmured.
Oh, great. And just what he should have expected, given how turtle-duck mild she'd been acting. That casual sweep of Rukia's arms at the water pitcher was meant to shape a pretty fall of snowflakes that would just happen to slide down the back of Uncle Iroh's neck.
"She tried to compensate for lack of control with more power," Nejibana mused. "Much of this ice was born of spiritual energy. It's possible your neighbors would not even see it."
Rukia, having a problem with lack of control? Hard to believe. It only takes one pair of eyes to see, Zuko thought back. If anyone spots this, they'll start screaming to the Guard about waterbenders. And who's the only one of us who even looks like she has blue eyes?
No. They did not need to explain this to the neighbors.
Though from the way Uncle's eyes narrowed as he dangled in Rukia's improvised trap, they were about to have a lot more than ice to explain.
Right. So talk fast. Um... oh brother...
"Ah, Rukia." Uncle's tone was mild enough to fool anyone who wasn't family. "An interesting technique. But I believe the demonstration has gone on long enough."
Squeezing back around the pillar, Zuko gave the shinigami a look.
Rukia blinked at them. "But I just wanted to show you, Uncle..."
Oh no. Not the sparkly eyes.
Should he sigh, or laugh? One would clue in half of the equation there was a problem. The other - would clue in the other half.
And from the glares he was now getting from both sides, silence was definitely the wrong answer.
Head high, Rukia gestured at ice.
"Any day now," Iroh said dryly.
This from the Dragon of the West, who could vaporize not just the ice, but the house with them in it. Zuko looked between Uncle's mild patience, and Rukia's bland innocence, and tried not to groan. Ice hammer, meet flaming anvil. Whose bright idea was it to make me a peacemaker?
Oh well. Someone had to say it. "Sode no Shirayuki's better at making ice than breaking it."
Rukia didn't quite glare at him.
"Ah." Iroh lifted gray brows at him. "And Nejibana?"
"You're in ice, not water." Honestly, now Uncle was just being silly.
"Surely, they are but two sides of the same coin?"
"Coins can be pretty thick, Uncle." Well, somebody has to be practical. Zuko breathed in, and blew out steam to start the ice melting. This was going to make such a mess.
Or maybe not. Firebending was fueled by chi as well; at least part of the steam was dissipating in a prickle of spirit particles instead of water. He could breathe them; taste them. For a moment, the air almost felt like-
No. Not home. You died, remember? This world's home now. A living, mortal world, and you're in a living body, and you'd better get used to it.
But he could taste Sode no Shirayuki's power, sweet as birch sap on snow. He remembered the first time Rukia had unleashed shikai; power pulsing out as the blade turned pure white, freezing wind in the midst of summer, sky above so deep and pure a blue it gripped your heart and squeezed...
I want to go home!
Pathetic. Just pathetic. He was thirteen, damn it. He was not going to curl into a ball and cry. He'd lost Miyako. He'd lost his mother. He'd lost his own life, again. But he was still here.
Shiba. The waves break. They are not broken. I will not abandon my resolve.
Ice, and floor, and now. Focus. It would save him.
-And it was interesting to see that Rukia's reiatsu still flowed into ice, whether there was water physically present or not. They definitely hadn't started with this much water in the pitcher.
...Damn it, he knew the feel of disappointed gazes by this time. What had he done wrong now?
"Is he correct? Do the waterbenders of this world bend ice as well?" Nejibana asked.
That's what makes them so dangerous. Half the poles were ice, if the maps were right. How could you fight someone who could melt you into glaciers to freeze and drown? What does that have to do with anything? If we were waterbenders, Rukia could get rid of her own ice. We're not.
"She has only been practicing a few hours."
Trying not to roll his eyes, Zuko kept working. Again, what did that have to do with anything?
"We are not all prodigies."
I know, okay? I'm not Azula. He caught his lip between his teeth, focusing only on the ice. Just let me do what I can. Great. Even his own sword didn't think he measured up. Just keep going. One step at a time.
Just as he had after Mom had vanished. He had to keep going, so he would. There wasn't any choice.
Just let it go, alright? Agni, he couldn't even work up the energy to be mad. I'm not her. I know that.
Don't ask me for miracles. I don't have any. I never will.
The sense of waves retreated.
He was not going to feel abandoned. There was too much work to do. "Don't just stand there," he grumbled over his shoulder. "Get a mop."
The sense of Rukia's presence slipped away. Iroh sighed steam, and slipped free of the remaining ice. "Anyone can miscalculate, nephew."
If that wasn't a verbal trap, he'd never spent a day in the palace. There was nothing safe to say about that.
So act like you have a brain, for once. Don't say anything.
Zuko took the sponge and bucket Rukia handed him, and started salvaging the floor.
And remember this the next time you think pranking someone's a good idea. Azula can make that work and get away with it. You? Not a chance.
The silence around him was heavy and angry, chill or hot depending on which of the people furious with him was closer. Surprise, surprise; nobody was happy with him. Again.
But that was okay. He was used to it.
Snowflakes drifting in her wake, Sode no Shirayuki found him on memory's shore. "He does not believe in you."
Stalking volcanic sand, Nejibana sighed. "Why should he? He cannot believe in himself."
A pale brow rose. "Cannot, or will not?"
"Cannot," Nejibana said firmly. "To be skilled, is to be Azula. To be quick of mind, is to be Azula. To be powerful..."
Snow-white hair inclined. "I see."
"I am not sure you do." Nejibana stared over the darkened sea of Zuko's mind. "Kaien lost his parents, but never doubted he was loved. Zuko was born into a war. His life, and Azula's, tore his family apart. Kaien's soul was bound with love, stronger than steel. Zuko..." He spread a hand, taking in sea and stars. "This is all he is sure of. He fled to the sea, old friend. Not to his uncle. Not to Rukia. To the sea. To what he believes does not love him. To what he believes is his enemy. And as it is a firebender's enemy... it cannot betray him. And so he can trust it." He glanced at her. "Do you believe you see now?"
Ozone tingled on Nejibana's tongue, and a double-image shimmered into being; storm-warrior and sleek killer of the seas. "We see more clearly, at least," Sougyo no Kotowari allowed. "You did warn us he was wounded."
"We purified the Hollow," Sode no Shirayuki protested.
"It is easier for him to blame the Hollow than people he loves," the elder spirit stated. "You cannot allow him to deceive himself forever."
"I will not," Nejibana affirmed. "But when you have pulled a soul from a burning house, you do not ask him to charge back into battle." He gave the snow-spirit a sober look. "First, you give him time to heal. To breathe. To build his courage to face the flames once more."
She sighed, accepting that truth. "I will advise my shinigami not to push." Her smile was sunlight on new snow. "It is a wound within the heart. She will know to step carefully."
"And as for healing..." Sougyo no Kotowari smirked. "I believe my shinigami has some ideas."
Zuko woke to reiatsu that tasted of storm and sea-spray, and warm arms lifting him like a feather in the dark. "Captain?"
"Shh." Barely voiced. "The kidou should hold them both asleep, but let's not test it too much."
Both? Zuko waited until they were out on the verandah, breathing the still air of the hours before dawn. "I know you don't want to fight with Uncle, but why don't you want Rukia up?"
"I found out something a bit troubling about the Northern Water Tribe." Juushirou settled them both on painted wood. "Did you know they don't train women to fight? Not even the waterbenders."
"Are you kidding?" Zuko blurted out. Reddened, and lowered his voice. "I know a lot of shinigami are better off with Unohana-taichou than fighting, but... They cut their forces in half? On purpose?"
"Mmm-hmm." Juushirou looked up at fading stars. "I can't help but wonder what Kuchiki would do if she fell into their midst."
"Find the biggest waterbending jerk and kick his ass," Zuko said wryly. "Try to, anyway. Uncle says there are a lot of waterbending masters up there, and he doesn't call people master without a good reason."
"I thought that might be the case," Juushirou mused. "So what she needs is more practice. And an instructor, to guide her through channeling Sode no Shirayuki in a way that a waterbending master will respect."
Leaning against one of the safest people in the world, Zuko sighed. "Too bad there isn't anybody."
Juushirou glanced at him, brown eyes lit with amusement.
Zuko couldn't breathe. "I can't."
"Possibly not yet," Juushirou allowed. "You need time to practice."
"Practice?" Zuko sputtered. "It's clumsy. I can move some water around. That's it."
"You invented it in a single night," Juushirou said levelly. "Nejibana tells us you're improving by the day-"
"You are," his blade put in. "Trust me."
"-Of course it's not ready for combat yet. You haven't even had a week to experiment. But in a month? A year?" His captain smiled, just a little wry. "You are a genius. Like it or not."
Oh, this was going to end so badly. "I'm not-"
"You're not Azula." Juushirou rested an arm on his shoulders. "I know. How could you be, with your own powers sabotaging each other? She has no oceans in her soul to throw off a chi of fire. She has no nightmares to rob her of sleep and focus. She has never fought for her life and sanity to save lives she cared for. You did. And you won."
Zuko swallowed dryly. "I made Rukia kill me."
"And saved both of us," Juushirou said firmly. "I should have interfered when the Hollow shattered Nejibana. But I believed you had the right to your pride. I believed it." He winced. "And I continued to believe it, until I saw Byakuya ready to sacrifice his own sister for Soul Society's pride."
"He what?" Zuko surged against the hand holding him in place, for one instant bent on nothing more than grabbing a certain young noble idiot and dunking him in a lake-
Um, captain? a part of him that still had survival instincts kicked in. Bankai? Exactly how long do you think you'd survive trying?
A few seconds, probably. But then again, if he could get the lake to dunk Byakuya...
"Oh dear," Juushirou murmured. "You're plotting something."
"Sir?" Zuko blinked, trying for virtuous innocence. Who, me? Up to something?
"Hmm." Juushirou didn't look fooled. "He did snap out of it. Once we destroyed the Soukyoku, and Ichigo nearly killed him." The captain glanced away. "But what Byakuya said, about sacrificing one of your own to uphold honor... I knew it was my fault. We were his seniors. He looked up to both of us, even after he became a captain. We were his examples. And my pride, my decision to do what I thought was honorable instead of what was right..." He sighed. "Well. Aizen's plot would have unfolded another way. But I was wrong. And that wrong hurt many people. Especially you."
"I never blamed you, sir." He didn't think he had, at least. He really didn't want to look at those memories too closely.
"Then why doubt my judgment?" The captain's tone was mild, but his gaze was fierce as a stooping hawk.
Zuko opened his mouth - and shut it again. Swallowed, throat dry. "I'll screw it up, Captain. I try, and... I'm never good enough. At anything." He winced. "If I teach Rukia something that doesn't work - she could get killed. And it'd be my fault. I can't do that, Ukitake-taichou. I can't."
Juushirou inclined his head, silent a moment. "What is a zanpakutou?"
Caught off-guard, Zuko leaned away. "It's part of your spirit. The core of your power."
"It is a weapon."
It was like a punch to the gut. He couldn't breathe.
"I have seen healing zanpakutou. Nejibana is not one of them," Juushirou said dryly. "He is a warrior. He hungers for the skill and grace to destroy his enemies. I have seen you dance together. I have heard the song of Nejibana's waves." He shook his head, ever so slightly, white hair barely stirring on his shoulders. "Do you think he would ever be satisfied with a flawed technique?"
It hurt to think that. But he knew it was true. Nejibana would be patient in practice, confident that persistent waves would smooth glass-ragged moves into frosted beauty. But never, never would he let a technique pass as just good enough.
"Take your time," Juushirou advised. "Get it right. And teach her." He gave Zuko a rueful smile. "I have ulterior motives. Aizen was well-liked. Even with all his treachery uncovered... especially with his treachery uncovered... someone seen as the instrument of his downfall..."
Zuko sat up straight, heart beating faster. "How many assassins?"
Juushirou's eyes widened, taken aback. "What- how did you know?"
"The Shiba clan was disgraced, and thrown into Rukongai, and that was pretty much the end of it," Zuko said bluntly. "I was born as the heir to the Fire Lord's second son. Trust me. I know about assassins." He smiled at bittersweet memory. "If Mom could flash-step, she'd give Soi Fon a run for her money."
The captain eyed him with wary respect. "I see. But how did you know?"
Zuko ticked it off on his fingers. "She's Rukongai who got adopted into nobility. That makes her a target for backstabbers on both sides. She never trusted Gin, and from bits she dropped, and... I know he threw in with Aizen. That means the Rukongai Princess was right, which makes her an even bigger target. Everybody loved Aizen, which means he could maim Yamamoto-Genryuusai at high noon and still have people pulling to cover his ass. All of them are going to hate her. She didn't get executed, which means she embarrassed Kuchiki by surviving; and Byakuya let her keep on doing it, which means all the nobles are furious at both of them. And who are they going to target? Senbonzakura's wielder? Or an unseated shinigami who doesn't have bankai?" He closed his fist. "Uncle thinks I'm no good at court politics. He's right. I'm not. I can't think it through fast enough to figure out what to say, and then everything goes to hell." He took a deep breath. "But that doesn't mean I don't know what's going on."
"I see," Juushirou murmured. "We've tried to keep her in our divisions or on assignment. She's safe with us, or with Byakuya. But in Rukongai, or on Earth... there have been attempts."
Zuko nodded, grim. "Does she know?"
"We've discussed it. That's partly why she'll be on assignment here."
"She forgot to mention that." Zuko grimaced. "Dead and still making trouble. Aizen, I hope you rot in hell."
"You knew." Juushirou studied him, startled. "How?"
Zuko snorted. "Inside his Hollow, remember? I know... a lot of things I wish I didn't." He shrugged. "You and Kyouraku-taichou hid it pretty well, but there was always... something. You didn't trust him. And when he picked Gin for his lieutenant-" Zuko shuddered. "Ichimaru's a compass with one north. Rangiku can get away from him without a scratch. The rest of us - he never cared where he swung his blade."
"...You never said anything."
Zuko gave him a pointed look. "Two of the oldest captains in Soul Society weren't talking about it? For all I knew, if I opened my mouth at the wrong time someone would get killed. No thanks. If I'd wanted to be a spy, I'd have joined Second Division."
"You." Almost against his will, Juushirou chuckled. "You have always been one of the most infuriatingly sane souls I've ever met."
"Sir?" Zuko said cautiously.
"But I suspect," the captain went on, "you may end up a spy after all."
"Your uncle mentioned traveling into the Earth Kingdom, to meet a firebender named Jeong Jeong?"
No. Way. "Jeong Jeong the Deserter?" Zuko squeaked. And wanted to sink through the boards.
Juushirou raised a dark brow. "The deserter?"
"First man to ever leave the Fire Army and live," Zuko blurted out. "It was in one of Uncle's letters, he was really upset; they were generals together. He's under orders of execution! If Uncle even sees him-" He couldn't finish.
Juushirou's face was suspiciously neutral. "From what he said, execution was the last thing he had in mind."
It felt as if the ground had dropped out from under him. "He'd be disobeying the Fire Lord. All our laws. All our traditions."
Juushirou nodded. "So what will you do, if he does?"
Head down. Breathe. "I don't know."
"That is why I am telling you now," Juushirou stated, face grave. "Your uncle is a general. I'm not certain he's realized that while surprising your opponents is admirable, surprising your allies can have very grim results."
Uncle might be committing treason. Uncle Iroh-
He did. No matter how much it hurt.
"I don't know enough."
Juushirou nodded, a silent go on.
"Uncle doesn't do things without good reasons. At least, he thinks they're good reasons." Zuko paused. "And... I'm already dead. Legally. Going into the Earth Kingdom, even meeting a traitor - I can't get in any more trouble."
"But you would be breaking the law," Juushirou observed.
"Getting me out of the arena was breaking the law," Zuko admitted. "Faking my death, the Fire Lord's heir - that's breaking the law. I have duties. I abandoned them. I'm just as guilty as Uncle."
"Guilty for saving your own life?" Juushirou gave him a look askance. "This is beginning to sound too familiar."
"Sometime you're going to have to tell me just what Rukia got mixed up in," Zuko grumbled. "The law's the law. It keeps our nation together, like the Fire Lord. I don't want to break the law." He hesitated. "But I'm a shinigami. If Bi Mo's right, and the Avatar being missing really is disrupting the flow of souls - we have to do something." Scraping together his courage, he nodded. "If Uncle's heading into the Earth Kingdom, I'll go with him. And keep my eyes open."
Juushirou's smile warmed him to his toes. "Be careful."
Simple words, that evoked a thousand ghosts of memory. Training grounds, the battlefield, Rukongai...
Shinigami work together. That's what saves us, when we face a Hollow too strong to fight. But if everything goes wrong - you have to be able to save yourself.
So. Assume a worst-case scenario. Like following Uncle into the heart of the Earth Kingdom, only to find out he really was a traitor.
What would I do? I'm not strong enough to fight the Dragon of the West.
Obviously, his sword was an optimist. "There's no way I can practice enough to get that good in a few weeks," Zuko muttered under his breath. "Not even in a few years."
"Hmm. You might want to try."
Oh no. Oh, no; that was Ukitake-taichou being speculative. Which meant any sane man ought to duck. "Why?" Zuko asked warily. It couldn't be just Rukia's maniacal bruising chases. Those were training.
"Well... Kisuke did want to see how much of Aizen's interference in this world he could track," Juushirou stated. "He already has one living shinigami as a student. And if there's one thing I know about scientists, they hate having just one subject for observation."
"I need a drink," Zuko said faintly.
Juushirou gave him a mildly disappointed look. "You're a bit young for that."
"Kisuke Urahara," Zuko groaned. "The weirdest genius the Academy ever had that they didn't manage to boot out. Who holds the records for - how many buildings was it?"
"The bookmakers are still debating that," Juushirou chuckled. "Given the situation, acts of Ichigo could, technically, be considered his fault."
He really had to grill Rukia on this Ichigo kid. "One of the few people who's ever kept up with the Goddess of Flash might be heading here. And you think I don't need a drink?"
"I've heard your uncle makes an excellent tea."
Oh no. That did it.
"Yes. It did."
"Did someone say tea?" Uncle yawned. "I have an excellent ginseng we could brew..." He blinked at them both, Rukia rubbing her eyes behind him. "Captain Ukitake. To what do we owe the honor of your presence?"
"Warning of imminent disaster," Zuko said dryly.
"Kisuke possibly visiting is not a disaster," Juushirou argued.
"Urahara. In this world." Rukia suddenly looked all too awake. "You're right, Captain. That certainly won't be a disaster."
Juushirou gave her a narrow look. "He did help save us all."
"Yes, sir. After he hid a supposedly indestructible and highly illegal artifact in my soul, weakened my powers so I couldn't flee capture, gave Ichigo an inner Hollow, told Orihime she was useless as a fighter so she put herself at risk and got captured by Aizen-"
Juushirou held up a hand. Rukia blinked at him. Iroh gave them both a look askance.
"Think War Minister Qin," Zuko advised. "Only smarter. And with good intentions."
"Oh." Now Iroh looked awake. "He cannot be dissuaded from coming?"
"Kind of hard to order someone to stay out when you already sentenced them to exile and execution," Zuko replied. "Unless the Central 46 got hit with a clue-by-four, and realized Urahara didn't wipe out half the captains and lieutenants?"
Rukia frowned. "Aizen murdered the Central 46."
"What?" Not that he missed those fossilized old fogies. But murdered? How?
"You didn't know?"
"Must not have been important enough to tell the arrancar," Zuko grumbled. Stiffened, realization dawning. "You're going to tell him about the arrancar. Oh no, Captain, come on, Rukia purified it-"
"Former Captain Urahara has the most experience with Vizard and arrancar of any of our scientists," Juushirou cut him off. "If you say you sense no remnant of it left in your soul, I believe you. But Ichigo's Zangetsu did not sense his Hollow, either. Not until it was nearly too late."
Zuko opened his mouth to protest... and shut it again. Sighed. "This is revenge for something. I just know it."
"No," Juushirou said softly. "This is worry. And precaution." He smiled wryly. "I know you can survive him."
"He may," Iroh allowed. "What of this town?"
"He's been in Karakura over a century, and the town is still standing," Juushirou shrugged.
"Transferred to another dimension once, and nearly vaporized, but still standing," Rukia smirked.
Iroh looked a bit dazed. "Perhaps we should be on the road."
"On the road where?" Zuko didn't try to hide his suspicious look. "You said we were going to study history here, with Rukia."
"Ah. But there are books more easily acquired in the Earth Kingdom," Iroh said cheerfully. "Specifically, if you wish differing views of the war. How it is seen in Omashu, which stands against us, is far different from how it is regarded on Kyoshi Island, which remains neutral."
...You just lied to me.
Though Uncle would probably call it an omission.
Rukia had learned a lot from her adoptive brother. He barely saw her eyebrows twitch.
She's going to ask about that later.
...I am not going to lie for Uncle. Not to her.
He could call Uncle on this now. Right now. End all the lying, all the betrayal-
No. No, it wouldn't work.
"So I believe," Nejibana rumbled; a very unhappy ocean. "But why do you?"
Because the only witness that tells a different story is our captain, Zuko replied silently. Uncle can just claim Ukitake-taichou misheard him. That there was a miscommunication. That he was just acting in my best interests.
"He may truly believe so."
That makes it worse. At least when Azula lies to me- Fingers clenched on his robes; he made them straighten. When Azula lies, she's just doing it because it's fun.
No. I have to catch him red-handed. In something he can't explain away.
"He does love you."
That was the worst thing of all. But he doesn't believe in me, Zuko thought sadly. He never has. Kami blast it all to hell - so I'm not Azula. I stayed alive in the palace until I was thirteen! Knives in the back passages. Assassins hanging from the ceiling. Poison in the Agni-blast-it food! White jade, macahoni berries, flutter-wasp venom; Mom made sure I could smell them all before I was five. Does he think I'm stupid?
"A very good question."
Well. Only one way to find out. It'd probably take months... but if Uncle really did take them to see Jeong Jeong, he'd know for sure.
Sooner we start, the sooner we get this over with. Rising, Zuko bowed to his elders. "If we're going to travel, I'd like to get started on packing." He glanced at Rukia. "Maybe you could help me pick a few good scrolls? It'd be nice to have something to read on the way."
Of course, and butter wouldn't melt in her mouth; not a chance. Zuko hid a smirk as they both bowed again, and headed inside.
"Safe journey," Juushirou called after them.
"Thank you, sir." Captain.
Rukia waited until they were in his room with at least a few screens between them and the verandah before she dropped the innocent look. "What's wrong?"
"Uncle told our captain he wants to go find a firebender in the Earth Kingdom. Jeong Jeong." He was not going to raise his voice. Uncle was a legendary general, Grandfather's son, and just as smart as Azula when he felt like working at it. With years more experience. Of course he was used to getting his own way. "The only firebender Uncle knows with that name is another general. Ex-general. Jeong Jeong the Deserter." He shot her a look full of all the fury he didn't dare unleash on Uncle's head. "Any Fire Nation citizen who felt any loyalty to our country would try to kill him on sight."
Rukia's breath hissed between her teeth. "What are you going to do?"
"Wait. And watch." Zuko smirked. "Give a man enough tinder, he'll burn himself."
"Your uncle seems too smart to fall for that," Rukia said, face cool and calm. Only her eyes worried.
"I'm the idiot kid, remember? The hothead who can't keep his mouth shut in a war council. He'll never see it coming. Not from me." And that hurt.
Life hurts. You're alive. Get used to it.
Rukia inclined her head. Considered it, and looked up. "What if you're wrong?"
Waves stirred in his soul. "If all else fails..."
"Run, call for help, stay alive," Zuko said under his breath. "I need your help. I know we need to practice hakuda and zanjutsu. But when Uncle's not watching..." A deception. He hated it. But he'd hate death and treachery more. "I need to learn flash-step."
Violet eyes searched his. Whatever she found there, she nodded. "No one can run forever, Zuko."
"You'd be surprised. No one's found Jeong Jeong. Yet." Zuko swallowed dryly. "I want to be wrong about this. You have no idea how much. But I've seen the captains manipulate people. And Aizen. And Uncle... Rukia, he spent the past weeks playing nice to give a shaman time to get here and tear me out of my body."
"When he thought you weren't you," Rukia objected.
"And now he does. Which means he's kidnapped the Fire Lord's heir," Zuko said pointedly. "It's like - like stealing Byakuya out from under Ginrei!"
She stiffened, air going chill around them, and he knew she'd gotten it.
"He's got me," Zuko went on, keeping his voice down. "He used to be the rightful heir. Our country's fighting a war, and apparently there's some faction in the nobles that agree with Uncle that it's wrong. And now he wants me to meet our greatest traitor." He took a breath. "I know your brother made sure you learned political history."
"Civil war," Rukia said tightly. "A coup. You as a figurehead, the prince who spoke for the common soldiers, returned from the dead..."
"I hope I'm wrong," Zuko breathed. "Agni, I hope I am. But a civil war would kill our people. And the last time I believed in Father, and Uncle..." Against his will, fingers brushed cut hair. "So... I guess there's just one more thing I need to ask you."
She waited, no judgment in her eyes. Only sorrow, and pain.
Zuko tried to smile. "Can you teach me to bargain for a cup of noodles?"
"Hmm." Rukia gave him as superior a look as any noble born. "I'm not sure how much I have to work with. Only someone from uptown would dare call it bargaining." She tapped a finger against her chin, giving him an up-and-down glance. "In midtown, they might haggle. In the lower streets, they deal. And in the lowest of all... what cup of noodles?"
I'm not a thief.
But better a thief than a traitor. If everything went wrong. "Thank you, Rukia."
"Stay alive," Rukia wished him. Turned; then looked back. "Oh. And no one on the streets would be seen naked with a name like Huo Shan Ti hanging around their necks. Better something like... Huozhan. Zhan, for yelling."
Hawk. He could live with that. She always did have a gift for names. "You planning to do a lot of yelling?" Zuko quipped.
"That depends." She shifted her weight back on her heels, smile smug. "Do you plan on being stupid?"
"Somehow, plan never seems to come into it." Opening the chest near his bed, Zuko started pulling out scrolls. "I mean it, Rukia. Thanks. I haven't had someone at my back in... in a long time." Since Mom disappeared. And disappeared was what he hoped for. Dead was all too possible.
"After recent events on Earth and in Soul Society, Ukitake-taichou has made a policy that no one patrols alone," Rukia stated. "Ichigo says we need to be less ghost samurai, and more ghost cops."
This one, or that one... better pick out what looks like the best, I don't know how much room we'll have. "Acts of Ichigo," Zuko said wryly. "Someday you have to fill me in. Did Urahara really put a Hollow inside him?" That seemed pretty extreme. Even for Urahara.
"He had to, so Ichigo could get his shinigami powers back," Rukia told him. "It's a long story."
"The Earth Kingdom's going to be a long walk," Zuko shrugged. "Start anywhere."
Rukia smiled a little. "I met him when he kicked me."
"He did what?" Zuko gave her a narrow look. "You better have kicked him back, Kuchiki."
"Better," Rukia grinned. "Locked him up with Sai and drew on him."
Okay, that was just cruel.
But she was smiling.
I killed that smile once. By being stupid. This time, I'm going to think things through.
This time... I won't be alone.
Two shinigami, against whatever schemes his uncle had dreamed up for a not-so-dead prince, and a whole war-torn, Hollow-infested world.
...Yeah. Those odds sounded just about right.
A/N: We have no idea what Miyako's zanapkutou was named, or what powers it had. So... Sattouboufou - Stampede of High Winds.
"Resolve" + "Breaking waves" is one way to translate "Shiba".
Shiba personal names in canon take the form "place associated with an element + a bird"; Kaien means "ocean swallow". Hence Huo Shan Ti - roughly, Chinese for "volcano hawk".
This was mostly inspired by the bunnies saying, hey, we've seen stories where Kaien reincarnated as Ichigo, and where Ichigo reincarnated as someone else... but where are the stories with Kaien reincarnating after Rukia kills that arrancar?
Points of congruence between Zuko and Kaien: They both have problems with Honor Before Reason, they're Lightning Bruisers of the Hard-Hitting Speedster variety, and they're Dance Battlers. The rest comes from my Sparky-mad bunnies.