"Ichi, ni, san, shi, go, roku, shichi, hachi." The old man's voice carried more forcefully than it apparently should have. He tapped the foot of his cane on floor mats as he paced along the rows of students, paused in the final stance of the sequence, waiting for his command to reset. "Again!" With a collective kiai the students reset to the ready position. Sensei Kume stopped his pacing and tapped the elbow of one of the students back into proper posture, turning with lightning speed to crack his cane across the shoulders of another who had slouched for a moment. "Begin! Ichi, ni, san, shi, go, roku, shichi, hachi."

To an outsider the count might have sounded monotonous, the actions repetitive, but the Sensei did not seem to notice. Any mistake, any lack of focus, the slightest hesitation met with his instant disapproval and often the cracking of his cane against the offending appendage. Finally Kume called a halt, much to the relief of his sweat drenched and exhausted charges. He paced to the front of the assembly and turned to face them, his pale blue eyes taking in every detail of his students.

"Enough for today," he said, his voice quieter than it had been during the hour that had seemed an eternity to his students. "Tomorrow, I see you. Dismissed." He bowed short and sharp in response to the respectful bows of his students. They quickly cleared off the mats, gathering up their bags and shoes to leave the dojo. Two of them stayed behind to sweep and fold the mats under the keen eye of Sensei Kume, but they left quickly, as well. Finding himself alone, Kume sighed and walked slowly around the perimeter of the room before turning off the lights and retreating into the small apartment behind the dojo. The space was small, but then so was he. Once upon a time he could have counted himself among the tallest of Japanese men, but age had shrunken him to shy of 5 feet and weighing less than a hundred pounds. His hair had long since gone from pitch black to pure white, though it was still thick and long, falling to mid-back. His face was clean-shaven, in truth, he had never truly had much of facial hair in the first place, but that was a common trait among his family.

Kume stood for a moment in the dark of the apartment, letting his spirit settle before withdrawing a match from the sleeve of his robe and striking it with his thumbnail. The minimal illumination nearly covered the entirety of the main room, but the simple lantern that he lit with the match completed the job. The walls were paneled in the style of ancient Japan, with wood along the bottom half and rice paper framed in wood along the top. A low table set along one wall with a simple stool before it, a scattering of ink vials and bamboo styluses and brushes scattered across the table's surface. A pair of lanterns hung on the doorframe next to him, with another hanging from a hook beside the only other door in the apartment. To his right was a simple kitchenette with a small refrigerator, a pair of burner plates, and a sink. Through the other door was his bedroom, a very simple affair decorated with a silk divider and a set of extra thick tami mats that he meticulously folded up every morning. Kume made his way over to the burner, setting a kettle on one of the plates to heat water for tea, then settled onto the stool to wait. He let his eyes close for a few moments, stretching his senses out to take in the minute sounds of the building, the ticking of the kettle as the metal heated, the slight hum of electricity running along the conduits within the walls, the showers running in the locker rooms. Soon enough his senses stretched out even further and he found himself striding across the veil that separated the physical world from the astral one.

Here he found himself as he once was, tall and strong, hair black, eyes bright. He felt himself pulled in a direction and he strode that way. Time and distance had little meaning here, as a single stride could carry one a pace or a score of paces at a whim. Kume found himself standing in an alley, a place that was dark with malice here, and would have been dark and forbidding in the physical world, he was sure. There was a figure hunched in the alley, a near hole in the fabric of the astral world that indicated the lack of a soul. Suddenly a pair of figures came out of a building, one deep and dark, the other bright, but swirling with colors of pleasure and deceit. He would have taken time to mull this over, but a third figure came out then, swirling with nearly too bright colors, a pattern that he knew well.

"Ah, Alexandra-chan," he murmured. "What have you gotten into?" He watched the scene unfold, Nox being grabbed by the first figure, then another figure appearing. Where had he come from? Kume pondered, not having seen the man's aura, and he did have a strange one, before he suddenly appeared before the restrained Nox. Mentally Kume followed the steps to escape the trap, shin to instep, elbow to the ribs, weight thrown forward to flip the man over. He waited a few heartbeats to see if Nox remembered, but she did nothing, just stood there. This confused him and he moved to the side for a better view of the situation. That is when he saw it, the thin silver strands, fragile looking amidst the figures that moved about, but anchored strongly between the strange man and Nox. For a few moments Kume stood still. It had been a lifetime since he had seen something like this, and it would be several lifetimes before he forgot it: true love. He winced slightly as the man struck Nox hard, but there was little he could do here, even when he returned to his body. He had no doubt that this was something that was about to happen, though when, or even precisely where was anybody's guess.

He sighed, watching the strange man pick Nox up from the ground, cradling her almost gently in his arms as he carried her away from the alley. Taking his cue, Kume turn and left as well, returning to his body and opening his eyes in time to hear the kettle whistle.

"Pain, love is, Alexandra-chan. Sometimes more than just emotional," he murmured as he levered himself up from the stool and went to make his tea.