[1st] Volume 99: Paths, Part I: Path of the Specter

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He was still the same; in all of the short eternity Yasougin had been gone, he had still smoked. Leaning against the fence surrounding his house, Yoruboshi was now wearing a thick burlap scarf as he attempted, and failed, to puff out the rings his inner child wanted to create.

In truth, he looked cool. It was impossible to ignore that Yoruboshi, with his tight jeans, thin coat, scarf dramatically situated on his stature, did indeed look the teenage image of 'cool'. Cigarette burning red-hot at one end, his eyes closed, he seemed to be remembering something ancient. That pensive look you get when you think, for a moment, about things that were once better.

"You still suck at that." Yasougin scratched his head as he came closer, earning an opened eye from Yoruboshi, his left one, that locked on the shinigami's approaching frame. In truth, in the dark night, the man wouldn't have been able to notice anything about the still-distant warrior.

"I hope that's an old way of saying 'I'm home'." Yoruboshi grinned, figuring out the identity through the passively divine color of the saya, "I've been practicing every day; I still don't have the soul for it, I guess."

"It takes a real badass to blow smoke rings." Yasougin nodded, "You don't have the heart for it, Yoruboshi."

"It takes a heart to be a badass?" Yoruboshi blinked, frowning, "I don't know what kind of ba-"

"No; that's exactly what I'm saying." Yasougin walked past the man, who only shook his head as the sword-bearing shinigami entered his house, "It takes a lack of heart to be a badass; you don't have the heart to do that kind of stuff."

Yoruboshi was left alone with the night, his full tummy grumbling slightly (which earned another drag of the cigarette). His eyes locked onto the stars, he only exhaled slightly before he opened his other eye and blinked.

"Not going to go in?" he asked the night sky, earning a small shuffle of sound behind him.

"You should come in too; you're going to catch a cold." Yasougin's voice replied; it was obvious he had stopped at the doorway.

"You know, you get a cold by going inside, contrary to popular belief." Yoruboshi grinned, "And I'm a bit busy right now, for your information."

"What're you doing?" Yasougin's voice asked, a little intruiged

"Counting the stars." Yoruboshi replied, smiling, "Counting the night stars."

"..." Yasougin was silent before erupting into a heaving fit of chuckles; they were chuckles because of the very apparent effort to constrain himself from waking up the town, "...isn't that impossible?!"

"Not when you spend a few hundred years perfecting it." Yoruboshi's voice was a little quieter this time, which in turn quieted Yasougin's giggles, "...no. I've been out here every night since my brothers joined the Gotei, counting the stars."

"...that's..."

"I'll let you in on a secret you already know, Yasougin." Yoruboshi said sternly, "...no matter what lies before you, no matter how impossible it is, if you spend your entire life attacking it, you'll break it. Finding the reincarnation of a loved one, perfecting your art, learning a fighting style, attempting to sire children...anything...nothing's impossible, if you've got the soul for it."

Prove me wrong, Yasougin. Prove to me you aren't an idiot. Prove to me that you're unlike all the rest. And I'll prove to you...that 'impossible' is just a word for those who never knew what dying was like.

"...yeah." Yasougin nodded, opening the door to his house, "I know."

There was a moment of silence.

"Hey Yoruboshi?"

"Hmm?"

"Good luck."

Chapter 279 - Conference of Men
[ 1,150 ]

Yoruboshi closed the door as quietly as he could, not wishing to disturb the sleeping form of his wife on the second floor. Taking off his smoking scarf, he hung the burlap next to a small incense burner, a flicker of his eyes reflecting the burning fragrance's glow.

Another glow in the room alerted him to Yasougin, who was currently leaning against the wall and sipping a small class of water. Yoruboshi idly wondered if the man was drinking, a small smile curling at the edge of his lips with the cascade of hilarious scenarios that could create; none of them ending well for the house.

"You should sleep; you probably traveled a while." Yoruboshi said, slipping his shoes off and hanging up the thin coat on the wall, "I mean, based on how dirty you are and whatnot."

"Eh. I took my fair share of baths, and I've already rested more than enough." Yasougin shook his head, "You know, I never needed sleep, before I left the Gotei. When I was...in the Gotei, I never needed sleep. The perfect insomniac, almost. I would stand guard for invisible enemies all night, wishing to protect the building from any harm I could see."

"...seems pretty noble to me." Yoruboshi said, sitting down next to the candle-lit man, "I would just eat all night."

"...yeah. Yeah, you would would think." Yasougin nodded, "But me...I just realized I'd never know if anyone would slip in behind me, where I couldn't see. It just never occurred to me that someone would attempt to slip behind him and infiltrate the building, y'know?"

"You've fought some strong people, I bet. But all of them haven't been like those you've fought recently, right? If you can call wrestling with empathy 'fighting', that is." Yoruboshi sighed, "You can't hold yourself to a higher standard all the time, Yasougin. You're trying to unravel humanity...but you are human. You may be a shinigami, you may be a rogue, you may be a former member of the highest paradigm of strength...but you're still a human, Yasougin. You were reincarnated, you had a childhood sometime, and you're just like us."

"That's the problem; if I believed that I would never find myself, or the answer." Yasougin's eyes only darkened, "I have to be something higher than human to understand humanity...I want to be able to look down on it and understand it all."

"Those are dangerous words, Yasougin. 'Look down on it', 'understand it all'...those are the words of a scientist dealing with lab rats. I'm not a lab rat, you're not a scientist...so be careful how you envision this road ahead of you."

Yasougin took the soft rebuke in stride, nodding at the advice.

"...yeah." Yasougin nodded, "My words were wrong...but you understand, right? I can't hope to understand humans if I let myself be a human all the time. I've got to hold a higher standard..."

A clap broke the still silence of the night, Yoruboshi's hand cupping Yasougin's shoulder, "...don't worry. You can't expect to find it in a few days. The last guy who tried to do this had to spend a lifetime wandering, Yasougin."

"...there was one before me?" Yasougin blinked

"Yeah." Yoruboshi grinned, "His name was Buddha."
 

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"...Buddha, huh?"

The sun had risen a good eight hours ago, and Yasougin was now laying down on the thatch roof of Yoruboshi's shed. His face covered by a rogue tree leaf, shielding his eyes from the sun in front of him, Yasougin's lazy gaze was drifting upwards towards the sky.

The stars never fade. They're just overcast in the day; the sun is a great force, so powerful that nothing else can radiate anything like it. But each star is its own sun, its own tale, simply farther away from us. So don't ever forget the night stars, Yasougin...lest others forget our own private star.

"...tch."

It had been happening a lot lately, ever since the start of his trip back here, when a voice he couldn't identify spoke to him. A lot of voices, thousands and thousands of different viewpoints on life from who knows how many people. Sage advice, advice he might never replicate himself to others, all of it spoken by people he didn't know.

'Sounds like a case of 'unlooked for generosity' to me.' Yoruboshi had said, as Yasougin had explained his problem earlier in the day (to the sound of 'kasu-ko!' 'kasu-ko!'), 'Listen...I know, it's gotta be annoying, but really...when someone does you a favor, and you have no way of repaying them...then repay them by giving it to others. Not what they said, necessarily...but just keeping the chain going. You might even get it back again. When you receive kindness twice, like that...that's when you know you've changed the world.'

Yasougin had been thinking about the words, wondering exactly how to 'pass it on', when he had escaped doing dishes by promising to sweep the top of the shed (shunpo allowed him far easier access than the broken ladder that Yoruboshi and Kasumi owned). After that was done, of course, he felt an unusual wave of lethargy slam into him. And then, deciding to spend the day in the sun, he had laid down where he was now pondering life.

He was getting nowhere with any of this...any of this 'humanity'. He had learned a fair bit about humans, that's true...but it wasn't what he needed. He was learning the wrong things; how to read people (sometimes incorrectly), how to get them to do what he wanted (which didn't work very often), how to slip around unnoticed, how to be noticed....

None of it was what he needed to learn.

Like what, huh? What do you 'need' to learn?

"...something like how to look people in the eye.
"

He wasn't sure if he had thought it first, or spoken it first, or done both in tangent, but he followed it up with another outspoken remark.

"...something like learning how to look at the sun."

"Use these."

In a moment, his world turned an astounding color of blue; but it was far too sudden and associated with a color he wasn't very familiar with. The blue was too light and vivified to be a melancholy one for him to wear in his state, but it attempted to spread its energy to him through a form of 'painting', making the sky out to be a bit clearer.

"Thanks." He blinked, "...wait, what the hell?!"

"Guess not. Loser." The spunky blue was taken away by its original owner, who Yasougin tilted his head back to look in the face. He couldn't make out very much of the features, but he noticed that the voice and body type were definitely that of a woman. But one thing that stuck out the most was another attribute;

"...a...sword." Yasougin whispered, putting the clues together.

"Actually, it's a Zanpakutou." The woman's cheeks were suddenly outlined in light, making Yasougin believe she was smiling, "And apparently you're the other shinigami they were talking about. Yoroshiku, ne?"

Chapter 280 - Summer Break is Over (Winter's Just Starting)
[ 1,167 ]

"Another shinigami, eh?" Yasougin sighed, "...man, this is going to be a huge pain in the ***."

"Oh?" the woman blinked, and by the shadow displayed she tilted her head, "Why's that?"

"Well, if you were in the Gotei, that means you might know my name. Which is a big pain in the ***, 'cuz I'm trying to kind of 'disappear' for a while." Yasougin explained, eyes narrowing with the usual 'Uh, DUH! look that went perfectly with his slightly sarcastic tone.

"Oh, well, I've never been in the Gotei, so that's good for you, right?" the woman nodded, "Hell, I've only been a shinigami for a few days, as far as I know."

Oh man...even better. A shinigami punk who doesn't know anything about controlling their powers, huh? Yasougin let out an exasperated sigh, Man...what the hell do I do now?

Kid, that's exactly what I asked myself when I first saw you.

Yeah, and we punched each other in the jaw. I can't exactly do that with a girl.
Yasougin rolled his eyes, Plus, I kind of just told her that I wanted to disappear, which makes it impossible for her to forget me...

"Talking to your Zanpakutou?" the woman asked

"Well, more like 'wondering what the hell to do now', given that you're a shinigami that will probably eventually join the Gotei." Yasougin scratched his head, "Man, I wish there was an 'undo' button in life, y'know?"

"...yeah." The woman said softly, "...I know exactly what you mean. You hungry?"

"Nah." Yasougin shook his head, "I'm...not going to be hungry for a while, unless I have to fight someone or something."

"What, you too good for food?" the woman grinned

"...uh..." Yasougin scratched his head again, "Y'see...the correct answer to that question would make me look like a prick, but I really don't like lying to women, so...I'm a loss for what to do."

"What're you, strong or something?" the woman's tone seemed to narrow slightly

Thank god she can't sense my reiatsu. "Eh, not really. Not where it counts, anyways."

"...is that why you left the Gotei?"

Yasougin only paused, "...if it was, would it matter?"

"I guess not." The woman nodded, "C'mon, let's go in. Kasuko's cutting noise has stopped."

Oh god; you hooked another one, eh Yoruboshi? Yasougin rolled his eyes as he stood up, following the woman who ran ahead of him into the house.

You were asking the world how to pay forward all the advice you've given...I think you just found it out.

I'd love to be her teacher and give the good will forward...but I can barely teach myself, let alone someone else. I don't know if I should keep her away from the Gotei or send her right away.

Do neither; give her the skills necessary to join, and then the facts. Let her decide. That's what real teachers do.

Heh.
Yasougin scratched his head, You never really gave me a choice in anything.

Well, I'm a badass. Not a teacher.

Ah, I see.
Yasougin smiled, ambling through the door, Well, shall we see how Yasougin-sensei works out?
 

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"You two getting along?" Yoruboshi asked with a grin on his face, "I didn't hear any yelling."

"Yeah. Why wouldn't we?" Yasougin answered, changing out of the shinigami shihakushou and into a pair of blank red robes, "It's not like she swore at me or anything. We just talked pleasantly for a few moments before she hauled me inside."

"Didn't seem like hauling to me." Yoruboshi observered, scratching a mock beard before Yasougin's sandal collided with his skull.

"Yeah well, you know I could've stayed out there all day if she hadn't suggested coming inside." Yasougin nodded, slipping on the upper gi half of the robe onto his body as he tied the inner two strings, "I couldn't feel much pressure from her, really...she must be as new as she says."

"She passed by a week or two ago, while you were gone. She said she had heard that the people here were especially nice to shinigami, recommended here by a nice old lady." Yoruboshi shrugged, "Unlike most Districts, we're held in the same esteem as everyone else, even though we shelter rogues. People here realize that it's easy to lose your path in life."

"...yeah." Yasougin nodded, "So you've just been feeding her and whatnot? What does she do during the day?"

"She has a part-time job, surprisingly enough. Landed it in a swordsmith shop, of all places. The guy originally brought her in for her Zanpakutou, which she didn't know wasn't just a regular sword, but then she somehow proved she's fairly crafty with tsuka-ito and various braidings. Especially at making sheaths, from what I hear recently."

"So she works, huh?" Yasougin grinned, "Does she go out and drink with the money?"

"Surprisingly enough, unlike another freeloader I know..." Yoruboshi's eyes didn't look at him, but instead, Yasougin already knew from the start of the sentence, "She gives us the approximate value of the services when render, and then saves the rest of the money. She's got only a little now...but I know it'll get real big real fast."

"Ah, another lovely success story." Yasougin smiled, "Well, that's comforting enough. Means that I won't have to bother with talking to her and getting to know her thoroughly."

"Oh? Why's that?"

"I can only fix people that are broken, Yoruboshi." Yasougin shrugged, "If she's doing fine in life, I'll just teacher her the shinigami basics, and leave her to fend for herself. I can't teach her anything about life yet, really."

"...broken? Ha. Apparently your eyesight sucks." Yoruboshi shook his head, "Kinda looks like her, doesn't she?"

"Like who?" Yasougin blinked, before seeing the woman poke her head into the room.

"Yoru-chan?" she blinked, "Oh; you're changing! Sorry!"

Yasougin only (half-dressed, still tying the second string to secure the gi to his body) stumbled forward, poking his head out of the door with wide open eyes.

"...Meiko?"

Chapter 281 - Even
[ 1,109 ]

"Uh..." the woman blinked, "Do I know you?"

"Yes." Yasougin blinked

"...then why did you call me that name?" she frowned

Oh right. I 'killed' Meiko. Yasougin sighed, So either this is a totally different person, or she's just playing some stupid game with me. Both of which could end in rather embarrassing situations for me.

"I had a sister named Meitou." The girl blinked, "But she's gone now. A twin sister, actually."

"...oh?"

"Listen; that night, I was going to kill myself." She admitted, "I had just dropped a note off at my sister's house, and I was going to die. I had nothing left. And you stopped me, you gave me something. It was terrible sake, but it was something. You don't just let thinks like that slide; how can I go and kill myself now?"

"Did she die?" Yasougin blinked, a little curious as to the fate of the woman

"Don't know. She just...disappeared. Almost as if she died."

Well, I still can't tell if you're the sister or someone else, or maybe even yourself. Yasougin sighed, a little exasperated, But I guess it doesn't matter.

The thing that had let him know were the eyes; they were the same vivacious eyes, although they held a much darker tone in the middle. The rims were still the same luminous eyes, sparkling with the newfound intensity of reiatsu, but the middles seemed to be as if there was sudden depth that obscured any color that might try to shine through.

The girl's dark hair spilled down her head and bent at the shoulders, like a waterfall of black surrounding her rather beautiful face. The robes she now wore, which were a plant-green and silver color, hid her bust and any curves Yasougin might've been able to identify very effectively.

"...she did say, before she left, that a shinigami had given her a reason to live. But at the same time, she didn't have her own reason, so she couldn't just grasp someone else's hand for the ride." The woman said, "I wonder...is that shinigami you?"

"Who knows?" Yasougin said evasively, not quite sure what he was getting in to (and quite scared of what might happen if he said the wrong thing), "Tell me...what do you feel about sex?"

"...it should be used to seal a promise, whether that promise be love, caring for the child it might create, or simply a promise to be friends forever." The woman responded, "But, I also think that...promises don't need that kind of 'sealing' to exist. That's just something to keep the promise in the front of peoples' mind."

Yasougin nodded, Even if she's the same person...she's grown into someone totally different.

"Well then, can I have your name?"

The woman smiled, "Maybe if I can get some training."

"I was planning on offering it anyways." Yasougin shrugged

"Why?"

The reply was harsh, quick...but not unexpected. Yasougin simply smiled.

"Someone's been giving me a lot of advice lately...and none of it's for me alone."

She quirked and eyebrow, nodding.

"Well, I have to go to work. Maybe tomorrow, huh?"

"Tomorrow then." Yasougin nodded

"Get dressed already." The woman scolded, "You don't have a job?"

"I have a job..." Yasougin shook his head, "It's just one no one else knows about?"

"And one that doesn't pay, it seems." She observed

"Oh, it pays in more ways than you'd imagine." Yoruboshi said, interrupted the two as he came out of Yasougin's room, "But it also costs more than you'd imagine. Now, Jun, you should go to work, and Yasougin, you should get dressed so you can eat my wife's fabulous meal."

"Jun, huh?"
"Yasougin, huh?"​

"...why do I feel like I've heard that name before?"​
 

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"Ah! Sorry I'm late." Jun exclaimed, almost tripping over her own sandals as she rushed into the store, "I hope I didn't inconvenience anyone."

"Oh, you're not too late at all." The woman who answered her apology looked a little bit older than Kasumi, with small glasses perched on her once-beautiful nose. Yukimura Erina gave Jun a small nod of the head and waved, the purple kimono about her frame swirling in the motions, "Ryuutarou's a little grumpy today. I think his morning tea was a little cold."

"Uh oh." Jun sighed, "Oh well. I'll do my best today, ne?"

"Please do." Erina smiled, opening a door to the back of the shop; Jun bowed slightly to the older woman before entering silently, dropping a thin but long bag off at the door, not speaking as the ring of hammers suddenly assaulted her eardrum.

"You're late." He observed, no pause detected in the slamming of his hammer on the untempered steel, "I can tell."

"How?" she asked softly, a tone of sarcasm added to keep the conversation going, "It's not like you leave this room."

"I hit too many strikes." He said, "I can count the hours by how many hammers strikes and folds I do. You're ten strokes and a complete fold late."

"Ah. My apologies." She said, "How's business?"

"Without you in the front of the store, it's been horrible." He grumbled, "The swords are as good as ever, I just need you to do your weaving and smiling to keep bringing people towards the store. Did you bring your sword again today?"

"Yes." She nodded, "I left it in the front room. Do you want me to wear it?"

"Well, we can't put it on a pedestal. I didn't make it, and I'm not going to claim to." The man nodded, "If I didn't know any better, I'd say it was a Zanpakutou, but really...if you were a shinigami, you'd have left to go to the Gotei. They're really hurting for people, I hear."

"Yes, well. I can't just abandon the Yukimura family business that I just signed up to help." Jun said, gulping hard in the heat, "Shall I start weaving?"

"Yeah. Start on the ones closest to the door of the storage closet. Those are the best ones. If it's not on a rack, don't mind it; those are the crappy ones. I'll break those shorter and give them to some of the kids in the next festival."

"Gotcha." She nodded, "Alright, I'm off."

She bowed and exited the room, picking up her sword and slipping it into her obi sash while she made her way into the storage room.

"...oh my god..." she whispered, mouth hanging open slightly

"He's been motivated by your good weaving." Erina said from behind her, "He says that his swords aren't good enough for your tsuka-ito work, and your sheaths...so he's been making more. More, and more, and more. All in the same time, too! It's a wonder that they don't become poorly crafted...but if anything, they're better than before."

"Well...I'd say that's good but..." Jun sighed, "...it just means I have more work."

"Well, if this keeps up, we'll become very wealthy soon, and we'll be able to slow down production and work on quality, like he's always wanted." Erina smiled, "He always wanted to create a blade for the Gotei Soutaichou, you know. As a present. He's one of the few that really appreciates the work the Gotei has done for Rukongai, even if they mess up a few times."

"And those times they mess up, the Rukongai citizens in this district are famous for their fierce fighting. Thanks to his swords, right?" Erina only nodded at Jun's comment, "...I'm surprised he isn't worshipped around the town."

"Who says he isn't?" Erina grinned, "He doesn't leave the room because of his work, but once he left the room and was detained an extra hour because of people thanking him for all he's done. That was a while ago, before all of this Siege business...but he still smiles if he goes outside, remembering that feeling. He likes to go out once a month, take a day off, and enjoy the peace."

"Hah. That's good..." Jun nodded, pulling out a few spools as she set to fitting a tsuka onto the blade closest to her, "...he's getting old, though."

"Not old enough to let someone do his work for him, though." Erina laughed, "No, we're both slowing down a little. But that slowing down is making him work even harder...it's almost amazing."

"Heh. Well then, I'll just have to match his pace." Jun winked, grinning as she set to work.

Chapter 282 - Dichotomy
[ 1,279]

"You know, in all your time here, I've never seen you do sword practice." Yoruboshi sighed, exhaling another crappy draft of cigarette smoke (apparently this time he had given up half-way through the breath, seeing that his attempt had failed again), "I guess I should sit back and watch a master of the sword, eh?"

"I'd hardly say that." Yasougin shook his head, "Pulling out my full strength isn't something a lot of people can do. I'm just going to do a few forms and let it kind of slip back into me...see if I learned anything about battle through my experiences."

"Do you really expect to understand battle through trying to find this answer?" It was a genuine question, with no malicious intent hidden in it, so Yasougin gave it an honest answer;

"No idea." Yasougin answered, his body slipping slowly into another stance, "But...if humanity does any of a few things well, one of those things is war, right? So maybe, if I learn about humanity, I'll learn about war."

"Will you learn about how to fight wars, start wars, or end them?" Yoruboshi's level tone implied the same level of maturity in the last question.

"...all of them lead to the same result." Yasougin answered levelly, as his sword itself leveled off parallel to the ground, "People dying. I'll just learn about war, and go from there, hmm?"

"Doesn't sound too bad." Yoruboshi smiled, "...y'know...with you and Jun around...sometimes I don't have to pretend to be a shinigami, if I'm helping you two out."

"So that's why you never ask me for money, eh?" Yasougin let a grin form on his mouth as he slowly pushed his body through a thrusting motion, "...well, whatever floats your boat, I guess."

The thrust was blocked by an enemy, Yasougin simply turning the blade in his hand and slashing slowly, as if trying to catch the opponent by surprise, "Well, Yasougin, even if I did ask for money, you wouldn't dig into that stash of money you have from the Gotei, would you?"

"Probably not." The slash was blocked, leaving Yasougin at a stalemate, balancing with his weight on his right foot, "...but I think that if you helped me out for long enough, I'd simply do anything for you. Kill your opponents, shelter your friends, pay off your debts..."

"...fight to the death?"

There was a whirlwind of activity that Yoruboshi's eyes couldn't even perceive; Yasougin simply vanished one moment and then re-appeared the next, sword sheathed and opponent defeated.

"...I have never needed to fight to the death; I have no plans on dying for anybody's sake." Yasougin smiled, "...if I die for anyone, it'll be me."

"Die for yourself, huh? You'd piss off everyone else who's worn that Zanpakutou with that kind of talk." Yoruboshi shook his head

"...I did." Yasougin's memories flickered back to Sayuri, "...that's why I left;"

...I just want to live...

"Because I had no intention of begging for my life again."
 

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Jun returned an hour after the sun had retreated into the mountains. Her clothes slightly dirty, the white under kimono starched with seat in some places, her appearance looked only the slightest bit disheveled as she took her small and graceful steps back to the house.

Yasougin wasn't the only one who wondered if Jun was Meiko or not; Yoruboshi's eyes carefully surveyed everything about her, from the way she smiled as she saw him to the way she nodded her head when he nodded back, observing the way she walked and even the way she stretched her arm as she entered the door.

Everything about the woman was slightly different from Meiko, though in roots they might have been the same. Jun's story was that Meiko was her twin sister, which would explain the slight change and similarities, but that would mean that Meiko had been someone who wouldn't find a new way of life.

Yoruboshi didn't know what to believe; Meiko was only human, but at the same time...he got the feeling that Yasougin allowed her to transcend her weaknesses, even if just for a night. The possibilities of both being true were as solid as the way Jun could be both of them at once.

"Man...I'm getting too caught up in someone else's business." Yoruboshi sighed, "...but really, it's kind of hard not to get caught up in 'that guy's' business...since his business is actually everyone else's business. Or something like that."

"I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't talk about me like I'm not here." Yasougin said from the doorway, slipping on a pair of traditional sandals, "It's a little demeaning, you know."

"Going out again?" Yoruboshi grinned, "I guess you found your insomnia again?"

"It's a little easier when you've found a new path, you know." Yasougin commented, taking a few short steps to test the sandals before his usual strides commenced, "Thanks for the clothes."

"I'm glad you're wearing them, and not that shinigami shihakushou." Yoruboshi nodded, "That you finally let go of all of your regrets of leaving the Gotei, and are moving on to what you promised yourself you'd find before you returned to that place..."

"...yeah." Yasougin stopped as he came parallel to Yoruboshi's side, standing right past the threshold into Yoruboshi's house, "...coming another step and another step closer to becoming a man, right? Heh...but I'm at the age where...maturity should be a given."

"...who said anything about maturity?" Yoruboshi said, a few minutes later, to the melding shadows of Yasougin and the scenery around them, "...you're just getting closer and closer to becoming someone you'll eventually notice isn't that bad of a person. Which is half the battle for us humans;

"The other is learning to accept someone else for what they are." Yoruboshi sighed here, exhaling his smoke lazily (not even bothering to try and make rings this time), "...man, what a ****** path you're walking in. So dark I'm wondering if any light will ever be able to help you out..."

Chapter 283 - Walk In The Dark
[ 1,171 ]

The clothes Yoruboshi had given him were impeccably made, impressively simple, and divinely comfortable; Yasougin wore a white undergarb hidden under a dark blue hakama and white gi, blue-rimmed at the neck and end of the billowing sleeves. He had also been given a dark blue jinbaori if the weather called for it, but even in the turning winds of the winter, Yasougin found himself rather unaffected by the weather.

He simply wore a delicate scarf he had bought, which itself was a nice color of blue, to shield the bottom half of his face from view. It wasn't a bad investment, also making him look rather cool, but in top of that adding to an invisible ken-ki that brought to minds the remeniscient Samurai of the late Edo period. Even if people meant him ill will, only the most voracious would dare to attack someone who reminded them of the skilled killers of old.

And those voracious people were the ones he had wanted to meet.

His induction into the Excelsior, and the words he spoke, had only reinforced his will to find the answer. But even more than that...he was learning that the answer was a delicate balance between the 'good' side of humanity and the 'dark' side of humanity. Even one glimpse of one side could upset the balance that people put within their hearts, but even as he walked down the streets, he was seeing things a bit clearer.

"You lookin' fer a fight, swordsman?" a man grumbled, moving out of Yasougin's way as the shinigami regarded him for the merest of fragments before responding as he walked past.

"I'm looking for an answer. I don't have time for pointless fights."

So Yasougin slipped out of the man's view, into the darkness of the winter, before stopping at one of the larger bars in the town. He had once been a frequent here, simply sitting in the one of the corner tables and watching what occurred, attempting to piece together little fragments of what he saw...

"Those are dangerous words, Yasougin. 'Look down on it', 'understand it all'...those are the words of a scientist dealing with lab rats. I'm not a lab rat, you're not a scientist...so be careful how you envision this road ahead of you."

"Finally got the courage to walk up to the bar, eh?" a man clapped Yasougin on the back heartily, "Though that sword of yours is scary, little man...I'll give you the benefit of the doubt. You look like you've been through some ****** times...you wanna drink?"

Yasougin only grinned.

"The real question here, good sir...is if you want a drink."

There was only a hearty response of laughter before Yasougin set down a few large coins, not even looking at the bartender.

"...and they say every swordsman these days is a stupid shinigami." The man's smile grew into something a bit less playful and a bit more friendly, "Even if you were a shinigami...you're not half bad, kid."

Yasougin only smiled back at the man as the bartender set to filling up a good deal of alcohol.

"Will you be partaking in the festivities?" the bartender asked with a smile

"Give me...a Tonberry."

"...sir that's a particularly str-"

"I know." Yasougin smiled, "Please."

"...yes sir."

Yasougin only lifted his glass to the ceiling, raising it to the smiles around the room.

"My friends." He smiled, "...to the breaking dawn."

"Listen...even if you were in hell, and there was one drop of water, I know that you'd be the type of person to run to catch that drop of water. Not for yourself...but just for the hope that you'd be able to keep it safe for another minute. But don't forget how your own smile looks, Yasougin. Such a fate is...not befitting someone who has fought his way through life. Such a fate is reserved only for those who refuse to fight for anything.

"Even themselves."​
 

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The dawn broke easily on the day, with the usual scuffling about the yard while Kasumi gathered vegetables. Yoruboshi slept in the morning, having stayed up all night practicing his smoke rings, while Jun busied herself getting ready for her job.

Once again, as the night before, the two shinigami passed each other only while one exited. Yasougin gave a respectful nod to the woman as he arrived back at the house an hour after dawn's breaking, walking right past her without a word.

"...cold..." Jun whispered to herself, a breeze slipping through the folds in her blue kimono (today felt like a dark blue day, she decided earlier that morning), chilling her heart and spreading through her body, "...what that man carries behind him is nothing but...cold."

"I wouldn't worry about him." Kasumi said softly, smiling nicely as she plucked a radish out of the garden and inspected it, "He carries cold things behind him...but it's only to get people to stop looking at his back."

"Stop looking at his back?" Jun repeated, a little dumbfounded

"He's the kind of person...who can't stand behind looked at from behind." Kasumi said, her smile never faltering as she inspected the soil in the garden, "He's someone who has a bad back to look at...but a very good face to smile at."

I've never looked at him in the face, ever since we met a few days ago... Jun thought to herself, dark green eyes locked on the closed front door, Is that why he's acting so cold to me?

"...ah well, I guess I won't need any more radishes for breakfast, if you're leaving so early." Kasumi nodded, "Since I'll only be cooking for my husband."

"He's not going to eat?" Jun blinked

"He doesn't need to eat." Kasumi corrected, bending over backwards slightly with her hand at the back of her waist, "He just comes back home, and sits in his room. Leaning against the wall next to the door, he'll look out the window for a few hours before coming out here and asking if he can help with anything."

"Meditation?" Jun asked

"...I don't know. I have a feeling my husband knows what he does, who he thinks about, what he remembers...but he won't tell me. I even asked once, you know." Kasumi gave a slight giggle here, "But all my husband said was 'That man is doing things that no one who smiles easily can understand. It's better if you don't know, darling, so that you can cook for me without worry.' It gets me worried sometimes, the looks he comes back with at night can be really...chilling."

"How was today?" Jun asked, remembering the arctic sensations that had filled her body as Yasougin passed her

"Today was a good day. He didn't have to stop a murder." Kasumi smiled, nodding to Jun as she went inside the house, "...don't worry about him, Jun. He'll never forgive you if you do."

Jun only sighed as the door shut, now knowing what she'd think about as she wove the handles for the Kawamura swords.

Chapter 284 - Shimmer
[ 1,056 ]

"So you went to the bar again, huh?" Yoruboshi asked to the shinigami's figure; it was now a little past noon and the man had released himself from the ritual self-imposed exile, "I heard you spent a good deal of money."

"I took it from my amount from my Gotei pay." Yasougin responded, sitting down next to the small cherry table. Kasumi quickly put down a cup of tea in front of him, earning a smile from the shinigami, "Thanks, Kasumi."

"You mean, Kasuko." Yoruboshi corrected, winking, "...so did you get drunk?"

"No." Yasougin shook his head, sipping the bitter tea, "I ordered a Tonberry."

"...isn't that just really concentrated orange juice?" Yoruboshi tilted his head, "Oh, but it's got all kind of other juices, so it's multi-colored and whatnot and got a strong fruity flavor. Hah...did you fool others into thinking you were drunk so that you could watch them?"

"...I was planning on it, when I first got there." Yasougin admitted, "But what you said...about being a scientist, and looking down on it all...it's got some merit, that advice you gave me...so I thought I'd try to have fun once. I drank a lot of Tonberries, I just didn't outwardly tell people it wasn't alcoholic."

"...did you enjoy yourself?" Yoruboshi asked cautiously

"...I smiled, that's for sure." Yasougin sighed, "I can't seem to have fun with those people, though. All I can think about is what happened for them to be drinking out late, what their wives they're complaining about have done to them, if they beat their kids when they go home...all of that, it's just too much to ignore."

"...you know...that's called being 'friendless'...and it doesn't happen unless you're a real loser." Yoruboshi sighed, "This is why I tried to get you laid, kid. When you've experienced a woman's touch, things like that don't matter sometimes. You can just know that there is love and physical harmony in the world, even if you have to look hard."

"Sex isn't my thing." Yasougin shrugged

"...but you're a guy."

"I'm a warrior, Yoruboshi." Yasougin corrected, "I may keep my humanity close to me...but that doesn't mean I'm a horny teenager."

"Whatever." Yoruboshi shrugged playfully, but his face soon lost its mirthful smile, "In all seriousness, you know...this does sound like you need someone close to you. Someone you can know inside and out, because then when you go out drinking with them, you'll know the answers to those questions, and you can just focus on the smile."

"So you're saying I need a girlfriend, eh?" Yasougin sighed, "Well...that's a weird subject to talk about. I am a rogue, you know."

"Well...there's another certain shinigami who's also single..." Yoruboshi grinned, pushing his lips out slightly in a hilarious impression of talking while kissing. It only earned him a bop on the head from both the tea cup and a rogue spatula, thrown from the kitchen.

"Idiot." Kasumi and Yasougin said in unison, earning a simple chuckle (and rub of the head) from Yoruboshi

"...but seriously, Yasougin." Yoruboshi's voice leveled again, "No one ever said you had to walk this path alone."

"I know." Yasougin sighed softly, eyes moving from Yoruboshi's face to the wall that seemed to be mere inches from him, though it was a good ten feet, "...I know."
 

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"You're staying with that smoker, right?" Erina asked with a smile, breaking the still silence in the sword shop; the day had been a lazy day and only a few people had even looked at the swords, let alone inquired about price, "Uh...Yoruboshi is his name?"

"Yeah." Jun nodded slightly, focusing more on the weaving than the actual conversation, "There's another shinigami there, too."

"I've seen him out at nights, but I hardly ever seen him around during the day. It's a little odd." Erina's mouth twisting slightly on thought, "...does he have a night job?"

"I guess you could call it that; that's what Yoruboshi called it." Jun said plainly, "I don't understand, though, what he does. I don't think anyone but Yoruboshi knows, much less understands, that man."

"I heard he paid for everyone to have a drink last night at one of the large bars. At, uh...the Aomizu place." Erina placed a finger on her chin as she tilted her head up, "Yeah, that larger bar a few blocks down."

"Doesn't seem like something that's important as he says it is." Jun sighed, "He always walks around with a serious look on his face, and I hardly ever see him smile. It's a little sad, you know. He's so focused on something, it's like he has tunnel vision. He'll nod at me when I'm a good distance away, but when we pass each other he won't even acknowledge me."

"Men with a vision often have that problem." a gruff voice was heard over the synchronized hammering and periods of silence, "He's probably just a little lost as to how go about getting to his vision. Men...sometimes we get so scared we can't move forward that we frantically look right in front of us, instead of simply opening up our vision to everything around us."

"Sounds like someone I know." Erina whispered with a giggle, earning a half-hearted smile from the focused Jun.

"Sometimes...I just wish I could make him smile." The shinigami sighed, "I mean...not because I like him or anything but...when I look at his back it's so...cold."

"He must be a good man." This time, the voice was from right behind her, the large man having exited the smithying room for his afternoon tea break, "People say that you grow up by looking at the backs of others...but if his back is cold, it means one of two things..."

"He could be a real jerk." Erina pointed out with a frown

"Either that, or..." the man's eyes could almost be heard sparkling, "Or that he hides his back, not wanting others to grow up to become what he has."

"He's not someone who throws away his smiles, though, in order to be a warrior. Not something stupid like that." Jun shook her head, "He just seems like...he's still trying to find his smile to begin with."

"...you say he's a shinigami?" the man grinned as Jun nodded, "Bring him in here; I'd like to look at his sword."

"Just his sword, eh?" Jun grinned, "I'll see if I can get him to come in tomorrow morning, okay?"

It's been a while since I've heard of someone with a cold back... Ryuutarou's eyes flickered, ...I wonder if you...

Chapter 285 - Stained Blade
[ 1,280]

"...why should I?"

It was a fairly simple question she didn't have an answer for; after all, Yasougin didn't have a real reason to go to the Yukimura's sword shop. He had a sword...and a very good one, by the way he carried it with him; furthermore, it was a Zanpakutou that didn't need polishing or anything of the sort.

She pursed her lips as she attempted to recover from the momentary silence, "I mean, you don't have to, but the Yukimura husband really wants to meet you. The wife has been talking about how you go out at nights to the bar, and she's a little intriged by that. The man, though, he just wants to see your sword."

"...well, you answered your own question in your explanation." Yasougin shrugged, "You said it rather clearly, 'I don't have to'. I might not appear to be doing important things during the daylight hours...but they help keep me sane. It would need to be important for me to simply skip them. Furthermore, there are plenty of people in town who want to meet me, given how I wear a sword and old clothes reminiscent of the samurai."

Jun sighed, "...is this about me?"

"Hmmm?"

"Is this about me?!" she asked harshly, "You've been acting cold to me ever since we met! Are you acting cold because of my sister, or something you did to her? If so, just let it go, I'm not my s-"

"You're not your sister." She stopped her sentence when she realized he was speaking at the same time as her, finishing the sentence in perfect timing, "Even if I was angry or something with Toumei-san, I wouldn't say anything to you about it. She's...made her choice, whatever it may be. As for this coldness...it's not coldness...I'm simply tired."

It was with this that Jun perceived the great fatigue that the man hid expertly behind a mask of indifference, "...but you never eat. Maybe you should eat, or drink! Kasumi's cooking is really good!"

"It's not anything like that; my body is fine." Yasougin shook his head, "Lately...I've been finding it harder and harder to continue what I've been doing. My job, if you will. Just more and more...it's getting darker, if you will. My path, that is."

Jun paused for a moment, "...do you...kill people?"

Yasougin laughed bitterly, shaking his head, "I haven't killed a single person since the attack on Southern Seireitei, all that time ago. I tried to spare people in the 78th District...but they were just killed by others, no matter how I tried. It hurt a lot. No matter how I tried to pierce my opponents then, I would move my sword at the last moment...only to see them get killed by others."

Jun paused, not sure what to say.

"Hey, Yasougin." Yoruboshi poked his head into the man's room, "The Yukimura sword smith wants you to drop by his sword shop."

"...I know." Yasougin's voice held a bit of irritation in his voice, "She was just expl-"

Yasougin's voice stopped as he spotted a flittering of white, eyes widening.

"I think it would be best; this sword's got a bit of blood on it's that been here for a long time. I might rust if you don't get a very skilled swordsmith to polish and clean it. Maybe you could even get the entire sword cleaned up and whatnot, though I'm sure you're loathe to take it apart." Yoruboshi smiled, "Hmm?"

Yasougin couldn't speak, his eyes only gaping wide open at what Yoruboshi held in his hands.

"...*******...when did you..."

"I did like you asked; I put it on the rack downstairs while you tried to find your answer." Yoruboshi shrugged, "But I smell blood."

Yasougin swiftly stood up, slipping the object into his hakama strap next to Seizakoku as he put on the jinbaori, "Jun, we're going now."

Walking past Yoruboshi, he stopped for the slightest moment.

"...messing with this sword means certain death." Yasougin said softly, "I can't control its blade anymore."

"Simply because you don't have the blessing of Sougen doesn't mean it's not your sword, Shouyuu." Yoruboshi replied, a level tone now turning into a tone of slight disgust, "...besides, I hate people who throw away their swords."

Yasougin continued walking, Jun scuffling to catch up behind him.

It's been a while...eh?

Norikou Gakushi Mitsu...what an ironic name, at a time like this...
 

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"Ah, excuse me..." Jun said softly as the door opened slightly, "Sorry for bothering you so late, Yukimura-san..."

"Oh, Jun!" Erina blinked a few times, "I was just about to head to bed; I have to get up early tomorrow for errands before we open up. Can I help you?"

"No, but you can help me." Yasougin said with a smile, pushing the door wide open to reveal himself, "I heard that Yukimura Ryuutarou-san wanted to meet me?"

"And you are...?" Erina's eyes ran up the white and blue outfit, settling in the two swords at the shinigami's side. They paused here for a moment, and noticing the awkward silence, Erina's eyes traced back up the gi to his auburn eyes.

"You can call me Yasougin, if you need to call me." He nodded as they finally made eye contact once more.

"Well, uh, Yasougin-san. Come in." Erina opened the door all the way, "He's currently finishing dinner right now, so you'll have to wait a little bit."

"That's fine." Yasougin smiled, bowing as he entered the house, "Sorry for being a hindrance at this hour."

"Oh, nonsense; the sun's only set because it's winter and the day is getting shorter." Erina waved slightly, "Jun, would you like to have some food with me while the men converse?"

"I, uh...sure." Jun blinked rapidly, nodding at Erina's veiled requests to be alone with her, "I'll see you later, okay Yasougin?"

Yasougin simply nodded his head and sat on a cusion in the front room, which was obviously a waiting room. His eyes were focused on the shadow on the wall; it was a sliding door with Ryuutarou's shadow projected onto it.

He slipped the two swords out of his hakama sheath and placed them at his left, something eerily familiar about the way he did so giving Jun a slight shiver down her back. Erina waved at her from the door, and the blue-wearing woman scurried over to the kitchen to honor the hostess' request.

I wonder...why does Ryuutarou-san want to talk to you?

Chapter 285 - Midnight Samurai
[ 1,185 ]

"Sorry for making you wait so long." Ryuutarou said, opening the door.

Yasougin opened his eyes, shaking his head, "No need; I came unannounced, really. There was no way for you to know that I was coming, so you simply finished your dinner. After all, a sword smith must be methodical in all things that he does, yes?"

"Heh. You understand me well." Ryuutarou smiled

"A bit better than you might think." Yasougin said with a deadpan expression, "It doesn't take someone twenty minutes to eat a single piece of meat. Or, was it even meat at all?"

"Oh?" Ryuutarou arched an eyebrow, "What might you be speaking of."

"It's generally fine to test someone for respect and patience; I don't mind you taking extra long with your dinner. But not telling me how I did is a little annoying." Yasougin shrugged, "The smell of meat is clinging to your clothes, but not so much in your mouth, even though your shadow just finished eating."

Ryuutarou scratched his head, frowning, "...was I that obvious?"

"Not really. I'm just used to expect bad things thrown at me." Yasougin shrugged, "So it's easy to spot it when someone doesn't know exactly how to conceal themselves."

"Such is the life of a rogue." Ryuutarou said after a moment, "Always trying to stay out of peoples' way, never wanting to fight the next person who hates shinigami, always getting tied up in humanity...isn't it a bit tiring?"

Yasougin didn't answer for a moment, but instead, stood up to his full height; Ryuutarou towered over him in many aspects, but in the terms of their shadows...

"If you're going to test my 'maai'...you're going to need a sword."

Ryuutarou almost flinched at the words of the swordsman, who had risen without his two sacred blades, unable to tear his eyes away from the flashing auburn ones before him.

"I've killed; you would neither be the first nor the last." Yasougin said, almost off-handedly, "Don't expect someone to be weak simply because they've left something they might have believed in; not all of us are as lost as you think."

"You've grown rather testy in your rogue days, good sir." Ryuutarou said dangerously, "I believe that you wouldn't be able to kill me; whether by technique or by your inability to simply kill someone in cold blood."

They simply held eyes for a sheer moment before Ryuutarou nodded, "Fine. You came at my request to see you; I have only to do a favor for you."

"I'd like you to look at my sword." Yasougin said, kneeling on his left knee rather nonchalantly, picking up Norikou as he slipped Seizakoku into his hakama's strap, "Yoruboshi said there was a spot of blood on it I should get cleaned off; by you, especially, it seemed."

Ryuutarou took the sword in hands, one on either side of the tsuba, and slowly unsheathed the alabaster wonder. Sheer amazement flickered in his eyes, far brighter than the reflected white of Norikou's perpetual edge, until the very edge of the kissaki tip slipped out of the sheath, where a few specks of blue adorned the white.

"Yoruboshi's blood..." Ryuutarou sighed, "Did you do this?"

"No; but judging by the oil on the blade's edge, he was testing its sharpness and simply nicked himself on Norikou's edge." Yasougin shrugged

"You can see the oil from there?" Ryuutarou asked

"...don't kid around with me." Yasougin growled, "I'm a swordsman with pride; I know my swords. That might have been a gift from someone I attempted to leave behind...but you can't leave behind that kind of fighting spirit. I know every inch of the blade, even though I've drawn it barely two times."

Ryuutarou simply regarded Yasougin before putting his free hand's index finger on the kissaki tip, "This blood will take all night to clean off; Yoruboshi's blood has a...terrible quality to it. It's an unfortunate effect, surely...and it's good you came to see me before the blade's edge was forever ruined."

...forever ruined? Yasougin repeated in his mind, ...what?

"I'll expect to see you tomorrow." Ryuutarou said, slipping the sword into its sheath, "...come prepared to fight."

"If I hadn't been prepared to fight, I wouldn't have become a rogue." Yasougin said sternly, putting his hand on Seizakoku, "but don't think for a second you can draw that blade, Ryuutarou. The man who gave me that blade is I one can barely comprehend, let alone someone like you trying to understand him. His blade is...heavy; I don't want you to cut yourself."

Yasougin bowed politely, totally demeaning the harsh words he had just said, before proceeding the few steps back to the entrance.

"...I never entered your house, Ryuutarou." Yasougin said, "Don't ever forget that; a shinigami who leaves the Gotei on bad terms will never be welcomed again, will be hunted forever. Those who are dead stay dead. Unless you want to be killed by others seeking a rogue...I never entered your house."

Ryuutarou only gulped hard, eyes widening.

This...this *******...does he know?

"I'll see you tomorrow." Yasougin said coldly, beckoning Jun from the bar in the kitchen, "But if you want me to come prepared to fight...you had better come prepared to die."
 

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They walked back in silence, Yasougin's jinbaori flittering in the soft winter wind. He was a little cold, but the fabric he wore was made impeccably well, and so it didn't bother him too much. Instead, he was bothered by the lack of weight at his left hip.

It's been a while since I had worn both Norikou Gakushi Mitsu and Seizakoku; the dual responsibilities of being the Shouyuu Clan leader and the 3rd Seated Officer of the 1st Division. I left the old Seizakoku behind...but why didn't I leave behind Norikou Gakushi Mitsu...?

The question still haunted him, and ever had since the moment Yoruboshi had inquired about the white sword in his luggage; apparently he had unconsciously slipped the sword into his bag when he had packed up to leave the 1st Division, that fateful morning day.

I don't think I still cling to the Gotei...but at the same time, it's been impossible for me to forget Sougen, Chikako-taichou, or any of the others I met after my 'rebirth'. Those people, fighting for the haoris on their backs, while still attempting to be human...well, at least, some of them...

Yasougin's auburn eyes flashed as he thought of the lonesome Commander Captain, and what little he knew of Sougen Amagawa.

Try as I might...I still can't figure out what I think of that man... he sighed softly, Every time someone mentions his name, I perk up. I can't still be angry at him, but at the same time...it feels as if something has tied us together, and not even my momentary rage at him would be enough to cut it...

You can't cut the bonds from someone you've once pledged your life to.
Seizakoku interrupted, It's like love, idiot. If you truly and fully love someone, you will never forget them. If, even for a moment, your old self thought of Sougen as someone he could pledge his life to - which he did, mind you, for his entire existence in the 1st Division - then it will be impossible for you to cut ties with him. On top of that, he kicked your old self's ***...so you probably want revenge.

Revenge? No...
Yasougin sighed, ...no, it's different, Seizakoku. Sougen is a man who has thrown away his humanity...you can see it in the very way he acts. I did that, too; but I couldn't throw it all away. Leon pulled it out from the depths of me. Sougen...he seems impervious to humanity. Perhaps...in this quest for humanity, I remember him because he is the one thing I can't understand.

There was silence between the two before Seizakoku spoke again.

...do you want to hate him?

No. I don't want to hate anyone.

But he abandoned you, when you needed it, right? Not even his memory was there to help you when Seizakoku had betrayed you...

...I don't know, Seizakoku. I simply don't know...
[/b] Yasougin shook his head, I know about humanity, I know about pain, I know about swords, I know about hearts, I know about women, I know about men...but I don't know why he didn't help me. Perhaps that's why...I don't like to think about him.

Because it's entirely possible I was simply another sword to him.


Chapter 286 - The Way as Hidden By The Sunrise: I
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"You're going to stare at the wall all night?" Jun asked, poking her head into the room.

"I'm not staring at the wall; I'm trying to meditate." Yasougin pressed the 'trying' part, earning a small scowl from the woman, "For your information, I'm going to meditate until I find what I need."

"...you always meditate; what do you meditate about?" Jun asked sourly

"...you don't meditate 'about' things." Yasougin sighed, "What are you, stupid?"

"Well, if you're so smart, when're you going to start teaching me like you said you would?" Jun pouted, "I've been waiting for you to just rip me out of my job, but you're just been coming and leaving the house just as I leave and go. It's almost as if you're avoiding me."

"Hah. I wouldn't waste my time avoiding you." Yasougin smiled, "Because it would be that; a waste of time. You can't un-do a promise. I simply have other things to take care of, Jun. Teaching someone how to kill can wait...but attempting to calm a murderer's heart; that's something that needs to be done right away."

"...using a word like 'murderer' to describe yourself..." Jun pursed her lips, "How can you stand to brand yourself with those kinds of words?"

"Because I know it's true. And I don't run away from it." Yasougin shrugged, "I know I've killed people that could have mated with someone else and created the next Commander Captain. I know that my sword was, at its most ferocious point, used to kill for food. But I only kill because people stand in my way. Such a way of living is...something I never wanted to do with a tool."

"But Zanpakutous aren't tools." Jun frowned, "I heard from Yoruboshi that Zanpakutous are the closest thing to Holy Swords one can get...swords that have life within them. Swords that will stand if you stand, help you up if you want to stand. So they're not just tools!"

"...don't you get it?" Yasougin sighed, "...that's what makes killing with them even harder."

Jun only blinked.

"...so you're human, just like the rest of us." She sighed, "You're a shinigami, but you don't need food. You're a lively man sometimes, but you don't need sleep. You're a man, but you don't need women. You're a samurai, but you don't need a lord...tell me, Yasougin...what do you need?"

Yasougin sighed;

"Why the hell do you think I'm trying to meditate?"

There was a pang of pity within the deep emerald eyes before Jun finally understood the chaos shielded behind strong eyes. The woman left silently, leaving only the man and his sword.

His eyes were fixated on a small black tower-like object, with a forking edge at the top, that was sideways and blunt. He shook his head in disbelief.

I even brought this sword stand...this sword stand, and Norikou Gakushi Mitsu, and all of those memories of faithfully serving Sougen without a second thought. Simply because he defeated me in a sparring match. Why...why...

His memories reverted back to the day when Yoruboshi had presented him with his own sword, and at that time, when he had been given a horrendous and terrible truth.

...why am I unable to draw Norikou Gakushi Mitsu?
 

Kishyotai

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He had gotten no sleep, but he didn't need it, so when the sun rose, he simply stood up and changed into a dark green pair of robes. He didn't bother wearing a jinbaori, but today slipped on a black obi sash and nestled Seizakoku into its folding edges.

"Ready?" Yoruboshi asked, knocking on the door, "Yukimura's shop has been open for about half an hour now, so it would be best if you go early. Based on what Jun said she talked about with wife, and how scared the wife was about you coming to the house...today could be a rough morning for you."

"I have no intention of fighting that man." Yasougin shrugged, "He can't hide his true nature from me; he brought me to his house to test my maai but, instead, I was the one that learned about him."

"...what'd you learn?" Yoruboshi blinked a few times, tilting his head sideways

"Just that he used to be something he's not. I suppose that's the best way to put it." Yasougin nodded after a moment, "Perhaps...that he's unhappy with what he is now, but that he's biding his time to strike back at his regret."

"I see..." Yoruboshi nodded, "Well, I don't know what you're talking about anyways, so it could be right. I'll leave the perpetual understanding of humans to you; I'm just here to look cool and learn how to blow smoke rings."

"And you're horrible at doing both." Yasougin smiled kindly, "I should get going like you say; no need in interrupting his business if it could be busy during lunch. I'm off to the shop."

"...hey." Yoruboshi said, clapping his hand on Yasougin's shoulder, "I don't know why you were meditating all night again, and I don't know why that sword rack is over there but empty, and I don't know anything about that sword and why you're scared pissless of it. But what I do know that...there isn't a sword your hands can't wield. It's all about the soul."

"...I know." Yasougin sighed, bowing his head, "And it's that very soul you speak of that I'm worried about."

Chapter 287 - The Way As Hidden By Sunrise: II
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"Welcome to our sho-" Erina's words stopped cold as she saw the familiar figure garbed in dark green enter the store, "Ah. Yasougin-san. You came a bit earlier than I thought. He said you'd be here early, though. He's not in the forge, but instead, out back, waiting for you."

"Ah. Thank you." Yasougin smiled, walking back out, "...oh, and Mrs. Yukimura?"

"Yes?"

"I have no intentions to neither kill your husband nor make him what he was." Yasougin said after a moment, "...whatever he was, that is."

The wife's heart seemed to add an extra palpitation in it, her hand bracing the suddenly weak body against a sword case, as the shinigami left the store to go around back. Her gaze held the doorway for a moment, but she slowly closed her tired eyes.

"...it's not him I'm worried about." The woman sighed, tipping her head back as she looked at the ceiling-hung lamp, "...it's you."

The words fell on no ears but her own; Yasougin had long left the doorway and walked around to see Ryuutarou wearing a hakama and gi. Norikou Gakushi Mitsu was in his left hand, and he seemed to be facing a rather old tree that stood behind the house, its shade giving a cool respite for a small pond filled with birds.

"You came." Ryuutarou nodded, "Just like I thought."

"Norikou is?" Yasougin asked

"Fine; I got the blood off in time. The sword held off against the effects far better than I might have ever imagined; as if it was fighting Yoruboshi's blood." Ryuutarou nodded, "Well, now that you're here, I might as well you what I originally brought to my house for the first place."

And then, with the most delicate of movements, Ryuutarou slipped Norikou Gakushi Mitsu into his hakama strap, slipping the saya into his grip as he slowly started to draw the sword.

"Give me this sword."

The draw was two inches completed.

"Give me this sword...so that I can fight again."

The draw was stopped instantly by a materializing Yasougin, whose eyes were afire with an ancient rage. His hand had stopped the draw by placing it on the sword's koshirae, left hand on the saya of Seizakoku.

"Don't **** around with me." Yasougin hissed, "Sheath my sword."

"Give me the sword. Please." Ryuutarou said again

"Sheath my sword."

"Just gi-"

"Sheath my sword."

"IT'S NOT EVEN YOURS!" the man roared, "Look! You're absolutely terrified of this blade! Your hand isn't touching the koshirae any more than it needs to; for that one moment alone you pushed against my hand, but when I stopped, you made no effort to sheath it with your hand. Probably because of my thumb, which could be cut against the blunt side of the blade in the worst of circumstances. What a pitiful excuse for a swordsman, someone afraid of a very blessing given to him."

"Just sheath my sword."

"This is a masterpiece, fool! You could very well kill an army with this! Let me use this sword again, let me be strong again, let me stand up for what I think is right again!" Ryuutarou roared - a bit more than begged, that is - at the shinigami, "Just give it to me!"

"...I told you that, if you wanted me to be prepared to fight, you would need to be prepared to die."

And here, Yasougin let forward the full force of his own maai, the restrained killing intent he had kept to himself for so long; Ryuutarou let go of the sword, which slipped of its own accord back into its sheath. The man's body paralyzed, Yasougin simply took his sword back and fitted it into the black obi sash.

"...kill an army with this sword? Don't be ridiculous; that's an insult to the blade." Yasougin shook his head, "This sword was probably forged to kill Gods. Armies are nothing to me, Ryuutarou. But this sword represents the one man that I'll never lose to again. The one man that tossed me around like a puppetmaster who fights against a puppet he controls, but at the end, armed me and welcomed me. Showing both killing intent so passively, and kindness so actively...he is a man with no 'man'. He is a Void. And that is why I keep this sword close;

"Because no one but someone who has seen that Void's destructive power can ever hope to understand what this sword represents." He shook his head, "I can't draw this sword, Ryuutarou, because I understand what it is. I am beginning to fathom what this sword was made to do...so I cannot draw it. Because, if I can understand that cause...what would stop me from taking that cause up?"

Ryuutarou's body was released from Yasougin's maai as the swordsman retracted the full extent of his intangible manifestations, turning his back onto the man.

"...just as I thought..." the swordsmith whispered, "Such a cold back. But completely different from his cold back...that other one who held a perfect sword."

"...'other one'?" Yasougin stopped for a moment, frowning, "...what do you mea-?"

"Yasougin!" however the panting attempted to disguise Jun's voice, the panic in the vibrating vocal chords immediately seized Yasougin's attention.

"What?"

"Yoruboshi and Kasumi...they...they've been killed!"

~*~

Volume 99 - Paths, Part I: Path of the Specter
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