Three weeks later Shunsui awoke to the sound of larks singing.

He kept his eyes closed, stayed slack in his futon, listening to the liquid trills. The trees outside rustled, and there were people walking and talking in low voices out on the paths outside. Various students were also waking up within the building. He could feel the reiatsu of nearly everyone in this half of the dorm.

Within days of returning to the Academy, Shunsui had had one of his nightmares. The next morning everyone helped Shunsui and Jyuushiro move into a corner room. The helpers had also removed all the students in the rooms immediately next to theirs. It was telling that the school administration had quietly provided all the paperwork to allow the changes, and they'd filled in all the forms correctly. The paper walls were very little insulation between student rooms, and the two new shikai wielders had more power than they knew how to control.

It had resulted in a lot of side benefits for Shunsui and Jyuushiro, too, including a lot more privacy and a far less crowded common bathroom.

Jyuushiro stirred in his sleep, and his breathing caught in a soft gasp. Shunsui opened his eyes to study Jyuushiro, who rubbed one cheek against Shunsui's shoulder before snuggling in closer and going back to sleep as easily as a fish sinking below the surface of the water. They were entwined under the covers, sharing the futon. The extra privacy had allowed Jyuushiro's sexuality to blossom, and Shunsui had been surprised and delighted by where Jyuushiro's imagination had taken them both. Shunsui hugged Jyuushiro closer. Jyuushiro was using Shunsui's shoulder as a pillow, and Shunsui's arm was along Jyuushiro's back, so he stroked Jyuushiro's hip gently. Jyuushiro gave a small, contented murmur.

Today was going to be the last of Jyuushiro's lung tests, and Shunsui had a complex mixture of feelings about that. He studied his internal maelstrom with interest. It would be good to sort through it before they went to the infirmary. He realized that he was angry about Jyuushiro having to do the test, and that the anger stemmed more from his own feelings of helplessness at not being able to stop Jyuushiro or change the school's rules and his own fear of losing his best friend, rather than from any pain Jyuushiro might experience. Jyuushiro understood all the consequences and was fearlessly going ahead because he could finally see his goal at the end.

Shunsui frowned and had to admit to a small measure of resentment at Jyuushiro having a goal that didn't include Shunsui. A petty feeling, but real. It helped knowing that Yamamoto and Daisuke had agreed that depending on how well the test went, that this could be the very last one. It also helped that Jyuushiro was happy to accept Shunsui's support and assistance this time around.

There was an ache at that thought, and Shunsui narrowed his eyes, trying to untangle it from all the others. Finally he closed his eyes and was treated to the tactile memory of holding Jyuushiro in the infirmary, before the mountain retreat, while Jyuushiro had kissed, coughed, and cried in Shunsui's arms. He tightened his grip on Jyuushiro and felt Jyuushiro's reiatsu curling protectively about him even as Jyuushiro moved in closer and started to surface from sleep. Shunsui murmured a soft note of reassurance and was gratified to feel Jyuushiro relax again. He didn't want to wake Jyuushiro up just yet.

Shunsui took a deep breath and let it out as gradually.

In that moment of quiet he realized what he'd been avoiding all along. It was the question that Jyuushiro had had the courage to ask multiple times, and which Shunsui couldn't even really think, much less say.

His feelings for Jyuushiro were just so different.

Different from all the times Shunsui had fallen madly in love with some beautiful girl, and made her his world or had a helpless crush on one of his brother's friends. He'd go moon calf crazy over them, get drunk in sorrow for missing them, write poetry in wild bursts of frenetic desire, lose his heart and soul over them, only to wake up months later knowing it was over or having them lose all patience with him and beat him off with a stick. It had been as inevitable as the phases of the moon. Now that he had something to compare to, he now knew that he'd never been able to see or know those people any more than he'd allowed them to know him.

Especially not the ways Jyuushiro knew him.

And we know you, too, said Shunsui's sword soul. Always have, even if you didn't know we were here.

Shunsui huffed a soft laugh. I'm not safe anywhere.

Well, you can hide stuff from us, but I wouldn't exactly advise it. The glint of a well-sharpened edge shone in Shunsui's mind. You are known and accepted. And with that soul mate of yours, I believe you are loved.

That's the problem. Shunsui couldn't help the wryness of his answer.

How is it a problem? Katen Kyokotsu sounded confused. If he loves you, isn't that a good thing? I mean, you do love him, don't you.

Do I? Shunsui suddenly felt confused and almost frightened. I don't think I do.

What does thinking have to do with it?

But I don't feel...

What... half-sick with anticipation? Dread? Longing? Wanting to lose yourself and only be everything he wants of you so he won't be disappointed by you?

Well... when you put it that way... Shunsui eyed how his sword thought about how he felt about loving, and then had to, reluctantly, agree with the assessment. Those were many of the things he felt when he was sure he was in love with someone. The pangs of being that deeply in love were what he looked for to know that he was loving them enough. I really don't feel any of those things for Jyuushiro.

What do you feel, then?

Reassured? Supported. He doesn't protect me any more than I protect him, we let each other take the knocks that are coming to us.

Why?

Well, I know he can handle them. He's strong.

And you?

That took Shunsui aback. I'm strong too, I guess.

What part of shikai do you not get? Her tones were silky smooth, and Shunsui shivered.

I am strong?

Her laughter made Shunsui shift, and Jyuushiro's grip tightened on Shunsui.

"You are strong, Shunsui," Jyuushiro said, with his eyes still closed.

"And you can hear what I'm thinking," Shunsui said, resigned.

Jyuushiro didn't open his eyes, he just nodded against Shunsui's shoulder. "I can't hear the other side of your conversation, but you, just now, yes. Just like in the cave. Loud and clear."

Shunsui had no idea what to say in answer to that, instead, he hugged Jyuushiro more tightly and was gratified to hear Jyuushiro sigh in contentment.

You make him even stronger, you know. Just as he strengthens you.

Shunsui squinted and rather than feeling like his mind was being invaded on two fronts, he said out loud, "How?"

Jyuushiro blinked open his green eyes, made as if to get up, and then shrugged and settled back against Shunsui and didn't ask the obvious, How, what? Instead, he just waited.

Everyone fights better when they're fighting for something, Katen Kyokotsu said quietly. Now both of you are fighting for each other.

"Like we did in the caves," Shunsui said. "And in our... dreams?"

Inner worlds, Katen Kyokotus said matter-of-factly. It's our world, where we can walk together, within your heart and mind.

"In my heart and mind?" Shunsui said, frowning, and he started to wonder. "Does that mean...?"

Now Jyuushiro was blinking at him.

Does it mean what, brother?

Shunsui shook his head. He wasn't sure if he was ready to share that with either his inner sword spirit or his best friend, yet. "Nothing. Just a wild and crazy I idea I had for a moment. It's probably nothing."

You just don't want Jyuushiro to hear. Hm?

Her arch tone got an involuntary cough of laughter from Shunsui, but he stuck to his guns. "Not now, anyway. We have a tough day to face, still."

He saw Jyuushiro's gaze flicker away, but Jyuushiro nodded against Shunsui's shoulder. "True. One last hurdle..."

"Hopefully not the last," Shunsui said with a gentle kiss on Jyuushiro's brow. "I'm sure we'll both be jumping a whole lot more next school year. Speaking of which..."

Jyuushiro's black eyebrow rose at the lingering question.

"... do you have plans for your summer break? What would you think of spending some time with me at Kyouraku Castle? And wouldn't it be, oh, so lovely and polite of you to invite me to your lovely summer beach home for part of the break, too?" Shunsui smiled winningly.

Jyuushiro laughed. "So you can escape your family for part of the break?"

Shunsui grinned. "Well, do you blame me?"

Jyuushiro paused. "No, I don't, even when I really do want to meet them again. Still, how soon after school will we be leaving?"

"Pretty much immediately," Shunsui said.

"I don't know if I'll..." Jyuushiro stopped.

"You'll be fine," Shunsui said. "You've got shikai, it can only make it easier, right?"

Jyuushiro's lips thinned.

Shunsui shook him. "What?"

"I don't know," Jyuushiro said. "But after the last cold it took me weeks to recover enough strength to even walk, I don't think shikai is going to cut that to days."

Shunsui frowned and wasn't sure what to say in the face of Jyuushiro's pessimism. Shikai seemed pretty magical to Shunsui. It had afforded him a lot more power in even the weeks they'd been back. Ryuu-sama had started doing one-on-one training with them, and they'd been banned from teaching the beginner classes until they had more control. It was hard to teach someone who had already passed out. Yamamoto-sama had sat down with them and Daisuke-san to show them a few tricks he used to keep things damped down enough to teach the first year students, and that had helped, but it hadn't fixed all the problems.

What had been even more frightening was the special work Kuchiki Amemi had them do in order to discover the extent of their shikai abilities. There were some pretty crazy possibilities with Shunsui's shikai. A blade that liked playing deadly games was something none of the instructors had ever seen before. Jyuushiro's reflecting abilities and calling down lightning had been pretty straightforward in comparison. Kido class had proven particularly exciting when Shunsui had attempted a fireball, and the thing had blown down the target wall and put half the shards into the next building over. That had taken a while to fix.

"Well, you helped me fix that wall, the least I can do is stick with you until you're ready to travel for the break," Shunsui said. "No matter how long it takes."

Jyuushiro buried his face against Shunsui's shoulder. Shunsui hugged him and sighed.

"I'm just not looking forward to it, you know?" Jyuushiro murmured against Shunsui's skin.

"Yes," Shunsui said. "I know."

Gently, he grabbed Jyuushiro and rolled Jyuushiro to lie on top of Shunsui. This was something he'd been planning ever since he'd realized they were finally safe, that neither of them was going to die in the belly of the mountain. This test had seemed so far away then, but now it was right here with them.

Shunsui captured Jyuushiro mouth with a gentle kiss. He slipped one hand in Jyuushiro's hair and gradually made the kisses more insistent, until they were both groaning. Shunsui pulled aside the covers, parted his legs, rolled his hips, and presented the bottle of camellia oil to Jyuushiro. Jyuushiro blinked down at Shunsui, and Shunsui grinned.

"Go on. Distract yourself," Shunsui said.

Jyuushiro took the bottle of oil and gave Shunsui another searing kiss that left Shunsui gasping. The cool slick slide of Jyuushiro's fingers made Shunsui sigh, relax, and open to the heated press of Jyuushiro himself, and Jyuushiro distracted both of them very thoroughly indeed.


When the time came, they walked to the infirmary together. They went inside, and Jyuushiro checked in at the front desk. When one of the clinic's nurses called Jyuushiro, they both got up to go after the nurse. Shunsui was very startled when he heard Jyuushiro's voice saying, I'm very glad you're here. He didn't hear it with his ears. He looked at Jyuushiro, and he could feel Jyuushiro's amusement next to him, swirling through the reiatsu that Shunsui had been sleeping with for the last year.

You're most welcome, Shunsui tried and got a smile in return that was so bright that Shunsui felt weak-kneed.

They were ushered into the same, plain clinical room Jyuushiro had had for the other test, and Jyuushiro's customary setup was there on the floor. The white bowl, the tatami mat, and the slender bamboo vessel containing the triggering powder.

"Nakamura-san said that you would know what to do, and that she'd be by to collect the sample," the nurse said before bowing herself out of the room.

"So..." Shunsui said, looking at the setup and remembering, in stark detail, how vulnerable Jyuushiro had looked the first time Shunsui had found him coughing his lungs out on a mat. "Where do you want me?"

"Behind me," Jyuushiro said quietly. "Can you support me while I sit seiza before you? You might want to shed a few layers before I get blood all over everything."

"Certainly." They both shed all their robes, hakama, and socks, leaving on fundoshi for decency's sake. Shunsui settled his ass on the ground and spread his legs for Jyuushiro again, and his smirk at remembering how he'd done just that this morning made Jyuushiro laugh. "There."

Jyuushiro kissed Shunsui's mouth and then settled between Shunsui's legs. Shunsui leaned forward, put his arms around Jyuushiro's waist, and his forehead against Jyuushiro's back, between the shoulder blades. The skin there was smooth, dense, and warm. He felt more than heard Jyuushiro's quiet hum of contentment, and the juxtaposition of Jyuushiro's vulnerability and trust made Shunsui pained.

"You all right, Shunsui?" Jyuushiro asked.

Shunsui laughed. "Isn't that what I'm supposed to be asking you?"

This close, Shunsui could feel Jyuushiro's compassion and sympathy, his resolution and comfort in Shunsui's presence. Then he suddenly realized that just as he could feel Jyuushiro's emotions through reiatsu, so could Jyuushiro feel his feelings. "Oh."

"Oh?" Jyuushiro asked patiently.

"You..." The wonder at knowing that Jyuushiro cared about Shunsui's feelings made him hug Jyuushiro closer, and he felt Jyuushiro hug Shunsui's arms to his belly.

"Yeah. I do care a lot about you," Jyuushiro said frankly. "And I'm very glad you're here to help me. Not sure why you're feeling so... achy... at me trusting you."

Shunsui shook his head, impatiently at himself. "It's nothing. Or, at least compared to what you're..." He stopped his own mouth. "You don't see this as a hardship at all, do you?"

Jyuushiro shrugged. "No, not really. Just something I have to do in order to do all the things I want to do and protect the people I love."

Shunsui nodded against Jyuushiro's back again, and breathed slowly in and out and felt his own tension ease with the knowledge of Jyuushiro's determination. This wasn't up to Shunsui, worrying or being anxious would only get in Jyuushiro's way, and he felt Jyuushiro sigh in something like relief.

"Yeah. Better," Shunsui said. Jyuushiro relaxed against Shunsui's support.

"All right, here we go then," Jyuushiro said, with a touch of grimness in his tone. "You're going to have to let go of me for just a bit. I need to breathe deep."

Shunsui reluctantly released his hug around Jyuushiro's middle and leaned back to be out of the way of Jyuushiro's arms and elbows. Jyuushiro picked up the little bamboo tube, popped the cork out of one end, and pulled a smaller plug from the side of the tube. He breathed out, put his mouth to the pipe, and sucked air through the small thing. Shunsui found himself holding his breath with Jyuushiro for the count of ten, and then they both breathed out slowly.

Jyuushiro set the tube aside, grabbed the sample bowl, flopped back to sit, leaning heavily against Shunsui, and pulled Shunsui's arms around him. Shunsui cradled Jyuushiro when he started to cough.

Shunsui had to be careful to get his face and head out of the way when Jyuushiro went into paroxysms of coughing. Other than that he gently held Jyuushiro, reminding him to breath and marveled at the fact that Jyuushiro actually listened to his murmurs of encouragement. The ragged breathing would slow, deepen and even out under Shunsui's murmur; that is until another round of coughing knocked Jyuushiro over.

Knowing the routine and the need for the bowl, Shunsui flung a hand under it to cushion it from hitting the floor too hard, or from hitting him. Better to make sure it didn't break, so they wouldn't have to start over again.

Soon there was plenty in the bowl. Shunsui gently coaxed Jyuushiro to let go of it in a quiet period, and he hastily placed it a safe distance away from both of them before coming back to Jyuushiro. Shunsui pulled Jyuushiro back into his lap. He heard the door open and was grateful to see Kiyoko, who dropped a pile of warm, damp clothes next to them before gathering up the precious sample.

Shunsui cleaned them both up, and felt Jyuushiro relax, one ear pressed against Shunsui's chest. It seemed to comfort Jyuushiro.

Thinking about what he'd learned from Katen Kyokotsu, Shunsui closed his eyes and tried to feel his way into their inner world, that place with the graves and spring rich dirt and the two parts of his sword soul. There wasn't any great pain to propel him, no emergency to drive him there, and it took Shunsui a while to find the belief that he could. In his head, he thought Please, help me Katen Kyokotsu.

And he dropped right into that space, startling him so much that when he landed Shunsui fell onto his butt.

Katen Kyokotsu laughed, both sides of her, the wolf with flashing fangs, the flower child with her mouth politely covered by her hand, but her dark eyes crinkled at the corners. He rolled his eyes, stood up and shouted, "Jyuushiro! This way! Come to me here!"

Both spirits blinked at him. He cupped his hands about his mouth and shouted again. "Jyuushiro! You can come this way! And if Sogyo no Kotowari," the flower child gasped at that and the wolf abruptly sat down, "wants to come, too, he's welcome! Come this way!"

The wolf's ears went up at a splash from the pond, and she galloped for the water. Shunsui and the flower spirit followed, and when they reached the shore, Shunsui saw two fins showing at the surface and between them was a sleek head of white hair. Jyuushiro popped to the surface. He wiped the water from his face and blinked owlishly at Shunsui.

"You're really here," they both said in unison.

"Well, of course I'm-" "You called-"

They both started laughing.

Jyuushiro rose from the waters, and he was wearing something sleek and silvery, the robes flowing into the waters as if made from them. He had one black eyebrow quirked at Shunsui, and Shunsui looked down at himself and chuckled at seeing a pirate's uniform of patched and worn browns and blacks under a brilliant pink silk kimono even his mother would refuse to wear.

"That's very..." Jyuushiro started.

"Me?" Shunsui said and walked down the bank to hug Jyuushiro. Shunsui was unsurprised to find Jyuushiro entirely dry and warm and solid to the touch. "And you're quite handsome."

Jyuushiro chuckled and hugged Shunsui. "Thanks. And I'm able to talk here, whereas out there... How did you know we could do this?"

Shunsui shrugged. "I didn't. But... Well..." It was absurd how difficult Shunsui found it to say the words. "Uhm. I guess... Uh... Katen Kyokotsu said that they were within my heart, and I realized that if that were truth, then you should be here, too."

Jyuushiro blinked slowly at Shunsui.

"You're going to make me say it, aren't you?" Shunsui said, resigned.

"I'm going to make you say what?" Jyuushiro asked, looking puzzled.

Shunsui sighed, wondering why it was that now all the poetry abandoned him, left him as high and dry as a flotsam after a tsunami sea. He chuckled.

"Right. Here goes. Jyuushiro. I figured that since I... well..." Shunsui bit his lower lip and made himself go on, in the face of widening green eyes. "I love you. I do. And I guess this is about as much proof as I need to confess it, since you've risen from the waters of my dreams and walked on the shore of my heart by the soul of my sword. Even I can't deny it anymore."

Jyuushiro ducked his head and hugged Shunsui tightly enough to squeeze the air out of Shunsui. "Yes. Oh..." He hugged Shunsui again. "Damn. And here..." Jyuushiro stopped abruptly.

Shunsui couldn't help himself, he shook Jyuushiro. "What are you thinking?"

Jyuushiro laughed and looked up and there were tears in his eyes. "I'm thinking that you're not just willing but eager to go to a hospital with me and hold me and care for me while I'm sick and spewing blood, and you needed me to walk through worlds to actually figure out that you loved me?"

Shunsui shook Jyuushiro again.

Jyuushiro started to laugh helplessly. "Oh no no... I know... oh, Shunsui..."

The kiss caught Shunsui by surprise. It was warm, solid, and tasted of Jyuushiro's laughter and the faintest tang of sea salt and water that he remembered from when they'd kissed in the fishing boat out on the sea. Jyuushiro smelled of ocean and ozone, and his body was solid under those flowing robes. It made Shunsui wonder at the possibilities of this existence within an existence.

Jyuushiro broke off the kiss and leaned against Shunsui's chest, and for a while they just held each other.

"Thank you, Shunsui. I'm honored and happy that you... well, that you said that you love me." The wonder in Jyuushiro's voice made Shunsui close his eyes. "It was something I wanted to hear for so long."

"But now you're laughing at me when I say it," Shunsui couldn't help but sound petulant, but it was all right when Jyuushiro hugged him harder.

"I'm sorry. I am, but I'm... I don't quite know how to say it. But... you've been loving me for a very long time, my friend."

Now Shunsui had to hug Jyuushiro just to reassure himself that Jyuushiro was there. "I have?"

"You have. In everything you do, in what you choose to share with me, in how you encourage me, but..."

Shunsui felt Jyuushiro stiffen, hesitating, and he brushed a kiss against Jyuushiro's white hair.

Jyuushiro chuckled against Shunsui's shoulder. "There. See, you're doing it again."

"But...?" Shunsui asked and heard Jyuushiro tsk. That made Shunsui smile.

"But I think it was important for you to have said it."

Shunsui nodded slowly. "I say it all the time, to all kinds of people, but I've never said it to you."

"Do you know why?" Jyuushiro asked, and Shunsui sighed at the honest curiosity. There wasn't even the hint of hurt or anger in the words that that relieved Shunsui of a fear he hadn't even known he'd carried.

Shunsui sighed. "I..." He choked on the lie he'd almost told. "Because I don't want to... I think?"

"You don't want to love me?" Jyuushiro asked, frowning.

"Agh..." Shunsui couldn't figure out the words. "No... yes... oh damn it all to the Thirteenth Hell. It's... I don't want to... "

"He doesn't want to throw himself away for you," the little girl made of flowers said frankly. "He's always thrown himself away for those whom he loved, and for you, he's willing to actually try and keep himself."

Jyuushiro blinked down at her. Two little boys ran up, with hair as white as his and robes of sea blue, and they started running in circles around the three of them.

"Is that you?" he asked, sounding bemused. The two little boys laughed in delight.

"Yes!" They chorused in unison.

"Is that who?" Shunsui asked, feeling dizzy.

"Sogyo no Kotowari," Jyuushiro said sounding rather stern.

The boys giggled more and ran even faster. "Aye!" they chorused and then fell down, giggling more as the girl fell on them and started tickling them.

"When did we start a daycare?" Shunsui asked.

"Are you avoiding what she said?" Jyuushiro asked, far too suddenly for Shunsui.

"Yes," Shunsui said firmly. "I am. I do. I mean..." he sighed and sat down on the grass and tickled a nearby, tiny foot to another gale of giggles. "Right. She's right. You're weird."

Jyuushiro's lips quirked.

"Damn it. I mean... you want me to be myself, and you make it so that I can actually see why you want that." Shunsui sighed, exasperated. "No one else does that. They want a prince, a warrior, a hero, or a debaucher who makes it easy for them to do what they want to do but don't think they should. It's so much easier when I just do what they want me to do..."

"Until you can't anymore," Jyuushiro said gently. "Until some part of your heart and soul protests so much that you have to walk away."

Shunsui blinked in shock at Jyuushiro. "Really? Is that what I... Oh..."

Jyuushiro sat down next to him. The children ran around chasing the wolf, who wagged her tail in delight and ran just far enough ahead so that they couldn't catch her. Shunsui went through nearly every single relationship he'd had before Jyuushiro and held his head in his hands.

He'd flirted, used every society trick in and out of the books, kissed, woo'ed, and bedded mostly because it was what he thought they'd wanted. He'd been the wounded poet, the unfaithful swain, the drunken fighter who could be led into all kinds of trouble, and the romantic second son who had no future, but he'd never really been himself. He didn't think they wanted him.

But here was Jyuushiro, who had seen him at his worst.

"And your best," the wolf muttered, as she ran by.

"And my best," Shunsui said aloud, admitting that was hard too.

"Like when you rescued Yoruichi and Kisuke," Jyuushiro said quietly. "Or how you jumped into battle with the Shihouin or how you jumped in to save the farmers or..."

Shunsui put his fingers against Jyuushiro's mouth, who raised an eyebrow but went quiet. He remembered what it was like to lie on Jyuushiro to keep him from going after the bandits that had the two children, what it was like to urge Shiba up the damned cliff, what it was like to sit outside Kaoru's door and wonder. Shunsui closed his eyes on the feeling that welled up in his heart, and he heard the children and Jyuushiro all gasp and the wolf yelped.

So he opened his eyes.

Shunsui's inner garden had grown. The stream that ran around the hillock was now burgeoning with new melt waters, the rocks in it chattered and rolled with the higher and wider flow. The young sakura was now joined by crabapple, bell flower, and plum trees; and they had all bulked out from slender saplings to foot wide trunks and all burst into glorious bloom, pinks, whites, yellows, and deep reds. Late spring anemone in every conceivable color blanketed swathes of ground between the open and closed graves. Peonies and bright pansies vied with late daffodils, irises, hyacinths, and new wild rose brambles sprawled in the sun falling around the small grove of trees.

"Wow," he said in wonder.

"Yeah. Wow," Jyuushiro echoed, and oddly enough it made Shunsui feel better to know that he was as tongue-tied as Shunsui.

"And this was supposed to be for your sake," Shunsui said. He laughed and shook his head at himself. "And, as always, you turn it into something that makes me grow."

"And bloom, it seems," Jyuushiro said, bending to touch a pure white anemone with his fingertips.

Shunsui nodded wordlessly at that.

Jyuushiro turned to Shunsui and touched Shunsui as gently as he'd touched the flower. "My sake. You did this for my sake?"

Shunsui nodded again.

Jyuushiro frowned and puzzled, and then looked surprised. "Oh. After the last time..."

"When you said how much you hated being..."

"... being weak and useless and unable to respond to you after the damned cold." Jyuushiro looked into Shunsui's eyes. "You did this so that I could talk with you and not look like such a damned weakling in your regard?"

"You're never weak," Shunsui said with every bit of resolution he'd learned in the last year.

Jyuushiro barked a laugh, but caught it back and frowned at Shunsui. "You mean that."

"As much as I can mean anything," Shunsui said with more of his usual lightness.

Jyuushiro huffed a soft laugh. "This from the man who beat me handily in the very first fight we had, and saw me coughing my lungs out onto the floor."

Shunsui blinked, memory pulled back to that small students' room at the very beginning of the year. He remembered how he'd found this beautiful man as his roommate, and his dismal attempt at trying to lure Jyuushiro out for a night's carousing to drown himself, his loneliness, and his own disappointment at himself. And how seeing all that blood had pulled him out of himself, how good it had felt to just go get the clothes and water for cleaning things up and helping.

"But you were strong then, too," Shunsui blurted out. "I saw you fighting for your breathing, and how... how much strength of will that took. It shamed me then and shames me now to only stand by while you fight that fight alone."

Jyuushiro stared at Shunsui.

Shunsui had to look down at the ground, avoiding that gaze. Then a cool touch cradled Shunsui's chin, and he closed his eyes. Lips brushed against his own, tender and gentle, and Shunsui's breathing trembled.

"Shunsui," Jyuushiro said, and the tone in which his name was said somehow made the fear and self-loathing all go away.

"What?" Shunsui asked, opening his eyes.

"I'm not alone." Jyuushiro's green eyes seemed to search the very back of Shunsui's head. "You're not standing by, love."

That word made Shunsui swallow.

Jyuushiro huffed a small laugh. "You're with me. You're holding me in the real world, and here..." Without a single trace of self-consciousness, Jyuushiro climbed into Shunsui's lap, and Shunsui could do nothing but hold him. "There. That's better," Jyuushiro declared in satisfaction.

Shunsui buried his nose in the sea breeze of Jyuushiro's short hair. For an instant he flickered between Here and There, and in both realities, Jyuushiro was curled against Shunsui's body, and Shunsui held him, not as if he'd never let go, but with the knowledge that he would let go when the time came, when it was time for Jyuushiro to hold him.

Jyuushiro made a quiet sound of contentment.

"Not one soul in two bodies," Shunsui murmured.

"No. Not at all," Jyuushiro said. "We're so different, but we fight for the same things." His voice fell even lower, "And we hold each other in our hearts."

And reality blurred again, and they were in a pirate's dingy, in the center of a empty blue ocean with clear skies above. Two fish circled them and flower petals fluttered by in white and pink.

"Flower petals," Jyuushiro said, bemused. "Only you..."

Shunsui laughed. "I should get someone, someday, to shower flower petals in my wake."

Jyuushiro snorted and then stilled. "Yeah, you should do that. It would suit you."

"But not you, hm?" Shunsui said and found no regret in that. It made him think about their differences. About what he loved of Jyuushiro that was so utterly different than who and what Shunsui had grown up to be. And one of those things was how Jyuushiro always faced things head on as opposed to how Shunsui always ran away from things, either by literally running away, drowning the in drink, or telling himself he couldn't have managed it anyway. Jyuushiro always made it impossible to ignore the straight way, and now Shunsui wondered.

"Is this..." Shunsui frowned. "Maybe this is cheating?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean you've never cheated in your life," Shunsui said.

"So?" Jyuushiro asked, entirely too reasonably.

"I feel like this might be cheating, this hiding away in these inner worlds," Shunsui said. "It's something I would do."

"Well, I really do like being able to speak to you," Jyuushiro said dryly. "So I'm not sure..."

Shunsui heard the self-pity behind the words, recognized it as something he did himself far too often. He hugged Jyuushiro. "Let's go back to the infirmary and deal with this. We now have power that we didn't have before. I'm sure we could figure out something. It might not stop your breathing attacks from happening, but now that I'm with you, maybe we can figure out a way for you to get your breathing back after the happen."

Jyuushiro studied Shunsui's face, and Shunsui wondered what the hell Jyuushiro saw that allowed him to nod in agreement. "All right. Let's go."

They went together, back into the plain white room. Jyuushiro's body was a warm weight in Shunsui's arms, and he felt muscles knots into another convulsion of coughing. He held his friend and tried to sense what was going on in Jyuushiro's lungs, and got nothing but the feeling of Jyuushiro's iron will riding a chaotic mass of desperation. Shunsui tried to touch Jyuushiro's reiatsu with his own, and to his dismay, they both flared into a bonfire of power.

The door slid open.

Nakamura Kiyoko and Unohana Retsu walked steadily into the room. Shunsui's and Jyuushiro's reiatsu boomed and roared like a whirlwind within the paper walled confines, whipping the women's hair and robes into fluttering banners.

"Boys!" Kiyoko yelled. "Remember how Jyuushiro used reiatsu to breathe? Try that!"

Jyuushiro's green eyes opened at that command, and Shunsui felt Jyuushiro's power organize into the same construct Shunsui had seen after coming back from the team exercise on the mountain. This time, however, Shunsui could feel and see how it was put together, and he added his will to Jyuushiro's.

"Oh," Jyuushiro said clearly, looking surprised. "That's good."

The two women fought their way through to them, stepping into the eye of the hurricane, and Kiyoko grabbed both of Shunsui's hands and placed them on Jyuushiro's chest. Suddenly, Shunsui could feel the paths of pain through Jyuushiro's lungs and how they made all the little passages and caves smaller and thinner by thickening the walls.

"Make it flow," she said. "Like this..."

And Shunsui could see how her delicate precision of power made the liquids that flowed alongside those angry walls move a little faster. The flow itself seemed to help relieve whatever tension was in those walls, and allowed more air to come through them. Jyuushiro's version of it was far less efficient, less focused, more of a brute force method of working through the muscles to allow Jyuushiro to force his lungs to take air with less physical effort from him. From Kiyoko, Shunsui picked up on how to make his power focus as tightly as the women's, and with Kiyoko and Unohana he was able to speed the flow.

It was like the healing sessions after the whipping, Shunsui saw, and like in those sessions, Jyuushiro's power adapted and changed so that his body could endure their treatment, bolstering and strengthening his heart and the system of vessels that held his blood and the other liquids that flowed thorough the area. With Jyuushiro's new reiatsu and, Shunsui had to admit, his own new level of power, they all held on for an entire hour's worth of healing.

On Kiyoko's signal, they all collapsed into panting piles, and to Shunsui's delight, Jyuushiro had enough air to laugh.

"Oh. Wow," Jyuushiro said. "You're going to feed me, right Nakamura-san?"

"Don't I always take care'a you?" Kiyoko said, breathlessly, but lay there on the floor without moving a finger.

The door slid open, and three servers from the infirmary kitchen came in with enormous trays filled with food. Kiyoko struggled to sit up and managed it with little grace, but they all ignored her politely.

When she was up, one very eager man turned to her and barked. "Your reiatsu fell so we brought it in as ordered, Nakamura-san!"

"Thank you, Taji-kun, you've done well," Kiyoko said with a tired smile, and he and the others gathered up their trays and ran out of the room, closing the door behind them. "Didn't I tell ya?"

Jyuushiro didn't even bother answering. He handed out bowls of soup, which everyone drank. Shunsui thought his tasted like heaven. They all grabbed rice and ate the platters of fish and vegetables with it. Ravenous, Shunsui ate to fill a belly that seemed to meet his backbone.

When they finally started to breathe again, Jyuushiro sighed happily, without any trace of a cough. "Yes, Nakamura-san, you certainly do take care of me."

"Ha," Kiyoko said with satisfaction. "Looks like all the inflammation's down, too, and yer talkin' without a problem."

Jyuushiro took a slow, deep breath with his eyes closed, and the cough he produced was mild. "Yes. Still a little tight, but not at all bad."

"And you're still conscious," Kiyoko noted with clinical interest. "Anyone without your present level of reiatsu would have passed out and had brain damage from how hard we pushed."

Both Jyuushiro and Shunsui blinked at her.

She laughed and slapped them both on the back. "Well done. Not a technique for the battlefield, but here where you're safe and you have technicians at the same level? It sure is fast."

"Yes," Jyuushiro said, looking at Shunsui speculatively. "It certainly is."

More footsteps came thudding in a run down the hallway and all four of them watched the door as it slid open. The girl who opened it was taken aback at all their attention, but on recovering, she handed Kiyoko a small, covered slate tablet. Kiyoko took it, slid open the cover and read what was there and gave a satisfied grunt. She waved off the messenger, and the girl backed out of the room, closed the door, and they heard her run off again.

Once she was entirely gone, Kiyoko smiled. "The lab's a lot faster at this than when you first started, Ukitake-kun. Your results are good. You've passed yet again. With that final result and the fact that you're able to recover your functionality far faster than before, I'll recommend to Yamamoto-sama that you be allowed to stick with the Academy through your graduation without need for another test."

Shunsui whooped and caught Jyuushiro in a solid hug and got hugged back just as hard.

Kiyoko grinned at the two of them. "All right, Retsu-chan, let's get out of here, I think our work here is done."

"Aye, senpai," Unohana said, but she got up and hugged Jyuushiro, too. "Congratulations, Ukitake-kun." she said.

"Thank you," Jyuushiro said with a smile, hugging her back happily.

She started picking up dishes, and Shunsui was quick to help with the clearing up. He got a smile for his trouble. The two women took all the dishes and trays with them and slid the door closed behind them.

"You were right," Jyuushiro said quietly.

"I was," Shunsui said, deliberately not making it into the question he would normally have made it, suddenly wanting to be as straight as he could for Jyuushiro's sake.

"Thank you," Jyuushiro said. "For making me face what I really didn't want to do."

That was a little too much for Shunsui, especially combined with the look of self-recrimination on Jyuushiro's face, and suddenly Shunsui realized that Jyuushiro didn't need Shunsui to be like Jyuushiro. Jyuushiro needed Shunsui to be himself. "Well, I was so terrified of having to face my family by myself for the summer, I had to do something..."

Jyuushiro's answering laughter was everything Shunsui needed and more. Maybe, together, they could face anything.

The End


Notes:

There. Finally. This chapter came to me in one of those early morning dreams, where Shunsui was pretty adamant about what had to happen next, i.e. that he finally had to just go with Jyuushiro for one of those breathing tests, and the rest of it just unfolded as I wrote it and listened to what he really needed to do. Hopefully, as the last chapter of the story resolved all the plot elements, this also resolves a lot of the romantic/emotional journey they've been on through most of the first half of the story. This postlude also allowed me to just write again as I had for the first chapters, when it was just the two of them, and not the rest of the world impinging upon them.

Anyway, I hope it pleases, and I'll finally mark this as finished. Take care, and thanks for reading!