Disclaimer: If I owned Bleach, canon would be a whole new world. On the other hand, don't you wish that Kubo was a freak like me?

Listening to: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – 'Love Letter' and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros – 'Home'.

Chapter Sixteen

What finally woke Jyuushiro up was the sand.

It was all wrong.

Without even looking, he could tell this wasn't Hueco Mundo, which made no sense. While he hadn't expected to be left there, and he wouldn't have been at all shocked if he had awoken in a room at The Fourth instead, he couldn't think of anywhere else where he would be lying on a whole lot of sand.

The fact remained, however, that whatever patch of sand he was on, it clearly wasn't in Hueco Mundo. This sand felt alive, and warm as though the sun had shone on it…

He opened his eyes with a snap, before cringing and blinking at the sudden brightness.

That clinches it – Hueco Mundo doesn't have a sun or a sky anymore and it never should have. But where the hell does that leave me? I'm not in The Fourth or back on the battlefield… Except I don't feel like I should be either of those places.

Gingerly, Jyuushiro sat up, noting the ease with which he moved and breathed, and the loss of the bruises he had earned both on the field and the night before. His eyes widened as the realisation hit – he was in some sort of spiritual dimension. It was obvious once he thought about it – he wasn't in the Seireitei or Hueco Mundo, this didn't look like any of the terrain in the Rukongai, and if he'd been reborn in the living world, he wouldn't still look like his usual shinigami captain self.

Well, it wouldn't be the first time I've been injured and ended up in a place like this. The only difference is, it's usually the inner world of my zanpakuto…

This is utterly unfamiliar to me.

Gone were the typical crashing waves and towering cliffs, and in their place were wide expanses of warm red-bronze sands that extended into the horizon, broken only by the monolithic boulder that provided him with the modicum of shade. It was alarming, to say the least. As harsh as the terrain was, Jyuushiro couldn't deny feeling as though he was welcomed here, but even with that sensation at his back, the thought that this was the world of his sword spirit, that his soul had undergone such a massive change, was more than just a little unnerving.

It also didn't make sense.

Shaking his head, Jyuushiro got to his feet, stretching out and revelling in the feel of muscles that definitely did not feel as though they had just emerged from battle. The sun was moving, shrinking his patch of shade smaller by the second, and this problem clearly required that he have somewhere to sit and think. Edging around the rock and keeping to its shadows, he reached the other side only to gasp in wonder. Before him was a lush, green oasis surrounding a clear shallow pool of water. Desert trees and shrubs crowded around the water source, blooming with fragrant flowers that Jyuushiro was fairly certain he'd never seen in his life, however long it had been. Carefully, he knelt by the water, dipping his hands into the cool liquid and splashing his face in the hopes of clearing his head and cooling down – the oasis was relatively cool, but it was relative to a desert. With a sigh he shook off his hands and sat back against a tree, ready to begin puzzling out his situation.

I'm almost two millennia old – my personality is fixed; barring, perhaps, massive trauma, my soul wouldn't undergo a transformation of this magnitude. I know that these sorts of environments can change with emotional turmoil or fulfilment, but not to this extent. The underlying framework is always the same – the details are what is altered. But this… this is completely different. It's like being in someone else's inner world.

Wait… Someone else's?

Could that even happen? I wouldn't think it possible…

"You'd be sssssurprissssed."

The voice was deep, echoing almost from the land itself, but it wasn't the surprise of the sudden statement that had Jyuushiro turning where he sat, only to squeak and fall backwards.

Coming face to face unexpectedly with an immense serpentine dragon will do that, even to a decorated shinigami captain.

Bronze coloured eyes, in a shade almost identical to the sands that surrounded them, were regarding him with a mixture of concern, annoyance and… yes, it was definitely amusement. He was amusing the dragon. Jyuushiro came to the realisation that this had been a very odd week for him, as weeks went, which was saying something.

He was, after all, friends with Shunsui.

The dragon snorted and shook its head, before adding, "I'm sssorry if I ssstartled you."

Feeling that some sort of face saving attempt was required, Jyuushiro straightened up and replied, "Not at all. The noise was, uh, wheezing. I have a respiratory problem."

With a small growl from the back of its throat, the dragon settled itself down beside him, looking slightly disgruntled. "Sssso I have heard."

Now he was just baffled. Jyuushiro blinked, running through his list of acquaintances likely to know a dragon. Other than Toushiro, who was the master of a very different species of one, it was not really a list, so much as an endeavour in head scratching. He gave up. "Heard? From who?"

The rumbling growl emanating from the beast deepened, and Jyuushiro was left wishing that he had a weapon in this world because his companion certainly sounded cranky. Eventually, the creature settled, and simply grumbled, "Those bratsss of yoursss."

"Brats of – you mean Sogyo?" Jyuushiro's eyes were wide. "You talked to Sogyo no Katawari?"

"Unfortunately." The dragon shot him a look that Jyuushiro swore was a glare. "It would not kill you to teach them sssome mannerssss. My missstresss may call me obnoxioussss, but at least I don't pull on tailssss."

Jyuushiro's confusion showed no signs of abating. "Your mistress has a tail?"

He'd never had a mythical creature roll its eyes at him before. Apparently, it was a day of firsts. With a huff, the dragon surveyed him for a long while, before deigning to reply.

"No, and that wasss not the point. To think sssshe calls you an intelligent conversssationalisssst."

With that, it was Jyuushiro's turn to become annoyed. "Look, you'll have to excuse me, but the last time I was properly awake I was almost dead. Now all I know is that I'm in a zanpakuto world that's not even my own, my body is Kami knows where, and I'm being insulted by a dragon. If you don't like my conversation, either bugger off, or tell me how to wake up properly so I can get the hell out of here."

There was a lengthy pause, before –

"I would love nothing more than for you to wake up properly, as you sssay."

Jyuushiro bit back a scathing reply about non-helpful cryptic dragons. There was something in the tone of voice, something that spoke to the concern in the creature's eyes that stopped him. Before he could query any further, the dragon continued.

"The oassssissss has bloomed sssslowly for a time, until a few days ago, when it became what you ssssee here."

"It's lovely", Jyuushiro offered, not quite sure how to respond.

The creature nudged him forward to the tree with its snout. "Look clossser."

He did. It took him a few seconds to realise what the dragon was talking about, but once he saw it, he paled, realising the significance of what was in front of him. Slowly, but surely, the leaves on the tree were rotting from within. Once he knew what he was looking for, he saw it everywhere – the oasis was dying.

He did not even want to consider the pain someone would have to feel for their inner world to be like this.

Jyuushiro wheeled around to face his companion. "What happened here?"

The dragon stared back at him sadly. "I think you may already know the ansssswer."

"Oh for - " His angry exclamation trailed off, as Jyuushiro stopped and considered the facts. "I'm not awake yet – there would have to be a reason for that. Am - " He stopped, his voice refusing to work as an idea occurred to him. Slowly, he whispered, "Am I dying?"

"It is a posssssibility", the dragon replied gravely. "My missstresss fears it is ssso, and now our world is disssintegrating around ussss. I ssssummoned you to our inner world, rather than your own, to make the ssssituation clear to you – more than your health is at sssstake. You need to gather your sssstrength and fight for our sssurvival, for both your own sssake and the sssake of my wielder."

Jyuushiro froze as the last piece of the puzzle slipped into place, and whispered, "Chikyuu-Kosshi?"

The dragon stilled for an instant, before craning its neck forward to stare directly at Jyuushiro. Its hot breath fanned the hair back from his face, and Jyuushiro couldn't help trying to recall anything he had ever read about the diet of dragons – the teeth that were currently inches from his face looked many things, and none of them were vegetarian. Slowly, the dragon nodded, drawing back.

"Perhapssss sssshe did not overessstimate your intelligence after all."

He could feel his heart beating so hard he was surprised it hadn't damaged a rib. It had been awful enough to witness this dying world when he hadn't known who it belonged to, and now that he did…

"What happens to Nemu if I die?" Every fibre of his being felt as though it were straining to hear this response, as though his whole existence depended on this answer. He felt sick with anticipation.

Please let it be temporary. Please don't let this be a permanent affliction – I don't want even the tiniest part of her to die.

Not over me.

The dragon huffed, its sigh almost blowing Jyuushiro off his feet, before it gazed at him solemnly once again. "We will live, in theory. Thisss world will become desert once more – no life, no sssshade. We sssurvived like thisss for mosssst of our life, when the massssked one held usss captive, but it wassss not living. At leassst we will not be parted again, but I fear that knowing what truly living can be like will make the return to thissss sssstate more painful."

"Mayuri Kurotsuchi has a lot to answer for", Jyuushiro murmured, trying to fight the rising tide of panic. "But surely it wouldn't stay that way forever."

He felt pinned by the gaze this statement met with. "We are not a changeable sssoul. That events have altered usss at all is nothing sssshort of miraculoussss."

"But if I fail - "

"Then don't." Chikyuu-Kosshi continued to watch Jyuushiro steadily, before adding, "You have sssaved our livessss on many occasions. Sssssurely you are able to ssssave your own as well?"

So much is at stake here – it could all go so horribly wrong and I don't even know where to begin.

But I can't fail her.

I can't lose her, either, not now that we've only just found each other. So, what do I do? How do you wake up from your inner world? You close your eyes and let it call you back. Chikyuu-Kosshi said I should gather my strength… The strength of any shinigami lies in their soul – and their soul slayer.

Casting out his senses, Jyuushiro could feel a faint pressure, one he knew too well to mistake.

I can reach Sogyo from here. I think I may just have a plan. Our zanpakuto are the links between our physical world and our inner world. If anything can bridge this gap and guide me from one to the other, it's Sogyo. All I need to do is stay strong and focused enough to keep the transition going.

It was a long shot, but it was the only one he could take. Laying down in the withering grass, Jyuushiro closed his eyes and simply stated to his companion, "Keep an eye on things, and don't wake me unless the oasis catches fire. I have places to be."

And zanpakuto spirits to call.

The last thing Jyuushiro heard before he let unconsciousness take him was a snort, and someone muttering, "Definitely underessstimated your intelligence. I'm beginning to sssee why ssshe thinks ssso much of you."

xXx

"No way in hell!"

Retsu Unohana sighed. "Shunsui, I dislike the measure as much as you do." Motioning to the assembled ryoka, vizard, captains and lieutenants in the hall, she added, "We all feel the same way. But the fact remains that we can not continue to be leaderless at a time like this – we need an interim general."

Lifting red-rimmed eyes to meet hers, Shunsui simply shook his head. "I can't and won't step into Jyuu's place. I'm all wrong for the job, and we still don't know if it is hopeless case. In any case, you'd be a better fit."

"No." The reply was unequivocal. "My place is with my squad."

"Well so is mine", he shot back.

"Leave this." The commanding tones of Byakuya Kuchiki left no room for disagreement. "We can function well enough as we are in the short time before we know whether or not we will require a new captain-commander. There is little point in us squabbling amongst ourselves until then."

"Yer takin' this coolly, Kuchiki", came the mutter from Kenpachi.

Grey eyes flashed, as the captain in question bit out, "Jyuushiro Ukitake is the man who acted as my mentor, the captain of my sister's squad and my own supreme commander. I refuse to let everything he worked for fall apart because I am unable to wait until it is necessary to grieve. He is not dead yet."

"I hate this", Nel cried out. "Can't we at least try to be civil and professional? It's bad enough that we may be losing another leader…"

"Amen to that", added Shinji from his perch on a table in the corner. Carefully he rose, stepping forward to stand among the captains, his eyes on one of his old compatriots in particular. "Retsu, just how bad is it?"

As everyone in the room held their breath collectively, the senior captain began to look shaken and drawn for the first time since the meeting had been called to order. Slowly, she replied, "Orihime and I… We've done all we can. His body is stable – at least, as stable as it ever is. We simply can't wake him. There's nothing more we can do; the rest is up to Jyuushiro himself."

"That settles it, then." Nanao's crisp tones rang out from where she stood next to her husband, her voice at odds with the exhaustion in her face. "Jyuushiro will not go down without a fight. I, for one, am not about to give up on him."

"Che, no point in hangin' around waitin' then", Grimmjow shrugged. "Question is, what the hell can we do in the meantime?" He raised an eyebrow and looked at his captain questioningly.

Soi Fon sighed, rubbing her temples. "We'll keep our squad on surveillance. They may try something in the manner of retaliation. We left no survivors, so I doubt they realise we're weakened, but we can hardly guarantee that and they still would have to have realised that their missing laboratory and Espada are our fault. Lieutenant Schiffer, have you anything else to report?"

The arrancar in question shook his head. "I have yet to make contact with any of them since this incident. From what I know already of their forces, I am aware that this is a severe blow to their plans, but not one severe enough to obliterate any attempts at revenge. They would have to be concerned, though. They have but two Espada left, and five vasto lorde at most, though they can still harass us with the rank and file."

"We remain very firmly on our guard, then", Yoruichi added from her position near the door. The former exile was clearly still not entirely comfortable in this hall, where she had once stood as a captain. Turning to face Soi Fon, she added, "I'll send my family's forces over to you if you think you'll need the numbers, Bee."

As the younger woman flashed her mentor and friend a grateful smile, Byakuya added, "I would also be willing to begin liasing with the Eleventh in order to begin work on the Rukongai project."

Beside him, Stark raised an eyebrow. "I didn't think you were interested."

"Captain Ukitake had a point, as much as I wish he did not", the noble replied cautiously. "Arming the Rukongai is starting to look more and more as though it is our best option and I do not intend to drag my heels about the business."

"And by liase, you mean - "

"Sending you off to talk to Lieutenant Kusajishi." A ghost of a smile appeared on Byakuya's face. "I have no doubt you will come up with something of a plan between the two of you."

Across the room, Yachiru smiled slightly. "Hangouts with Mopey-chan – just what the doctor ordered."

"Quite", Byakuya responded. "Indeed, given how often you spend time you are meant to be working in the office, conversing with one another outside of said office, very little will change, other than the fact that I will require progress reports every week."

"I'm not sure how to take that", the ex-Primera muttered to himself.

Toushiro Hitsugaya growled out, "This is ridiculous. We have to focus on what's needed here – an understanding of our position and what we've just faced. What I still don't understand is why Captain Ukitake still felt it was necessary to take to the field."

"We should just be glad he did", Kisuke pointed out. "If it hadn't been for him, we would never have broken through the wall and been victorious."

"You call this a victory?" Lisa's drawl was more than a little bitter.

"It will be if he survives." Ryuuken Ishida's quiet comment was unexpected and, to some, unwelcome.

"When he survives", Rukia replied sharply, from her place at Kiyone's side. The lieutenant seemed a shell of her typically boisterous self, and simply clung to her sister Isane, who was starting to resemble a ghost, with her pale hair and tired face.

"That still doesn't answer the question", Captain Hitsugaya ground out, his bright eyes looking from one face to another. "Why was he out there?"

"Jyuu doesn't back down from a fight", Shunsui broke in. "He wouldn't just sit on the sidelines when something he thought was precious was in the firing line, whether it was an ideal or - "

"Something more tangible", Rose threw in, his eyes shrewd. "Or, dare I say it, someone."

As they let this sink in, one quiet voice cut through the silence.

"Where is Nemu?" Momo stood within Kira's embrace, a breach of protocol that no one had bothered to correct, her dark eyes concerned. "I've looked everywhere – her place, the Twelfth, the bar – but no one has seen her since she came back through the garganta with Captain Ukitake after the battle. I even asked at the Fourth, but they said she wasn't admitted as a patient."

Retsu sighed tiredly. "You asked the wrong question. Nemu arrived unhurt with Captain Ukitake. Despite our best efforts to convince her, however, she has simply refused to leave."

Silence reigned as they all took this in. Eventually, Kisuke shook his head. "There's not a great deal of point continuing this meeting. All the salient facts have been introduced – Captain Kurosaki will be out of commission for a week, Captain Ukitake for an indeterminate period of time, we have walked out of the battle having dealt our enemy a major blow, and that another one of our own has achieved Bankai. We know what we need to do now – try to hold ourselves together and keep ourselves fighting. There's little point talking it over any more, is there?"

With a nod of her head, Retsu replied, "I couldn't have put it better myself. We'll know where we stand better by tomorrow – whether or not he survives the night will determine the rest." With a wan smile that failed to hide the tears in her eyes, she waved a hand in dismissal. "Back to work we go."

Shunsui watched them as they filed out, until a delicate hand rested on his shoulder and a dark head leant against his arm. He sighed heavily. "Well, Nanao-chan, that went better than expected."

"Then I would have hated to see expected", she replied softly. "Are you all right? Well, relatively speaking."

Smiling sadly, he pressed a kiss to the crown of her head. "With my lovely wife by my side, I'm a lot better. I just - "

Suddenly, he cut himself off, eyes wide. Nanao straightened up, her gaze concerned and fixed on him. "Shunsui, what - " Her own expression turned shocked as she watched a true smile creep across his face. "What is it?"

"I can probably sense it better", Shunsui murmured, his grin unabated. "I've known him longer, and the Fourth is quite a distance away But, in the meantime, let's just say that I don't think Jyuu's going to make us wait too much longer."

As the alarm faded from her face, Nanao's smile began to match that of her husband's. Turning to face the direction of the Fourth, she replied, "Is that so?"

xXx

Nemu hadn't slept in three days.

She had gone that long without sleep before – experiment-watching, punishment and, more recently, her nightmares, all came to mind as examples. This, however, was different.

She was living this nightmare.

She had carried Jyuushiro back to the bridge between worlds, only to refuse to relinquish her burden until she had arrived at the Fourth. It had been for the best – no one else could hope to move as quickly as she could, or shoulder the weight so easily. She had kept carefully out of the way in the back of the room as the healers had worked through the night, assisting where she could. In another life, perhaps, this could have been her squad – she could see details the others missed and not a single change in Jyuushiro's condition ever escaped her – but now all the help that Nemu could provide was of the most basic order, and she wanted to scream at how useless she felt.

Now she sat, curled up on the chair by his bedside, waiting for the slightest hint that Jyuushiro would wake, trying not to give into despair, and very rarely succeeding. That fact that he had yet to wake had baffled Retsu Unohana herself – his body had stabilised in the face of incredible odds, and yet that had been the extent of its fight. In the end, the consensus of the healers had been to leave him monitored and hope; they were out of ideas.

Nemu had stayed through it all, though the concerned shinigami of the Fourth had tried to get her to leave and sleep, or at least eat. None of that interested or appealed to her now. Instead, she watched as Jyuushiro, too still for sleep, lay on the bed, his breathing faint but mercifully even and without the hideous rasp that she had heard when he was last awake. Any triumph she might have felt about her victory was gone – if Jyuushiro died, it would not matter is she had succeeded, only that she had done so too late. All of her hopes, all of her plans, all of her was caught up in the pale figure on the bed in front of her; Nemu couldn't have left even if she had wanted to.

Absentmindedly, she slipped her hand out of his, brushing his hair back from his face before letting her fingers trail down, stroking across Jyuushiro's cheekbones. Nemu smiled sadly to herself as she noted how the harsh light of the room made the freckles across the bridge of his nose stand out against his pale skin.

Or perhaps it is not the light, but how bloodless his face looks.

I cannot think about this. He will wake.

He has to. I need him to…

Tentatively, she stretched out protesting muscles, suppressing a grimace.

Apparently even I cannot endure contorting myself in this chair night after night. There are some things I am just not strong enough to face.

As she watched the almost imperceptible rise and fall of his chest, Nemu fought back tears.

This is one of them. I feel as though I am falling apart. I would give anything to bring him back – take his place if necessary, though I would like to at least see him awake again.

Wallowing in ssself pity, I sssee.

The voice of her zanpakuto spirit shocked her out of her reverie.

What else would you have me do, she thought back bitterly. I am no healer, and even they have admitted that they can do no more here. All I can do is stay by his side.

There was a lengthy pause, before Chikyuu-Kosshi responded slowly.

That isss not all. I have ssspoken to him.

Nemu almost fell off her chair.

What? How?

That does not matter. What isss important issss that he wantsss to make his way back to you. He is presssent in the inner world, but in thissss world he feelssss lossst. Call him back.

He cannot hear me, how would I – NO! That isn't safe! Nemu couldn't hide the horror from her voice. Captain Unohana even warned me to keep my spirit regulated. He's weak now – the force of my reiatsu could make things worse. It was one thing when he was about to die and had a team of healers standing by to bring him back, but even then they were careful not to expose him to the brunt of their reiatsu. I'd kill him!

Then do nothing. She could hear the scorn in the spirit's voice. Just sit here and watch him weaken. Your eye for detail cannot have possibly missed that. It is happening and they are all powerless to stop it.

Nemu fought back a sob. It's not certain. He could recover –

You know how unlikely that is.

It was an argument she could not refute. Carefully sliding her hand to fit with his once more, Nemu stood up on legs that felt too shaky to hold her.

If he dies because of this –

You will feel the same if he dies and you have not tried this. It may be a last hope, but that doesn't make it any less of one in the end. Chikyuu-Kosshi's tone had softened, but still brooked no argument. And if he lives… Well, we will all be better off. You are more than capable of monitoring him and reining in your power if he looks to be suffering from the effects of reiatsu exposure.

Tentatively, Nemu placed her hand on the hilt of her zanpakuto.

I have no choice in this, really. Do I?

She received no answer, and wasn't sure whether she found it a comfort or not. As she gathered her strength and began to let her reiatsu flare, she could only pray to some higher power.

Please, let him live.

Just let Jyuushiro come home.

xXx

He felt warmer.

Jyuushiro wasn't sure why, but he could hope that it meant something more positive than Chikyuu-Kosshi simply leaving him unshaded in Nemu's desert world.

And then, out of the blue, he felt something else.

It was a spiritual pressure, one he'd come to know well, one that smelt of citrus and made him think of the inadequacies of Russian authors, of lustrous dark hair against his white pillow, of cautious half-smiles and deep green eyes.

Nemu.

Almost instinctively, he reached out with his own power, letting it flare for a brief instant, only to pull it back when another sensation reached him – a dull and familiar ache in his chest.

The reaction after an attack! I would only feel that in the real world – my illness doesn't trouble me here.

I'm back.

He gasped in air, a reaction born in surprise, not desperation, only to feel Nemu's spiritual pressure disappear abruptly. Instead, he felt hands frantically checking his pulse and temperature, and a voice that sounded like Nemu's, only far more discomposed than he had ever heard her, murmuring, "Please Jyuushiro. Just stay with me, please - "

Blearily, he opened his eyes and croaked out, "Hey."

It wasn't his most brilliant vocal performance. His throat felt strained and dry, and he could barely get the sound out. Somehow, though, it didn't matter. Nemu was right there in front of him, her eyes wide an fearful, her hair a snarled mess, and her clothes still torn and stained from battle. But, as disbelief and terror faded from her face and were replaced with pure joy, he decided that she had never looked so beautiful.

He only saw this vision for a moment, however. Before he could take the time to appreciate it, all the air vanished from his lungs as surprisingly strong arms wrapped around him and a tearful face was buried in his chest.

"Ouch", he wheezed, as his hands came to rest in her hair. "I'm still a little tender."

Her laugh was half a sob. "I know, I'm sorry. I told myself to be gentle, but my limbs just didn't want to obey."

"Ssshhh." He kept his hands in her black tresses, stroking and soothing her as she shook. Even he couldn't keep the wonderment from his voice as he added, "It's all right."

"It's actually going to be all right."

xXx

It took five hours of careful examination, before a baffled Retsu conceded that there was absolutely nothing wrong with Jyuushiro or, rather, as Shunsui had put it as he strode gleefully into the room, nothing wrong with Jyuushiro that couldn't be fixed by a crack team of psychiatrists. In the end, she had simply shrugged, given her patient a tight hug and then asked him to remain overnight for celebration.

The parade of thrilled well-wishers through the room lasted until late into the night, when they were forcibly removed by Captain Unohana with the aid of one Captain Zaraki, which definitively put an end to proceedings.

One person, however, was allowed to stay.

Curled up on the hospital bed by Jyuushiro's side, Nemu was slowly drifting off to sleep at last until –

"It's selfish of me, you know. Keeping this up."

She looked up at Jyuushiro's face, which was currently resolutely studying the ceiling. "How so?" She queried.

"I'm not well", he replied, still refusing to meet her gaze," and my role as General will place you in the public eye a lot. Not everyone will be kind to you. If I want the best for you, it makes sense that I would let you go."

Nemu sighed, before shifting to lie even closer. "I suppose I should be grateful that you have waited this long to bring this up." Her lips curved into a smile. "Idealist."

His gaze snapped to her. "I'm right, though. You know that."

She shook her head. "I don't deny it, but you are forgetting something. Several somethings, in fact. We are in a position where we could all die at any moment – should we all postpone romance until everyone of us is safe? We are a military organisation, that will never happen. I would rather risk happiness." Her smile widened. "Having finally experienced it, I rather like it."

Jyuushiro went to speak, only to find a firm finger pressed against his lips. "You also forget", she continued, "I am no stranger to public disapproval. In my experience, however, it is by far easier to deal with when there is someone by my side. Make no mistake, Jyuushiro – I will leave only when you truly want me to. Now, if I hear this nonsense out of your mouth again, I will take a leaf out of Nanao's book and start doing you physical harm."

He gaped briefly, until – "You've gotten very good at expressing yourself."

"Thank you", she replied, in a voice reminiscent of a cat who had a 51% share in a cream factory.

Jyuushiro considered his position. "I'm not going to win this argument, am I?"

"No."

His lips twitched into a smile. "I can't pretend I'm not glad about that. Consider yourself forewarned, though."

She rolled over, resting her chin on his chest as she looked up at him. "That seems fair. In addition to this, consider yourself on notice to be selfish where we are concerned."

As he leaned in to kiss her, Jyuushiro simply replied, "Yes ma'am."

They drifted off to sleep, entwined in a manner that made it almost impossible to tell where one ended and the other began, ready to face what the world would throw at them the next day.

xXx

My God, that took far too long. I blame the heat. You can't think in a Queensland summer, your brain just melts.

So, it's finally done! 'What now'. I hear you ask (at least, I like to think I do). Well, I have two AUs planned and, of course, the Stachiru (Yes, that's next – you're all very good guessers or I'm not a subtle hinter. Probably both.). Deep Breath will be continuing through that one as the war rages on. As for when I'll update, hopefully the weather will get cooler and my brain will kick into gear again.

Fingers crossed.

Anyway, R and R, y'all. Your responses have been wonderful and inspiring, and I hope you've enjoyed the crazy ride I've taken you on.

Cheers!

vicioux.