A/N: We've been over this and over this...I don't own Lego Ninjago or its characters, just my OCs and story.

I've been putting off the inevitable, but here it is—the last chapter of Turning-Points. **This was slightly revised 5/4/14. None of the revisions changes the story.

I can't believe I've been doing this for over a year, and I really can't believe that I've had such loyal readers! Some of you have been with me since the very beginning, and I have to say that 'thank you' does not adequately convey my appreciation for you! It means so much to me that you stuck with me and bolstered me throughout this project (507 pages and over 214,000 words in MSWord) ! I am truly grateful! I'm also a little sad. I won't get into that, however.

Sorry this is super-long. I figured if I broke it into 2 chapters, people would think I was stringing them along, so…it's long.

I was listening to "Nada" by Fabio Hager Sexteto while writing the last POV, just FYI.

Now, for the final chapter… I hope you enjoy it.

Chapter 49: A Devoted Foundation

CASTLE OF POISONED DREAMS

**Cole's POV

Standing upright in the bailey for the first time since I'd used my true potential was a challenge. I didn't realize how bruised, painful, and stiff my muscles were until I tried to use them. And I hated that feeble, quivery feeling so much. Thankfully, I had the help of Kai and Zane on either side of me until I got my balance and my blood pressure stabilized.

While I wobbled a bit with an arm over Zane's shoulders and one of his around my ribs, I glanced at my wrist. "Uh, Jay, I may have damaged my comlink a little…" That was an understatement, judging by the pieces that were missing from the gadget.

He threw up his hands in an exasperated manner. "I don't know why I create such sophisticated equipment for you dunderheads."

'Dunderheads'?

That remark, and my blue brother's melodramatics, almost got him Arwyn's cell phone upside his head after I dug the device out of my leather belt pouch.

Looking at that, I cringed before handing the badly-damaged phone to Arwyn, who was hovering protectively at my side. Ouch.

"Um, I'm sorry, babe. I guess I owe you a new phone. I had it in my pocket 'cause your mom and dad had called before I left Castor. They were worried about you."

She took it from me and nonchalantly flipped it backward over her shoulder where Jay caught it in the air. "I don't care about a stupid cell phone. I'm just grateful you're not in the same shape."

Abruptly stepping in front of me with a hot, uninhibited look, Arwyn grabbed me by the hair behind my ears and boldly pulled my face down to hers, joining our lips with enough pressure and heat to create sparks.

Although surprised, and, at first, very conscious of the fact that we had an audience, I gladly gave in to her kiss immediately, closing my eyes, and shutting out all else. The sensation of her elements was flaring within me as she held my head firmly with her fingers entwined in my hair.

I vaguely felt Zane shift away from my side, freeing up my arm so I could pull Arwyn against me with both hands behind her hips.

It was a long and deep kiss, a kiss of two souls joining, dancing a celebration of life, a kiss I would have liked to have had go on and on forever. Her lips were so soft and warm, so full, so making my knees wanna buckle with the way they were moving on mine. And her tongue…

Mamma mia…

My head was swimming in such a good way that I didn't notice I was heading for the ground until I heard Arwyn say my name and felt Zane's arms under mine, keeping me from crashing.

Opening my eyes dazedly, I gazed at Arwyn's beautiful, self-satisfied smile as her fingertips lovingly drifted across my cheeks and neck. "That was just a little something for you to think about on the flight."

I felt nearly as breathless as I had in the rubble. "…Thank you…"

Kai had bounded to us, and was helping Zane keep me on two legs. "Wow! That must have been some kinda kiss! Jay, I think it's finally time to make our captain go 'bye-bye', or we'll be here all night!"

Jay shook his head. "I don't need that! Just watching them makes me wanna get back to Nya all the sooner!"

"Shut UP already!" Still hanging on to me, Kai's yell in my ear made me flinch away from him.

"I love you so, so much," Arwyn declared to me softly as Zane and Kai each took an arm of mine and walked me backward away from her into an uncluttered spot in the courtyard, following Jay.

My grin was a little lopsided as I kept her in my sight. "And you know how much I love you."

Glancing around uneasily at the mostly-flattened castle and littered courtyard, she cocked an eyebrow. "Yeah, I've got an inkling about that…"

Turning me away from Arwyn, Zane, Kai, and Jay surrounded me in the middle of the bailey, looking around at each other a little awkwardly. It appeared that they may have wanted to say something to me, but were having a hard time doing it.

Zane was the first with enough nerve. "Having you nearly die twice in one day…" He stopped, then swallowed hard, looking askance at the other two. Suddenly, he clapped me on the back with one hand, then threw his other arm around me for a brief hug. Hugging him back, I heard him say over my shoulder, "It is not an optimal way for us to live, my brother."

There was nothing funny about it, but I tried to chuckle as he released me. "You got that right! Maybe we should look into another line of work."

Jay kinda laughed at that, and Kai nodded. Getting serious, I made eye contact with each of them. "I really appreciate that you all stayed and helped me out, guys."

Zane looked almost hurt. "After all you do for us…Surely you do not think that we would not—"

"Hey, that's what brothers are for!" Kai waved a hand and tried to act like it was nothing. "I know you'd never leave any of us."

Crossing his arms over his chest, Jay agreed. "Yeah! And, besides that, we couldn't get Arwyn to budge from here. In fact, she nearly got squished like a bug by the tower when it went down 'cause she was trying to run in for you! If I hadn't tackled her and rolled her out of the way at the last second—"

With what I suppose was a horrified expression, I whirled around to stare at Arwyn, who was standing behind Lloyd several yards away, her arms around his shoulders, as they patiently waited for Kai and Zane. The thought of what could have happened scared the crap out of me. "I nearly killed—?!"

"Well, smooth move, ex-lax!" Kai berated Jay, giving his shoulder a hard shove. "He didn't need to know about that! Hurry up and get him home, and try not to freak him out with anything else!"

The Master of Lightning made a face. "Right! Time to go!" Grabbing me by the arm, he led me away from Zane and Kai as they walked back quickly to pick up their passengers.

I tried to hold him back for a moment, calling out hopefully to Arwyn as she was mounting Kai's Blade Cycle behind him, "Do you think I could get one more of those kisses before we go?"

She laughed as she was donning my helmet, but didn't get a chance to answer me, being overridden by Jay's exclamation of "Not a chance, Casanova!"

In the next instant, the Storm Fighter's cockpit had surrounded us, and we were rocketing through the midnight sky, leaving the Castle of Poisoned Dreams far behind us.

I didn't usually care to fly with Jay. He tended to be a bit of a daredevil and liked to show off in the jet, sometimes getting as reckless as Kai would be if he flew.

And I tended to get motion sick when I traveled by air or sea, no matter how smooth the trip, so that wasn't a good combination.

Thankfully, with Jay's never-ending chatter to Nya over his comlink, the hum of the engines, my exhaustion, and the fact that I could now relax and breathe without fear of being crushed to death, I was lulled to sleep fairly quickly. The one-hour flight to the Bounty seemed almost instantaneous.

Before I knew it, Jay was waking me to prepare for our landing beside the ship, then dropping me without much warning on my butt in the sand, making me feel every bruise I had.

"Thanks, Jay," I grumbled as I got to my hands and knees. After standing with his help, I brushed grit from my gi while we waited for the cargo lifter.

"What? You're already filthy! Don't tell me the Master of Earth is bothered by a little dirt!" The cargo lifter was coming to rest, and he reached for the gate, then limped in after me. "By the way, I don't know what's going on, but Nya said Sensei's been really antsy the last couple of hours before I contacted her, so I'm not sure what we're in for."

I was hoping it wasn't anything we needed to worry about. As soon as we reached the torch-lit main deck, Sensei and Nya were on us, with Nya throwing herself into Jay's welcoming arms, exclaiming, "My poor baby!"

Oh, for the love of—…one little crack in a bone…It's not like he was buried under a castle tower…

I was laughing to myself about that when Sensei approached me, glanced between Jay and me, and murmured with what sounded like affectionate relief, "My sons…"

Barely taller than Arwyn, he came to just a tad higher than my chin, so I was looking over his bald head in astonishment at Jay and Nya when he all of a sudden wrapped his arms around my torso in a tight hug.

They, of course, didn't catch that, since they were too occupied with their game of tonsil hockey in the cargo lifter beside us, and Sensei's hug was so brief I hardly had time to react.

No one will ever believe me…

Stepping back from me right away, he avoided looking me in the face, turned and headed for the below-deck stairway. "I want you to shower, then meet me in the infirmary to check on your condition. Follow us, Jay."

Obedient as usual, albeit a little slower, I followed him across the deck. Perhaps I was a little too close, running into his back when he stopped suddenly at the top step, making him grunt when we made contact.

"Oops! Sorry, Sensei…" I grabbed him just to make sure I didn't send him head over heels down the stairs. I didn't need to break him.

"At least you always listen," he responded with a raised eyebrow as he looked back around me at the two still hard at it in the cargo lifter. "Jay! I meant now!"

Showering was not as pleasant as usual, since the soap and hot water made me feel like alcohol was being rubbed into every single scrape and cut I had. Because of that, I got it done very quickly, then pulled on a highlighter-yellow T-shirt and grey running shorts before heading to the infirmary.

There I found Jay sitting on the cot with Nya at his feet, adjusting the new walking boot she had hastily put together for his fractured lower leg. She looked up when I walked in. "I got calls from Kai and Zane while you were showering. Kai and Arwyn's ETA is in just over two hours. Zane and Lloyd were still not to Castor, so they'll be a little longer."

"Thanks, Nya." I wondered how I was gonna wile away two hours while I worried about Arwyn getting back to me safely. From watching Sensei, I figured he was sure to fill some of my time. He was industriously digging through the cupboards for anything and everything like he thought I'd had a traumatic amputation or something.

At his command, I stripped to the waist to allow him to look me over for anything that might need to be stitched closed. Nya finished up with Jay and joined us at the padded exam table by the sink to offer him her assistance.

When he had satisfied himself that I'd live, our master instructed Nya to take care of treating all of my wounds while he went to his quarters to prepare a tea.

After she deftly stitched one small laceration over my shin, using a technique Arwyn had taught her, she began to follow Sensei's order to apply an antibiotic ointment to my multiple other minor injuries.

All was quiet in the room while Nya smeared the ointment over my arms and back, then moved to my chest and abdomen. I hadn't been paying much attention to Jay, trying my best not to flinch while she did her work, but, apparently, he was having an issue over on the cot.

"Could you two try not to enjoy that quite so much?" His question kinda threw me.

Nya and I both turned to him in confusion, saying together, "Excuse me?"

Jay's expression looked worried and painful at the same time as he spoke to Nya. "The rubbing…all over…" He gestured toward me like he was giving a bad massage. "…all of that!"

"Looking at all of those pecs and deltoids and biceps and abs… He's making me feel like a scrawny, pigeon-breasted wimp, while you look like you're about to take a bite out of him!It's like I'm the guy on the beach about to get sand kicked into his face by the muscle-bound bully so the hotter guy can steal his girl!"

Nya stopped daubing the ointment long enough to put a hand on her hip and glare at Jay with annoyance. "I am not 'rubbing him all over' or wanting to bite him! I'm covering his scrapes with salve! Where do you get that we're enjoying this?"

He'd just made my head get bigger with his less-than-confident remarks, but I tried not to show that as I addressed the part of his comment that offended me. "C'mon, Jay. Have I ever bullied you?"

"Well, in the bunkroom when you and Kai—"

"That was one time!" I cut in with a raised finger and a squint of my eyes. "And I thought you were over it!'

"What the frick ever." He leaned back against the wall and crossed his arms in front of him with a pout. "Watching you almost makes me wonder if you have something going on behind my back."

"Seriously, Jay?" I could tell Nya was losing her patience while she stared at him with a frown.

Okay, let's make this fun…

Putting an arm around Nya's shoulders, I drew her closer to my side with a sigh. "Ah, Nya, sweetheart, we'd may as well stop denying it. After so many months, he's finally on to us."

That made him sit up straight on the cot while she stiffened against me with a warning hiss. "Cole…"

I tried to look apologetic while I teased Jay and got in an overdue, retaliatory jab. "Sorry you had to find out about us like this, dude. I guess you're better at keeping secrets than I am, huh?"

The poor dear's eyes got bigger in his pallid face as he leapt to his feet and looked quickly between Nya and me, not wanting to believe, but being just insecure enough that he did. "Nya? Would you really…? Cole, you're my brother…You have ArwynWhy? Why would you stab me in the back?!"

"Oh, this has been going on long before Arwyn got here. Hasn't it, doll?" I said, lifting Nya's chin with a knuckle while she glared at me like she was gonna skin me alive.

"And, if you had all of this…" Putting on a conceited grin, I motioned to my exposed, beat-up, and glistening upper body, flexing some of the muscles that were causing him distress. "…Wouldn't you feel like you had an obligation to share it with all the ladies?"

Just before Jay completely lost it, Nya pushed away from me, rolling her eyes and facing him. "Oh, for crying out loud! Do you really think if Cole and I had something going on he'd tell you about it like this? Or at all?!"

Going to the sink, she washed her hands vigorously while fussing at me. "Cole, stop messing with him right now! You know how he is! Now I'll have to spend the next hour just stroking his ego!"

I smirked. "Try to keep it to just the ego…"

She gave me a vicious punch in the shoulder for that one.

"Oww!" How can such a petite woman hit so hard?

Kneading my arm, I couldn't help but laugh. "Sorry, Nya, but he's just too easy!"

Jay wilted with relief when he realized he had nothing to worry about. Huffing indignantly, he sank back down onto the cot. "Oh, and you're not? I seem to remember someone getting all 'cray cray' just because I said Arwyn's name in my sleep!"

"That was different!" Kinda

Before we could get into another debate about that, I demurely covered my nipples with my fingertips and turned my back to Jay with an exaggerated shyness. "Nya, would you mind taking the insecure, wimpy, cream puff out of the room to preserve my modesty and his sanity?"

"Who you calling 'cream puff'?!"

Taking him by the arm, Nya led her man out into the hallway. "You need a bath and some sleep. You are seriously hallucinating!"

As soon as the couple had vacated the room, Sensei Wu came back in, carrying a tray which held his little blue, china teapot, two matching cups, and a sugar bowl. A rolled tatami mat was under his arm. "Ah, I see Nya is done with you." I donned my T-shirt and nodded, still chuckling over Jay.

He placed his tea essentials on the counter and unrolled the small, brown mat on the floor. "Then you can lie down on the cot in here and get some sleep after we talk a few minutes. I want you to rest in the infirmary for the remainder of the night so I can check on you easily from my chambers."

I sat down on the edge of the cot, but shook my head in denial of his suggestion to nap. "I can't sleep, Sensei, I'm too keyed up. After my debriefing, I'm going to go watch TV in the game room until Arwyn and Kai get back. I'll have the intercom on in there, just in case they call for some reason."

Leaning forward with my elbows on my knees, I clasped my hands together and added earnestly, "I want to see her as soon as she sets foot on this ship."

His mustache twitched as he observed me with a tiny, concerned frown, saying, "Jay gave Nya as detailed an account of everything that transpired tonight as he possibly could." I lowered my head, letting my damp bangs drop down, waiting for a lecture.

"He, however, was not with you while you were entombed. I wish to know all that you experienced, then I expect you to get the rest you so greatly need," he finished firmly.

I lifted my head and shook it again, making eye contact with him. "I won't be able to sleep until I see Arwyn again," I informed him with a bull-headed attitude.

He studied me fixedly for a moment, but didn't seem annoyed. "Um, hmm." Pivoting back to the counter, he busied himself with preparing the hot beverages. "Then let us have tea while you explain everything."

After he had handed me my cup and settled silently into seiza, I related all I could remember about the ambush and consequent rescue mission. I included everything I had done in the tower. And why I had done it.

Giving me his rapt attention the entire time, Sensei kept my teacup filled, but said not a word. Following up with what had happened before I was rescued, I tried to understand it myself.

"I was determined to get out, but I was too weak to use my element. I couldn't see how that was gonna happen…I was prepared to die…And, you know…it's funny, but I didn't see my life, my past, flash before my eyes like some say can happen." Still sitting with my elbows on my knees, I stared down into the bottom of my half-empty teacup.

"Instead, I saw some of what I'd be missingThat really upset me." I drained my fourth cup of the unfamiliar, bitter tea, grimacing a bit.

I didn't like the taste that no amount of sugar could improve, but I was thirsty, and he kept refilling it, so I was dutifully drinking it. "Then something strange happened. I've never experienced anything like it, Sensei."

"It was like my element was a physical being within me, and Arwyn was calling it for help. And it was bound and determined to go to her…whether I wanted it to or not."

My master barely batted an eyelash throughout my monologue, simply nodded and stroked his long beard which reminded me more and more of an albino python.

"I heard her crying, yet I could hear nothing else around me. I could even feel her, the elements within her, her hopelessness, her desperation. I know we were communicating, but I'm not sure how." I yawned deeply, politely covering my mouth with a hand. I was getting really sleepy for some reason. "Somehow we were working together, our souls were in sync…"

"We weren't really able to talk about all this before we left the castle, with everyone else around. She just said that she could hear me and something special had happened to her, too." Sitting up straighter, I yawned again and blinked hard, since my eyelids seemed to be drooping on me.

Scrubbing my face with both hands, I ran them back through my hair. "Now I can sense her when she's nearby, just like she does with…" In midsentence, I forgot what I was saying.

As I had given my report to Sensei, I hadn't paid any heed to whether or not he was enjoying his tea.

I hadn't noticed that, although he had poured tea for both of us, he didn't drink any of his. Not a single drop. That fact finally crossed my mind when my head thumped the wall behind me. Good thing I was already sitting on the cot.

Groggily lifting my head, which felt like it weighed about a hundred pounds, I looked at Sensei through narrowed, crossed eyes. "Did you…drug me?" My incredulous words sounded quite a bit slurred.

Even in my foggy state, he seemed unperturbed by my accusation. "That may have been a special tea…"

"You…are a sneaky… frickin' SOB, Wu…," I got out before slumping sideways on the cot's firm mattress.

Succumbing to the velvety blackness, I almost missed his smug response. "Never forget it, Montanaro."

**Sensei Wu's POV

For a few minutes, I watched Cole as he slept peacefully, his battered body completely limp, his tousled, black bangs covering his brow. It reminded me of times I had watched Arwyn sleep as an infant and toddler.

Satisfied that he would definitely get the rest he needed to recharge, I was still not proud of myself for my mildly-deceitful act. However, I knew he would not have rested otherwise, refusing to take a break until everyone else on the ship, especially Arwyn and Lloyd, had been bathed, treated, and put to bed.

After all he had been through, I could not have him making himself even more unwell because of his concern for everyone else's welfare.

Besides that, it was an amusing thought that if he was to one day become my son-in-law, instilling a small amount of wariness in him toward me now might be an advantageous bonus for me in the future.

Rising from the tatami mat, I reached over Cole to the cabinets he and Kai had built and removed a cotton blanket from the folded stack Arwyn kept there. Nya appeared in the doorway, seeming surprised to find Cole asleep. "Is he okay, Sensei?"

Taking in the ninja leader's sagging form, I unfurled the blanket and covered him with it. Bending to retrieve the teacup from where it had fallen to the wooden floor, I answered nonchalantly, "Of course. He is understandably very tired and just wishes to sleep a while."

Setting hands on the earth ninja's shoulders, I instructed her, "Just get his feet and help me make him more comfortable on the cot, then I would like you to get some rest before everyone else gets here. I may need your help at that time. I will be watching over Cole in the meantime."

It was about two hours later, close to three-thirty in the morning, when Arwyn and Kai stepped onto the main deck of the Bounty from the cargo lifter. Standing at the lifter's controls, I watched the pair as they strode confidently toward me, restraining myself from rushing forward to clasp my daughter to me.

They made an impressive duo, I thought, both in uniform, seeming so bold and strong. She carried the Scythe of Quakes in one hand, while Kai held his Sword of Fire and led her with a hand gripping her upper arm.

It was as they drew nearer and the light of the railing torches hit them better that my idealistic thoughts unraveled. As with Jay and Cole, my heart nearly broke when I saw how unkempt and worn out they actually were.

Both were covered in grey dust, like the two in blue and black had been. Stripped of most of her armor and all of her usual weapons, Arwyn wore Cole's helmet, instead of her own. When she removed it as she approached me, I could see that her eyes were puffy and tired, and dried blood from a large cut on one cheek was smeared across her grimy skin.

Kai was in little better shape, his uniform mostly intact, but blood-spattered, and he, too, looked weary. The front of his jacket gaped open, as well, showing a lengthy, bloody gash on his muscular torso.

I would never get used to the sight of these young ones who were so dear to my heart returning to me so bedraggled and knocked about.

So long as they return…

Kai released Arwyn, allowing her to nearly collapse into my waiting embrace which she returned with a prolonged squeeze. Although I tried to conceal it, he must have seen something in my distraught face over her shoulder.

He grinned tiredly and patted my shoulder. "If you think we look bad, you should see the other guys, Sensei. Who'd have thought you could make ruins out of ruins?"

When I eventually freed her, I motioned to Arwyn and Kai to follow me below deck. "I want you both to bathe, then meet me in the infirmary for treatment."

Arwyn immediately tried to delay that. "I need to see Cole first, Chichi. How is he?"

Their devotion for one another made me think of Mavé and me, but, still, I sighed. "He is resting. You need to—"

"Let her go, Sensei," Kai interrupted me with a laugh. "She's done nothing but worry herself sick over him since he and Jay left the castle. In the meantime, she's made me sick of listening to it!" He grinned at her and put his arm around her shoulders as she cut her eyes sideways at him. "It made for a really long ride!"

Entering the infirmary with Arwyn a moment later, I noticed that Cole had not moved at all from the position in which Nya and I had originally placed him on the cot. It appeared his slumber would be very restful.

On seeing him, Arwyn dropped to her knees at his shoulder, lightly brushing the hair away from his forehead and gently pressing her cheek to his. He never stirred. "He's sleeping so soundly." Holding his hand, her utterance sounded mildly amazed.

"Um hmm." As I watched her, I set my jaw, noting the bloody lines across her back with a pang. Cole had angrily informed me about her injuries, but it still caused me angst when I imagined what Mavé's child had undergone.

Besides that, the tattered remains of her jacket, devoid of the embroidered snake, were a symbol of the Serpentine's attack on all which we fought to protect.

She caught my expression when she stood by the bed and began to remove her vest armor, guessing correctly at why I looked aggrieved. "My back's not so bad. Just stings a bit, really sore. It's what I get for refusing to admit defeat."

I could not bring myself to speak, expecting my voice to shake. I could only stand there, feeling helpless.

Taking off her jacket, she inspected it thoughtfully. "You know, I always dislikedthat thing. I couldn't understand why the Masters all have emblems representing their elements on their jackets, but I have this repulsive snake." Giving me her attention, she frowned a bit. "I've always hated snakes."

"It made more sense to me that I should've had your flower of tranquility, since I thought I was supposed to bring peace to this place. But, now I remember how you said when you gave it to me that it was a warning to them, that I will bring about their downfall."

I bowed my head a tad at the memory.

Taking my hand, she said purposefully, "If you wanna get me another one, I intend to wear it with more honor and perseverance. They may be on my back, figuratively and literally, but after what they've done, and knowing what they intended to do, they will be conquered."

**Cole's POV

Oh…yeah

Making out with Arwyn was so incredibly hot…sensual…arousing…wet…

Wet?

She was erotically licking me, her smooth, warm tongue lapping over my neck, my ear, my cheek….

My forehead? A little kinky… but, hey, I'm good with it…

I was okay with that—she could even go lower—but then she scratched the heck outta my shoulder.

"Whoa, babe…getting a little rough there…" That just made her licking more frenzied.

"Uh…kinda much…" The tongue bath had me suddenly opening my eyes, finding myself nose-to-nose with a shiny, black one surrounded by white-and-tan fur.

"What the he—?!" I couldn't get away quick enough to avoid the sopping-wet organ that swiped clear across my mouth. "Aahh!"

Hurriedly bringing myself up onto an elbow, I faced A-Cappella who bounced up and down feverishly on the floor of the infirmary with his front paws on the edge of my cot. He was doing his best to get at the last dry spot on my chin.

Grabbing the blanket that I had nearly kicked off of me, I tried to wipe some of the slobber from my face. "That is just gross! What is he doing here?!"

"He loves you! Can we keep him?!"

Looking past the puppy, I saw Lloyd happily sitting up on a pallet on the floor near the foot of my cot. Sensei was in the lotus position on the tatami mat in the center of the room, cracking an eye at me. Arwyn slept curled on her side on the padded exam counter. The wall clock near the sink read eleven-twenty-three AM.

"Can we keep him?" Lloyd repeated, crawling over to the pup and distracting it from trying to drown me in saliva. He was giving me those eyes. "Your dad said it was okay if we do, but if we don't, you have to bring him back yourself so he can see that you're alright."

Swinging my bare legs over the side of the cot and combing my hair with my fingers, I mumbled, "Thanks, Dad." A little louder I stated, "Looks like I'll be making a trip back to Castor really soon, then."

"Aawwww!" I hated to disappoint Lloyd, but, really? "Why can't we keep him? I'll take care of him! He won't be any trouble!"

Again. Thanks, Dad.

With a hand on his shoulder, I stopped his begging. "We'll discuss it later, buddy. Why don't you take him out for a walk on the deck? He may have to do his business, so let it be there, okay?"

And stop giving me those eyes!

Once those two were out the door, I inclined my head toward Arwyn, who was still snoozing, and eyed Sensei suspiciously. "Did you slip her a mickey, too?"

He shot me a slighted look, answering curtly, "I did not have to do so. After she and Kai had showered and were treated, she and Lloyd took up positions and have slept well all morning. Until you started your hullabaloo."

Grunting with skepticism, I stood slowly and made my way to the sink, pleasantly surprised at how energized I felt, even though I was stiff and sore as hell. As I washed my hands and face of all traces of dog spit, I gathered that part of the reason I was doing so well was due to the fiery spark I was getting from Arwyn.

Not a bad feeling…

Of course, the several hours of sleep Sensei had duped me into had helped a lot, also, but I wasn't about to admit that to him.

Drying my face with a towel, I could hear Arwyn's deep inhalation as she began to wake on the counter next to me. Hanging the towel on its hook, I stooped next to her until the tip of my nose was only a couple of inches from her own. I wanted my face to be the first thing she saw when her molten-chocolate eyes opened.

It was as I had planned. "So awakens my reason for living." I smiled, running a fingertip along her jawline. It wasn't easy to ignore the inch-long, arrowhead-shaped laceration Nya had stitched under her cheekbone.

Her eyes crinkled slightly as she responded, "My knight in shining armor…"

"Hmmph! A knight? Such twaddle!" came from behind me. "I will check to see that someone is preparing a noon meal before I have to listen to any more of these silly terms of endearment." Sensei's sandals shuffled out of the infirmary.

"I'm going to pretend I didn't hear what I clearly heard," I told Arwyn with a grit of my teeth behind a tolerant grin.

"May as well," Arwyn sighed as she propped herself on one elbow. "It's not gonna change any time soon. Just be glad you're not dealing with Ryo every day."

"Oh, believe me, I am!" I assured her as she sat up on the exam table and hung her legs over the edge. "One of my mottos has long been 'It can always be worse'."

Laughing lightly, she pulled me by the arm to stand between her knees, brushed my bangs off my brow with a fingertip, and wrapped her arms around my neck. "You're right! We can only hope and pray it never is." I got a brief kiss on the mouth. "How are you feeling this morning?"

"Absolutely mahvalous, now that I have you back!" Slipping my arms around her waist, I leaned in closer, pushing her hair from her shoulder and nibbling her neck with my lips, loving the way she moaned under her breath.

It wasn't quite enough to keep her mind off of everything, though.

"Cole? Speaking of how things could always be worse—how did you and Zane keep from being killed during the ambush? Kai only said that Zane protected you with ice when you passed out, and then fought off the Serpentine."

Good going, Kai

I didn't pause in my nibbling, moving up to her ear and tracing the shell-like curves with the tip of my tongue, making her moan again. Although I was hoping to divert her attention from the subject so that I wouldn't have to admit how closely I'd come to dying a couple of times yesterday, she was a persistent little cuss.

Leaning away from me, irksomely breaking the contact of my lips to her ear, she looked me right in the eye. "How did he do it?"

Dang it.

While I didn't want to lie to her, considering everything else she'd dealt with, I was not going to divulge the specifics I knew could possibly send her into hysterics. Not right now, anyway.

After kissing her cheek, I went back to work on her earlobe, taking the soft skin behind her earring gently between my teeth and mumbling, "It was just like Kai said, not much else. Z threw up a wall of ice, I was safe."

I knew the details were safe, too, as far as Kai was concerned, since there was no way in hell he was gonna let slip that he'd had to fight my hypothermia by snuggling in bed with me. While I was naked, no less.

She took a breath to say something else.

Quick, change the subject!

"I think it's awesome that I was able to share the power of my element with you, and I love being able to sense you now!" She made a little sound of agreement in my ear, and her arms tightened around me.

Keeping up the neck-nuzzling, I ran my hands slowly up her rib cage, grazing the outside curves of her breasts, just for extra interference with her concentration. She arched against me, urging me on.

This was certainly taking my mind off of the conversation.

Naturally, we had an intrusion.

"Hey, guys! Ooh…I'm interrupting something, aren't I?" I whipped around to find Jay in the doorway with an evil grin stretching his mug. "Oh, well, not sorry!" he chortled at me. "But don't stop on my account! I came to remind you that you had wanted us all here for lunch today, Cole, so, lunch is served."

I was still standing between Arwyn's knees, obviously engaging in an intimate moment, and knew he could hear my low growl, but he refused to leave, paying me back for last night. "Nya and I fixed my mom's recipe for beanie-weenie-supreme casserole, corn bread, and Brussels sprouts! Uh, they're separate, not mixed all together."

"'Beanie-weenie supreme'?" Arwyn repeated doubtfully. "And Brussels sprouts?"

I was seconding that attitude. "Jay, it's been nearly twenty-four hours since we last ate, and you fixed beanie weenies?"

He stood up for his menu choice with, "Hey, it's a big casserole!"

"And that makes it all better?" I threw back. "Are you trying to give us epic gas?"

He refused to acknowledge that, informing us teasingly, "Zane made oatmeal-peanut-butter-cookie bars with chocolate frosting."

"That makes it all better," I said decidedly.

"Wait, that's more fiber," Arwyn intoned.

"Doesn't matter anymore." I lifted her from the counter, set her on her feet, and made for the door, dragging her by the hand behind me. It was dessert, and it had given me a reprieve from our discussion. "We should eat dessert first, Jay. Life is short, you know."

He started limping in the direction of the dining room. "No way. I wouldn't want you to ruin your appetite for lunch."

"Mercifully, that may have been done already…"

**Arwyn's POV

Lunch was…interesting…and cheerful. Everyone was still running off of the adrenaline high of our successful rescue mission and trouncing of the Serpentine.

Conversation varied from the outcome at the castle to what color collar, complete with its own tracking device, Jay was going to fabricate for A-Cappella. The spirited little dog seemed to have already been voted in as the newest permanent resident of the Bounty.

Oddly, there seemed to be an hours-long gap in the timeline of the last twenty-four hours. Every time I brought up what had happened between the time we were hit with the anesthetic gas and when the guys got to the castle, Cole or Kai instantly found something else to talk about, and the others, even Nya, joined them.

Something was rotten in the state of Denmark.

The afternoon was spent in a leisurely fashion. Sensei had said there would be no training for several days while we all rested and recuperated, especially Cole and Jay. The latter kept chomping at the bit to move around more, but, each time, Nya brought him back into port quite easily with an offer of sympathy and a little cuddling.

Cole and I tried repeatedly to find chances to be alone, but we were often foiled by Lloyd, who seemed to be determined to stay in the earth ninja's back pocket. The couple of times we were successful, I was unable to question him in depth, since he kept getting me involved, not unwillingly, in other activities. Things that didn't exactly require talking…

When it came time to prepare supper, I figured I'd finally get my chance to interrogate Cole about those lost hours. He was scheduled to cook that night, so, as we often did, I'd assist him. As it turned out, I got my information in another way.

I was pressing out the dough for olive focaccia while Cole fought his alfredo sauce to keep it from scorching in the saucepan about the time Zane appeared at the door to the dining room.

"Cole, I am sorry to take your help, but do you think I could borrow Arwyn for a moment?" Speaking to me, he said, "I need your opinion on something right away."

Cole's glance at Zane was cautious. "Uh…"

"I will not keep her long," the ice master assured him as he led me out of the kitchen to the men's bunkroom, where Jay and Nya sat waiting on Zane's bunk.

Zane motioned for me to take a seat on Cole's bed, then jumped right in. "Has Cole told you anything about how he escaped execution by the Serpentine?"

Oh, geez, do you have to word it that way? Scowling, I shook my head.

"Neither do I believe he will do so any time soon, and I think you should know."

Numbly sitting in stunned silence and gripping my knees, I listened as Zane informed me about what he'd done in the abandoned auto-parts store to protect his leader, and how he'd been unable to keep Lloyd and me from being captured. He then shared all of the particulars concerning Cole's physical condition following the ordeal.

After that, Jay took over, delighting in giving a detailed description of how Kai had essentially brought the light of my life out of a hypothermia-induced coma.

I was finding it difficult to breath.

I was also having a hard time imagining Kai cozying up to my naked Cole in such a small bed.

That's when Lloyd and Kai wandered into the room with A-Cappella scampering behind them. The fire ninja went off like a small volcano. "Ohmigod! Are you telling everyone about that?! I said it wasn't supposed to leave that room!"

"Chillax, dude!" Jay waved away Kai's outburst, knowing he had the upper hand. "We're just letting Arwyn in on it, 'cause she needs to know what happened to Cole."

"Everything?! And Nya's right there next to you!" Kai was close to flipping out as his arms flapped about. "And Lloyd just heard it! Is Sensei the only one on this ship who doesn't know?"

"C'mon, Kai." Jay leaned back against the pillows, his hands behind his head, clearly enjoying Kai's embarrassment. "He's known about this since I told Nya yesterday."

"Aargh! At this rate, Sofiya and Renata are the only ones who don't know!"

"Well, actually…" Zane paused to speak into his comlink. "Did you and Renata get all of that, my love?"

Sofiya's voice came from the small device. "Of course, snuggy bunny!" I could barely hear the rest of her message over Kai's horrified outcry. "Call me later, Arwyn! I'm glad you're all okay!"

"Cool it, my red-hot chili pepper!" Renata attempted to calm Kai over the minute speaker. "It was awesome of you to do that for Cole! You shouldn't be ashamed of it! When are you going to get your sweet buns back over here to me, by the way?"

Quieting down, Kai glared daggers at Jay, daring him to make a remark or laugh out loud. "I'll be there tomorrow afternoon," he replied to Renata with a sheepish downward glance. "And I'll call you later…Nata-boo." His exit from the bunkroom was swift, chased by Jay's hysterical hooting, A-Cappella, and Lloyd.

Nya was stifling Jay's laughter with a pillow when I rose and confronted Zane worriedly. "He actually went through all of that? Why would he gloss over all of this and try to act like nothing happened? I can understand Kai not wanting to talk about it, but…"

"Cole had been in critical condition because of my actions," our brother admitted with a shrug. "And, although he recovered rather quickly from it, for the most part, he willingly went into that tower knowing he was in a weakened state."

His expression was one of understanding as he took my hand. "But, being the person he is, he was determined to do everything he possibly could to get us all home safely. He may not wish you to know all that he endured, that he ignored all of the warning signs, and risked his life, anyway."

I was appalled. Acidicus had relished in telling me that he had had Cole killed. I had grieved for him, even if only for a few hours, and, then, miracle of miracles, I had found him to be alive and well.

Now I was told that when I had thought he was dead, Cole had indeed been fighting for his life. This was what he had wanted to keep from me, so that I wouldn't agonize more.

"This is not the first time Cole has taken risks on his own person to keep us all together, but it is the first time he has gone to such extreme lengths." Zane smiled with a tilt of his head toward me. "I can only surmise that it was due to your involvement."

That wasnotgonna absolve him.

**Cole's POV

While cutting broccoli into sections and adding the pieces to the steamer basket, I was wondering why Zane had filched my assistant right in the middle of fixing supper.

I could really use some help

I had just taken the chicken breasts out of the oven, where the focaccia still sat, waiting to brown. The alfredo sauce was nearly ready to shut down, and I was hoping the radiatori wouldn't get too soft or sticky before everything else was finished, since I had just drained and covered it.

Dessert'll have be ice cream or Oreos, 'cause I just don't have ti—

"Valerio COLE!"

The knife slipped in the vegetables, almost catching a finger when I felt Arwyn's hot, staticky spike and heard her cry from down the hall. It made me flinch for two reasons: I still wasn't used to having everyone know my first name, and her tone was a little shrill, somewhat commanding, and a lot pissed.

Closing my eyes, I put the kitchen knife on the counter.

Aw, shit. Those blabbermouths told her everything, didn't they…

I had purposefully danced around the subject of all that I had been through physically so that she wouldn't spazz on me about having taken such a terrible risk in the collapsing of the tower. Now my helpful and caring brothers had gone and royally screwed all that up.

Her yell was followed by staccato footsteps that thumped down the hall toward my location. Was she loudly trying to let me know she was coming for intimidation or to alert me to grant time for an escape? Probably neither.

She knew she couldn't sneak up on me since I could sense her now, anyway. If I could guess anything about her present mood, she just didn't give a rat's ass about trying to be stealthy. After all, where could I possibly go?

I looked back toward the swinging door to the dining room.

Maybe I could slip out of the kitchen without her seeing me, buy myself a little time, give her a chance to cool down…

It was not that I was treating Arwyn anything like Jay treated Nya, avoiding Kai's sister when she was seeing red, then begging her forgiveness until she got over being steamed at him for whatever nimrod thing he'd done.

Frick, no! I am not pussy-whipped like Jay… I'll just do it to mess with her. Yeah.

Turning off the oven, and extinguishing the gas burner under the simmering alfredo sauce, I bounded to the hinge-side of the doorway. Flattening my back to the wall a split second before the door came flying open, it only missed hitting my nose because it struck my chest first.

That would've smarted…

A ticked-off woman on a mission, Arwyn strode rapidly into the room, reaching the center of the kitchen as I smoothly stole around the edge of the door before it could swing closed.

Only one of my bare feet was across the threshold on the way to freedom when a handful of my T-shirt sleeve was grabbed tightly from behind. I was yanked backward and spun around, coming abruptly face-to-face with Arwyn. I tried not to look startled as her dark eyes bored into me.

"Running like a scared rabbit, Montanaro? Not like you can hide from me. I can sense you in here like I can see you!" Her expression was unsmiling. The heat, electricity and pressure of her elements was obvious. The cool part, not so much.

How to get out of this one…?

With what I hoped was a smoldering, ultra-sexy grin, I eased my hands around her waist, and pulled her into my intimate, personal space. "As a matter of fact, my heart, I was just going to look for you."

Moving in for a kiss, my parted lips were an inch from hers when her fingertips slipped in between them, and she pushed me away by the chin. I noticed, however, that she made no attempt to extricate herself from my snug embrace.

"You are not going to distract me that easily, sir!"

I put on my innocent-as-a-lamb face, although I knew I was busted like a water balloon. "From what on earth would I try to distract you?"

Her tone got really sarcastic. "Only from the interesting little tidbits that I know you know I know, although you didn't want me to know, but you had to know I'd find out eventually."

Furrowing my brow, I peered at her through lowered lashes. "…Okay, now you're just trying to confuse me…"

Pushing me backward a couple of steps until I felt my back hit the wall near the door, she proceeded to poke me in the chest with a forefinger.

Funny how I don't mind that at all from her

"Let me put it as simply as possible. You didn't want me to know that you were frozen, in a coma, only took time to recover to a fraction of your usual self, and should never have pulled that tower-collapsing stunt!"

"Oh, yeah. Heh. That…Some secrets don't stay secret on this ship for long enough, do they?" My I'm-way-too-hot-for–you-to-stay-mad-at-me grin still didn't have Arwyn smiling back from behind her wavy, black bangs.

I sighed and got serious as she folded her arms over her chest between us.

May as well face the music

"I didn't tell you 'cause I only wanted to keep you from being upset more. And I didn't think I'd run into trouble in the tower. I was simply doing everything I could think of to make sure you survived, that you were safe and could go on to fulfill the prophecy—"

Her scowl softened, but she still looked determined to prove a point. "If you have an obligation to help me make that happen to the best of your abilities, then your main objective should be staying alive, 'cause I'd rather die than have to live without you…I was ready to do just that." She leaned into my embrace a little more.

I could tell I was about to be forgiven. "I told you not to give up."

Uncrossing her arms, she moved her hands up to my biceps and pressed her hips and upper body closer. "And I listened. I didn't give up, did I?"

"You didn't totally listen." Dipping my head, I caught her lower lip between my mine for a teasing second. "You didn't leave the castle."

"You didn't say I had to." Her arms went around my neck, the fingers of one hand were woven through my hair. "And it's a good thing I didn't, or you'd still be there."

"I'm glad you stayed."

"So am I."

Her breath was hot against my lips as I brought them down to claim hers. Warm and petal-soft, they opened with no hesitation to accept the tip of my tongue, her own tongue teasingly meeting mine until we were completely intertwined.

Without stopping our kiss, I lifted Arwyn by the waist and sat her on the counter by the door, making her head and shoulders even with mine. Clutching her to me, I felt her legs wrap around my waist, her ankles crossed behind me, keeping me close.

It was a good thing I'd had the foresight to turn off the stove and oven, 'cause everything around us totally disappeared.

After spending quite a while indulging in one of the longest and most-profound kisses we'd shared so far, she breathlessly ended it, pulling away from me just a bit with a look of flaming desire. Resting her forehead against mine, she whispered, "We only have one life…and I want to live every minute of mine with you."

In ecstasy, my heart soared. "I'm glad you feel that way, 'cause I feel the same for you." The term carpe diem aptly came to mind.

Why not just do it?

Taking a deep breath, I blurted, "I know it's kinda early, and, you know me, I usually plan down to the tiniest detail for something like this, and, in fact, I have, thinking I was gonna do this in the old, tired, traditional way with the clichéd down-on-one-knee bit, under the moon, with a ring and everything, but—like I said earlier—life is short."

I finally paused to take another breath. Arwyn stared back at me, eyes wide and searching. I felt my heart pounding under my ribs somewhat, but it was not nearly as bad as the first time I'd told her I loved her.

"So, although I don't have the ring in my hand yet, if you really feel like you could stand to put up with me for the rest of your life…" Reaching up, I caressed her cheeks with my thumbs. "Say you'll marry me."

She was quiet for a moment, but not freaked out the way I was afraid she might be. Increasing the space between us some, with a little, challenging smile, she asked, "Is that an order from my team leader?"

"There's no leader in this two-person team, remember? But, sorry, guess I forgot to add 'please'?" My tooth-filled smile probably resembled a first-grader's 'cheesy' class picture.

Laughing, the object of my soul's lifelong quest squeezed my neck in a tight hug. "It would make me the happiest and most-blessed woman on earth to be your wife!" She had to know that she'd just made me the happiest and most-blessed man on earth.

Then she got to over-thinking things. "But…why would you want to do that now if we couldn't consummate it without precaution until after the final battle?"

"I suppose we could wait for the ceremony and…everything else…until that time…somehow…," I admitted reluctantly. "But I've got a ring in mind that I must have on your hand as soon as possible."

Smooching me on the nose, she stated sincerely, "You don't have to give me a ring to know that I'm yours forever, that I'm never leaving you."

"Well, you're gonna get one anyway, 'cause I want the rest of Ninjago to know. I'm assuming you'd be more willing to comply with wearing my ring…" Using two fingers, I flicked the first button of her shirt open. "…Than to having me tattoo 'Hands off—Property of Cole' right about…" I traced a fingertip across the soft, olive-toned swells just above the satiny top of her bra. "…here. So, which will it be?"

She glanced down at my lingering finger. "Yeah, the tattoo's not gonna happen, mister."

Though regretful, I was not surprised. "I thought not."

**Arwyn's POV

After lying in bed for more than two hours, punching my pillow, saying my prayers, turning from one side to the other, uncovering, then covering again, I still could not sleep. I couldn't shut off my mind.

It was our first full night back on the Bounty, just a few hours after Cole had proposed to me in the kitchen—the kitchen, of all the unromantic spots!And yet, there was no other place I could imagine that would have made it any more special or meaningful.

Through my porthole window, I could see the glint of stars in the sky over the Sea of Sand. Smiling serenely, I thought of how the rest of the evening had gone.

During supper, neither of us said a word about our future plans to anyone else. But between Cole's perpetual smile and my acting like a giddy schoolgirl with a crush, we did get a few curious looks from our tablemates. Particularly from Chichi.

Afterward, I contacted Sofiya from the bridge, since my cellphone and both my and Cole's comlinks were toast. Although she was ecstatic for me, I was a little disappointed that my thrilling and joyful news was not quite news to her, as she had known it was coming soon.

Back in Miyagi, while they had torn down the barn, Cole had come clean to Zane that he had seen a ring he wanted for me in Ninjago City. Mentioning this to Sofiya when he called her that evening, Zane had been told by my best friend that she and I wore the same size.

Without her lover's encouragement, she had gone to the antique-jewelry shop the following morning and asked to the see the ring inspected by 'a good-looking stud with a scythe'. At first, the shop owner had refused, saying she had put it aside for the ninja and only for him.

Sofiya had somehow convinced the lady that she was sent by said ninja to size and pay for the ring. She would be picking it up tomorrow so Zane could bring it back to the Bounty on his next visit.

Cole thought it was funny that it had Zane feeling the pressure to go ring-shopping himself. I was thinking Jay was probably going to be hating his leader, too, when word got out and Nya starting getting ideas.

The rest of the evening we surrendered to Lloyd. The poor boy was showing signs of separation anxiety, shadowing Cole when he wasn't chasing A-Cappella. This led Cole to spend an hour with him trying to reassure him that nothing like the events of the last couple of days would ever happen again. We hoped.

At bedtime, Cole and I had parted at my door with a kiss and hushed declarations of love. I was truly happy—the happiest I had ever been in my life—considering what all we had to deal with. So why was I so restless, so apprehensive?

Lying in bed, I could think of nothing but Cole, of course, but those thoughts kept going back to the hours I had spent in the tower—the hours I had believed him to be forever gone from me. Even though I kept telling myself that nothing was wrong, a niggling doubt stayed with me.

I told myself it was irrational. I could sense the Masters down the hall, each with his own particular characteristic. Kai's rousing heat. Zane's serene frost. Jay's effervescent charge. Cole's confident support. It should've been enough for me.

After all, I knew he was alive and well—bruised and sore, but alive. But it wasn't enough to just know it. I felt the rising need to see him, touch him. More and more, I had the feeling that if I didn't, something awful would have happened, and he would be lost to me.

Giving in to the overpowering need, I threw back my bedcovers and rose, padding without a sound out into the hallway in my nightclothes. I could faintly hear Chichi's light snoring from my right as I turned to the left and headed toward the men's bunkroom.

Hesitating with my hand on the door handle, I felt I had to be out of my mind. I chided myself for acting like a worried mother who was checking on her sleeping baby for the dozenth time, just to be sure everything was alright, although she'd just put him down for the night. I could imagine that I would probably be doing just that in the years to come with Cole's son.

Praying the hinges wouldn't squeak, I carefully pushed the wooden door open. Thankfully, all remained silent, even the sometimes-creaky floorboards, as I crept the few feet to the stacked bunk beds Cole shared with Jay.

Their bunks were placed against the left wall, the ends just being cleared by the door when it was fully opened into the room. Ever-alert for an intruder, Cole slept with his feet toward the door so that he would have the entire entryway in his view as soon as he opened his eyes.

The barest hint of illumination from the nightlight which shone through the bathroom's open door was all I had to enable me to make out everything in the large room. Kai and Zane slept peacefully, not even snoring, in their set of beds placed against the far wall directly across from the room's entrance. Lloyd and A-Cappella didn't move on the small cot they were sharing on the right side of the room.

Kneeling by Cole's bedside, I could see that he lay on his right side, covered to the waist with a blanket, his back to the room. Near enough to entwine my fingers in his glossy mane, I resisted, content to just be here by him, to watch the measured rise and fall of his torso, hear his whispery breathing, knowing that he was well.

In the near-deafening stillness, I cleared my mind of all worries and listened to the slumbering breaths of all my dear brothers.

After little more than a minute, Cole's head slowly turned on his pillow. Catching my breath, I remained motionless as he unhurriedly rolled onto his back. Glinting in the semi-darkness, his eyes soon met mine, looking not at all surprised to find me there.

No words were spoken by either of us as he slowly continued to move until he was on his left side. Lifting the corner of his blanket he invited me into his bed and into his arms.

So as not to wake Jay, I gently maneuvered myself onto the mattress where Cole lay clothed in a T-shirt and boxer briefs. Gratefully settling with my sore back against his firm abdomen and chest, I rested my head on half of his pillow.

His right arm encircled my waist, a knee eased between mine, and his warm breath was in my ear as he softly muttered, "I wasn't sleeping, either. I was about to get up and go to you."

Snuggling closer to his hardness, I released a satisfied sigh. Tightening his hold on me, Cole added, "You're getting good, my heart. I never heard you…but I could feel you."

Once he'd tenderly kissed my cheek, he settled down on his pillow. Before I had time to attempt to reflect on the depth of this new level of our relationship, we were both sound asleep.

Jarred from sleep as the clock's unfamiliar, god-awful alarm blared, I felt a tension around my waist just as I remembered I was in the bunkroom.

OMG. Five-thirty already?

Someone mercifully shut off the noise as Cole shifted around behind me, pressing himself against my backside. My lips curled up lazily.

Ever alert…

I felt Kai's fire increase an iota before I opened an eye. There he stooped, barely two feet away, staring into my face with a tiny flame dancing in the palm of his hand between us. Leveling his brows, he observed, "Hmm…Seems as though Cole's grown another head, guys. One much nicer to look at first thing in the morning than the one I'm used to seeing."

Cole raised his head from the pillow, and Kai met his gaze. "Oh. My bad. There's the ugly one."

"G'mornin' to you, too, Kai," came the sleepy grumble from behind me. "Now shut your piehole, and hurry up with your turn in the bathroom."

The candle-like flame disappeared with its master as Kai scurried to be the first to the lavatory, sidestepping Zane as the nindroid went to turn on the bunkroom's ceiling light. In response, Lloyd became a lump under a heap of quilts, and A-Cappella bounded around the room, tripping Zane.

A soft peck on my ear, and having Cole murmur, "Morning, my life's heart," helped to start my day off right.

Turning in his arms to face him, I was pulling Cole down to greet him with an eager 'good morning' kiss when Jay hung his head over the side of the bed above us. "Hey! Why didn't someone tell me it was bring-your-girlfriend-for-a-sleepover night? I could've had Nya up here!"

His outburst didn't stop us, but it did have Kai yelling from the bathroom, "Excuse ME?! You'd have done what with Nya?!"

Landing on his good leg on the floor beside us with a soft thump, Jay loudly started his debate with Kai. "Hey! If Cole and Arwyn can sleep together in the same bed, and nobody thinks anything of it, why couldn't Nya and I do the same?" He had us disengaging sooner than we wanted.

"Because I know what you'd do!" Kai had been in the middle of brushing his teeth and stood in the center of the bunkroom, waving his toothbrush at Jay. "You don't have half the self-restraint that Cole does! Hell, none of us do!"

Jay shook his head and gestured with animated skepticism. "That is ludicrous! It's not like he's some saint! You don't know what he's been doing with her while you were asleep. It's the quiet ones, like him and Zane, you have to look out for!"

The earth and ice ninja exchanged looks with raised eyebrows and quirky grins.

Jabbing his forefingers at them, Jay exclaimed, "You see?! You see that?! They've got the wool pulled over your eyes, pal! They're about as harmless as a nest of baby vipers!"

Getting out of Cole's bed, I combed my fingers through my hair while I came to my handsome, new fiancé's defense. "That is not true. I may be biased, but I can honestly vouch for Cole. He's not perfect, but he is a gentleman." A little contritely, I added, "In fact, he's showing more restraint than I am…"

Sitting on the edge of his bed, Cole ran both hands through his mussed hair, grabbing fistfuls, and spoke from between gnashing teeth. "You cannot imagine the inner strength it's taking me…"

I patted him affectionately on the head. "There's a good boy…Zane, on the other hand, according to Sofiya…" All eyes focused on the stately blonde who had been readying for his turn in the bathroom.

Zane looked like the fox who'd been caught exiting the henhouse. "What has Sofiya been telling you?!"

Tapping my chin with a finger, I smiled secretively. "Umm…you don't really want to know. Let's just say that she has no qualms about kissing and telling me…everything." Shocked silence followed as Zane did something I didn't know he could do…blushed furiously.

With a suggestive simper, I continued, "And she is very pleased with you, by the way. She made mention of your extensive knowledge of something called the Kama Sutra…"

Involuntarily, a broad smile creased his pink face, and he quickly turned his back to his brothers, as hooting laughter issued from the trio.

Cole strode to Zane's side and smacked him on the shoulder. "Don't be embarrassed, Z! You're right where I wish Arwyn and I could be. I'm jealous, man!"

Lloyd poked his head from beneath his hill of quilts. "What's the Kama Sutra?"

"Ooh…on that note, I'm outta here!" Making for the door, I was brought to a sudden halt when Cole caught me around the waist from behind.

Holding me closely to him, his tickling whisper in my ear made me giggle, something I didn't do often. "I just had to say, you look so hot right now, it's about to drive me cr—"

A single knock on the door scarcely preceded the wooden portal's opening, revealing Sensei Wu.

Everyone in the room was frozen and wide-eyed for a second as our teacher critically looked us up and down. I stood wrapped in Cole's arms, wearing only my fitted cami and really short shorts while he was still in clingy boxer briefs and a tee.

Cole spoke up first. "This is totally innocent, Sensei! She just came to sleep with me!" I felt his arms clench around me as he probably cringed at how that phrase might be construed. "No! I mean, she couldn't sleep and came to see about me!" I was wincing with him. This was pretty painful.

Chichi tried to act like he wasn't seeing anything of which he disapproved, forcing a small smile onto his face as he responded to Cole, then addressed me. "Ah. Yes. I was just looking for you since it's your morning to cook breakfast, Arwyn. I was going to request your pain perdu. With a little cinnamon and honey."

"Will do!" I answered cheerfully, like we'd been doing nothing that could get Cole and me extra training hours. Sensei turned on his heel, followed by a little mammal looking for action. Hopefully he was thinking that we had suffered enough already.

Sighing, Cole let me go, kissed my cheek, and promised, "I'll meet you in the kitchen to help as soon as I dress. I love you."

"I love you more." After kissing him back, I rushed for my room, hearing Jay and Kai's mirthful snorting behind me while Zane tried to console Cole. "At least he didn't catch you exiting her bedroom."

**3rd Person Narration

DESTINY'S BOUNTY, THE NEXT NIGHT

Holding hands, Cole and Arwyn ascended the steps to the main deck from below. It was twilight, and the last of the sun's orange glow was rapidly fading in the west, the first of the clear night's millions of stars were beginning to show. For miles around, nothing could be seen but the undulating dunes of the Sea of Sand and an occasional low mesa.

Cole carried an MP3 dock with speakers and set it up in the prow, while Arwyn lit several of the torches attached to the railings on either side. The small flames she created with her fire element skipped and flickered to the tune of the light desert breeze.

Both wearing casual lounging clothes, the couple met in the center of the deck as the sweet, lilting strains of a slow, Argentine-tango piece sounded from the speakers.

Taking her hands in both of his, the young, ebony-haired man gazed down with shining eyes at his sweetheart. "This instrumental is called 'Nada' or 'Nothing', as in, 'nothing to it'." His grin was warm and reassuring. "I thought we'd start off with something with a slow tempo while I teach you a few steps like the basic walk, ocho, and salida."

Glancing nervously at his unshod feet, she commented, "You really should've worn your boots, 'cause this could get ugly."

He laughed, the happy sound drifting with the wind. "You can't hurt me, and I think we're both agile enough that you'll miss my feet."

"If I make a mistake…" Her tone was uncertain, lacking self-confidence.

He shook his head emphatically. "We've already made a few outside of this dance. Besides, I told you before, there are no screw-ups, no mistakes in this, just miscommunications. The tango's not meant to be perfect. Just follow me, and I'll not lead you astray."

Assuming his usual role of teacher, Cole began his lesson. "Okay, a few things before we begin…You mentioned a few weeks ago that the tango seemed very sensual—and it is, without necessarily being sexual, although…it can be that, too. It's a blend of the body, mind, and spirit."

"Partners move in what's known as 'the embrace', communicating through an intimate connection. It requires commitment. They have to pay full attention to one another and how they're touching, how they're moving. They are not separate, but one."

"Now you do have the leader—me—and the follower—you." He tucked a wandering lock of her hair behind her ear. "But we're here to help each other. This is not a dance of dominance and submission—"

Arwyn cocked a brow. "Glad to hear that."

Cole caught himself before he rolled his eyes. "It's one of invitation and acceptance. My job is to pay attention to the music and navigate, guide you through whatever steps I decide we should take. Your job is to anticipate my moves, be open to my signals, and to step confidently."

"To trust you," she stated with understanding.

"Right. In turn, I am to be sensitive and responsive to how your body is moving throughout the dance—which I have no problem doing, since I'm always responsive to your body…" The risqué wiggle of his heavy, dark eyebrows quickly brought a smile to her lips.

"But, on with the lesson…Sometimes I'll have you mirror me, sometimes you'll move in opposition, but always with me, heart-to-heart. Offering and receiving, giving and taking. Like a relationship."

"I think I can do that," Arwyn nodded, accepting the challenge.

Cole held up a hand. "Before we start that, one more thing…"

Facing one another as the violin-and-accordion music played in a repeating loop, Cole took Arwyn's left hand in his and slipped a piece of jewelry he had retrieved from his pocket onto her ring finger.

"It's official. You are now my betrothed." He kissed her hand, then watched with pride as she held it up in the torchlight, admiring the ring. The marquis-cut amethyst with its flanking rubies set on the flared, white-gold band caught the light, reflecting each facet. "Like it?"

"I love it," she answered, the tremble in her voice just barely under control. Clearing her throat, she added with a smile, "But not even a fraction as much as I love you."

Gathering her to his chest, where she rested her head on his shoulder, Cole chuckled, "You may have liked the tattoo just as much. It would've been a lot less expensive, and you couldn't lose it."

Arwyn lifted her face to look at him with an I-dare-you grin, and Cole could see that her eyes also glimmered with the beginnings of tears. Lowering his head, he kissed her softly, slowly, sweetly, the caress of his lips on hers imparting all of the gentle emotion that his soul contained which was answered in kind by her spirit.

After a time, they ended the kiss, and stood holding each other as they listened to the Latin dance melody wafting over and around them. At last, with a smile, Cole took a step back from her, extending his left arm to the side at shoulder-height, the thumb of his hand up—the traditional invitation to the tango.

"So…Are you ready?"

Unhesitatingly, Arwyn placed her right hand in his inviting palm. "Lead the way, my heart."


A Haiku For Cole and Arwyn

wounded hearts adrift

united, were breathed to life

setting souls ablaze


Please, please help me sign off on this story! You don't have to actually comment in a review, but I'd love it you'd at least drop your pseudo in a review to let me know "So-and-so was here!" It might help me to have some closure on this. DX ...Seriously…

If you haven't visited my profile, I have a few tidbits there about things I wrote into "Turning-Points". You might find it amusing reading.

Check out my next story with Cole and Arwyn and all the ninja, a much shorter one entitled "Champion's Bane."

Thank you so much for reading! Namaste…