I keep forgetting to say, but the last few chapters have been betaed by my old friend 00101010, since my previous main beta got kicked in the teeth by current events.

Enjoy!


By the time Kaito's stomach was full and the remaining food packed away by Ukitake and Hanataro, he had almost talked himself around to training with both Captains. He'd learned so much just from a single spar with Kyoraku, and it made him wonder what else there was to learn.

(He wanted to get better.)

(He wanted to be worthy of the weapons entrusted to him and the hopes that came with them.)

(If he wanted to become powerful… he needed training.)

Kaito plucked a blade of grass and began to fiddle with it as he listened to Ukitake's and Kyoraku's meandering conversation. Occasionally they coaxed Hanataro into speaking up, but for the most part they seemed content to leave Kaito and Hanataro be.

(Almost like at the shoten…)

He swallowed against the wave of homesickness that struck at that thought, staring blankly at the fragments of grass speckling his fingertips.

(He wanted to go home.)

(He… never thought he'd feel that way about the shoten…)

There was nothing he could do about the homesickness; they were at the mercy of the Gotei Thirteen, an organization reeling from the betrayal of three of their trusted Captains and the injury of several others. Kaito didn't know how long it would be before they could go home, but he had to assume it would be at least several more days.

Which meant he was going to be at loose ends and amongst former enemies until then. Hanataro would probably let Kaito hide out in his room until it was time to return to the Living World, but that would do nothing to soothe the helpless restlessness that Kaito could sense building in himself.

He had to deal with the Eleventh and give Kenpachi his promised fight, but other than that…

(What else was there to do?)

(He hated having nothing to do!)

Kaito looked up when there was a lull in the conversation, gathered himself to finally ask and… couldn't find the words.

(The Captains hadn't brought up teaching him since that meeting on Sokyoku Hill.)

(Was he supposed to just… say he accepted? Wait for them to mention it again?)

(How was he supposed to ask?)

"Kaito-kun? Is there something wrong?" Ukitake gently prompted when Kaito grimaced and looked back down at his hands.

He scowled and shook his head, picking at the bits of grass covering his fingers while he tried to force the words out.

(The words wouldn't come.)

(How did anyone just… ask for something like that?)

Ukitake hummed and watched him for a moment, then said, "Kaito-kun, if you wish to tell us no, we won't take offense. I know Kyoraku-kun apologized to you for how we handled ourselves previously, but I wish to also—"

"Don't," Kaito bit out, annoyed by the repetition. "I don't need your apologies. Just… don't do it again."

"Of course not," Ukitake said softly, promise-assurance-acceptance in his voice. "We will both do our best to mind your boundaries better. Please let us know if something we do begins to bother you, so we can change it."

Kaito lifted his head enough to eye Ukitake thoughtfully, then darted a glance at Kyoraku, whose gaze was calm-steady-accepting as he nodded in agreement.

The promise left him nonplussed and uncertain of how to proceed; he'd almost expected some sort of argument or admonishment that they were trustworthy, that he shouldn't be frightened, that they had his best interests in heart, but… there was nothing.

Only a promise to respect and listen to his words.

(How well they would hold that promise was yet to be seen, but…)

(It was more than he'd ever gotten from… other people.)

(*These two are some of the better ones. Even Urahara thinks so,*) Ichigo said as he settled closer to front, his presence a steady comfort. (*I didn't really get to talk with any of the Captains, but… I liked these two. They're… sad, I think, and probably just want to make the future better than what they've lived through.*)

Kaito considered that; he could see where Ichigo would get that idea, but dare he put his trust in them?

(Dare he not?)

He ran his fingers over the hilts of his blades, considering the idea. It wasn't as distasteful as it had been just that morning; his spar with Kyoraku had settled many of his doubts, and watching the two Captains interact had settled a few more. He still didn't entirely trust their motivation for training him, but… Takara was right; what did he have to lose?

"I accept," Kaito said as he looked back up, meeting Ukitake's surprised gaze steadily. "Training, I mean," he clarified, just in case, biting back the rambling explanation he almost wanted to give. These two Captains didn't need to know why he wanted to get better, only that he wanted to.

(They didn't need to know that he was doing this for Ichigo.)

(They didn't need to know that he was doing this for everyone.)

(They only needed to know that he had agreed.)

Ukitake smiled, bright-happy-pleased, and said, "Then we will do our best to live up to your expectations, Kaito-kun. Thank you for your trust."

Kaito scoffed and looked away, unable to deal with the weird happiness that Ukitake was showing; a former enemy agreeing to training shouldn't warrant such a reaction. It felt wrong.

(He'd never understand Shinigami.)

Hanataro's hand came to rest on his thigh, squeezing lightly in reassurance.

"I'll be fine," Kaito murmured, setting a hand atop Hanataro's in acknowledgment. "I just… never expected this when we initially invaded Soul Society."

That earned him a troubled look, but he wasn't about to get into what he actually expected to happen; he knew what Hanataro probably expected him to say — that they would fail and everyone would die — but truthfully that had been one of the better outcomes.

(Death was the least of his worries.)

(No.)

(Don't dwell.)

"Well, since we're all here and rested, want to get some training in?" Kyoraku asked with a small, pleased smile. "No time like the present to begin."

Kaito snorted, patted Hanataro's hand once, then rose to his feet and slung his blades over his shoulder. "True enough. Lead the way, Kyoraku-san."

Kyoraku chuckled as he stood up, then gestured for Kaito to follow him back out to where they'd previously sparred. "First things first then, let's work on your stances a bit."

"Alright." Relearning the very basics wasn't what he'd expected, but, well, maybe he should have. He'd never really learned the basics of his weapons, after all, just muddled along with whatever felt good enough.

(He really did have a lot to learn, didn't he?)

(Well, Kyoraku was right, there was no time like the present to learn it.)

(Maybe if he did, he'd finally be good enough…)

(Maybe…)


Kaito stumbled back to the Fourth in exhaustion, feeling like his limbs were made of wet noodles. He'd entirely underestimated Kyoraku's ability to push a person to their limits and beyond; the handful of small breaks he'd gotten throughout the afternoon — breaks where Ukitake offered him snacks and drinks and where Hanataro checked on him — were the only reason he was still on his feet.

Hanataro had been the one to call an end to it, voice stern-sharp-exasperated as he ordered Kaito to sit down and rest and told Kyoraku that they were done for the day.

Not that it was all bad. His mind was finally too tired to fixate and the last of his fury from the night before was gone. Even having to lean on Hanataro as they walked wasn't a big deal; after all, what sort of appearance did he really need to maintain here, after the chaos he'd caused during the invasion?

"Kaito!"

"Kaito-san!"

"Senpai!"

Kaito groaned and forced himself straight, planting his feet and lifting his chin as the four teens barreled down the street towards him, Kurosaki and Ishida in the lead with Inoue and Sado not far behind.

(He'd almost made it back.)

(Why did this have to be his luck?)

"I'm fine," he said before any of them could get another word out. "I was training with Kyoraku-san and we went longer than I expected."

Ishida made a strangled noise and fixed him with a gimlet stare. "Senpai, the last time you ran into him—"

"Was in the middle of an invasion when I was running on little sleep and believed that we were all enemies of the Shinigami," Kaito interrupted before Ishida could bring up his near-violent breakdown.

Ishida scowled and crossed his arms over his chest, clearly gearing up to say something else, when Kurosaki's hand landed on his shoulder. Ishida cast an annoyed glance over at Kurosaki, who ignored it in favor of giving Kaito a once-over.

"Just exhausted?" Kurosaki asked, tone even and light, as if they were talking about the weather instead of Kaito going off to meet with a Captain that had put him on edge the day before.

"Yes," Kaito bit out, then grimaced and forced himself to relax as Hanataro's hand brushed against his elbow.

Hanataro cleared his throat and said, "H-he's fine. Tired but… but n-nothing else h-happened."

That at least seemed to settle the teens' worries, unlike his own words; for whatever reason, they had apparently decided that Hanataro was a better source of information than he was, but… whatever. He'd take what he could get.

"Are we done here?" Kaito asked as he swept his gaze over the teens. "Because frankly I want food and then sleep, maybe not even in that order, and this confrontation is getting in the way of both of those goals."

Hanataro nudged his side gently and looked up at him. "F-food first, Kaito-san," he murmured with a hint of censure.

"You could come eat with us!" Inoue piped up, a bright smile on her face as she took a step closer to him. "We were about to have dinner when we sensed you approaching, so everything's already set out!"

"It… it's fine. I wouldn't want to impose," Kaito forced out, unable to meet her kind-cheerful-hopeful gaze. He… didn't want to spend time with the teens when he was so exhausted, didn't want to get caught up in their attempts to befriend him, didn't want to accidentally reveal anything he shouldn't…!

(He'd always had a soft spot for Inoue.)

(If only this one hadn't realized…!)

"It's no bother!" Inoue chirped, reiatsu soft-wistful-accepting in a way that dug under his skin and itched. "They brought plenty to go around, and we can ask for more place settings for you and Hanataro-san."

Kaito sighed and rubbed at the bridge of his nose, already knowing what his answer was going to be; he didn't have the energy to deny Inoue, not right now, not when he was already hungry, so… there wasn't much point in fighting it. Besides, he couldn't avoid the teens forever, no matter how much he might wish to.

(At least if Hanataro was there, his friend could serve as a buffer between him and the teens.)

(He could probably claim exhaustion for his lack of conversation as well.)

(Maybe… maybe this wouldn't turn out terrible.)

"Th-that's fine by me," Hanataro said with a small nod.

"Fine," Kaito grumbled, not meeting any of the teens' gazes as he stepped around them. He channeled a touch of power into his limbs so he wouldn't need to lean on Hanataro any longer, not wanting to display any more weakness in front of the group than he already had. "Let's go eat."

He could almost feel the weight of the looks he was getting from the teens, but he squared his shoulders and kept moving, not looking back. Hanataro hurried to catch up and then fell back into step with him, expression concerned as he glanced up at Kaito as they moved.

"Just tired," Kaito muttered in answer. "Didn't expect this."

Understanding bloomed in Hanataro's expression. "W-we don't h-have to stay l-long," he said kindly. "J-just enough t-to eat, okay?"

He nodded but otherwise remained silent, letting Hanataro direct them back to the Fourth.

"D-did they use th-the same room as… as before?" Hanataro asked over his shoulder, directing his question at the teens.

"Yeah," Kurosaki answered. "Same room where we ate before."

Hanataro murmured his thanks and changed direction, leading Kaito and the others through the building and into a mid-sized room where a low table had been set up with a meal. Another Shinigami that Kaito didn't recognize stood awkwardly just inside the door, tension draining from her body as she spotted their group approaching.

"Yuka-san, could you bring us another two settings?" Inoue asked the Shinigami as everyone else filed past.

"Yes, of course," Yuka agreed before slipping out of the room and down the hall.

Hanataro's hand settled on Kaito's arm, directing him to a clear section of the table where no plates had been set.

It was honestly a relief to fold his legs beneath him and settle down at the table; once he was off his feet he could stop reinforcing his body and relax, even though the teens were right across the table from him. So long as he kept his shoulders square and his back straight, the chances that they would overlook his exhaustion were… greater. Not high, precisely, but at least it was easier to pretend strength if he didn't have to stand.

Luckily, it wasn't long before Yuka returned with extra place settings for Kaito and Hanataro, her presence briefly distracting the teens from their quiet conversations.

"Is there anything else?" Yuka asked as she stepped back from the table.

Orihime shook her head and smiled up at Yuka. "No, I think that's it! Thank you, Yuka-san!"

"You're welcome, Inoue-san," Yuka said with a small bow, then slipped out of the room with barely a sound.

There was a brief lull as the teens began to serve themselves, passing dishes back and forth and making sure everyone had some of what they wanted.

Kaito didn't join in, uncertain of whether his hands would be steady enough, but that was alright, Hanataro made sure there was plenty on his plate, checking Kaito's preferences each time before giving him a bit of whatever he was offering.

It was strange to let himself be served like that, but… it was also nice.

(Hanataro cared about him.)

(He could… almost understand.)

Chatter slowly started up as the teens settled into their meal; Inoue and Sado talking about the things they'd seen while wandering around Seireitei that afternoon, and Kurosaki and Ishida discussing… powers?

Kaito frowned at his food and risked a glance at the two teens, wondering what had prompted that topic; he'd never discussed Quincy abilities with his Ichigo, or at least not as thoroughly as Ishida was.

(He'd been too shattered in the aftermath of the invasion, all jagged edges and broken dreams, wanting nothing more than to fade away.)

(It wasn't like he was useful to them without his powers…)

Ichigo growled in his mind, emotions sharp-regretful-determined as he pressed forward and settled against Kaito's awareness. (*You don't have to be useful to be our friend, you know. Friendship doesn't come predicated on usefulness, and if anyone tells you it is, they're lying.*)

He twitched and focused on the food in front of him, picking at it as he tried to work through Ichigo's words. (*I don't know how to be a friend,*) he answered after a moment, feeling adrift. (*I suppose it's best if—*)

(*Nope! No. We're not having this conversation right now, remember?*) Ichigo said, his kind-gentle-stubborn presence at odds with his fierce-sharp-intent words. (*Remember what Old Man Zan said? There'll be plenty of time once Aizen's gone to figure out where we stand. We can't make any decisions about our past selves right now because too much of us is caught up in, well, surviving.*)

Kaito sighed but conceded the point; he doubted his opinion would change given time, but there was more than enough time to have that conversation after Aizen was defeated.

"Kaito-san, is something wrong?" Inoue asked.

"Just tired," he deflected with a shrug, not looking up from his food. He didn't want to see the concern she was almost certainly aiming at him; he neither deserved it nor knew how to respond to it, so it was best if he just didn't acknowledge it.

(He knew exactly how she'd react to hearing his thoughts.)

(He refused to burden her like that.)

She hummed softly. "Alright. But if you need anything, you'll let us know, right?"

He shrugged and took a bite of food in an attempt to dodge answering her question.

(It wasn't his place, wasn't his right)

(How could he justify asking anything of them after all he'd done?)

She either accepted his non-answer or decided not to push, because she didn't ask again. It left him tense and uneasy, waiting for the next question, the next request, but… nothing came: the teens focused on each other without requiring his participation, and instead of comforting it felt… wrong. Awkward. Isolating.

(Why?!)

Kaito risked a glance up, taking in the teens and their positions and—

Was… was Ishida leaning against Kurosaki?

(What?)

He blinked. Rubbed at his eyes. Looked again.

It didn't change.

Ishida was leaning into Kurosaki's side, clearly speaking with Sado and mostly ignoring Kurosaki, but… Kaito had no doubt that Ishida was leaning in on purpose.

(He had never allowed himself such casual interaction.)

(What in the world had changed?)

Kaito set his chopsticks down and pushed his plate away, catching Hanataro's eye as he did. "I think I'm going to lie down," he murmured in answer to Hanataro's silent question. "I'm more tired than I thought."

"F-feel free to uhm… to st-stay in m-my room," Hanataro said with a small, warm smile. "It's no… it's no bother…"

"Thank you."

(He couldn't stay.)

(Couldn't stand to see this play out.)

(He didn't need the reminder of how much better things could have been if only he hadn't been so stubborn…)

He rose to his feet and turned to go, feeling Ichigo press warm-safe-kind against his senses. It wasn't as reassuring as he knew Ichigo wanted it to be.

(He loved his friend, couldn't have survived as long as he had without him, but…)

(He was the reason Ichigo was dead.)

(*None of that. My death was my fault, not yours,*) Ichigo grumbled as he pressed closer, phantom arms around Kaito's waist and phantom face pressed into his neck. It made walking awkward and, for a moment, it was almost as if Ichigo was there, was safe and whole and alive, but…

Kaito's hand slid through the sensation of Ichigo, landing on his own hip instead of on a flesh-and-blood arm, and the dissonance hurt. It jangled across his senses and added an extra edge to the exasperation-exhaustion-resignation that he sent to Ichigo in turn, making his friend pull back with a ripple of sheepishness-apology-sorrow that just made Kaito more exhausted than before.

(Even now, they couldn't help but hurt each other.)

(Maybe… maybe they weren't meant to fit together any other way.)

Ichigo scowled, sharp with denial-frustration-stubbornness, but said nothing as they walked out of the room and turned towards Hanataro's.

They both knew that words wouldn't change the way Kaito felt, not with how tired and unbalanced he was; only time would do that, and maybe not even then.

(Some things he simply… couldn't believe.)

(Maybe this was one, or maybe it wasn't…)

(Either way, he'd feel better after some sleep.)

(Hopefully…)


Morning came too soon.

Kaito grumbled. Yanked the blankets over his head. Ignored Hanataro's muffled giggles and buried his face in his pillow. Hissed as abused muscles protested the motion.

"Kaito-san is… is silly," Hanataro said softly as he knelt at Kaito's side and pressed a hand to his chest. "D-deep breath a-and relax for me?"

Warmth spread through his body, soothing the aches left behind by the previous day's training; Kaito breathed a sigh of relief, feeling almost like he was sinking into his father's healing spring, and slowly stretched his limbs to loosen his muscles further.

It was still far too early to be up, but… Hanataro was making a decent case.

Hanataro chuckled and leaned over him, presence warm-gentle-amused as he slipped a hand beneath the blanket and threaded his fingers through Kaito's hair. "Kaito-san sh-should take th-the morning to rest."

"I should—"

"Not be t-training l-like y-yesterday," Hanataro said sternly, though his hand continued to smooth through Kaito's hair. "L-light stretches, n-nothing strenuous."

"But—"

"N-no. I-if y-you want t-to train with th-them again, nothing l-like yesterday, h-healers o-orders," Hanataro bit out, reiatsu shading towards concerned. "I-I'm g-going t-to tell th-them so."

Kaito sighed and wiggled an arm out from his cocoon of blankets, wrapping it around Hanataro and dragging the nervous healer down on top of him.

Hanataro squeaked as he landed on Kaito's chest. "K-kaito-san!"

"Stop worrying so hard," Kaito muttered as he adjusted his grip, letting Hanataro wriggle into a more comfortable position. "If you say don't, I won't. I do want to get a bit more training in, because I don't think we'll be here long, but… I can tone it down. And you can come with me to make sure I don't over-exert myself."

"I-if Kaito-san is sure…"

"I am," he said firmly, giving up on sleeping in and using his free hand to tug the blanket away from his face. "I do need to talk with the Eleventh this morning, but I will do my best to avoid another fight with Kenpachi," Kaito promised with a small smirk.

Hanataro lifted his head enough to give Kaito a flat, disbelieving look, one of his hands drifting down to brush pointedly against the spot where Kenpachi's blade had pierced Kaito's side. "Kaito-san"

"No, no, hear me out," Kaito said with a touch of amusement, already looking forward to the reactions he was going to get. "I'll bring Kurosaki with me—" Hanataro's exasperated groan interrupted him before he could finish, and Kaito laughed, flashing his friend his best innocent smile.

"Kaito-san i-is being mean," Hanataro announced with a snort, poking Kaito's shoulder as he did.

"Kaito-san wants to introduce Kurosaki to more sparring partners in order to further his skill," Kaito said haughtily, before breaking into more laughter at the look his words earned him.

(It was so easy, so simple, to find humor with Hanataro at his side.)

(So freeing)

"Seriously though," Kaito continued once he could control his laughter, "Kurosaki's only really had me to fight against. He's good, but…"

Hanataro hummed, understanding settling into his reiatsu as he considered Kaito's words. "You want him t-to… to be better," he murmured, then carefully pulled away to sit up, hand not leaving Kaito's shoulder. "Just… be careful?"

"I will," Kaito agreed as he sat up, rubbing at his eyes to clean the grit from them. "Do you… would you want to come with?" he asked awkwardly, then grimaced and quickly backpedaled, remembering how nervous Hanataro had been the night they spent in the Eleventh's barracks. "Sorry, sorry, you don't have to, I was just—"

He froze, Hanataro's hand over his mouth, and blinked in surprise.

(That was… bolder than he expected.)

(Good.)

"I pr-probably should come along," Hanataro said as soon as he knew he had Kaito's attention. "Th-the Eleventh i-is…" he paused, struggling for words, then shrugged and said, "dangerous. Th-they're n-not going to… to go easy on him."

Kaito reached up and tugged Hanataro's hand down, arching an eyebrow at his friend as he did. "I know. Thank you, Hanataro. For… all of this. Helping me and just… letting me stay here and… everything. I… thanks."

"You're welcome," Hanataro murmured, ducking his head as color rose in his cheeks. "I… I like helping you. It's… Kaito-san is nice, a-and it's… it feels good to help…"

"Thank you, Hanataro," Kaito repeated firmly, amused by the warm-exasperated-fond look Hanataro shot him.

Hanataro huffed and pulled his hand from Kaito's grip, rising to his feet and turning to his desk. "Kaito-san is also silly," Hanataro declared as he pulled the little table out of its storage and set it up, then took the tray of food from his desk and set it down on the table. "F-food first, th-then we can find Kurosaki-san, okay?"

"Sounds good to me," Kaito agreed as he picked up his chopsticks and the bowl of rice.

(He hoped Hanataro got permission to return with them…)

(He doubted it would happen but… it would be… nice…)

(It would be very nice…)