Imagine: The List
Fic posted by members of Vo's Imaginings YahooGroup
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Don't kill me? Also, if you feel this needs a higher rating please let me know; I *think* it's ok at the rating it's at, but the line for acceptable violence between a 'T' and a 'M' is a very thin one.

Asphyxiation Due to Amorous Constriction

By Chyna Rose

Disclaimer: Bleach is the legal property of Tite Kubo, Viz, and whoever else they deem worthy to hold the license – which does not include me.

Warnings: AU; oh boy AU. Dark, very dark. Major character death. Cannibalism (we are dealing with Hollows here. Violence. Language.

Spoilers: No big ones, but if you haven’t gotten to the Arrancar Arc you might be a bit surprised.

Author’s note: So one day I’m just surfing around FFN looking for any decent Hollow!Ichigo fics to read when I started to ponder the idea of Hollow!Ichigo and how realistically that would work within the bounds of the world of Bleach. Well, over 8,000 words, a somewhat planned sequel, and too many repeats of the instrumental version of ‘Nothing Can Be Explained’ off of the Fade To Black OST via iTunes later I have this. I might not have hit the mark for a realistic portrayal, but I like how it came out in the end. Also I have no idea where the Hollow = one of those Jurassic Park velocirapors thing came from, so don’t expect an answer for that. As usual praise is always nice, constructive criticism is more than welcome (for how else can I grow as a writer), questions will be answered and concerns addressed so long as you leave me some way to get back to you, and flames will be at best ignored; at worst laughed at amongst my friends.

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            It’s not easy to keep a monster, to hide a ravenous beast that would happily slaughter and consume you if given half a chance. The secrecy and isolation, the constantly having to be on guard from threats both within and without (for it would mean death to be found out and his hunger can never truly be sated though you try night after night praying to a deaf uncaring kami who might as well be dead that in keep him – feeding him – you will not have to cross that one line that is all that stands guard to your conscious. And oh it would be all too easy to slip down that slope, to justify crossing past that moral event horizon; send out a monster to destroy a monster – and isn’t that what you’re doing anyway, night after night in an effort to stave off the inevitable).

            Kurosaki Karin doesn’t really like horror movies (or books, or TV shows, or games, or theme park attractions – well, maybe except for the Haunted House ride at Disneyland) and she absolutely positively refuses to have anything to do with anything with zombies; no ifs, ands, or buts. It’s not that she’s scared of them (and everyone believes her when she says this because this is Kurosaki Karin they’re talking about) because she’s not scared of very much if anything. Karin has her reasons for not liking horror stuff; some of which she’d actually tell you if you asked. Gorn, for example, she finds downright disgusting and honestly can’t believe that anyone could find that anything beyond morally repugnant; as the daughter of a real life doctor who helps her father out in his clinic she’s seen enough real life blood, guts, and body horror to ever find that kind of thing anything other than sickly sadistic. And most disaster movies were little more than fear mongering in her opinion. But you’d have more luck getting her to admit that she could actually see ghosts which is why, having met so many of them in her day to day life, she tended to stay away from those kinds of movies than her telling you the reason behind her irrational hatred of anything zombie. But then, for her (and the scarce handful of people who knew that truth) the hatred is entirely justifiable. Zombies, even ones meant not to be scary and murderous, just hit too close to home for her.

            “Welcome back.” Yuzu said to her sister with a nervous smile as she returned. A few moments where Yuzu fidgeted while Karin removed her shoes.

            “What do you need?” she asked with a sigh, already kind of knowing what Yuzu had been too hesitant to ask. She didn’t blame Yuzu for not wanting to go down into the basement; she didn’t want to go into the basement if she didn’t have to after all, so how could she blame her twin for being reluctant. Besides, Yuzu had always been the more sensitive of the two (even if she couldn’t see spirits like Karin could). The look of relief that crossed Yuzu’s face made her own discomfort in having to go down into ‘the lair of the beast’ worth it.

            “Well… we could use some more paper towels, and we’re almost out of toilet paper, plus dad asked us to restock the bandages in the clinic.” Yuzu admitted, biting her lip a bit at the guilt of sending her (very slightly older) sister to do something that she just… couldn’t… as if she were hiding behind her like a frightened child. For as long as they could remember, Karin had always been the bolder of the two – even if it was practically all bravado on her part.

            “Paper towels, toilet paper, and bandages. Right. It shouldn’t take me too long to get those – unless Goat Face rearranged everything after he got the last supply shipment in.” Karin replied mostly to herself in order to make sure she had everything. It would be rather embarrassing to have to drag Yuzu down there anyway cause she couldn’t remember which three measly little things to grab after all.

            “Karin!” Yuzu admonished gently but without any real heat. It was an old argument anyway, and in the end they’d just agreed to disagree on the matter, “Dinner should be ready in about half an hour. I hope you don’t mind sea bass.”

            Karin flicked on the light, waiting the moment or two it took for the bulb to ‘catch’ and illuminate the stares. Bravado in place, she descended and proceeded to ignore the slow, rhythmic, almost growl-like breathing (that she refused to admit existed) coming from a dim corner over by where the clinic’s tiny (and luckily seldom used) morgue was. Hopefully Ichigo’d be asleep and she’d be able to grab the stuff Yuzu needed her to get while pretending that the only off putting thing about this space was the refrigerated side room meant to store dead bodies until one of the hospitals or funeral homes could swing by and take them where they belonged. Luck wasn’t with her, or maybe he had been asleep and her presence had woke him up. Either way, the results were the same; a pair of baleful, hungry, inhuman, glowing yellow eyes stared somewhat listlessly at her.

            Karin tried to suppress a shiver as the thing that used to used to be her older brother continued to watch her as she made her way to first where the supplies for the clinic and then the general household supplies were located (and no, her father had not managed to rearrange things to suit some strange new notion of his). It was always hard for her to see him like this, so different from the vibrantly alive boy in the millions (or so it felt like) snap shots taken in happier times (not that she could really remember; she had been about four when their mother had died and with it, it seemed, the smiles of the rest of her family). Gone now were the expressive face, ever so slight roundness of youth, and soulful eyes. In their place was a thing that barely looked human; soulless eyes gazed out at the world from behind a grinning death’s mask of red and bone white, the thin but muscular body was held down by chains that glowed with an ethereal light keeping the tiger in its cage ever waiting, the lizard-like tail curled loosely around his clawed feet, and perhaps worst of all, the terrible hole in the center of his chest where his heart should be. Ichigo, for his part, made no movements save the occasional twitch of his tail (much like a lazing cat’s), and twisting his head to follow her as she made her way around and then finally out of the basement. Once again upstairs, and free from being pinned by his piercing stare, Karin handed off the paper towels to her sister and set about putting the rest of the stuff away.

            Down in his lair, Ichigo waited. For how long, he couldn’t say; for him it could have been minutes, weeks, or even years since his sister Karin had come down the stairs. Time, after all, was a mortal (human) illusion and he was now neither. Oh, he was vaguely aware that time passed; faded memories from his now past life, the coming and going of his father and sisters (as well as the occasional delivery person, EMT, or mortician who never had any clue he was there) and the slight but important differences in appearances as they did so, the presence or absence of the sun and the moon on his all too brief sojourns outside as well as the change in the weather and seasons… But he now was removed from the pull of that flow, never changing and ever hungry. And chained as he was there was little he could do but wait and sleep (once though, he’d tried to eat the passing soul of one who was not his father or sisters who had made the trip down to the clinic’s little morgue only to receive a rather painful reprimand from his father for doing so. Since then he’d contented himself with whatever his father managed to bring him as well as the other Hollows his father let him catch on their perhaps rare but likely not walks). His mind was not entirely idle though, often as he waited he wondered. Would his father appear ‘soon’ to take him on a walk to feed? Would his next meal (whenever that was) do anything to sate his hunger or would it be yet another disappointment (not that he’d ever turn down food;  he was way too hungry for that)? Would he ever be allowed to even sample one of the tempting souls that occasionally flitted about at the edges of his perception (here he was guessing a resounding no; at least so long as his father lived and had any say in the matter)? What did his sisters taste like, and would they taste different from each other (on one hand they were twins, but on the other they were fraternal rather than identical; and even then what was to say that identical twins would taste exactly alike anyway)? And as he slept, he dreamed. Fractured memories as faded as an old photograph, fleeting and ephemeral glimpses of both what had been and what could never be.

            A whisper of touch against his senses growing closer as the person approached, and Ichigo looked up at the door.  This time the light did not click on as the door opened, and he began to thrum with anticipation. No light meant that his father was coming as the man could just as easily see in the dark as he could, and his father coming (at least in this manner; sometimes Isshin did turn on the light when he came down, but during those times he rarely if ever paid Ichigo any mind – and even when he did, it was never to offer him so much as a treat so he began to discount those times) meant that it was time to eat. Ichigo always looked forward to these times since not only did it mean another drop in the bucket against the beast that was his hunger, but that there was something to do beyond simply existing.

            It looked like Ichigo was in luck this time. Isshin stood before him as he ever did; sober and somewhat wistfully sad expression, sword tucked carefully into his mourner’s kimono of black and white. And (much to Ichigo’s joy, so much as a creature like him could even feel joy) carrying a slim but strong (stronger than Ichigo at any rate) leash rather than the limp body of a small to mid-sized unconscious Hollow. Not that Ichigo wouldn’t have been equally happy if his father had been carrying a Hollow rather than the leash. Hollows meant food, and food was always a good thing.

            Well aware of what was coming next, Ichigo stilled as he waited for his father to undo his chains and clip on the leash. Once properly tethered, he followed his father out into the night. And what a glorious night it was! Clear with a bright full moon and so many tantalizing scents to smell. He remembered from previous experiences that so long as he behaved and didn’t pull too much on the leash or go after anything that wasn’t considered appropriate prey, his father would let him wander where he wanted. Which he did. Here to this tree, then there to that car (which had to be new since he never remembered seeing it before – although his memory wasn’t so good so there was no telling if it was actually new or not), and finally over to the river that sort of pulled at some lost emotion. It was here where he got down to the serious business of hunting (he knew that at a certain point his father would drag him back home whether or not he had caught anything so if he didn’t he wasn’t going to be getting anything to eat until the next time his father decided to feed him; whenever that would be). Ears and spiritual senses open, he began to sniff the air for that hungry-corrupted scent (often accompanied by a faint dry-twilight-bone scent) that signified his prey. There! Near where a particularly bad intersection was (so there were often souls hanging around to tempt Hollows)! A quiet chirp to alert his father that he had found his prey, and he went into hunting mode.

            Curses and recriminations littered the street as a young punk (perhaps only a few years younger than Ichigo would’ve been had he not died) paced around the place that he had died only a few short days ago. Pretty much all of them were directed at himself. Why. Why did he have to go and do something so stupid and out of character for him, and thus get himself killed. Yeah sure he was able to save the kid from being flattened and all, but since when did he pull altruistic crap like that. It wasn’t like him (even his own mother considered him irredeemable and bound for prison some day), and now he was dead (not that anyone would care that he died – and probably anyone who did only cared in that celebratory ‘ding dong the witch is dead’ kind of a way; well fuck them too). The only bright spots that he had was that he’d saved his mother (the drunken bitch) the pain of having a convict for a son, and that at least he did manage to save that kid’s life (at the cost of his own). A chill down his back made him pause and look around. A monster (which looked like it had escaped from one of the hentai manga he’d swiped at some point when he’d still been alive) that had come out of fucking nowhere roared and he was off. Never mind that he was already dead and there wasn’t anything (that he knew of anyway) that could hurt him anymore, the little reptilian part of his brain took only one look at the obvious predator-like thing before pressing the ‘get the fuck out of here NOW’ button repeatedly and emphatically.

            The chase was on. Ichigo’s prey was so focused on chasing the prey in front of it that it probably wouldn’t have noticed him anyway even if he wasn’t wearing the reiryoku cloaking collar his father had put on him and decided to announce himself by singing at the top of his lungs. Not that he was going to go about announcing himself like that. The more stealth he employed while trying to take down even the most oblivious of lunches (which this one surely was), the better the impact of surprise when he finally pounced and the less likely his lunch would decide to try and fight back before he killed it. By this time, his father had dropped the leash so Ichigo was free to run as fast as he wanted toward the Hollow that was soon to be his meal of the night (Once the Hollow was down and Ichigo had started consuming it, Isshin would pick the leash back up so that he could lead Ichigo back home instead of explore or snack on some unexpecting soul that happened to have the bad luck of being nearby). Target sighted (cornering its own prey in a dead end alleyway), Ichigo slid into a sonido powered tackle which carried both him and the Hollow he was targeting about half a block down the street, stunning the other Hollow and giving Ichigo plenty of time to deliver the killing bite.

            It was, he thought somewhat ironically considering what had happened to him, oddly enough like a car wreck. That sick schadenfreuden fascination that made it impossible to look away despite how gruesomely mortal it was going to turn out. And gruesome it was, with the thing that had come out of freaking nowhere to crash into the thing that had chased and finally cornered him – on purpose it now seemed – proceeding to tear into the first thing and actually start to eat it. The screams the first thing had made as the second thing ripped out chunks of what had to be its flesh made him cringe and the little hairs on the back of his neck stand up (once, when he’d still been alive, he’d somehow ended up watching a documentary on hyenas. He’d thought nothing of it at the time, but now watching the morbid tableau before him…).  Sure he was glad to be saved from that very fate (for the first thing had been positively giddy about the thought of eating him right up staring with his toes and making sure to take his time and savor everything), but…

            “Brutal isn’t it.” Asked a somewhat bored voice from behind him as they (he now realized) watched one monster devour another like a wild animal. Not expecting anyone else to be in the alleyway – especially not someone who could see him since one of the first things he’d done when he realized that he’d died (and in fact how he really found out that he had died) was to try and get the attention of one of the onlookers his accident had produced – he turned around to face this strange new person. The last thing he remembered seeing was an older man with an expressionless face and stubble that couldn’t be considered a beard by even the loosest of definitions and the butt of a sword coming directly down toward his head.

            Kuchiki Rukia didn’t need her soul pager going off to tell her where the Hollow she was chasing was; not only could she feel its ominous and oppressive reiryoku as it blanketed the area, but she could also hear it as it roared with an emotion (for so far as things like Hollows could feel anything beyond hunger) that she dared not contemplate. Too professional to shiver, she prayed that she would not be too late (this time). The closer she got to the Hollow, the closer it got to its target, the more something tore at her gut; too much like that sinking feeling she had had that terrible rainy day when Shiba Kaien had fallen and she had failed him by doing nothing (never mind that Ukitake-taichou himself had been the one to hold her back, to explain why Kaien hadn’t wanted her help, to tell her that it hadn’t been her fault). She poured as much speed as she could into her shunpo – the Hollow was headed for one of the houses which more likely than not housed souls of the living to souls of the dead and while it was a great tragedy to allow a Hollow to consume a Plus, it was an even greater one to allow a Hollow to consume a living soul as that entailed the killing of a human before their time. Thus she could not afford to fail.

            She was, it turned out, not too late – but only just. The Hollow had reached the house but had yet not set foot inside. Drawing her zanpakuto, she attacked. In quick succession she fired kidou blast after kidou blast in hopes of dragging the Hollow’s attention away from its potential meal and onto her. It was perhaps a risky gambit as the once the Hollow focused on her it was able to launch a counter attack, but kidou had always been her specialty and it would serve its purpose in drawing the Hollow away from the living souls in the house. And counter attack it did, bringing one of its massive hands down to either smack or grab Rukia. Rukia however was nimble enough to evade the hand and managed to fire another kidou blast; this time hitting the Hollow directly between its eyes. Thus the fight continued, with the Hollow swatting at Rukia like she was an annoying fly and Rukia hopping around the Hollow to sting it with both her sword and her kidou – until a lucky shot of the Hollow sent Rukia crashing through the side of the house. Hurt (but luckily not fatally so), she got back up and with yet another kidou blast, rejoined the fight. The Hollow had been taking on damage this entire time, and it was beginning to show; virtually all she had to do was get behind it with enough height to bring down her sword through its mask (and quickly before the occupants of the house decided to investigate the crash her impact had made). All too soon and yet not soon enough her opportunity came. The Hollow in all its infinite wisdom (not that they were reported to have much, being little more than base beasts) had decided the best way to kill the annoying stinging fly of a shinigami that was Rukia was to abandon interest in the fight and make it look like it had decided to go for the sweet prize of the souls in the house it was originally after in order to force Rukia into standing before it in an effort to block it from its supposed goal (rendering her a stationary target and thus all too killable). Rukia must have read the bluff and instead of doing the predictable thing of inserting herself between the Hollow and what it was after, she leapt high in the sky and allowed herself to fall blade point first. The Hollow barely had time to curse her or its fate before it disintegrated only to be reformed, pure and whole, in the Soul Society.

            Hollow slain (and the bad feeling she had been feeling from before the battle had been joined still present), Rukia moved on to finish the other part of the job. The human residents would need their memories altered to both explain the hole in the wall of the house as well as cover up anything they might’ve seen of her fight (provided of course that they were both spiritually aware and spiritually strong enough to perceive her and the Hollow; certainly the way the Hollow had honed in on them lent credence to the theory that they would be able to – although there was no guarantee that they had been witness to anything). The two girls are easy enough to find; she reaches them as they’re just coming down the stairs to see what all that noise was about. They are also easy to knock out and arrange on a couch (as if they had simply sat down for a moment and ended up falling asleep). In the morning all they would remember would be a car crash where thank the kami the only injuries were some bruising and perhaps a laceration or two (which was easy enough to fix at their small clinic, along with an admonishment that if the unfortunate driver started to experience any other pain – especially in her neck – she was to go straight to a hospital or her general practitioner since it could take up to a week for signs of whiplash to appear). The third person (likely a parent to the girls) took a bit of searching, but in the end she did find him. And horror stole her breath away.

            Restless, Ichigo struggled against his bonds. For the first time that he could remember, his captivity bothered him in a way that it never had before. He needed to get out of the basement that had become his lair – and not just because he was hungry (because let’s face it; he was always hungry). Amidst growls and snarls he roared challenge, and the answering roar of too close approved food made his struggles more frantic; this was Bad in a way he no longer could articulate, not because he didn’t have the words (for he could speak, with effort after having been kept silent for so long, if he wished to) but because he did not have the why of it anymore. All he had was the knowledge deep down in the pit of his stomach, below the ever present ravenous hunger, that this was a Bad Thing and that he had to absolutely positively step in and stop it. It was a need so strong, that for the moment it somehow managed to dwarf his need to eat (of course once he’d faced and beaten the other Hollow, he’d eat it in hopes of sating his hunger just a little bit for a little while; that was kind of a given). If only he could get free.

            His struggles did not go unnoticed by his father. In short order, Isshin was down the stairs doing his best to calm Ichigo, who refused to be consoled; not when he could feel another Hollow (and something else, but that something else wasn’t really all that important so he chose to ignore it until either it went away or it became important) so close. Isshin was hoping it wouldn’t come to the point where he had no alternative but to punish Ichigo since it wasn’t Ichigo’s fault that he was basically freaking out. Never before had a Hollow approached the house beyond Ichigo and the disabled Hollows he hunted down and brought back for Ichigo when it wasn’t practical for him to take Ichigo hunting. And really, this wasn’t like the time Ichigo had tried to eat the still living soul of a poor delivery boy back when he had only recently become a Hollow; Ichigo was supposed to go kill and eat other Hollows, so who could blame him for wanting to go after the one that had practically gift wrapped and delivered itself to his doorstep. However, Isshin was also well aware that the longer Ichigo continued to struggle, the more likely it was that he’d draw the wrong sort of attention on himself. As he knew all too well, it was the job of a shinigami to slay and purify Hollows and for all that Isshin still loved his son, Ichigo was still a Hollow.

            When the reiryoku of the other Hollow disappeared and Ichigo began to calm down (but not without grumbling over the potential meal that had been snatched away), Isshin began to slowly relax. There would be work to do as there was no doubt that the hapless shinigami who had killed the Hollow would be looking for him in order uphold the masquerade that the supernatural didn’t exist outside of stories (judging from the crash he had heard over Ichigo’s growls and whines, and what he remembered the standard operating procedures had been back when he was still an active shinigami). And even if the hapless shinigami managed to recognize him for who and what he was (also providing said shinigami didn’t think that he was himself reborn, stripped of the memory of the afterlife as was only proper), it wouldn’t be as bad as if Ichigo was discovered here like this. A gasp that had all his worst fears confirmed had him turning around to confront the girl who at once had both saved his soul and damned him to hell.

            She was a Kuchiki, so she would not throw up. But that did not stop her from choking on her words. Now listless and panting the second Hollow raised its head to look at her. There was no mistaking the kidou that bound the Hollow to this place, the way she couldn’t feel this Hollow like she had countless others. This… was not right, not natural. Sure Hollows were bad news and just as likely to (try to) eat you as look at you, but even they didn’t deserve to be confined like this (or left to the ‘tender mercy’ of Kurotsuchi-taichou and his subordinates in the Twelfth Division – not that she’d ever be so insubordinate as to actually put more than thin thought to that sentiment; inhumane sociopath who wouldn’t be able to find the meaning of ‘ethics’ in a dictionary even with explicit instructions he might have been, he was still a Captain and she an unseated officer). Even total destruction of the soul at the end of a Quincy’s arrow or being consumed by another, stronger Hollow (which at least held the promise of eventual purification once a Shinigami took down said Hollow) was a better fate than this.

“… how…” slipped from her lips as the man (who seemed vaguely familiar; recognition nibbling at the back of her head) met her horror filled eyes with his own, his filled with both sorrow and an all consuming love that just barely hide the smallest hint of madness.

            “I did what I needed to do.” Was all the defense Isshin could muster. After all, how could one explain that desperate pain to hold on after too many deep hits too close together to someone who had (thankfully) never been in a position to feel it? To know that you had failed and that nothing that you could do could save someone you loved more than your own life from either death or a fate worse than that (twice, as he’d been just too slow to reach his beloved wife when Grand Fisher had first killed and then eaten her; and the bastard had fled back to Hueco Mundo before Isshin could even begin to get his revenge). It was not an excuse, for how could there be any excuse for what he had done; turning his back on every single thing he’d been taught back when he’d gone through the Shinigami Academy, not only break but smash every single oath he’d made back when he’d been accepted into the ranks of the Shinigami, flat out ignore what he knew his late wife would’ve wanted (his gentle and compassionate Masaki, who’s forgiveness he could never again be blessed with and whom he no longer deserved to have the love of for what he had done).

            “What you needed to do?” the still horrified Rukia hissed out with the venom of anger lacing her words.

            “You don’t understand.” Isshin pleaded, “After I lost my beloved Masaki… I just couldn’t… Not then. Not ever, but especially not then. I’d already lost my wife to a Hollow; I couldn’t afford to lose my son too.”

            “So instead of letting him be reborn into the Soul Society you kept him here and not only let him turn into a Hollow, but trapped him here as well?” Rukia spat out.

            “He was my son.” Isshin said feebly in his own defense, his eyes pleading with Rukia.

            “He’s your son!” Rukia nearly shouted, pointing at Ichigo who had perked up with interest a little bit at her raised voice. Rage virtually roiled off her at the thought that a man could do this to his own flesh and blood, to someone who they professed to love more than life as self; such treatment wasn’t even fit for a dog, “Even if you care nothing for him, at least think of your two living girls. Why, if he should somehow break free…”

            “Ichigo loves his sisters; he’d never do anything to harm them.” Isshin shot back, anger lacing his voice at Rukia’s implications. He truly did love both his son and his daughters and wanted nothing but the best for them.

            “He’s a Hollow!” Rukia pointed out. And while this Hollow – Ichigo, the man (who was vaguely familiar now that she’d had a bit of time to get over her shock and think about it) had called him – might’ve loved his sisters back when he’d still been alive, it didn’t change the fact he was still a Hollow and thus by his very nature a threat to their very souls. Hollows, after all, often went after those they had loved in life in order to consume their souls.

            “I know.” Isshin whispered. He was well aware of what his precious son had become, (and how could he not, when Isshin even now hunted down Hollows – not to purify them as he had back when he had been an active shinigami, but so that his son could eat something that didn’t weigh on his conscious) but even still he could not bear to let go.

            “This isn’t right.” Rukia said, a bit more gently for she was not without compassion. It was her job as a shinigami after all, to bring consolation to the souls of the departed; to let them know that it was alright to pass on and that there was nothing to fear in the Soul Society (which might not have been strictly true as the farther your district was from the Seireitei the rougher it tended to be, and there was no telling where one would find themselves when they made the journey there). Even the slaying of Hollows was in its own way a form of compassion for no soul wanted to become an evil monster and kill those around it. “You’re doing your son no favors by chaining him here and slowly letting him starve. Let me put his soul to rest and pass him on to the Soul Society, where he can be free of pain and hunger.” Which wasn’t strictly a lie; if Ichigo ended up in one of the lower districts (or, rare as it was, managed to somehow get adopted into a noble family) then the chances of getting hurt (at least beyond the occasional stubbed toe or similar type of injury) were minimal, and the only those with enough spiritual pressure to qualify for becoming shinigami ever got hungry. In preparation of doing her duty (which would be a mercy for the poor Hollow), Rukia loosened her zanpakuto in its sheath.

            “I’m afraid I can’t let you do that Shinigami-san.” Isshin said, inserting himself more firmly between Rukia and Ichigo. In his physical body (as he didn’t actually need to be in his spiritual one in order to calm his son down), he might not have had his zanpakuto, but he did have access to every single scrap of reiryoku that a captain class shinigami could produce that he’d managed to recover (which was actually nearly all of it). He flared his reiatsu as high as it would go in warning, much like a rattlesnake would rattle its tail to let a potential predator know that it should seek less deadly prey.

            Rukia was not weak by any real measure; politics more than lack of strength being the reason behind her lack of promotion. However, had her advancement not been blocked she would’ve only made it to around a third or fourth seat (perhaps in a decade or so though, she’d develop enough to have a good shot at becoming a lieutenant) and even between a captain and a lieutenant there was a considerable gap in power. Isshin’s reiatsu was strong enough to send her down to one knee – and even there it was a struggle to withstand the pressure. Clearly this situation was beyond what she herself could handle alone. It was best than to retreat back to the Soul Society, inform her superiors (even if that meant that Kurotsuchi-taichou would learn of this sooner rather than later when there would be little he could do), and have a strike team come back to deal with both the man and his ‘pet’ Hollow of a son.

            Performing shunpo from a half-kneeling position, especially with the weight of strong reiatsu doing its best to pin one in place – preferably face first on the ground, was difficult (if you had both the skill and power) but not impossible. And while was no Soi Fon-taichou or ‘Goddess of the Flash’ Yoroichi, she certainly wasn’t a slouch when it came to shunpo. As soon as the man was distracted by Ichigo, who had become agitated again when the man had began to flair his reiatsu, she was off in the blink of an eye.

            “You do realize that ‘bad idea’ doesn’t even begin to cover this.” Kisuke said conversationally as he passed a small bottle of sake to a beyond devastated looking Isshin who was still dressed in his funerary garb. It was understandable; after all, the man had just cremated his only son that afternoon.

            “I know.” Isshin muttered into his drink.

            “And that you’ll be facing execution on the soukyoku if you get caught.” Kisuke continued, taking a drink from his own bottle of sake.

            “I know.” Isshin snapped, pain evident in his voice. The grief and recrimination were sharp, poking wounds and laying in salt (after all, what good was a doctor who couldn’t even save his own fucking son, just as he’d been too late to save his wife).

            “I’m just saying.”Kisuke said as he brought up both his hands up in a ‘don’t shoot the messenger’ pose. He could only imagine what his friend was going through; he and Yoroichi didn’t have the kind of relationship that Isshin and his wife Masaki had had, and certainly they hadn’t had any children – plus there was the little detail of Yoroichi still being alive (well, as alive as someone like them could be). What Isshin had proposed went against everything they had been taught and every oath they had taken, was downright crazy, dangerous, and heart breakingly desperate. If it were him instead of Isshin, would he have the heart to pull it off? Hard to say. Knowing that death was not the end of things and that those you loved would be reborn into a life of sorts where there was a damn good chance that they’d be able to find some sort of happiness was little comfort to the bereaved who now had a hole in their lives to fill.

            Isshin glared at Kisuke for a moment and then sighed. “I just don’t know what to do. I couldn’t do anything for Masaki, not even avenger her death since that coward fled back to Hueco Mundo as soon as he felt me coming. And when my son needed me most, I couldn’t do a thing to save him either.”

            “You did the best you could all things considered.” Kisuke pointed out. Sometimes despite your best effort people just died, suddenly and for no apparent reason well before what could be considered their time. That was just how the world worked.

            “It wasn’t enough. What kind of doctor can’t even save their own son?” Isshin countered. Ichigo’s death had been sudden and tragic, the victim of the depths of human stupidity and arrogance, and really there had been little that Isshin could’ve done. Some people were just too good at breaking people for others to fix. Still the weight of failure weighed heavily on his shoulders.

            “A human one.” Kisuke answered. It might not have been what Isshin wanted to hear, but it was the truth. Doctors – or shinigami for that matter – weren’t gods, and thus were far from perfect. Kami knew that Kisuke himself had his flaws (for instance, his habit of turning aside little things like ethics – although he still wasn’t as bad at that as Kurotsuchi Mayuri – when they got in the way of the important things like science).

            Isshin remained unconvinced. While it might’ve been true that no one – shinigami or human – was perfect, and not everyone could be saved, he still felt like a failure. “I just can’t let go; not yet anyway.”

            Kisuke just nodded. Just as he suspected there was no swaying his friend from his chosen course of action, and he’d still stand by him and do his best to help even if it meant that he was going to be just as damned for this as Isshin. At least he’d tried to talk his friend out of it. That would have to count for something. Right?

            Dreams slipping through fingers like sand, Karin shifted in her bed and blearily cracked open her eyes. “Dad?” she asked as her tired mind tried to process what she was seeing thanks to the too late hour.

            “Everything’s fine. Go back to sleep.” Isshin comforted; he hadn’t meant to wake either of his daughters but now that he had, it was up to him to settle them back down.

            Karin was at first a bit skeptical; she’d never seen her father wear a traditional kimono like that before – even when they went to a festival, he wore a Western suit. But it hadn’t been the first time he’d ever looked in on them during the night, and a glance told her that Yuzu was still asleep. Still something felt a bit off. Maybe there’d been a medical emergency somewhere and he was just checking to make sure that they’d be ok if he left for a bit to take care of things? Yeah that had to be it. “Be careful.” She mumbled before settling back in. A medical emergency at this time of night meant that someone was being a complete moron, and you could never tell when a moron was going to do something else stupid and drag everyone around them down with them.

            Tenderly Isshin smoothed her bangs away from her face, murmuring quiet words to her like he used to do when she was little and was having trouble sleeping. And then Karin knew no more.

            Ichigo looked up as he felt his father come down into the basement. After all that excitement earlier, he’d finally gotten settled back down for the long wait until it was time for him to eat again. And now, he virtually shivered in anticipation of being taken out on a hunt. Still he had to be patient and wait for his father to get him ready – if he rushed things, his father might just decide that he needed punishment which meant that not only wouldn’t he get his hunt, but he wouldn’t get fed at all and he might’ve even warranted one of those stinging smacks his father gave him when he’d been especially bad (like the time he tried to eat that soul, or the time when he didn’t want to wait for his father to attach the leash in his eagerness to hunt and eat).

            More somber than he’d ever been before, Isshin walked up to Ichigo and dispelled the kidou that had kept him bound. And knowing what was coming next, Ichigo crouched down so that Isshin could attach the leash to his collar. However, instead of doing just that Isshin removed the collar and stepped back a bit.

            Head cocked to the side as he considered Isshin, Ichigo gave his neck where the collar had sat for as long as he could remember a few idle scratches. This was new, and Ichigo wasn’t entirely sure what it meant. Perhaps it was a test? To see if he could be trusted to behave without any of the fetters that had been needed in the past? Well, if it was such a test (and really, what else could it be other than such a test of his restraint) then Ichigo had no plans to fail it. Perhaps if he was lucky and passed the test, his father wouldn’t restrain him again. Not that he had any plans on running away or eating non-approved souls or anything; it just got boring down here with only his hunger for company and it’d be nice to be able to wander around the house and see what was going on in the world outside his basement lair.

            As the time ticked on and still nothing happened, Ichigo’s confusion grew. He couldn’t understand what his father was waiting for. Maybe he was supposed to go hunting alone and bring the kill back to show his father that he could be trusted to hunt alone? But then maybe that was the wrong thing to do and he was supposed to wait for however long his father decided he needed to wait. He didn’t want to do the wrong thing, but it was hard not to do the wrong thing if you had no clue what the wrong was. And since his father wasn’t giving him any direction whatsoever as to what he should be doing, he decided to go with what he felt was the safest option for him – which was absolutely nothing.

            Isshin grabbing his wrist brightened up his entire demeanor; finally he was being given some sort of direction (even if it meant that his father wasn’t happy by his not taking the initiative and doing nothing once freed). What Isshin did next (taking his hand and stabbing himself in the side with it before letting go of his wrist) brought a confused screech from Ichigo however. Why had his father done that?

            The scent and feel of the blood on his claws was maddening, having to restrain himself (because whenever he didn’t his father punished him) despite his hunger being woken up to a more intense level (because every other time he’d gotten blood on his claws, there’d be a dying Hollow for him to eat, so the concepts got connected). Curiously and cautiously, Ichigo gave the blood on his claws a careful lick. God it was good; even better than a Hollow. Addicting almost, and before he had really noticed it, he’d licked his claws clean of his father’s heady blood. Still bleeding, Isshin seemed pleased about this. Which was strange since it didn’t conform to anything Ichigo had ever experienced before (and in fact, some vague half remembered part of himself was screaming alarm about how wrong this was).

            Experimentally Ichigo reached out and gave his father a shallow scratch; just to see what Isshin would do about that. He fully expected to be punished for it (hurting his family was at the top of the list of Things He Was Not Allowed To Do, or at least it was when his father was acting normally – which he wasn’t at this time), but Isshin didn’t even wince. So Ichigo repeated the action in case the first time was a fluke. It wasn’t. Again and again he tried, varying the depth and location of the scratches; even at one point tugging at the puncture wounds Isshin had given himself at the end of Ichigo’s claws. Nothing happened beyond Ichigo growing more and more confused.

            Eventually it all became too much for Ichigo. The confusion brought on by Isshin’s more than abnormal behavior bled into a dangerous frustration, egged on by the siren’s song of Isshin’s still flowing blood and his own ever present hunger. All this wore away his limited to begin with patience and his next swipe was much deeper than the others he had made, slicing muscle and organs and glancing off of bone. When still no punishment came Ichigo decided that enough was enough. If this is what his father wanted (and it did look like this was what his father wanted, because certainly if he didn’t he would’ve stopped Ichigo by now), then this is what he’d give his father. And right now he was just too hungry to care.

            Alone and momentarily sated (for he knew that the hunger would be back. It always came back), Ichigo pondered the big question of now what. He could, he supposed stay here just like always but that seemed boring even if it felt safe because it was familiar. Or he could go hunting on his own, but he wasn’t really hungry enough for that and it wasn’t like he had to prove that he could handle such solo hunts to his father anymore. Well if he wasn’t going to stay here and he wasn’t going to hunt, perhaps he could go exploring. Acting on instinct (because it wasn’t like he’d had a chance to try out any powers his being a Hollow might’ve brought him beyond his high speed healing and his hierro – which were more autonomic bodily functions than anything else) Ichigo brought up an arm and rent the air apart, creating a garganta. With a shrug, and ready to face the next adventure, he was through it and on to the endless sands of Hueco Mundo.


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