The little hollow was in pain and terrified.
He was very young, just barely old enough to be weaned. Not old enough to be outside the nest and certainly not old enough to be in the Living World. But he had been given no choice. The terrifying power that had eaten his mother had come very close to eating him, too. But he'd run when his mother had told him to and had managed to tear open a hole in the wall between the worlds. Anything to escape.
"Papi?" He whispered, wishing his sire was here. His papi would know what to do. But he'd been hunting when disaster had struck and the pup feared that even his sire would be overcome by the creature that had eaten his mother. "…" The little cub was on his own and he knew it.
He didn't really know where he was. Everything was strange, nothing was right. There was no sand, only rough textured stone. The things rising up on every side of him were completely foreign. He started figuring them out, though, when he saw a transparent spot and looked inside one. There were people there, humanoid like himself and his papi. Were these dens of some kind? But how could that be? There were so many….
The pup sniffed the air, hopeful that the beings inside the den would be good to eat. He needed food, needed it if he ever hoped to go home. But the hollow cub was disappointed. They might look like himself and his papi, but he scented no power from the people inside. They weren't hollows, he knew that much, and he knew that eating them would give him nothing at all. He needed a better meal if he was to return to Hueco Mundo and find his sire.
The rest of the night he struggled to hunt. He found several hollows but even they did nothing to quell his growing hunger. Whimpering at the pain in his gut the small hollow stumbled on, trying with all his might to find anything worth eating.
There! The flashes of power made him jerk forward eagerly. If he'd been older and wiser the little pup would have controlled himself better, realized that anything worth eating would be dangerous. But he was young and ravenous. He ran towards the food source and attacked it without thought.
The food was two people like the ones in the den. There was one with long orange hair and one with short black hair. The orange one was closer so he went for her first, trying to catch her. She fired off strange arrows that seared him, but he was too hungry to care.
But hunger quickly became panic as the black haired one closed in. The little pup suddenly realized he was outmatched when the man shouted something odd and tossed a powerful blast at him. It seared the pup and he screamed before leaping at the orange one. If he could only secure a meal…
It didn't work. A blue sword went through his chest and the pup screamed as he felt his life force begin to fade. Acting purely on instinct he reached out and flowed his reiatsu into the female who had just killed him.
Female. She was female, and the little hollow was young enough to still recall his time in the womb. Her power called to him in a similar way and he hid himself inside it, wrapping the comforting light power around himself like a blanket. His body dissolved but the cub didn't care. He was safe in his new home. Not hungry, not tired and not afraid.
If things had gone differently the pup might have remained like that forever, safe and content and warm.
But young women would find mates, fall in love and have babies. It was an instinct, a natural need. And if the pup had a great deal in common with the female he had far more in common with the new life growing inside her.
The pup was not aware of what was happening. His essence naturally flowed to the baby and as the child gained awareness, the pup regained it. They grew together, two lives in a single body, and they shared that existence effortlessly. At first they were not even aware of each other, but as the child gained a sense of self the pup did too. And then they knew they were two, not just one, but it didn't alarm either of them. After all, they had never known anything else.
And so things went, for many years…
"Shiro-chan? Why do you look so scawy?" The little boy lisped, unaware of how adorable he was. But at only two and a half years of age, little Ichigo was quite adorable. He was playing in his sandbox as his mother made supper inside.
"I dunno. Why d'you look so silly? …Oof!" The second little boy in the yard would have made most people stare and any shinigami draw their sword. But there was no one to see, or he wouldn't have been outside his best friend and brother. Bone covered hands gripped a swing as he tried to pull himself onto it. "Gonna get this." He growled, struggling with the swing. Ichi-chan had his mother to put him on the swing, then push him, but Shiro-chan didn't want her to see him. "Ah!" He made a small hiss of satisfaction as he managed to get on the swing. "Um!" He wiggled around until his little butt was in the right place, his stubby little tail wiggling behind him. "…aw." Shiro whined as he tried to make the swing move. He couldn't, he was just too little. "Ichi-chan! Come push me!"
"Okay!" Ichi-chan dropped his dump truck and went over to help Shiro-chan. It was hard for him to reach high enough, but he found that he could pull on Shiro-chan's tail and give him a push that way. Shiro didn't like having his tail pulled but he really wanted to swing. Ichigo giggled as his best friend in the world squealed –
And abruptly vanished as the back door opened. The empty swing almost hit Ichigo in the face before he dodged, looking at his mother. She was smiling happily at him.
"Ichigo! Supper's ready." She called and he ran towards the house.
"Okay!" He said happily, hoping supper was something good. "Is it fish? Shiro-chan wants fish!" Shiro-chan always wanted fish or beef or lamb. He didn't like chicken or pork and he wasn't fond of vegetables although he would eat them. He flat out refused to touch any baked goods although he loved ice cream and chocolate. His mother laughed, scooping him up.
"Yes, we're having whole roasted sea-bream." She said fondly as Ichigo beamed. He could feel Shiro's happiness and that made him happy, too. His father was there and gave him a hug, playing with him as his mother got the table ready. As Ichigo ate Shiro appeared under the table, hidden from the gaze of his parents. He carefully slipped his friend some fish as they ate and giggled as he saw Shiro-chan's bony tail wagging happily.
He loved his best friend.
For the longest time, Isshin and Masaki thought that Shiro-chan was Ichigo's imaginary friend.
It was a fairly common stage for children, after all. He didn't seem to be growing out of it but that didn't alarm them unduly. Ichigo was a very imaginative and active boy who could keep himself occupied for hours on end. That was very useful and something to be encouraged, especially when the twins came.
Shiro wasn't sure he liked the twins at first. Why did their mother need more pups? She had a fine pup already… two if you counted him, but he supposed you couldn't since Masaki didn't know he was there. If she had more, she wouldn't have as much time for them. Shiro never mentioned his thoughts to Ichigo, though, and his parents both encouraged the little boy to be excited and happy about the coming babies. Gradually, Shiro became excited too. If Masaki and Isshin had less time for Ichigo, that meant that Shiro would have more chances to manifest. That was a great thing!
And that was precisely what happened. With the new babies occupying his mother's time, Ichigo had to become more independent. Shiro helped out with that, playing with Ichigo for so long that Masaki would actually become concerned and go looking for him. Every time he would tell her he was playing with Shiro-chan and she would smile indulgently before spending some time with him. She loved Karin and Yuzu, but her oldest needed attention too. As the twins got older Shiro's time with Ichigo became more limited. Yuzu couldn't see him but Karin could, so whenever the three played together Shiro-chan couldn't be there. To his parents, it seemed like Ichigo was growing out of his imaginary friend.
All of that changed on a rainy autumn day. Masaki and Ichigo went for a walk in the rain, the young boy enjoying splashing through the puddles in his bright yellow galoshes. Shiro-chan was just as glad to be inside Ichi-chan's head. He hated the rain, hated the way it found the openings in his bone and made him wet on the inside. He vaguely remembered that the place he'd come from had had no water, and Shiro could see why. It could find even the smallest of openings and make him damp and it took so long for him to get dry.
So Shiro-chan stayed in Ichigo's inner world. It was a beautiful place, full of sun and bright clouds and the skyscrapers that symbolized his hopes and dreams. The little hollow was very in tune with Ichigo's emotions, though, and felt his sudden panic. Surprised at the strong emotion he looked outwards to see what was the matter.
"Ichigo, no!" Shiro heard Masaki scream and he saw what Ichigo was reaching for. Shiro-chan was really no more advanced than Ichigo. He was relearning himself and his powers as Ichigo grew, and those powers were growing with the boy's. But here he had a crucial advantage. He was a hollow and he could recognize another of his own kind.
Shiro seized control and locked up all of Ichigo's limbs, sending the boy sprawling in the grass. That gave Masaki just enough time to catch up. In and of itself, that wouldn't have done much good. Grand Fisher was there, ready to take a bite of his newest meal. But then Shiro manifested in front of them both, raising his clawed hands and trying to roar. It was an absurd parody of his sire's primal roar, but the sight of the tiny hollow stopped Grand Fisher in his tracks. The ancient hollow had never seen a natural born hollow in his life and he stared at the little thing, who stared right back challengingly.
"SHIRO!" Ichigo screamed as Masaki grabbed him and ran. "SHIRO-CHAN!" Shiro turned just as the old hollow realized he was losing a meal. Roaring in anger he lashed out, knocking the baby hollow away before pursuing his true prey. But Shiro was far from done and Grand Fisher roared again, in pain this time as the little hollow landed on his back and bit him right on the ear. He thrashed and then rolled, trying to get rid of the little beast. Satisfied that Ichigo and Masaki had been given a good head start, Shiro retreated back to Ichigo's inner world. That confused Grand Fisher even more as his annoying opponent abruptly vanished. Completely vexed, the old hollow decided to cut his losses and slid into the river, trying to ignore the irritating sting of the bites. They were poisoned, but he would recover and continue to hunt his prey.
"Shiro-chan…" Ichigo was sobbing, but he brightened as he felt his imaginary friend return. "Shiro-chan! You're okay!" Masaki's pace slowed as she glanced at her boy, her expression troubled. Turning she scanned the area and realizing they had lost the hollow, she gently set Ichigo down. "Mama, Shiro-chan's okay!" Ichigo hugged her and Masaki smiled, gently patting him on the shoulder.
"We're all fine. Let's get home and tell daddy about the monster." She had no powers now, but Isshin could take care of that hollow. Ichigo nodded rapidly. He was still young, and believed his father could do anything.
The rest of the evening, Shiro was very nervous. Ichigo had babbled a rather incomprehensible version of events to Isshin and Masaki had given him a more succinct account of the day and the hollow that had nearly eaten them. She didn't mention Shiro at all, though, and he wondered if she had seen him. Maybe she hadn't? He hoped she hadn't.
Those hopes were in vain. Isshin went out to look for the hollow as Masaki put Ichigo and the twins to bed. Ichigo fell deeply asleep and Shiro manifested in his usual place… the closet. He could sleep in Ichigo's inner world but he didn't like it. It didn't have blankets and there were no good places to den there. The closet was perfect, dark and small and smelling like Ichi-chan. Everything a hollow pup needed.
Shiro-chan was instantly awake when the door opened. Wariness was a survival trait in Hueco Mundo and he'd been good at it, or he wouldn't have survived his dam's death.
"Shiro-chan." Masaki's voice was very quiet, so not to wake Ichigo. The little hollow stiffened before peeking out through a crack in the door. She was looking around the room, Isshin behind her. "Come out Shiro-chan."
"You're sure about this?" Isshin sounded dubious but Masaki nodded.
"He's real and he's here. I saw him… we just want to talk with you Shiro-chan." Her tone was coaxing and Shiro fidgeted in the closet. "We won't hurt you. Please come out Shiro-chan." Shiro wasn't sure what to do. Masaki had seen him, she knew he was real. If he didn't talk to them, what would they do? Nothing good. Shiro understood now that Isshin and Masaki had hunted his kind, keeping this place safe for pups like Ichigo. But he wasn't a normal member of his kind and didn't need to feed anymore. So maybe…?
Masaki and Isshin both looked over sharply as the closet door slid open. At first there appeared to be nothing there, but then there was a flash of bone and a sparkle of one black and gold eye. The little head vanished, but a white, bone covered hand gripped the edge of the door. Tentatively, that little head edged back into view. Masaki drew a deep breath and Isshin tensed as they both saw the mask of bone.
Shiro-chan was pretty scary looking for something that small. His face was a skull mask of bone with forward curving horns, and it masked any true features. Lines of black trailed down that mask, crossing his eyes and highlighting the bright yellow irises that looked out with shy curiosity and wariness. There was a ruff of red fur around his neck, and more ruffs on his wrists. All he wore was a tattered piece of black cloth around his waist, to preserve modesty. A lizard tail flicked a bit as they watched, almost knocking over a shoe.
"You're the hollow who attacked us." Masaki said, shocked by the appearance. She remembered that fateful day all too well, the day she was infected by hollow power. Shiro-chan immediately hid behind the closet door. "No! It's okay… we just want to know about you Shiro-chan." She said gently and he slowly edged out again.
The next few minutes were a bit like coaxing a skittish animal. Isshin had no luck at all, but Masaki finally got Shiro out of his closet and into her lap. The little hollow finally started to talk and did his best to explain why he was here.
"I'm just a pup." He said shyly as Masaki ran her fingers through soft white hair. It was long and well groomed, falling down his back. "I didn't mean to come here… I got lost when my dam was eaten. I was running away." He said matter of factly. It had been a long time, he was done mourning his mother. "I couldn't find anything to eat here and I couldn't go back until I ate somethin'… that's why I attacked you. I'm sorry." He said guiltily. He really did feel bad about it, now that he knew them. Although they had killed him so Shiro supposed he shouldn't feel too guilty.
"Your dam? You were born?" Isshin asked and Shiro huddled against Masaki for a moment. She seemed safer than Ichigo's father, somehow. But then the little hollow nodded.
"Uh huh. I'm natural born." He said proudly. He knew that was special, his sire and dam had both told him so. "I don't have a hole!" Masaki and Isshin exchanged a glance and Shiro was sure they remembered that about him. It was very unusual for hollows. "I was reborn with Ichi-chan and I've been growing up with him. Don't make me go away? Please?" That was what he was afraid of. If they wanted to, they could put him asleep or make him go away somehow. Shiro-chan desperately did not want that. He wanted to be around Ichigo.
"We won't make you go away." Masaki said gently and Shiro relaxed a bit. "But what do you plan to do, Shiro-chan? You don't have a body." She asked, concerned for Ichigo. Shiro-chan just shrugged.
"Dunno. Take care of Ichi-chan?" He was still too little to imagine mating and making a family of his own. Right now, all that mattered was Ichigo and the twins. Although… "Where'd your powers go?" He asked Masaki with disarming directness. "You shoulda been able to kill that bad hollow yourself." He knew that was true, and also knew the light power he'd cocooned himself in was gone. He could feel the lack in her and it worried him. Masaki and Isshin exchanged a glance.
"We don't know." Isshin admitted heavily, resting a hand on his wife's shoulder. He was worried about Shiro but also deeply grateful to the little hollow. He hadn't come running to help Masaki because he thought she had her Quincy powers to keep her safe. He hadn't realized they had completely vanished. "But we want to look into it. Shiro-chan, would you mind if we had a friend examine you? He won't hurt you in any way, and it might help Masaki get better." He assured the little hollow, who tilted his head questioningly.
"Dunno how it could. I left mama a long time ago. But okay!" Shiro wasn't afraid of them now. "Mama?" He said shyly, looking up at Masaki. She smiled at him, just like she smiled at Ichigo. "I've been a good boy, right?" Surely saving them from a hollow qualified. Her smile widened and she nodded. "And good boys get ice cream?" He asked hopefully and she laughed, giving him a hug.
"Of course!" He started to cheer but she shushed him, pointing towards Ichigo. He was still sleeping and had school the next day. "Would you like some chocolate and sprinkles on it?"
"Uh huh!" Shiro-chan nodded vigorously. Chocolate syrup was his favorite thing. Soon they were in the kitchen and he had a nice scoop of ice cream, drizzled with chocolate and dazzled with colorful sprinkles. The little hollow savored it, glad he had this. His sire had often brought him the choice bits of a kill, back in Hueco Mundo, but this was better. Masaki and Isshin watched the little hollow eat, and smiled as the bone tailed waved happily.
It was hard for something as scary looking as Shiro to be cute, but he did come very close.