The Vasto Lorde was flying over the far end of his territory when he felt the disturbance.
He lifted his head, scenting the breeze. Something was… off. The scent of the reiatsu was polluted, altered from its natural state, and the result was… what? It was nothing he'd ever felt before and he was old. Not as old as the hollow who ruled Los Noches, but very old. This was something new.
It was shockingly pure but that didn't bother him. He was a corrupted soul, not an evil one and he spread his wings, following the disturbance to the source. But before he could find the originating point, he stumbled over something far more interesting.
"Shinigami?" He whispered to himself as he saw the man running over the dunes. He was carrying something, a cloth wrapped bundle in his arms. He was also leaving a blood trail a half-blind adjuchas could follow and the Vasto Lorde wondered if the fool had been sent here on a mission. If so, it was over. Something was clearly pursuing him and he had no hope for survival in his condition.
The old hollow saw no reason to let someone else have the meal. A shinigami was good food, and this one felt strong. He would absorb the man and take his essence to his den, to feed to his mate. Then she would feed the cub on her milk, raising him to be good and strong. He landed in front of the man, and the shinigami pulled himself to a stop before backing away, holding the bundle protectively.
"Please… not my Ichigo…" His voice was rasping and desperate. The Vasto Lorde flicked his long, lizard like tail, rather confused. Ichigo? Strawberry? Then he caught a familiar scent and stiffened.
"What do you have there, shinigami?" He rumbled before reaching out. The man tried to jerk away but he wasn't fast enough and the Vasto Lorde gazed down at a very small, cream colored little face. The little one was sleeping, completely unaware of the deadly, clawed hands now holding him. "…" It was another first. For all his very long life, the Vasto Lorde had never seen the offspring of a shinigami, let alone one so small. "This little one is not yet weaned. Where is the dam? Why do you bring him here?" He knew he sounded disapproving and didn't care. What in the nine hells did the shinigami think he was doing, bringing a pup to Hueco Mundo? The man just looked exhausted.
"His mother is dead. They are trying to kill us both." He said and the Vasto Lorde lifted his head, his senses ranging back. Yes, there were more shinigami behind this one, coming from that strangely pure place. "This was the only place…" The hollow nodded, understanding. Desperation had brought this man here. He scented the air for a moment, thinking.
"You are nearing the end of your life." He stated as he gazed at the blood in the sand. It was merely a statement of fact, unclouded by pity or sadness. "Give me the pup. I will take it to my mate and we will raise it with our pup." That was, perhaps, a foolish decision. But his mate had given birth only to a singleton and had plenty of milk. It would be good for their pup to have a playmate and if the shinigami cub proved weak, their pup could eat it. The shinigami looked at him in disbelief.
"You… will take care of him…?" He clearly didn't know whether to believe the hollow or not. But desperation decided him. The shinigami were coming up behind him. "Please! Don't let them know he's alive." He said desperately, gaining a bit of a second wind. "They'll come after you… no matter the cost…" The Vasto Lorde shrugged, not particularly worried. If necessary he would simply move his den. But for the sake of his own cub and this new one, it was better to avoid the danger in the first place.
"They will think I have eaten you both." He said and fear flashed over the man's face as he realized the hollow's intention. "Do not be distressed. Your soul will live on in me and, in some small way, you will witness the growth of your pup." It wasn't much. He was a Vasto Lorde so the shinigami's soul would likely sleep, bound with the rest of his soul collection. But it was something. The man steadied himself, clearly thinking things through. He was dying and if they found his body, uneaten, and the child missing, the pursuers would know something unusual had happened. This way… he nodded.
"I am Shiba Isshin." He said and the Vasto Lorde flicked his ears. It was the first time prey had introduced itself. It seemed this was a day for firsts.
"I am Vandular Sturmdraggan." He returned the courtesy before ending the man's life with a single swipe of his claws. He set the babe down and ate quickly, as fast as he could. The shinigami were still almost there when he took to the wing, the pup held possessively in his hands. The shinigami had been even stronger than he'd thought, a very pure soul. He would do his best to see that this pup reached adulthood.
Of course, for that to happen he would have to convince his mate to nurse him. That proved slightly difficult.
"What is that?" His mate peered at the bundle and was appalled as he revealed the contents. "Van! Have you lost your mind? Where in the nine hells did you get that?" She laid her ears back. Her bone mask did not permit many facial expressions, but body language clearly indicated irritation.
"In my hunting, I came across a shinigami…" He gave her a quick rendition of events, including his promise to the man. He really didn't want to break it. The pup woke up and started to cry as they talked. The sound set off their own cub and soon they were treated to piteous wails. His mate lay on her side and nudged her own pup into position before giving the strange cub a long, assessing look.
"Oh, very well. Give him here." She finally said and Vandular helped position the cub. His mate had six teats, a gift of her base form of fox. The shinigami pup took readily to her teats and they both watched as he fed. It soon became clear that he liked the hollow milk. "Hopefully that will nourish him." She said and Vandular shrugged.
"If it does not, we will kill him." It would be kinder than letting him starve to death. But the ancient vasto lorde wasn't particularly worried. If they'd both been adjuchas perhaps it would have been different, but they were the most evolved of all hollows. The vasto lorde had pups very rarely, usually singletons and twins, and they grew slowly. Vandular knew only a bit about shinigami but he thought they were the same as humans, and he recalled his life as a living man. Vasto lorde were much like humans, and hence, much like shinigami. He thought his mate would be able to feed the cub.
His own cub got the food he needed before separating from his dam with a cheeping sound. Rumbling a laugh, Vandular reached down and rolled the little one on his back, enjoying it as tiny clawed hands grasped his larger paws.
His own offspring was covered in pure white bone and resembled him greatly. He possessed stubby little horns that would someday be forward facing, dangerous weapons. His tail was equally stubby, far from the majestic thing it would someday be. There were a few tufts of red fur, legacies of his mother. There were no wings, which saddened him just a bit. Vandular would have liked it if his son had followed him in being a creature of the sky. But even without them, he would fly someday. All vasto lorde could fly.
Glancing between the two pups, he decided they were roughly the same age. The shinigami child seemed calmer and less active, though. Perhaps that was a shinigami thing or perhaps his sire had used something to quiet him. Whatever the case might be, Vandular was interested in seeing how the cubs would get along.
"What is his name?" His mate interrupted his line of thought and he gently touched that bright orange hair, carefully keeping his claws curved away from the pup. His own child had bone armor that would defeat casual scratches, but the shinigami child was soft in comparison.
"He is Ichigo." He answered. The last name didn't even occur to him. Hollows gave themselves last names when they learned their powers and nature. Born hollows sometimes kept the first name their parents gave them, but sometimes not. There was nothing important in a last name. "It means strawberry." That was what some of his souls told him. His mate looked confused, then shrugged.
"It is as good a name as Shiro. He can always change it later." She said dismissively and he chuckled. She was right, naming their child after the color white had not been a creative moment. But it was still good.
Shiro was only a baby name. If he wanted, their son could change it later.
"Owwww! Papi, Shiro bit me!"
"Then teach him not to do that." Vandular called back from where he lay in the sand. He was having a lazy day, watching the pups as his mate hunted. There was a squall as Ichigo pulled on Shiro's tail.
"Papi! Ichi pulled my tail!" Shiro protested and Vandular chuckled, amused.
"Teach him not to do that." With parental permission, Shiro sprang at his brother. It quickly turned into a wrestling match, the two little boys tumbling across the sands as their parent watched. It was very amusing and he laughed. That laugh, though, seemed to remind the pups he was there. Suddenly putting aside their conflict, they rushed him. Vandular made a small oomph sound as Shiro landed on his chest, going for his neck. Ichigo landed on his stomach, play biting at his belly. He growled and mock fought the children, pushing them down and watching them climb back up. When they had exerted themselves well, he allowed them to 'kill' him and flopped over dramatically. There were cheers of victory from his offspring and Vandular grinned behind his mask.
"FOOD!" Shiro bolted off him, though, at the scent of a fresh kill. Ichigo looked surprised – the little one was always surprised when his brother scented something he couldn't – then squealed as he saw their dam, dragging an adjuchas behind her. Vandular just watched as the two boys mobbed their mother, politely begging for a chance at the kill.
The old hollow had been certain that Ichigo would survive on hollow milk, but he'd been less sure about hollow kills. Fortunately, there seemed to be no difficulty. It did seem to be giving his shinigami reiatsu a hollow perfume, but that would only help the boy in the twilight world of Hueco Mundo. Ichigo had developed a baby hierro early. Not enough to defeat strikes meant to wound, it did keep him from being accidentally scratched by his brother and his parents. He also seemed to be developing something like sonido. Vandular was teaching both the boys, although teaching Ichigo could sometimes be more of a challenge. But in the end, it was all focusing your internal power. Did it matter if his ceros were not entirely the same as the ones a hollow would use?
Tossing aside those rather disconnected thoughts, Vandular pulled himself to his feet and brushed off the sand. He wasn't particularly hungry. As old as he was, he was completely stable and rarely needed to feed unless he was exerting himself. The cubs were in the middle of their growth, so they ate far more than their sire. His mate was younger and still growing into her full power, so she ate more as well. He would take whatever was left of the kill and if it wasn't enough, he would find another. With his wings and sonido, that was never a problem.
Vandular smiled to himself as he watched Shiro thoughtfully crack the outer armor of the dead hollow, revealing the meat beneath for his brother. Ichigo could do that, but it took him much longer. The old hollow wondered if the little boy would ever find a sword spirit. He knew, vaguely, that shinigami swords were spiritual in nature. But how did they find their shinigami? Could one even reach the boy in Hueco Mundo?
"You're thinking again. You think too much." His mate observed and Vandular chuckled, a low, rumbling sound.
"And you don't think enough. We make a good pair." He teased her gently and she huffed, flirting her tail at him. It was the truth though. He'd met her when she'd been nothing more than an adjuchas, carelessly intruding into his den. The dark scent should have warned her away but she'd found it alluring. Fortunately, he'd been amused by her temerity and had sensed the latent power inside her, the potential for vasto lorde. He'd made it his goal to bring it out, then mate her. Vandular had succeeded on both counts.
"When will we send them off the den?" She asked and there was a wistful note in her voice. He understood that perfectly. These were her first cubs as a vasto lorde, but she'd raised two litters as an adjuchas. From the perspective of the lower rank, the cubs were ready to depart.
"Not until they wish to leave, or a new litter comes." Vandular said easily. He had raised several vasto lorde cubs, with various mates, and he knew how they differed from an adjuchas cub. She gave him a questioning look and he chuckled softly. "There is no need to drive them away. We have plenty of food and no natural enemies. All my vasto lorde children stayed with me until near adulthood." That got them past the very dangerous time all natural born adjuchas experienced. The period where they lived on the small creatures and weakest adjuchas, hiding desperately from anything too strong. It was a treacherous way to live and if they forced Ichigo and Shiro away now, things would be very hard for them. Van thought that Shiro might have some chance, but Ichigo would never make it. The little shinigami cub needed his sword spirit.
"If that is the way vasto lorde do things." His mate said, but sounded relieved, not irritated. Van tilted his head at her questioningly. "It was always so hard, making the little ones leave." She confessed and he nodded sympathetically. It had been a long, long time since he was adjuchas but he could still remember those days. "I'm just worrying we might cripple them later in life." She said and he shook his head.
"No, staying with us will not cripple them. Two of my offspring survived the battles for dominance and hold territory now." He assured her and she looked relieved. "I'm very glad there are two of them, though. The singletons always have a harder time than the twins." Those two survivors were twins, in fact. Having someone else you could trust completely was a survival advantage.
"Papi!" "Mami!" The boys ran up, coated in dark hollow blood and grinning. They each grabbed a child and began bathing them. The boys both squirmed and giggled as rough tongues removed the residue. Then his mate went to feed from the kill as Vandular entertained the children with a story, although not the one he intended. Ichigo demanded his favorite story instead.
"Tell me how you got me!" He said and Shiro poked him. "Ow!" He scowled and rubbed his arm. "That hurt." He pouted as Shiro stuck out his tongue.
"We've heard that lots before! Tell us somethin' else!" Shiro said but Vandular shook his head.
"Ichigo's story is not long. I will tell you two, one for him and one for you." That caught both the cubs' attention and they looked very happy indeed. Stories were like treats to them and the promise of two, well, that was a great thing. "When I was flying over the sands I caught the scent of a strange place…" The story was well worn and smooth from many retellings, but Vandular didn't mind. Of all the things that had occurred to him in Hueco Mundo, his gaining a shinigami cub was one of the most memorable.
He didn't mind repeating the story.
Vandular caught the shinigami's blade with his arm, noting ever flaw in the technique. There were many, but that was only to be expected with one so young. He took advantage of one of those flaws, planting a fist in the young man's belly and sending him back a few steps with a woof of outflowing air.
"You attack too recklessly. Control yourself, Ichigo." He admonished the young boy who nodded with a determined look. Then they clashed again, Vandular pressing his young son to the limits of his ability. He called a stop to it when he sensed Ichigo's endurance wavering. "Enough. Shiro, come, it is your turn."
"Yah!" Shiro cheered before he bounded up. Vandular smiled to himself at the energy. The two children did not have the endurance of an adult, but they recovered their energy far more quickly.
Years were meaningless in the endless twilight of Hueco Mundo, but time was certainly passing. The children were nowhere near adulthood yet, but they were growing into themselves well and it was time to give them the lessons they would need to survive. An adjuchas cub learned such things the hard way, fighting for survival, but his cubs would not learn in that hard school. If he wanted them to be ready he needed to teach them, and he would. Vandular wanted them to be successful in life.
Ichigo took a seat on the sand, his hand resting on his sword as his father and brother sparred. The sword had simply appeared one day, while they were sleeping. Shiro had almost stepped on it, to Vandular's amusement. Without the strength of a shinigami there had been no chance his boy could be hurt, but the yelp of surprise had been quite amusing.
Vandular put Shiro in the dirt, swiping his feet out from under him before pouncing. He deliberately slowed his speed, giving the cub a chance to escape if he could only react quickly enough. Shiro took advantage of that, planting a foot in his sire's chest and tossing him away as far as he could. Then the white pup rolled to his feet and roared. It was still high and squeaky, but a hint of the basso notes of a vasto lorde was there. Someday, Shiro would grow into that sound.
Vandular worked Shiro to exhaustion before letting him rest as well. Although resting didn't last long and he flicked his ears in amusement as the two cubs rolled over the sand, play wrestling with each other. Ichigo was better rested and had the edge in that little contest but Shiro was treacherous and Vandular laughed as his son used his tail to distract his brother. Ichigo's scream and swat were hilarious.
"Shiro, that is really not appropriate." He said with a chuckle. "Funny, but not appropriate." Shiro attempted to look innocent, which was really quite difficult with no facial expressions. But he carried it off fairly well with body language.
"Didn't you say anythin's fair in love and war, papi?" He said as Ichigo growled and pulled at the fabric of his outfit. It wasn't much, what his mother and father had managed to piece together for him, but it kept him warm.
"Yes, but you're not supposed to mix the two. Particularly with your sibling." Vandular said serenely and Shiro cackled before Ichigo kicked him, scowling.
"In other words, stop trying to molest me with your tail!" He said before picking up his sword. "Come on, spar with me the right way!" Shiro bounced to his feet and Vandular settled in to give them a critique as they fought. Blade clashed against bone claws again and again and Vandular smiled to himself as he watched.
His boys would be strong.
"It's almost time, isn't it?" His mate asked, snuggling up against his side. Vandular sighed and put an arm around her.
"Yes Rin. It's almost time for them to go." He said comfortingly and she nodded with a sigh. Ichigo and Shiro were sparring in front of them, firing ceros and raw shinigami power back and forth as they gave each other a hard time. It was a beautiful display of skill but still untested by the real world. That would have to change, and soon.
The impetus for the change was Shiro. Vandular could feel his power coming in, hear the bass of a vasto lorde in his roar. That meant that his sexual side would be awakening shortly, and when it did he needed to be gone from the nest. Animals had no compunctions about such things and the boy's instincts would be in direct conflict with his intellect when that happened. Vandular knew from experience that his son would find himself attracted to his mother and even his father, if they kept him too long. If he surrendered to his instincts he would attempt to kill Van in order to mate with Rin, or subdue Van and mate them both. They would have to violently expel him from their territory and that was not the parting Vandular wanted with his young son. "It might as well be today." If they put it off it would be tempting to keep putting it off and they simply couldn't do that. His mate nodded.
"You are right. Let's talk to them." She said, standing with an air of resolution. Vandular nodded, standing as well. It was best to get this over with.
The two boys were panting when they walked up and Vandular decided they would have the talk today but send them off early the next day. There was no reason to send them out exhausted from an energetic spar. The two boys looked at them with smiles and Vandular paused to admire them.
Shiro had grown fully into his promise. His body was lean and toned, covered in white bone. His mane of white hair was well-groomed, silky and flowing in the wind. Wickedly sharp, forward facing horns made an impressive threat to any challenger. They also made kissing impossible and Van snickered a bit to himself at the thought. Kissing wasn't much good with bone armor in the way, in any case. Love bites would also be a bit tricky but he was sure his offspring would find a way around that.
Ichigo had also grown into himself well. His body was equally toned, toughened from his life in the endless desert of Hueco Mundo. His reiatsu was still shinigami but with that edge of hollow perfume that signified he was something different. His hair was cropped short in direct contrast to Shiro's, and the spiky arrangement suited him well. They had managed to get him slightly better clothing and he wore a black robe that slightly resembled that of a shinigami, but cruder and obviously handmade.
"My sons. I'm proud of you both." Vandular said and he was. They were both his sons and he hoped the shinigami's soul inside him could see the beautiful man his pup had grown into. He would be proud too, the hollow was sure. "But it is time for you to go." He said gently and saw his sons exchange a glance that contained many emotions. Excitement, anticipation, apprehension and a trace of fear.
"Knew that was coming papi, I could feel it. I told Ichigo." Shiro said and Vandular felt another swell of pride. Many of his other children had been taken completely by surprise by this. It was a sign of self-awareness, that Shiro had known it was coming. "Can we go tomorrow though? I'm pretty tired." Vandular laughed at that. His own thoughts echoed back at him!
"Of course." Rin said, relief in her voice. She was pleased that her child was taking it so well, no doubt. "We'll get you a good meal to say goodbye with." She said and Van nodded. That would be an excellent way to say goodbye to their pups, with a full belly of meat.
"We'll make you proud papi." Ichigo pledged and Vandular smiled before hugging the young shinigami. Warm arms went around him for a moment, then he let go and gave a hug to his son, feeling colder bone armor against him.
"You'll both make me proud." He was sure of it. He'd given them every advantage he could in life.
His boys were both strong. They would not disappoint him.