This was inspired by an incredibly adorable picture by Aido, and it is dedicated to her, with apologies for its not being Arrancar!Rukia.

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by afrai

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Rukia was scrabbling around in the 78th district dump when she felt it. It was like the tickle in the bridge of the nose when you are about to sneeze, except that with this it was the entire soul that seemed to itch. Rukia had only encountered the feeling a few times, mostly when the rare shinigami went into the higher-numbered districts on official business, but this time it was somehow different.

She sat up, ready to flee, and looked right up into the face of the Hollow.

She was to learn later that these creatures were dangerous, heartless, made up of nothing but the will to consume, but for now Rukia was eleven years old, surviving in one of the worst districts in the Alley with no protection but that afforded by her wits and her feet, and fear did not come easily to her.

And the Hollow was fuzzy. It padded closer on four feet and tilted its ugly, friendly face at her, and Rukia loved dogs with all the hunger of a child whose only experience of affection was a stray's snuffling wet nose in her palm. She fell in love immediately.

"Hey, boy," she said. She sat up and held out her hand. "C'mere. C'mon, I won't hurt you."

The Hollow tilted its face the other way and said, in a startling, deep rumble,

"Like you could."

Rukia gaped. Then the meaning of the words sank in, and she bridled, forgetting surprise. "Easier than you could hurt me!"

The Hollow yawned, baring ranks of serrated teeth and a long, curling pink tongue. The effect was somewhat spoilt by its starting to speak in the middle of the yawn, in its eagerness to retort. "I could eat -- hawww -- two of you for breakfast, squirt."

Rukia gave the ribs protruding from the Hollow's thin sides a very insulting look, but pointedly said nothing about how the Hollow didn't look like it knew much about breakfasts. She sniffed and withdrew her hand.

"Fine," she said. "Then I don't want you to c'mere. Go away."

The Hollow had clearly never been given such treatment in its life. The floating red glows in its eye sockets grew round for a moment, then it sputtered,

"Like you could make me!"

Rukia narrowed her eyes and looked down her nose at the Hollow, before turning away and pretending to find the garbage far more interesting than any fuzzy-maned creature in the vicinity. This was not true, of course, but Rukia had found long ago that the best way to put a person in his place was to pretend to be bored by him. With most people, it was not very hard to pretend.

"Oi!" Rukia ignored the voice. "Look at me! I know you can hear me! Oi, midget!"

Rukia's head whipped up, all intention to maintain a dignified aloofness subsumed in outrage. "How dare you call me that!"

"I'll call you anything I want!"

Rukia clenched her fists, but though she would learn that the Hollow was, at the time, small as Hollows went, it looked plenty big to her just then. She knew better than to get into a fight she couldn't win.

"No, you can't," she said finally, with tremendous hauteur. "Because I'm going away. So you can't call me anything."

With that, she picked herself up and stalked away, ignoring the rebellious grumble of her stomach. She clutched a dirty trinket or two, which could be sold for water, but nothing of near enough value to get her food. She would have to steal her food again, though it was too soon after her last theft -- and that meant moving, because they would get you if you stayed in the same place. They would always get you, sooner or later, but there were ways of keeping off the inevitable end, and Rukia meant to survive for as long as she could.

Moving meant starting anew in another neighbourhood, finding another place to sleep, currying just enough favour with the local adults to avoid being actively persecuted. Rukia raised a hand to rub the grit out of her eyes. The movement brought her back to her surroundings -- and to the brown fur in the edge of her vision.

Rukia whirled around. The Hollow cowered briefly before it remembered itself. It sat up and glared back.

"You were following me!" said Rukia. She rubbed her eyes energetically, daring the Hollow to mention the redness of her eyes.

"Of course I was, stupid!"


"Because -- !" The Hollow paused and looked surprised, as if only just realising that it did not have any good reason for creeping after her. Then it brightened. "Because you smell good."

There was a brief silence.

"Ew," said Rukia.

Bone couldn't blush, but the Hollow would have if it were even possible.

"I didn't mean it that way, you crazy vain midget -- "

"If you didn't, then why did you say it?"

"I just meant that you smell like you taste good!" bawled the Hollow, goaded past endurance.

"You're going to eat me?" said Rukia in disbelief.

The Hollow had driven itself into a corner.

"Yes," it said sullenly. "No. Maybe. If you're mean -- " It realised how stupid this sounded, and amended, "If you don't stop being a stupid bitch."

Rukia's face set in disapproving lines. "You shouldn't use bad words."

"I'm a monster! I can use any fucking words I want!"

Rukia hadn't, in fact, realised what sort of creature the Hollow was, though the threat of eating her had begun to rouse her suspicion. But she took the revelation in her stride.

"That doesn't matter," she snapped. "I bet you're not that much older than me. Children shouldn't talk like that, even if they're monster children."

"I am not a kid!"

"Oh? How old are you?" Rukia shot back.

The red glows rolled, but there was no way of backing out of the question.

"Thirteen," it said. "... okay. Twelve. I think."

"That's much too young," said Rukia triumphantly. She stepped back and looked the Hollow over. It made a move to surge forward, but stopped and settled back on its haunches when it realised she wasn't trying to leave.

"Aren't you kind of young to be a monster?" said Rukia, ignoring the Hollow's embarrassment. "I thought monsters were all grown-ups."

The Hollow flinched.

"I don't know," it said. "It just happened."

"Did it hurt?"

"No," said the Hollow, but it wouldn't look at her. It seemed to sense that she wasn't going to let go of the topic, though, because it added, "I don't remember," and that had a ring of truth to it, even if it wasn't the whole truth.

Rukia sat down and made herself comfortable. Things were getting interesting. The Hollow shot her a look out of the corners of its eyes. Then it crept a little closer and sat down, exactly in the way that a dog does.

"What's it like being a monster?" said Rukia. The Hollow seemed uncomfortable with the subject altogether, but it made an effort and thought about it.

"Hungry," it said.

Rukia didn't see how this was so different from being human. "Have you eaten lots of people?"

The Hollow squirmed.

"One," it said, after it became clear that Rukia wasn't going to back off.

"Oh," said Rukia, disappointed. But one was better than none, which was what Rukia had begun to fear the answer would be, considering the look of the Hollow's ribs. "Did it taste good?"

"He," said the Hollow shortly.


"He," said the Hollow, its voice rising so that even that deep rumble sounded young and angry. "He was seven years old and he died three years ago and his name was Masaru and he tasted like water and he would've died anyway and I didn't like it so shut up!"

The shout echoed off the heaps of garbage, precipitating small avalanches. Rukia stared at the Hollow. The Hollow drooped.

"You shouldn't have asked," it said, when the silence became too much for it to bear.


The Hollow bristled. "I'm not sorry I yelled at you, you stupid bi -- "

"Shh!" said Rukia. She scrambled up and paused, her small, thin face intent, seeking with senses other than sight or hearing.

"There's nobody here," she said. "That's strange. There's usually people here, looking for things to sell." Same as me, she didn't say.

The Hollow flattened its head on its paws and mumbled something.

"What did you say?" said Rukia.

"I said, they've gone away because of me, dumbass," said the Hollow. "People do that. Guess they don't want to be eaten either."

"Oh," said Rukia again, but this time she didn't sound disappointed. She let herself down, folding her limbs into sitting position, and looked at the Hollow.

"But you don't eat people," she said.

"Not anymore," said the Hollow. "'S long as they don't annoy me."

Rukia ignored this piece of bravado.

"Why did you follow me, Monster?" she said.

"Renji," said the Hollow.

Rukia did not say "what" this time. She nodded. "Why did you follow me, Renji?"

The Hollow glowered at the inoffensive ground.

"You smelt hungry too," he said finally.

Rukia nodded again, as if this somehow settled things.

"I am," she admitted. "Horribly."

She stood up. Renji got up with her.

"I wish I could eat people," she said.

"No, you don't," said Renji. Rukia stretched out two hands and carefully took his head between them, her fingers sinking into the fur. He stank of unwashed dog, but the fur was soft, and Renji made a pleased rumbling sound when she stroked it.

"Are you less like a real monster because you're a kid, Renji?" she said.

"Don't know," he said. "That your reason?"

Rukia shook her head, but:

"I wish I could eat people," was all she said.

Renji pushed his head against her hand when she seemed about to remove it.

"Maybe you already do," he said.

She kept her hand on the warm back of his neck as they walked, two children together; he didn't eat her then, or later.

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