Shadow of an Echo

Chapter Nine

Open Wounds

The place Szayel had brought him to after they had made the rounds alerting the Espada to the coming tournament was a very large open field with piers sunk into the ground for observers to stand out of the way. It was a far distance from the compound of Las Noches, affording them room to let loose as much as they wanted to, Szayel explained that much.

Ichigo broke the silence that had descended between them while waiting for the others, "So, tell me honestly, how far do you think I will get?" No harm in getting an estimate, and if it was low, it gave him a goal to beat.

Szayel looked contemplative for a few moments, doing quick calculations in his head, "From what I've seen, you will probably make it to Ulquiorra before having significant problems as long as we are only talking about power levels. Those of us in the lower ranks have abilities that challenge the higher, but because we are not as strong in pure power we remain low. You could very well fall to one of us before you had the chance to face Ulquiorra, let alone anyone higher."

"So you're basically saying it's going to come down to luck?" That's sure what it sounded like to Ichigo.

"For the most part, battles usually do," Szayel replied, rolling his eyes at Ichigo's moments of naivety, "You can fight as harshly and strongly as you can, and you will still lose if your opponent gets a hit in at the right moment. Or the opposite can be true when you find and exploit a weakness you discover in your opponent; that also comes down to luck due to the fact they will not show you that weakness unless they make a mistake."

"That goes along with what I was taught before. I was told more battles were won over skill than power. I never thought of it as coming down to luck before, but I guess if you think about it that's exactly what it means. You better hope your skill just happens to be good enough to challenge someone with much higher power, otherwise you would die." Ichigo analyzed.

"That's right," Szayel agreed. "Nine time out of ten, I will lose to a fighter like Grimmjow, but it's that tenth time that counts for me. I can beat him, it just doesn't happen very often, and he has to be distracted or slowed down for some reason when I do." He was admittedly throwing Ichigo a bone. By explaining Grimmjow's style could beat him, he was steering Ichigo in the right direction to win. Szayel was not interested in winning against Ichigo, it made for much better research if he was able to observe more battles between Ichigo and the others.

Ichigo knew exactly what he was up to, "Whatever happened to all of you not holding back?" He accused sharply. He had already explained he wanted the gloves to come off.

"When did I say anything about holding back?" Szayel responded just as indignantly. "Granted I may have given you a bit of information that could give you a chance, but you have to figure it out from there, and no I will not hold back just because I gave you a hint."

"Why the hell did you do that?" Nnoitra's voice interrupted their conversation, the overgrown mantis strode into the arena like he owned the place; Santa Teresa slung over his shoulder casually. A quiet Tesra trailed the Espada, keeping to the background. "You don't give the brat hints, he either figures it out or doesn't." Judging by the exasperated tone from the Quinto, this was not the first time he had given the same warning to Szayel.

"What can I say? I like the research opportunities it affords me," Szayel answered with a shrug, surprising Ichigo that he would even bother to respond to Nnoitra much less tell the truth.

Nnoitra flung his head back and laughed, "You would, wouldn't you?" He observed, calming down enough to look at them again. "Fine do what you like, but someday it's going to come back and bite you on the ass."

"Glad you care so much," Szayel responded drily, crossing his arms in front of himself in a huff.

"You better," Nnoitra replied, completely ignoring Szayel's now grumpy mood.

Ichigo had watched the back and forth between the two silently, coming to a few conclusions about them just from the few moments of conversation. The way Tesra had a resigned look on his face at the banter only serving to confirm his suspicions.

"Whatcha lookin at brat?" Nnoitra had noticed the observation, and wasn't shy about confronting him.

Ichigo had to make a decision quick about whether to tell the truth or lie, then decided he was about to get beat up by the Espada anyway; might as well go for broke. "Nothing, nothing," He brushed off before continuing, "Only the two of you acting a lot like Grimmjow and Ulquiorra."

Instead of anger, Szayel's slightly insane laughter erupted in the training arena, "It took you this long to figure it out?" He couldn't stop laughing, this was too much. Nnoitra wasn't exactly quiet in his interest, and Szayel did nothing to dissuade him. He enjoyed the other's rough edges just fine thank you.

"I've suspected," Ichigo insisted, "I just never really saw confirmation until today."

"Like you can talk," Nnoitra scoffed, "Don't think we haven't seen what's going on between you and the primera. He's claimed you from the beginning."

Ichigo sighed, "I'm not even going to bother denying that."

"Good," A fourth voice joined in, quickly followed by Starrk approaching. Without prompting he went over to Ichigo and put an arm around his shoulders possessively. "I wouldn't want you to deny me. I certainly have no plans to hide you."

Ichigo leaned back into the taller body behind him, "Its news to me they thought we were hiding," He admitted.

"You two are rather horrible at keeping a secret," And that was Lilynette chiming in. The smaller half of the Primera Espada spoke in a tone half way between amusement and accusation.

Starrk used his free hand to give her a soft thump on the back of her head, her mask absorbing what little force there was behind the hit, "Don't you start." He warned. "We'll get enough grief from the others, don't need it from you too."

"If you didn't give me the opportunity, I wouldn't be able to give you any grief," Lilynette protested, swatting his hand away.

A familiar whistle sounded behind them, "Huh, Starrk beat us here? That would be a miracle if this was anything else." Grimmjow came into sight shaking his head, his own pack of Fraccion surrounding him.

Starrk stared him down, all the threats dealt out in the past few weeks had not halted Grimmjow's taunting in the slightest. Might be time to actually do something about that. "Grimmjow, if you survive this tournament, you will face me."

For a moment it looked like Grimmjow was ready to bolt, the only thing stopping him was Nnoitra and Szayel's taunting laughter. "Oh shut up you two." He growled. "Fine Starrk, you want a spar you'll get one."

All of his bravado was shot to hell when Starrk drawled his reply, "I never said I wanted a spar, I said you will face me. There's a difference."

"Goodbye Grimmjow," Nnoitra mocked.

Szayel finished the taunt, "You better hope he gives you mercy."

Only Ichigo was close enough to hear Starrk say, "Don't count on it."

At that point the rest of the Espada showed up in a steady flow, most of the Fraccion joining them because they did not want to miss a tournament of this magnitude. The battles were always exciting and sometimes extraordinary things happened during them. With it involving the impulsive and hot headed duo of Ichigo and Junichi, this was sure to be a day to remember.

Yammy was the last to show up, Ichigo no longer surprised at the little hollow puppy that followed the huge Espada around. Whatever possessed the dog to choose Yammy completely escaped Ichigo, but there could be no doubt he gave all his loyalty to his master. Soon the Tenth Espada focused in on Ichigo, both combatants sizing up their opponent.

Yammy didn't scare Ichigo. Though he did know better than to underestimate anyone classified as an Espada, that was a given. The reason he did not fear the large Arrancar was because he understood him and his fighting style; it was a lot like his own. That understanding meant of all the battles he faced today this was one of the few he was confident he had a chance at.

"Time to clear the arena and get this tournament underway," Barragan took charge over giving out orders, no one either brave or interested in the job enough to challenge him. "Novena and Octava, you should move to a better place to begin warming yourselves up."

The observing Arrancar all scattered to follow Barragan's orders, except of Nnoitra and Grimmjow. They were doing as predicted and going off by myself, Nnoitra throwing out the offer, "Well I'm not going to sit around waiting to fight, want to go tear up some desert Grimmjow?"

The mentioned Sexta didn't hesitate for a second, "Hell yeah!" And the two masters of mayhem went sonidoing out of range to avoid interfering with the Ranking battles. No one very surprised to see them go, even their own fraccions didn't bother trying to restrain them from leaving.

This left Ichigo and Yammy alone on the soon to be battlefield, ready for either one of them to give a signal that would start the fight.

The Espada was the first to lunge forward, Ichigo blocking the strike with Zangetsu as he leaped to the side. Another blow followed quickly, coming from above, forcing him to brace Zangetsu with his arm to keep Yammy's Zanpakuto from splitting his skull open. He took the heartbeats worth of time it took for Yammy to withdraw his sword and reset for another blow to race forward, using his Zanpakuto like a lance for a fast stab at Yammy's large body.

He drew blood with that move, Yammy was strong, but he was one of the slowest in the Espada. He roared in rage at the wound, far more angry than hurt, he charged at Ichigo, sword used like a battering ram to plow him over. Ichigo let himself fall to the ground to avoid the sword and twisted around to tangle Yammy's legs with his own, off balancing the Espada until he was forced to pull back his blade in order to steady himself, giving Ichigo time to leap to his feet.

Determined to hold back on using his Bankai or Junichi too soon, he reset himself as quickly as possible, immediately throwing himself back towards Yammy, Junichi yelling advice and orders in the depths of his inner world, the words echoing in his head.

The force and speed of his attack caught Yammy off guard, and he paid for the oversight with a large bleeding wound across his chest. The only thing stopping Ichigo's blade from ending the fight there was his tough Hierro and shielding rib cage.

His anger at letting himself get wounded fueled the next flurry of strikes. The force behind them pushing Ichigo backwards in the sand. He was able to brace himself and stop the slide a few feet back, once again coming at Yammy using his speed to exploit Yammy's ongoing weakness.

He was strong, very strong, but he was slowed down by his baulk. It just so happened that Ichigo wasn't just powerful, he was also fast. Dunking under the large Zanpakuto, coming up to slice Yammy from navel to clavicle, retreating a hair too slow and receiving a gash to his shoulder.

Jumping back with a curse, Junichi began the process of knitting their skin back together, but it was slower than most regeneration techniques since he had to funnel power through Ichigo before the healing could even begin. Thus for the next few minutes Ichigo fought with the handicap, one Yammy was all too happy to exploit, forgoing his Zanpakuto and landing a satisfying punch to Ichigo's side sending him flying across the arena, only stopping as he smacked hard into one of the observation piers.

Out of the cloud of dust the impact had thrown into the air Ichigo flung himself back into the fight, Zanpakuto held in front of him, ready to impale the Espada.

And that's exactly what he did, except instead of anywhere vital, he had driven the point all the way through Yammy's leg until the tip of Zangetsu appeared on the other side and the limb collapsed from the near severing, sending Yammy to the ground.

Ichigo had to duck between flailing fists and swords to approach, Yammy's anger clouding his mind so much he began to grow even as he abandoned any formal style. Ichigo had no doubt he was about to see Yammy's resurrection and knew he couldn't afford to let him finish.

Yammy was distracted by anger and transforming, he never saw the last blow land, Ichigo digging Zangetsu deeply into the Espada's neck, only stopping when he was an edge away from killing him, then he sliced downwards opening up the wound until he buried Zangetsu diagonally across Yammy's shoulder and then chest.

Blood sprayed from the huge wound, Yammy collapsing into the sand, shrinking back to his usual size. Only when his head hit the ground, unconscious from blood loss, did Ichigo relax his grip on Zangetsu so it was no longer trained on the other side of Yammy's throat.

With the end of the battle, and Ichigo's not entirely unpredicted win over with, the observing Espada leaped down from the observation towers leaving their fraccion behind so they could inspect the victorious Ichigo. Even Aaroniero and Szayel stopped their spar long enough to check out the scene.

"Not bad," Szayel observed the bleeding and unconscious body of Yammy, "Not bad at all. You didn't even need Bankai to win. I think a few of us might want to reassess our opinions of you." There was a little jerk of his head in Barragan's direction at the words. The Segunda Espada was not particularly fond of those that challenged either his authority or position in the ranks. He had a decidedly not pleased expression on his face at the display of power from the challenger.

Starrk was next to comment, but not before wrapping his arms around Ichigo from behind and resting his chin on the top of Ichigo's head. "Didn't have any doubt about this one," Starrk admitted. "I didn't know if you would need Bankai, but I knew you would win."

"Thanks," Ichigo responded, not pushing the wolfish Espada away, "Isn't anyone going to do something about him?" He gestured to Yammy, who had still not regained consciousness.

A sigh from Szayel, "If I must, he isn't very good research material anymore though. He has been through too many tournaments at the bottom of our ranks. I have already studied everything there is to study." He complained while summoning his own Fraccion to him so they could transport Yammy back to his lab and start the healing that would have to be finished when he either won or had his own wounds taken care of.

"Is that all you ever think about?" Starrk grumbled, the others taking a step or two back from the Espada of Madness. He might only be the Octava, but no doubt about the pink haired Arrancar was extraordinarily creepy.

Szayel just shot him a maniacal grin and continued giving orders to his unusual looking fraccion so the task could be finished as quickly as possible.

"You have a two hour break before your next match, use it wisely," Barragan decreed.

Ichigo nodded and walked away from the soiled sand where he fought Yammy, Starrk leading him along. They collapsed onto the sandy arena floor, Starrk checking over Ichigo's injuries to make sure they were healing up correctly.

"Junichi must be happy today, you are healing much better today," He observed, for the severity of wounds Ichigo had suffered he was already surprisingly put back together thanks to his Hollow.

"He's practically vibrating with excitement," Ichigo revealed, Junichi not able to argue the point when he felt so restless bouncing around the buildings like a pinball sounded like a viable option to rid himself of some extra energy. "We both agreed to wait to combine our strength until we had to. It's good to know how much of our achievement is my doing compared to his."

"I like that strategy for more than a gage of your strength, although that is a good reason too, personally I think it is unwise to show everything you can do when facing an opponent that doesn't call for it. You may never know who your next opponent will be and if they were watching your previous battles. A lot of time a moment of hesitation brought on by the shock of a newly shown power can be exploited to end the fight quickly." Starrk advised.

"I know," Ichigo assured, "You taught me well."

"It's you that learned well," Starrk deflected.

Ichigo didn't reply, he simply let his head fall onto the Espada's shoulder, not asleep but gathering as much energy as he could muster to help him get through the coming battles.


They were in the meeting hall again, several days after Ichigo's arrival, and there was a steady argument happening about who would be teaching him what. It had been going on for almost an hour and they had gotten nowhere with the plans.

Starrk couldn't take it anymore, as one of the few Espada staying out of the general melee he was starting to think he was surrounded by children the way the rest of them were acting. Barragan the only other Espada choosing to remain silent. He slammed his gloved fist on the table with a bang loud enough to draw all eyes to the normally unruffled Primera.

"Can we please for once act like we know what we are doing instead of striking at each other like a bunch of rabid animals?" He asked with no small amount of disgust and judgment.

Oh yeah something interesting about the Primera, he normally let Barragan give the orders, but everyone knew who truly held the top spot. When Starrk said jump, it was a very good idea to do so, because his orders were so few it was typically about something important when he did give them.

Well with one slightly rowdy exception, but he was used to Grimmjow's insubordination, and had long since given up even a token effort at changing him. This meant it was the Sexta who spoke first, "Care to tell us how it should be done then?" A challenge was hidden under his sarcasm.

"Why don't you let Ichigo decide who is going to teach him? It's his neck on the line." Starrk pointed out, knowing the Visored had been watching the mini-war with just as much disgust and annoyance as the Primera. He would have a pretty good idea of what each one specialized in from listening to the arguments.

Ichigo shot Starrk a glare for putting him on the spot like that, but he complied with the request. "Teach me what you know best, so long as it is strong enough to help me improve I don't really care." Instead of careful plotting, why not just let each of them choose for themselves? He didn't care if his training didn't go in a linear way, he was just itching to get started.

"Kid, you are going to regret that," Nnoitra's wide grin revealed his excitement as hearing Ichigo practically gift wrapped and handed himself over to the Espada for them to treat him like their own personal punching bag. This would be fun, for the Espada at least.

"I regret nothing, even if it does get my ass kicked," Ichigo shot back, "Getting back up teaches you more than never falling in the first place."

"He's got you there Nnoitra," The Quinto was surprised to find it wasn't Grimmjow or Szayel mocking him this time; it was Ulquiorra. Damn that Cuarta for being so bipolar in his participation, sometimes saying little, other times he made little digs and jabs just like he did now.

It often took a while to notice Ulquiorra actually had a sense of humor much less used it, even if he did put a dark twist on the concept.

"Don't you start," Nnoitra growled in response, upper body leaning threateningly across the table towards Ulquiorra to emphasize his point.

Ulquiorra raised one dark brow, "Start what?" He asked in faux innocence.

"Oh that's it!" Nnoitra spat out before launching himself towards the Cuarta, Santa Teresa in his hands.

Ulquiorra dodged the predicted move, shooting a cero at the enraged Quinto. He had put enough power behind the strike Nnoitra's hooded jacket was blown apart and he came up singed despite his overly tough Hierro. "Don't pursue something you can't hope to achieve." He warned calmly, internally feeling a brush of amusement at the interaction.

"If you value your skin, and the roof, could you not provoke him Nnoitra?" Harribel spoke up in defense of the meeting room. Nnoitra's charge had carved a rent in the table from the bottom crescent of Santa Teresa, and Ulquiorra's cero had taken out a good portion of the wall along with the Quinto. "You can both join in cleaning up this mess since you caused it," She ordered, gaining a glare from Nnoitra and a simple nod from Ulquiorra.

Meanwhile Ichigo was speaking quietly with Starrk, "Is it just me, or is Ulquiorra acting almost playful?" He had never thought to witness the day.

"In his own way, yes." Starrk confirmed. "He doesn't indulge himself very often, but he rarely passes up such a golden opportunity as what just happened with Nnoitra."

"Any more surprises I should brace myself for?" Ichigo asked somewhat ruefully.

"Well, Szayel isn't quite as mad as looks, he uses others overestimation against them. Grimmjow is actually pretty intelligent behind the bravado. Zommari has a sense of personal pride so high he actually considers himself selfless when it is exactly the opposite. Nnoitra only acts brash because it's better than wallowing in misery. Harribel is withdrawn around us for good reason, female Hollows are targets of malice and violence at a much higher frequency than the males. All of her fraccion are female Hollows she saved, and she still protects them viciously when they need her to. You've already noticed Ulquiorra does in fact have a sense of humor which he typically turns on Grimmjow and Nnoitra the most since they give him the best opportunity. The others are a lot closer to you getting what you see." Starrk informed, enjoying all the little idiosyncrasies about the Espada living here that made life interesting.

"Oh but you forgot my favorite Espada," And with that Ichigo put his hand on Starrk's upper thigh, forcing the Primera into attempting to hide the rising flush on his face.

"Oh and who's that?" Starrk played along, resting his own hand on top of Ichigo's where the table covered them from view.

"Hmm, well, he tends to sleep a lot, and he's got this thing with exploding wolves." Ichigo teased, having a great love of that particular ability of the Primera.

Starrk cracked a smile, "I like my wolves."

"I do too," Ichigo agreed. "Still, anything I should know about this wolf loving Espada?"

Starrk squeezed the hand over Ichigo's. "Want to know my favorite thing about wolves?"

"Sure," Ichigo replied as calmly as he could manage with his racing heart so they could continue their game unnoticed.

"They are very territorial, they claim what is there's and doesn't let anyone or anything take it from them." Starrk explained mischievously.

Ichigo didn't want the game to end there, "Do you have a claim on something here?"

"Nope," Starrk responded, enjoying the chase. "I have someone."

"Wouldn't happen to be a stubborn orange haired Visored would it?" Ichigo was willing to tease himself if it brought out the smile on Starrk's face, and it did.

"Possibly," He answered solemnly.

That was shot to pieces once he got a look at Ichigo's face showing the younger man was holding back laughter. When eye-contact was made, they both lost control and scared every single person seated around the table with their explosive laughter.

It was odd enough to hear Ichigo laugh, but for the Primera to join in was a new experience. The jaw-dropping commencing at the realization on caused the two further amusement.