Shadow of an Echo

A/N I'm sorry it has taken me so long to update anything, real life highjacked my writing time just as Fanfiction started its policy crack down and I had to implement my plan B with my stories. If you want my official stance on the recent changes, and the link to my adultfanfiction account, please visit my profile when you are done reading.

Chapter Seven

Those Nights

Junichi was sulking, that was the only word for it. The Hollow wouldn't speak to him, and the only response Ichigo could get from him was an attack on his inner world, giving him a headache and putting him in a bad mood. Ichigo could have handled the situation a lot better he thought, if he could just figure out why his Hollow was sulking.

It wasn't as if they'd lost a fight that badly, their training was actually moving along quite well according to the Espada training him.

He tried one more time to reach the Hollow, "If you don't tell me what's wrong I can't fix it." He called into his own mind cautiously, he had learned that retreating into the sideways world was bad idea, Junichi would just attack him and not tell him anything anyway.

"I'm frustrated!" The Hollow finally caved, his displeasure rolling off him in waves. "We aren't getting anywhere with these damn baby steps they are making us take."

"But just yesterday we even got a compliment from Baraggan." He attempted to placate the Hollow, "We re getting stronger, it's just taking awhile."

"We don't have awhile!" Junichi protested sharply, "Can't you feel it? Something is coming. I can't tell what, or when, but a move is being made by our opponents out in the real world while we are being coddled like children!"

Ichigo's ever present scowl deepened at hearing that, "Are you sure?"

"Positive," Junichi deadpanned.

"How on earth could you possibly know something like that?"

"I don't know, I just do, our time is up we need to be ready." Junichi admitted and warned.

Ichigo knew ignoring him would be a bad idea, Junichi was a pain in the neck sometimes, but his warnings were nothing to ignore. Junichi would die if Ichigo did, it was in his own interest to protect them, even if it was just warning him of the approaching danger.

Now he just had to convince a few stubborn Espada to ratchet up the training, due to a gut feeling from a Hollow they barely knew let alone trusted. Well this would be fun… not so much.

The first one he ran into was Szayel, the pink haired scientist lurking around the sparring arena hoping for a fresh specimen. He caught the worried look on Ichigo's face instantly, "What happened?" He asked urgently, something that concerned the Visored might just be enough to chase away the boredom he was feeling.

"It's Junichi, he's worried there is going to be an attack soon. He thinks our training is going too slowly. Any chance we could speed it up?" No point in beating around the bush, it was better to get straight to the point.

The slightly mad smile that crossed the Octava's face was enough to make Ichigo wish he had ran into a different Espada first. "I wondered if the pace was going to start bothering you. From all the warnings from Urahara you should be able to learn much quicker than we have been showing you. Come with me, I think I know a way to hurry things along."

"What do you have in mind?" Ichigo asked as he followed the Espada back into the main building of Las Noches.

"A tournament of sorts." Szayel started out, "We have been training you according to your strengths, throwing new things at you slowly, and working from the bottom up. The usual way training is supposed to go. You learn differently though. Has anyone explained to you how we got our numbers?"

"You fought each other, and were ranked according to who won." Ichigo replied, "Starrk explained that much."

Szayel repressed a small snort, "I'm guessing that's the condensed version, but its true enough. I think its time you participated in our ranking battle, we do it every decade or so just to make sure we are still the strongest. It's only been five years since the last one, but I think it's justified to break pattern in this case."

Ichigo's eye twitched in irritation, "Why wasn't it done when I was first brought here?"

"Do you have a death wish?" Szayel asked calmly.

"I can't protect anyone if I'm dead." Ichigo countered.

"That's why. If we tried this when you first got here, you'd be dead. You may be tough enough to train with us, but you weren't ready to truly fight us. If you really want to speed up your training, the gloves have to come off at some point." He explained, not reacting to Ichigo's irritation, they had gotten used to his temper flares in the time he'd been at the fortress.

"I've been wanting everyone to fight fully since this whole thing started. Why all the damn lead up?" Ichigo grumbled again, tired of thinking the same thing over and over again. Junichi was right, they had been coddled like children, and it was demeaning.

Well at least he assumed they were being coddled, he was expecting to find himself in the sand far more often than he was. Oh well, hopefully they would get going for real. He learned best when fighting for his life, he had proven that when he invaded Soul Society.

"Were you listening to me at all?" Szayel protested. "I said earlier I wondered when the pace would start bothering you. We knew from the moment you got here the traditional approach probably wouldn't work on you, but it had to be you that called the change over. Otherwise, we really would kill you, because you would be off guard thinking it was just another training spar. In this tournament, anything goes. It's hard to kill us, but not impossible, and there have been more then just ten Espada; only three of our number were in the original set. Understand if you go through with this, you have a high chance of dying or ending up too injured to fight in the future."

Ichigo growled softly in irritation, something he discovered Starrk did just as much as Grimmjow only the Primera was quieter about it, "I need to face death. I gain the most strength when I face my own mortality. I need to walk the line. Hell according to Urahara I practically am the damn line since I am neither living nor dead."

"You'll get your chance now. I think this is going to be interesting." Szayel remarked.

"Can I ask you what might be an obvious question?"

"Can't stop you from asking, but I might not care to answer."

"Where the Hell are we going?"

"Oh we are going to round up the Espada, don't you want this over with?"

"Right now?"

"Did you have something else to do today?"

"Well, no," Ichigo was forced to admit.

Szayel smirked, "Then shut up and get yourself ready to fight, you'll start with Yammy and go up through the ranks until someone stops you. You will have two hours between each fight to get your wounds tended to and get rest. This is one more hour than we had, but since your body is different and actually needs things like rest, we are giving you the extra hour."

"So I just fight until I can't anymore? I will be fighting continuously, with a short break, but facing a fresh opponent after each battle. Do I have that right?" Ichigo asked for confirmation.

"Not exactly, yes you will be fighting continuously, but the next two to fight you will be sparring at the same time as your current battle. We get a warm up, and you won't be facing a completely fresh opponent. After you fight Arroniero, every opponent you face will have been sparring for at least two battles. If I know Grimmjow and Nnoitra they will probably not resist sparring before they have to, so I'd imagine they would be about on the same level of tiredness as you when you reach them."

Ichigo seemed a bit hesitant before asking his next question, "…What happens when I get to Starrk?"

Szayel cocked an eyebrow, looking the Visored over curiously, "What about it?"

"Can I trust him to go all out? Will he actually fight me?"

Szayel couldn't suppress his sigh at the question he should have seen coming, "If the miraculous event does occur that you make it through all nine of us to fight him, he won't disgrace you by holding back in the formal setting of the tournament. He might not like it, but he'll do it."

"How can you be so sure?"

"Because I am one of the original three," Szayel explained, "I have studied his habits for a long time. He only fights if there is a good reason for it, and he wouldn't dishonor an opponent by going to the trouble of fighting only to essentially let them win. He has too much pride, and too much honor, to do that to an opponent and that probably goes double for you."

"Does he really think so much of me?" Szayel almost didn't hear the quiet whisper, but he managed to catch the gist of it.

He was successful in repressing this sigh, "Think about all you've gotten up to while you've been here? It's been a long time since someone caught his interest so thoroughly."

For once Ichigo obeyed, and fell into silence in order to comply with the order. He thought back on his encounters with the Primera, starting with the introduction to his other half, Lilynette.

XXXFlash backXXX

Ichigo was sore, and felt bruised from head to toe, he had just finished his battle with Nnoitra, and while Junichi had healed the major injuries, the ache of strained muscle was still present and his clothes were in tatters. He put up no resistance as Starrk carefully checked him over to make sure Junichi's healing had been thorough enough.

"Can we just get out of here, please?" Ichigo begged quietly, and he wouldn't even deny the begging part. He hadn't wanted to fight Nnoitra to begin with, and now he had the aching muscles and blood loss to contend with. Nothing a few hours sleep wouldn't fix for him, but he couldn't very well curl up and nap on the sandy arena ground. Well Starrk might, but Ichigo didn't feel like letting his guard down around the newly introduced Espada.

Starrk glanced around, and seeing the brightly colored hair of the sixth and eighth Espada approaching them both more than enough to distract Nnoitra and Ulquiorra, he nodded at Ichigo's request, "Follow me, you will be staying with me, unless you feel more comfortable staying in your own room?"

Ichigo didn't even have to think about it, "Stay alone in a fortress full of strangers when I am not fully trained and have no idea what their powers are? I don't think so. Urahara may have me under his protection, but I don't particularly feel like being his loyalty test."

"That's what I thought you would say," Starrk nodded approvingly, and lead the exhausted Visored away from the defeated mantis, and stoically watching bat.

Ichigo only paid enough attention to learn the route between the arena and Starrk's quarters. He just didn't have the energy to observe much else, including the other Arrancar sharing Las Noches. There would be time to start figuring everyone out later. It hadn't been a long battle, but it was intense, and Ichigo knew it would take a few more times fighting him before he got used to Nnoitra's style and could spar without complete exhaustion.

They arrived at one of the towers that jutted up out of the desert sand, and Starrk led him inside, with an explanation, "Each Espada has their own tower, housing both them and their Fraccion, since I only have one, it's been just me and Lilynette in ours."

Ichigo couldn't stop himself from asking, "If you were that lonely, how come you didn't pick up more Fraccion when you arrived here?"

Starrk knew the question would come sooner or later, and had prepared himself for it, so his reply was unemotional. "I got tired of watching comrades wither away because they weren't quite strong enough to withstand my Spirit Pressure, even if I restrained myself as much as I could, some still escapes and I can't keep it confined all day every day it's simply not possible."

"I understand," Ichigo responded, and he did, or at least thought he did.

The stairs in the tower were the last obstacle to overcome before entering the well-lit and comfortable looking room at the top. Waiting for them inside was Lilynette.

When Starrk had first mentioned Lilynette, Ichigo had pictured a sedate woman, similar to Starrk himself. What he met when he was led through the door was a child that looked to be around Karin and Yuzu's age. She had sea foam green hair, and pink tinted eyes. Her mask fragment looked like a helmet with one full horn and one broken horn, but unlike Ulquiorra's hers covered the whole top of her head and one part descended down and covered one eye.

The young girl had her arms crossed over her skimpy uniform and a look of irritation on her face, "What took you so long?" She tore into the Primera as soon as she saw him, not noticing Ichigo standing behind him right away.

"Nnoitra wanted a spar," Starrk explained shortly, teasing her a bit with the short answers. They often riled each other up as a way to pass the time, and if they were constantly badgering each other it reminded them they weren't alone.

Lilynette snorted at his response, "And you just had to go along with it? You've been gone for weeks! And you ditch me for the overgrown spoon?"

"You misunderstand, it wasn't me sparring!" Starrk protested trying to defend himself, now surprised in that slightest with the angry yelling that followed.

"That's even worse! So you overlook me just to watch some dumb fight?" She bristled.

He shook his head quickly, "It was necessary, I wasn't interested in Nnoitra it was the person he was sparring with. I brought him to meet you."

Lilynette scowled, but looked behind her larger half, and caught sight of Ichigo, "So you're the reason I got ignored? Not much to look at are you?"

"Lilynette, stop that right now," Starrk stopped all playing at that, he would not allow their little game of insults to affect Ichigo, he was off limits.

A piercing gaze passed over the two males, Lilynette picking up on Starrk's intentions, and realizing what had caused him to suddenly break form. "Oh, all right, I'll back off on him. You two are so making it up to me though." She gave in, but she wasn't kidding she wasn't about to let Starrk get away with ignoring her in favor of someone else, even if it was someone of that kind of interest.

Ichigo hadn't been able to say a word during their exchange, he was too shocked taking it all in. This was not what he had been expecting at all. He attempted to smooth rumpled feathers when he heard Lilynette submit to Starrk's request, "If it helps, he talks about you a lot."

A raised eyebrow and a disbelieving shake of her head, "Starrk doesn't talk a lot about anything, well unless you count snoring as talking."

"He talked plenty," Ichigo was honestly confused, hey he was tired and he had just endured a shock in finding out Starrk's other half was a hyper young girl.

Starrk had to step in before Lilynette lost her temper again, "Lily I was able to talk, I didn't have to hold back around him."

That brought her out of her rage, and she suddenly found Ichigo's eyes very interesting, drilling her gaze into him far deeper than he had caught Starrk himself doing. "Really?"

"Yes," Starrk confirmed.

With that the irritation drained out of her, and she smiled brightly at him, "Then he can stay." She allowed, moving to the side so the two men could fully enter the room.

Ichigo found instead of a bed, there was a pile of cushions on the floor, large fluffy comfortable looking cushions. Without preamble, he threw himself onto the pile heavily, curling up to attempt to get some sleep.

Only to have his eyes snap open when Starrk joined him, pulling Ichigo into his chest like the Visored was some kind of pillow or large stuffed animal. Other than the light blush across his cheeks, Ichigo found he liked the closeness, and moved closer into the embrace.

Lilynette looked on and shook her head slowly at the display. So this Ichigo was really strong enough to hold up against their power? Hmm… he would bear watching. Though looking how her other half had claimed him for himself, watching him wouldn't be difficult. So with a shrug and another small smile, she curled up on her own pile of cushions and slowly drifted off.

XXXend flashbackXXX

With that memory playing in his mind, Ichigo followed Szayel without further protest. The Octava had been right, Starrk did care, he wouldn't have stood up to Lilynette for him other wise.

There had been other incidences of course, but for now they finally arrived at the Espada's hall, things were going to be set in motion for this tournament. Ichigo felt Junichi stir in his mind, his Hollow ready for the fight to come, and he couldn't blame the creature. Finally he would truly learn what he had come to Heuco Mundo for.

A/N2 I know it's short but it's finally here. Real life has been difficult, I feel like I've been run over by a steam roller. I did what I could for now. The next few chapters will probably include one flashback to an Ichigo/Starrk scene and one Espada battle until I run out of battles. That is the rough plan right now. The story just didn't want to flow right writing chronologically so hopefully this works.