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oh Lazarus, how did your debts get paid

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The memories don’t start coming back until he finds the door.

It’s a small archway, far removed from any of the main paths through Las Noches; the only reason Starrk even finds it is because Lilynette insists he can't sleep in their room all day and harries him out the door to take a walk. It’s easier to give in to her insistence sometimes, so Starrk covers a yawn and lets her shove him forward.

Because the only thing Starrk wants less than to be awake in general is to have to interact with his fellow Espada, no matter how grateful he is to have comrades who can survive his presence, he turns off at the first branching side corridor, ignoring Lilynette’s huff of disapproval.

“You wanted me out of the room, and I'm out of the room,” he reminds her pointedly.

Lilynette punches him in the side. “I wanted you not to be lazy, Starrk! This is you being lazy!”

Well, that’s true, more or less. But he’s not being entirely lazy, so that should be good enough for her. If he says that, though, Lilynette will hit him again, so Starrk keeps his mouth shut beyond a faint sigh.

With a squawk, Lilynette punches him, this time in the hip. “Don’t sigh at me! Aizen-sama said we’re going to fight soon! You need to be more enthusiastic, Starrk!”

Starrk has no attachment to the idea of fighting Shinigami—his greatest hope is that whatever captain he encounters ends up just as lazy as him. Then they can stage a fight until Aizen gets what he wants, and there will be little risk and less effort required. Not that he’s going to say as much to Lilynette, who’s still glaring at him.

“I’ll fight,” he concedes, hoping that will placate her.

“You’d better,” she mutters, but as he hoped she subsides with another huff.

Danger temporarily averted, Starrk turns his attention on their surroundings, though there isn’t all that much to see. An endless white hallway without windows, corridors branching off of it and doors set into the wall at scattered intervals. Las Noches is boring, though Starrk supposes it’s better than an empty desert stacked with Hollow corpses.

“Do you think the Shinigami will be strong?” Lilynette asks, and Starrk glances down at her in surprise. Her arms are folded behind her head, and her one pink eye is fixed ahead, though he can tell all of her thoughts are turned inward.

He makes a noncommittal noise, even as his hand falls unconsciously to rest on his sword hilt. “Aizen-sama was a Shinigami,” he points out.

Lilynette just makes a face. “Aizen-sama is hardly a Shinigami anymore,” she retorts. “The others, how strong do you think they’ll be?”

Strong, Starrk is sure, and he grimaces a little bit, not looking forward to the battle. But Aizen wants Soul Society crushed, and to do that they need to defeat the thirteen divisions. After that, Aizen will make his way to the Soul King and take the throne for himself, but Starrk doesn’t particularly care about that part. The other Espada are his friends, if some reluctantly so, and all Starrk wants is to keep them. Anything to keep from going back to before, even if he always had Lilynette with him then.

What use is power? Starrk thinks bleakly, glancing down at his sword. His fingers tighten around the hilt, the creak of his gloves all too loud in the silence. Why would anyone want more of it?

“Starrk?” Lilynette asks curiously, and Starrk blinks, glancing up and to the side. She’s ahead of him now. He hadn’t even realized he had stopped. Apparently seeing that on his face, she trots back to his side, curling her fingers into his sash and leaning around him. “That ugly old curtain thing? What’s so interesting about that?”

Not quite sure what she means, Starrk glances over at the wall and—

Stills.

The corridor branches here, and about halfway down it there's an arch covered by a tattered veil. It’s fluttering faintly, even though there's no wind within Las Noches, and there's a low, insistent whisper from the other side that Starrk can make out even a fair distance from it.

“Can you hear that?” he asks, but it’s as if someone else is speaking. He can't look away, doesn’t want to. A step forward, out of the main hall and into the side corridor, and it’s only Lilynette’s suddenly firm grip and stubbornly planted feet that pulls him up short.

“Don’t, Starrk!” she says insistently, and when he glances back there's something almost like fear in her face. “There shouldn’t be voices, that’s creepy!”

Exasperation makes Starrk roll his eyes, though he stops moving. “You turn into a talking gun,” he reminds his other half, and she makes a face at him.

“Yeah, but that’s different!”

Starrk supposes that it is.

“It feels…familiar,” he says, and can't quite help taking another glance at the veil. His sword suddenly doesn’t feel entirely right in his hand—it should be smaller, lighter, beech instead of steel. But that makes no sense at all, because a sword is—

Hands. Hands on him, dragging him down, wet and cold and entirely immovable. He chokes for breath but there's only water filling his lungs, a burning, searing thirst that nothing can quench. Memories, fears, loneliness that sears like fire straight down to his bones and he thinks This is how I die. Alone, lost, abandoned

The inside of his left forearm is burning.

This time, Starrk doesn’t need Lilynette’s urging to take a step back.

“What the hell was that?!” she demands, and her voice is shrill enough that Starrk knows she saw it too. Not unreasonable—they're the same soul split into two bodies, after all.

“I…don’t know,” he answers slowly, but—

But that’s not quite true.

There's the image of a castle, somewhere in his memory. An old house, tall and dark and dreary, with a cold man and a sharp woman and a reckless boy within. Not good memories, not exactly, but they don’t come with the overwhelming fear of the first recollection. All of it is linked, tied together by that not-right feel when he touches his sword. Starrk flexes his fingers, glancing down at them as if they’ve become someone else’s, but he sees no change in them. Nothing outwardly remarkable, but…he can feel it.

A green spark crackles to life and crawls across the backs of his knuckles, then sizzles out in the air.

“Let’s go, Starrk,” Lilynette insists, tugging hard on his sash. Her one eye is wide and the closest to fearful that Starrk has ever seen it. “I don’t like it here.”

Starrk doesn’t, either, but—

But.

He drags his eyes away from the fluttering veil, closes his hand more firmly around the pommel of his sword. “Let’s go,” he agrees, and it takes everything in him not to turn around and look back the moment he steps away.

The whispers fade away behind them, even though Starrk half-thought they wouldn’t.

“Geez,” Lilynette mutters when they've put a good distance between themselves and that hall. She folds her arms behind her head again, even though she still looks faintly wary, and huffs. “Aizen-sama’s got the weirdest crap floating around, doesn’t he, Starrk?”

It’s been a long time since Starrk stopped trying to get Lilynette to be respectful of anyone, so he doesn’t bother answering beyond a faint hum. He keeps his steps long and purposeful, and wonders how long it will take her to notice—

“Oi, Starrk! What the hell are we going back this way for?! Starrk! I'm talking to you, you big jerk! Oi, oi, oi! Don’t you dare go lie down again, I just got you up! Starrk!”

 

 

Aizen fails, Lilynette sacrifices herself, and Starrk falls. The false city trembles beneath him long after the last of the Espada are dead, and he closes his eyes, wondering if for a second time he’s going to die entirely alone.

At least this time he isn’t drowning.

That might be better, though, he thinks. Like this he doesn’t even have the strength to press a hand to the wound that’s killing him, and he’s not sure he would even if he could. Lilynette’s loss has left a hole inside of him, a piece of his very self carved out and cut away, and he’s finding it hard to breathe. She was him, was another part of him, and now his soul has been split and he’s more alone than he ever was.

He was loyal to Aizen, but Aizen only ever thought of them as pawns to win a throne. He was loyal to the other Espada, but no one else bothered to mourn the others as they fell one by one, and now he has to wonder if he was the only one these bonds mattered to.

Very likely. All too likely.

Starrk's breath rattles in his chest, wet and thick, and he can taste the blood in his mouth. Drowning, at least, was relatively quick, especially since he fought the hands pulling him down every inch of the way. This is slow and gradual and tedious, only the pain to break the monotony, and Starrk just wishes it were over. Maybe, if Arrancar are allowed to reincarnate, Lilynette will be—

Geta clack against stone, and the shadow of a wide-brimmed hat falls over his face.

“My, my,” an inordinately cheerful voice says, brightness just covering the heavy weariness beneath. “So Kyōraku was right all along. He’ll be insufferable now. Well, more insufferable than normal.”

Starrk just manages to force his eyes open, and the world swims sickeningly. He takes a painful breath, tries to ignore the way it doesn’t quite fill his lungs as it should, and blinks until his vision clears.

There's a Shinigami leaning over him, though this one isn’t wearing a captain’s haori or even a shihakusho, despite the heavy feeling of his power. Pale blond hair falls limply across his face, and he looks like he just dragged himself off his deathbed to come and die on top of Starrk.

Apparently come of that must show on Starrk's face, because the Shinigami chuckles a little, reaching up to tip his hat forward and shadow his eyes. “You’ll be fine, Primera. I'm not about to expire just yet. Not in our moment of victory.” Grey eyes catch the grimace Starrk can't quite hide, and his smirk softens. “Well, there's a scary face. Was that for Aizen’s sake, I wonder?”

“Almost as though we have emotions, isn’t it?” Starrk grits out, and Kyōraku’s jab at him still stings. He’s Aizen’s Primera, or was—if there's one thing he’s unaccustomed to it’s being looked down on.

The Shinigami raises his hands, though there's amusement in the curl of his lips. “Ah, no need to be so touchy. I think everyone had their eyes opened to unexpected possibilities today.” He hesitates, something like grief crossing his features only to be swiftly buried, and he kneels down beside Starrk with a huff like it hurts to move. “Now, Primera, you don’t look all that well. I can't say I’d normally care, but Captain Kyōraku had an idea that you might still be alive and asked me to look for you.”

The captain did? Starrk lets out an amused breath, not enough air in his lungs to actually laugh. “After he cut me down?” he demands, breathless but incredulous.

The man’s smile is a little wry, but mostly tired. “I think he saw something in you, Primera. Something that ran deep enough for him to send a message to a humble shopkeeper like me.”

If this man is just a shopkeeper, Starrk will hunt down Grimmjow and kiss him full on the mouth the moment he can stand.

Apparently that shows on Starrk's face too, because the Shinigami laughs a little, weary but amused. “Urahara Kisuke,” he offers, and there's a spark of mirth in pale grey eyes. “Now hold still—Tessai is the one skilled at healing, not me.”

With that comforting pronouncement, he presses a hand to Starrk's chest, eyes narrowing with concentration. Starrk can’t move anyway, so he doesn’t have any choice but to lie where he fell as reiatsu surges around them. It’s a prickly sort of warmth, with an edge like a needle stitching everything back together, and Starrk has to grit his teeth to keep from crying out as his flesh knits itself up. Every limb prickles madly as life returns, and Starrk's back arches as something that feels like adrenaline slams through him. Before he can even think, he’s bolting to his feet, unsteady but still quick, and lashing out with one gloved hand.

Grey eyes go wide, and Urahara moves, reaching for his cane, but it’s too slow. He’s sluggish, even more of his power spent on Starrk when he had little to spare, and Starrk's blow catches him in the side of the face. He goes down, and Starrk takes one staggering step and slashes a desperate hand down through the air.

The garganta is agonizingly slow as it splits the air, but the moment it’s wide enough Starrk hurls himself through and seals it again.

He slams down onto cold tile with a cry that escapes through gritted teeth, jarring everything, and then rolls over onto his back, staring up at the high white ceiling as he tries to catch his breath. His head is spinning sickeningly, and it’s only very belatedly that he realizes the shinigami’s healing kido closed his wounds, but likely wouldn’t have restored the blood he’d already lost.

At least he has an excuse for his idiocy, he thinks wryly, closing his eyes and trying to focus on breathing steadily.

(Lilynette was always his logic, wasn’t she?)

Another breath, slow and careful, and he gets an arm underneath himself, pushing up to sit. His sheathed sword bumps against his leg, making him wince as it brushes a long gash from the Vizards’ part in the fight, but he manages to gather himself enough to stand, even if it takes a moment.

He’s in the halls of Las Noches, in one of the many identical corridors. Right where the corridor branches, actually, and there's a low, insistent whisper in the air.

Starrk doesn’t have to look to know the veil is there, swaying in a breeze he can't feel.

His fingers tighten around the hilt of his sword again, and he braces an arm against the wall for balance. It’s been a few weeks since he was last here; Lilynette hadn’t wanted to come back, and even though Starrk had he’d respected her very persistent wishes. Hearing it now, though, it’s as if he never left. There's still a tingle deep in his blood, like a tuning fork struck at just the right note to resonate straight through to his bones, and he feels the pull of the tattered cloth as if it were a well of gravity pulling him in.

The whispers aren’t quite words, but as Starrk takes another step closer, then another, he thinks he might almost hear them regardless.

Sirius, one says, and it hits Starrk like one of Kyōraku's blows to leave him feeling just as breathless.

Another step, another whispered Sirius and Starrk has to close his eyes against the force of it, curl his fingers into the stone and breath carefully. He thinks of stars, of bright, laughing grins, of cold grey eyes closer to silver than Urahara’s pale grey. Thinks of a hand on his shoulder, a sneer in a forgotten hallway, a wry, regretful smile as a heavy door swings shut. It aches, aches the same way Lilynette’s absence does, and Starrk hunches over, fisting a hand against his chest as if to guard himself from it. There's no use, though, no way to avoid the pain, and he frames the familiar name on his lips as he takes a staggering step forward.

There's little time; the shinigami have already invaded Aizen's stronghold once, and Starrk has no doubt that they’ll do so again when Urahara reports what happened. He definitely will, because whatever Kyōraku's request, it likely ended in orders to capture Starrk and take him to Soul Society. Leaving a dangerous enemy loose is foolish, after all.

Kyōraku might have played at being a fool, but he was the very furthest thing from it, in the end.

A part of Starrk that sounds agonizingly like Lilynette tells him that he should run, retreat into the deserts of Hueco Mundo and lose any pursuers there. The call of the veil is too strong, though, and even if it weren’t, Starrk isn’t entirely sure he could go back to living that way, always alone and wandering. He’s tasted closeness now, with Lilynette and later with the rest of the Espada, and even if the Espada didn’t return the sentiment, that doesn’t change the fact that Starrk felt it.

Lilynette always told him he was an idiot, and Starrk knows with absolute certainty that she was entirely correct.

The tattered cloth sways, just a handful of steps in front of him, and Starrk pushes fully upright, eyes fixed on it. He drags his thoughts away from Lilynette, makes himself think of other things instead. Things like Sirius, still resonating through him. There are other words as well, Kreacher and Bellatrix and Andromeda, but none of them have quite the same feel as the first. That one tastes of regret and love and sorrow, of desperation and decisions. It’s not the sort of thing he can forget, for all that he seems to have forgotten it once already.

From behind him, deeper into the stronghold, there's a sudden, ringing crash. Starrk jolts before he can help it, takes a staggering step forward and then keeps going. It doesn’t matter if that was a shinigami or another Espada, though he doubts any of their number are left at this point; both can be counted as enemies, now that Aizen no longer holds the Espada together. Starrk is—was—Primera, and his strength won him few friends and too many rivals. Most of them would happily see him dead now.

There's no time for consideration, for second thoughts; Starrk throws himself forward, through the veil, and feels something far vaster than a tattered curtain part around him.

It doesn’t hurt, which is a kind surprise at this point. There's a rush of passing air, darkness and stars and spinning light that weaves before his eyes, and it’s enough to make Starrk swallow hard as nausea rises. He falls and it could be for an eon, for a moment—there's no way of telling, just light and cold and absence, and then—

Impact.

He hits the ground on his feet, but loses his balance and tumbles forward, slamming shoulder-first into pavement. His skull bounces off, making his vision go entirely dark for a moment, and when it clears again he’s just rolling to a stop against the curb, sore and battered with his head swimming and lights dancing behind his eyes.

Over the ringing in his ears, he can just make out the sound of clumsy, hurried footsteps.

His wand, Starrk thinks blearily, reaching for it, but it isn’t in his sleeve where it should be. Did he break it? Did he lose it? Rare enough that a beech wand chose him the first time; he doesn’t want to risk having to try again, because as he is now—

A cough rattles his whole frame, flooding his mouth with the taste of copper, and he manages a grimace. Not as healed as he would like, not healed enough, but—

It will have to do.

Maybe, he thinks dazedly, closing his eyes, he shouldn’t have been so quick to punch Urahara. A little more repair to this damned body would have been appreciated.

“Are you all right?” a child’s voice demands, and for one mad moment Starrk think Lilynette even though he knows it isn’t. A boy instead, by the sound, but not too young. There's strength in the hands that grip his shoulder, rolling him carefully until he’s flat on his back, and Starrk swallows a groan and opens his eyes again. The world swims, streetlights silhouetted against the night sky nearly blinding, and he squints desperately, trying to make the face above him resolve into recognizable lines.

The sickening lurch doesn’t fade, but he catches a glimpse of wildly messy black hair and thick-rimmed glasses, a face that shouldn’t be familiar but is. Starrk raises a hand, floundering, but fingertips bared by torn cloth meet warm skin, and Starrk takes a rasping breath and forces out, “James?”

The name is unfamiliar but at the same time so easy to grasp. So too is the image that comes with it. Messy black hair and a warm brown eyes and laughter, seen from high in the air above the pitch. Red and gold, worn leather, a flash of gold whipping past, and Starrk has to take another breath before he gets lost in that fractured moment.

“James,” he repeats, and it sounds right this time, comes more easily. There's a fog in his head, worse than any encounter with Aizen's crushing reiatsu, and he can feel himself wavering back towards darkness. “Where’s….Sirius. He went to you…honorary Potter.” There's that flash again, a regretful smile and a door closing with chilling finality, and Starrk doesn’t remember but he also does, remembers standing in a dark hallway watching someone dear to him step out of his life.

“What?” the boy says, and he sounds as dazed as Starrk feels. “You—you knew James Potter?”

Did he? Starrk can't quite recall. It’s all mixed up inside his head, too many pieces but not enough all at once. There's green in front of him, though, and that’s familiar too. “Lily?” he asks, but the hair under his fingers is black instead of red, and that’s not correct. Not important right now, either, not in the face of the empty space beside him. Lilynette, he thinks again. But—

He’s missing something else, too.

“My wand,” he tells the boy, who is maybe James and probably not Lily and will likely know where Sirius is, though he doesn’t quite remember why that’s important. “I need to find it. Or—or my sword.”

A pause, and a tentative hand covers Starrk's where it rests on the boy’s cheek. “Your sword’s right here,” the boy says, guiding Starrk's hand down to brush the warm wrapping on the beechwood hilt.

“Oh,” Starrk says, surprised even if he can't pinpoint why, and the relief is strong enough to make him slump, eyes fluttering shut once more.

Green sparks swim behind his eyelids, thick and bright, and darkness follows, but at least this time he isn’t falling.

The last thing that echoes in his mind before he loses consciousness entirely is My name—Starrk?

Regulus.

The pieces rearrange themselves, still jagged and fractured, but—

There's a whole now, rather than just chaos.

It’s enough.