BLEACH REDUX: A NEW BEGINNING

CHAPTER ONE: The Ash

Go on, kill me. My life has no meaning now.

A massive explosion burst into sight right in front of the Espada. When the smoke cleared, the Hollowfied Shinigami held what remained of his body by his throat, glaring at him viciously before carelessly tossing him back onto the ground. Ulquiorra looked up at the mockery of a Hollow above him; that black blade drawn precariously close to his throat.

Abruptly, he saw the Quincy's hand reach out to grab the beast by the wrist, "Stop it, Ichigo...you've won. There's no need to carve up his corpse."

"Ishida-kun! What are you thinking!" Orihime called from behind, scared out of her mind that her friend would dare to approach.

The Hollowfied Ichigo didn't react. Ulquiorra's eyes slanted to look towards the woman, his expression vacant and uncaring, though perhaps a little curious. Her image faded in and out of his view, and he half-wondered what she might do. For a split second, he thought the girl had actually looked back at him, stunned at his state.

"Can you hear me?" Ishida went on, "Kurosaki...stop! If you keep this up, you won't be human anymore! KUROSAKI!"

Suddenly, the beast turned on him. Zangetsu was plunged into his gut, and he hoisted the Quincy into the air, roaring at him before sending him flying at the ground.

"ISHIDA!" Orihime cried out, getting up from where she stood to rush towards him. She paused as she heard the haunting voice of the Hollow.

"Help..." Ichigo said from behind his mask, his voice quiet and ragged, "I'll...help...help you...I'll...help...you..."

The girl was in awe.

...He's become that thing because of me...what have I done!

"Kurosaki! STOP, KUROSAKI!" She yelled, seeing the Cero forming between the beast's horns, aimed right at her and her friend.

Out of nowhere, Ulquiorra rose up with a lance in hand, slicing off the left horn with ease. The girl was awestruck again, unsure what to do or what to think...even how to react. Her instincts were numb.

Ulquiorra fell back to the ground, grunting slightly at the pain. He and the others watched as the Hollow's mask shattered, revealing Ichigo's gaunt and confused face underneath. Ichigo collapsed to his knees, falling to his chest, seeming to be lifeless again.

"Kurosa...ki...?" Orihime whispered, but too scared to approach.

Ulquiorra rose back up, standing on one good leg, the other barely a stick in comparison. He, too, was stunned at the outcome. He watched as Orihime tried to reach out to the downed Shinigami, but not daring to get too close. His own expression changed to guilt, and he turned his back to her, My arm and leg and body are regenerating, but it's just a front. The innards he blew away won't come back. If I didn't finish him off with that blow...I'd be the one lying there, dead...

...And so would we... Orihime finished, thinking the same thing and looking at the Espada warily. She opened her mouth, wanting to say something, but was cut off as a strange noise caught everyone's attention.

Ulquiorra looked back to see the visage of the Hollow strip itself from Ichigo's body and swirl in the air above him like a funnel. Without another second passing, the funnel shot itself into the hole in Ichigo's chest. The onlookers were unsure what to think.

"The hole...closed itself?" Ishida asked, the pain in his gut overwhelming.

Impossible... Ulquiorra thought, his eyes wide in rare shock, No form of regeneration can fill in those wounds!

"Kuro...saki...?" Orihime asked, looking down on her friend with confused eyes.

Ichigo suddenly pushed himself up. He felt immediately for his chest, finding the hole wasn't there anymore, "...It's...gone? But..." He shook his head, his attention regained by his friend.

"Kurosaki...?"

"Inoue...are you okay?"

She nodded through her worry, "Are you?"

"...I...I think so..."

He was surprised to see past her, at the figure sitting behind her, and the sight gave rise to Ichigo's realization that Ishida had been hurt. Ichigo was horrified, "Ishida!"

"...You're finally...back to normal..." The Quincy grunted, smiling despite the pain.

"That wound...I did that?"

"Be strong, I'm going to pull it out slowly." Orihime warned, grasping Tensa Zangetsu with her shaking hands and doing just as she said she would. She erected Souten Kisshun right after.

"You can be quite the Hellion when you want to be." Came Ulquiorra's voice, standing not far off, looking a bit weaker than before, "Let's end this, Kurosaki Ichigo."

"...Ulquiorra..." The Shinigami said quietly, he and Orihime turning back to look at the disheveled Espada, "You look you've been through Hell... Am I the one that cut off your arm and leg?"

"Pick up your sword."

"Then cut off my arm and leg, too!"

"W-What!" Orihime cried, aghast and horrified, "You're lucky you're alive right now! Don't volunteer to die!"

"I realize now...this damage was all caused by me." Ichigo said, ignoring her, "No...not me...my Inner Hollow. I can put on a mask and get stronger, but it's only because of the demon living inside me...that's the trade-off I have to make. I guess it took advantage of the moment you put that hole in my chest and decided to come out. I had no control over it. So...if you want to settle his properly...it won't be fair unless we're in the same condition!"

Ulquiorra shrugged, "Fine...if that's how you want it."

His eyes suddenly went wide; his remaining wing bursting into dust behind him, his lance dissolving almost instantaneously. Ichigo was stunned and confused. The Espada grumbled, "...Hmph...That's it. I'm...done." He turned his eyes back to the Shinigami, "Kill me."

Ichigo was speechless.

"Hurry up, Shinigami. I don't have the strength left to walk...if you don't use this chance to deal the final blow, I'll just die on my own and it'll never be settled who won."

"...I refuse."

Ulquiorra's eyes were starting to return to their normal color, the streaks on his face thinning, and he looked at the Shinigami weakly, wondering only one thing, "What?"

"I said I won't do it." Ichigo grit his teeth, "THIS ISN'T HOW I WANTED TO WIN!" He clenched his fists, "I trained so hard so I could win on my own terms...and that thing overtook me anyway!"

Ulquiorra was a bit shocked, but he lowered his head again, "Idiot... Even in the end, you never do what I want." His eyes turned slightly to look at Orihime where he saw her slowly approaching, "...It's kind of funny, don't you think?"

She wasn't sure how to answer.

"After all this...I'm actually...starting to find you guys a little interesting." He raised his right hand, reaching out to her with his last strength, his fingers trembling, "Are you...afraid of...me?"

She looked at his hand, thinking back on all the things he'd said and done, all the things she'd seen him do...but her eyes softened and she looked at him squarely.

Sadly.

Tears formed again. Tears only for him...for the Espada that stood before her now, the clearly changed being that seemed so desperate, in his own way, for her reply.

"No...I'm not afraid."

Ulquiorra carefully listened to her answer, "...I see." A rare half-smile appeared on his cold face, and in spite of his condition, he seemed...warmer in that moment. She saw her own reflection in his eyes and realized those few simple words literally changed his world.

To his quiet surprise, he watched Orihime raise her own hand and reach back for him. His eyes were transfixed on her hand, her fingers, getting slightly closer. Before much else could be said or done...the once-proud Espada dissolved away; his ashes scattering into the wind.