This is my first attempt at a fan fiction, and as of yet, my only one. I'm keeping it that way on fan request. I never expected it to be as popular as it has turned out, and it's all thanks to my faithful readers.

Raven Angel is a retelling, if you will, of the original Bleach story line. As such, there is plenty of action scattered throughout, but romance as well. Ichigo X Rukia is the main focus, but there will be other pairings later on, some quite experimental. But enough of my babbling. Enjoy reading Bleach: The Raven Angel. Viewer discretion is advised. It's rated M for a reason, people.

UPDATE: This is the new version of this chapter. Feedback is much appreciated.

Note: I do not own Bleach.

Chapter 1: Same Old Story

Alone. This night, like any other over the past half-century, she was unequivocally alone. The dark room held no safety, no comfort. The blanket she held so tightly around her shoulders did nothing to alleviate her sadness and guilt. As she lay there, waiting desperately for the deliverance of peace sleep always brought to her, the solitude of the night seemed to consume her, like icy fingers grasping at her racing heart. At least, that was how she felt.

In truth, Rukia Kuchiki wasn't alone in this room, in this house even. A household of Kurosakis were all around her throughout it. Young Yuzu, the gentler of the twin girls, lay in the bed across from hers, blissfully sleeping, the teen's soft breathing the only distraction the Kuchiki heiress could take hold of to lessen her pain. It was times like these that tore at her the most.

Every single night for nearly fifty years now, it had been this way, the all-consuming agony she harbored. Ever since…Kaien. She had killed him. It was her sword driven through him that had ended his existence. Whether or not she had had a choice in the matter, it made no difference. She was his murderer. His blood was on her hands. The guilt of killing her Lieutenant, her mentor…her friend, it took everything she had not to sink into it completely. Her work was her only solace, diving into it relentlessly ever since that night, a fact that worried her superiors to no end. But they didn't truly understand, did they? They could not relate.

It almost seemed a welcome reprieve, this mission in Karakura Town, patrolling it for hollows and lost souls alike. A month away from prying eyes, from worried glances, from attempts at consolation from people who had no concept of what she went through. The night she arrived, that cold night where the moon shined so brightly above her…that was the night it all changed for her…

The day spent roaming the urban maze of this city for any sign of roaming souls, both kind and malevolent, Rukia had felt the weight of a new spiritual pressure, one not of a hollow and yet very powerful all the same. She'd tracked it the rest of the day and on through the middle of the night, the trail leading her to this unassuming house in the suburbs.

The unusual energy belonged to a certain orange-haired hero she would come to befriend. Ichigo Kurosaki, the hard-headed hot-tempered boy who would become her substitute, surprised her with a stiff kick to the ass upon her entry through his window, thinking she was a burglar. This human teenager could see her and actually touch her to top it off. No mere boy could do such a thing. How could it be so?

He would go on to save her life that very night when a hollow, drawn by his overwhelming spiritual pressure, leveled his house, injuring the raven-haired girl in the process. By successfully 'borrowing' her powers, Ichigo was able to easily put the beast down for good, the first of many times he would demonstrate not only his aptitude, but his honorable nature as well. Left weakened to the point of being not much more than an ordinary human soul, Rukia was left with no other alternative than to bunk down in the teenager's closet.

Rukia would spend the following weeks guiding Ichigo, training him to protect the souls of Karakura, taking over her duties when she could no longer be of aid herself. Each time she glimpsed his kindness, each show of strength and courage he made in adversity, she would come to not only respect him, but admire him more and more. The boy had no reason to do this, nothing to gain by doing this job. His only drive was his selfless need to protect those around him, and as often as they butted heads with one another, a deep friendship was forged between them, one Rukia could not have thought possible since her Lieutenant. With it, she could actually forget her pain, let it fade away in his comforting presence.

A month came and went, seemingly in the blink of an eye. Time seemed to flow so easily with Ichigo. There was no constant struggle, no fight to function as if nothing was wrong. The fact that she could not return to the Seretei with the current state of her powers almost didn't matter anymore. She was happy where she was. As the days continued to pass by, the pair only grew closer. Ichigo had even gone so far as to convince his father to let her stay with them (with a little help of Rukia's imaginative backstory, of course). Isshin, being the man he is, hardly needed convincing, overjoyed at accepting her into their home, as if she was the third daughter he'd never had. She had already been living there over a month, but he certainly didn't need to know that.

Now, three months after her arrival, Rukia lay here, in a bed of her own next to Yuzu. Her strength was still slow to return, but she had no reason to complain. More time with the stubborn Substitute Soul Reaper meant more time away from her pain. During the day, you could almost say she was normal, even better than normal. That, however, was only when she was with Ichigo. In the dead of night, he could not be around. At times like these, her agony came rushing back with a vengeance. She was at her weakest alone in the dark, unable to stave off that all too familiar depression. The girl prayed for sleep for hours on end, sleep that would only come after the torment of it all nearly threatened to swallow her up.

Rukia lay huddled under the sheets, hugging so tightly to herself as if to hold herself together. At her worst, her heart felt as though it would shatter with her slightest movement. She was so fragile, so weak, and she despised herself for it. The slow rhythm of the twin's breathing from across the room was all she could focus on. Counting each breath, one by one, was the only distraction she could derive. What choice did she have? Anything to tear her mind away was welcome.

After leaving the pain behind day after day, it was like a nightmare to sink so low when daylight left her. She was a burden, to herself and to Ichigo, especially Ichigo. Thanks to her weakened state, she saw herself as nothing more than a distraction to him. She could do nothing but watch while he fought. To make matters worse, it was sickening to find herself so damned depressed, so damned weak when she was all alone in the darkness. What would he think of her? What would Ichigo think if he saw her like this, so fucking weak?

'Wait' she told herself, becoming angry. 'Why should his opinion matter to me? Why should it matter to me what that idiot thinks?'

'Because he matters to you…' Rukia was surprised to be answered by the soft, musical voice of her dormant Zanpakto.

"What?" She whispered aloud.

'Because he matters to you' Sode no Shirayuki repeated simply. 'He is your friend, Dear Rukia, the first true friend you have let into your heart after so many years. He has provided you a home, and he stays by your side no matter what you say or do to him. Ichigo does not see you as weak, I can assure you. Who is to say he would if he were to see you like this?'

The ice maiden's words rang true for Rukia. It didn't make sense for her to worry, did it? Ichigo was her friend. She knew how truly caring he was underneath his façade. He was honest and noble to a fault, protecting those who could not do so themselves. That included her as much as anyone else. She had lost count how many times the orange-haired teenager had saved her life over the three months they'd spent together. Knowing who he is, knowing how he is, he would undoubtedly try to shield her from her own pain if he knew the truth. He would try to protect her, even from her own sadness.

'That is what he does for you every day, does he not?'

'…Yes…he does.' A small smile graced her lips. The spirit was right again, after all. Unwittingly, he was protecting her from her depression, from her pain. Every waking minute she spent around him, she was happy. Even if she was fighting with him, even if they were screaming at each other, she was content to be so. It was like he had her in his embrace, his arms sheltering her from any threat…

'Stop!' she commanded herself, shutting her eyes tight and shaking her head to rid herself of the image. 'I shouldn't be thinking like that. That's totally inappropriate!'

'What is so inappropriate about it?' Sode no Shirayuki asked, humor clear in her voice.

'I should not think of him that way' Rukia retorted, embarrassed. 'It is improper of me. I do not have feelings for Ichigo in such a manner. I shouldn't.'

She heard a sound of disapproval from the snowy princess. 'Do not lie to yourself, Rukia. You certainly cannot lie to me. It is written all over your face.'

'Wha…What do you mean?'

'You know what it is I mean' her Zanpakto continued. 'Imagine Young Ichigo cradling you in his arms. Tell me the thought does not please you. You cannot truthfully say that, now can you?'

Rukia scowled at the wall across from her, deep crimson spreading across her cheeks. As much as she wanted to deny it, however, she knew her partner was right. The image of his handsome face so close to hers as he held her tightly, his warmth all around her, brought her a sense of true content. She felt…peaceful and even safe. She felt this way all the time in his presence. He was like her rock, her safe haven, her fortress she could use to weather her storm.

'No…that's wrong…' she chided, the words seeming too cold. It didn't really fit into what he was to her.

'You know what to call him…' Sode no Shirayuki clued subtly. 'You know it as well as I. He is your protector, is he not? He is your hero.'

She hesitated a moment, running the words through her mind. It felt almost cliché to her, the simple words used so many times in so many ways, but at the same time, it was fitting.

"He's…my hero…" Rukia breathed the words silently. Those words on her lips brought a smile to her face. That was Ichigo to a 't'. He was her hero, simple as that. He would always be there for her, whenever she was in need of him. That was who he was.

Her grip on the covers softened, the tension leaving her like it hadn't been there in the first place. Slowly she closed her eyes, her peaceful smile never leaving her face as she felt sleep finally begin to take her. "He's my hero" she quietly repeated. The thought made her feel so secure at long last, safe enough to drift off without a care in the world. That night, she slept, more tranquil than she had been in years.

Thanks for reading. Reviews are always welcome, good or bad. ;)

Next time: A glimpse into the mind of Ichigo Kurosaki.