Disclaimer: I don't own Bleach; Kubo Tite does.

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Prologue

"Oi! Wake up, you good-for-nothing..."

Ikkaku winced when something hard collided with the side of his head. Automatically ignoring his father's drunken insults, he sat up on his mattress, instinctively protecting his head with one arm while he rubbed his eyes with his other hand. He yawned, stretched and looked around him; it was still dark - his father had come home early - but his mother was already bustling around the cooking area, probably preparing something for the angry man to eat before he collapsed for the day.

Ikkaku groaned as his father pulled him by the back of his tunic, dragged him to the door and threw him out with the order to "make himself useful" and go and get some more firewood. He shivered as the chill of the very early morning crept through the old worn out material of his clothes. The ground seemed frozen under his bare feet, and he could see his breath turn into little puffs of vapor in front of his face each time he exhaled. It really was too early to be out there in the cold of the night, but he'd rather be there and away from the drunken man than inside the house with him. With a sigh, Ikkaku started towards the woods, figuring that working hard would at least keep him warm enough - and hopefully, by the time he came back, his father would have fallen asleep.

Ikkaku hated the man. He didn't want to, because after all he was his father and he was supposed to love him, or at least respect him, but really, deep inside, Ikkaku hated and despised him. He didn't say it out loud, not anymore, not since he had realized how much it hurt his mother to hear him say that. He pitied the woman, and he always tried his best to make her life easier, even if that meant lying to her. Unlike him, she was weak of body and mind, too cowardly to take a stance or dare even to begin defending herself against the beast of a man she had been married to, so Ikkaku figured it was his duty, as her oldest son, to protect her as best he could.

Not that there was much that he could actually do. He was just a kid after all; his father was so much bigger and taller than him, Ikkaku knew he'd never have a chance in a fight against him. But that didn't stop him from forcing himself in-between his parents whenever his father started beating his mother, but always, always, his mother would beg him to leave her, would promise him that everything would be all right in the end - even though they both knew it wouldn't -, would look at him with those big sad eyes of hers and give him that pitiful little smile and tell him how much she loved him and then push him out of her way, out of his father's way. And Ikkaku would go, he would do as she asked, even though he hated himself for it, because she was his mother and he wanted to please her, or at least not make her even sadder.

Father. Mother. Family. Ikkaku snorted, as he did every time one of the village elders tried to tell him that those words were important and that he had to respect them and what they designated. It enraged him to think that he was expected to honor and obey a despicable man just because this man was his father. His father! What did that mean? It just meant that his mother had been forced to marry this man, to sleep with him, she got pregnant and Ikkaku was born. That was all it meant, as far as Ikkaku was concerned, and it incensed him when people would get all pompous and start spouting dogmatic stuff about family and bonds and obligations and who-knew-what-else.

To him, family meant pain and captivity and humiliation. He couldn't wait to grow up and run away from this place, from this life. Ikkaku dreamt of the day when he would be big enough and strong enough to give his father a taste of his own medicine. He'd get a good job too, and he'd work hard, and one day he'd come and take his mother, his sisters and his little brother away to live with him, and the old man would be left to die all alone in that rickety old shack he dared call a house. Ikkaku would show them, he'd show them all, what it meant to be a real man! He would work hard instead of making other, weaker people work for him, he wouldn't drink all his money away, and he would never ever hit anyone else just because he was angry at himself.

He wouldn't be like his father, that much Ikkaku knew for sure. He wouldn't moan and complain all night long to anyone who would listen about how his life had been ruined by an arranged marriage to a worthless woman who'd given him worthless children he now had to feed and clothe. Instead, he would make his own life. He wouldn't get married if he didn't want to, and he definitely wouldn't have children unless he really wanted to. He would be strong, he would claim his freedom, and he would keep it.

Yes, one day he would be free, and nobody would ever imprison him again. That thought gave him hope, it gave him the fire to fight another day, to bide his time for yet another year. One day, he would be free, forever.