I. Little Dead

Shiba Ganju hated this route, hated it with a passion every time Central called in and assigned him to it. Same fuckin' thing every time. He'd even invested in a whiteboard to save on paper for all the times he'd been stuck at the airport, feeling like a statue composed of equal parts awkward and stupid, holding up a sign scrawled with an unfamiliar name, although by now he hardly needed it -- he could recognize the type at fifty yards. The names and the faces were always different, but they all had those same damned eyes -- those starving-kicked-abandoned-in-a-box-and-desperate-puppy eyes that made his guts knot together with his throat, and then it was fifty kilometers of hollow stares out the window, at the floor, occasionally in the rearview mirror, where they always managed to catch him staring back with the same damned expression they'd probably been gettin' from everybody else who knew: you poor fuckin' bastard, I'm sorry, it doesn't mean dick but I'm sorry anyway. Sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry.

And despite himself, Ganju always was. He'd brought it up to his sister only once -- how much he hated this route. Kuukaku had punched him in the ear and told him to fuckin' grow a pair already and "Che, you think you hate it? How d'ya think they feel? And they're not gettin' paid ta feel it. Fare's fair, idiot, life ain't; so suck it up and drive."

And so Ganju sucked it up and drove, when today Kuukaku had given him the order again. He'd given his beloved taxi, Bonnie-chan, a once-over with a damp rag and filled the gas hog to the brim and made sure the sun-bleached red lettering of Shiba Cab Company on the side was mud-free and legible, because Kuukaku measured her advertising spending by the kilometer; he'd scribbled the name his sister had given him on the whiteboard and made good time to the airport and while he waited he hoped the traffic would be just as scarce on the way out again, because he didn't give a shit about the fare when so much unfair was silently screaming at him from the backseat; and he'd found the hollow eyes and shoved the lone suitcase into Bonnie-chan's trunk and hated the route for what felt like the thousandth time when his gaze flicked to the rearview mirror and sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry met that kicked-puppy stare.

This one was blue. The blue ones, he thought, were the worst.

And this boy seemed to take that title up a notch. He looked halfway to ghosthood himself, extra-pale, extra-thin, washed out and diluted with too many tears.

Ganju looked away, focused on the road he didn't really need to see anymore to follow. Almost there. Two more easy curves and then the gates like a ribcage, pearly white bars like bones. The place was like a fucking compound and he always had to push aside thoughts that echoed "kennel" and "strays" and "put to sleep."

His sweaty finger slipped once off the button for the intercom. A moment later, a bored voice crackled through the speaker.


"Shiba Cab Company. Dropping one off."

A beat, and then the obnoxious buzz of the opening gates. Ganju guided his Bonnie-chan up the drive that led to the large white house, past the stone-and-brass plaque that reminded him of a grave marker.

Pure Souls Foster Home for Exceptional Children

He always misread the first word as "poor."

Ganju put the cab in park but let the engine idle. He popped the trunk and got out and, after a minute, the kid followed suit. Ganju handed the boy his suitcase as one of the orphanage's massive front doors creaked open and the usual man -- brown hair, glasses, youngish -- stepped outside. The smile on his face was small and apologetic and utterly fuckin' insulting, Ganju thought, but bit his tongue. Without asking the price of the fare or otherwise deigning to acknowledge his existence, the man slipped the taxi driver a neatly folded wad of cash. Ganju, as well, didn't thank him for it, and pointedly counted it in front of him. It was more than enough. It was always more than enough, which somehow made Ganju feel. . .oily, instead of pleased, like he was taking a bribe to keep quiet or somethin'. But fare's fair. Right.

Wordlessly he stuffed the cash into his back pocket and got back into his cab. Only when he was halfway down the drive did he risk a second look in the rearview mirror. The man had his arm around the boy loosely, with consideration that felt almost calculated, and was guiding him towards the great house.

Good luck, Kira Izuru, Ganju thought as he passed thankfully back through the skeletal gates to freedom. You're gonna need it.

"Aizen Sousuke."

Izuru took the bespectacled man's outstretched hand automatically, and allowed his own to be shaken in a firm grip that he lacked the will to match.

"I wish we could have met under better circumstances, but it's a pleasure, nonetheless, to make your acquaintance. Kira Izuru -- am I pronouncing it correctly?"


"Good. I'm usually so bad with names. . .here, let me take your suitcase and I'll give you the grand tour. But first. . ." He cupped his free hand around his mouth and shouted in the vicinity of the front steps, "Renji, put out that cigarette! I can smell it from here."

Izuru watched silently as grumble of displeasure came from behind one of the columns that supported the piece of roof jutting out over the front steps. It was followed by a hastily exhaled plume of smoke and one of the most unusual heads Izuru had ever encountered peering out from behind the stone. Cherry-red hair pulled back in a high ponytail topped the scowling face of a boy who looked to be a little older than Izuru himself. A purple bandana folded into a makeshift headband obscured a pair of jagged, tribal-style tattoos on the boy's furrowed brow. Inky marks of a similar pattern zigzagged their way down his neck and disappeared briefly into the collar of his white t-shirt ("Red Pineapple," it read in English on the front; a fitting descriptor), only to emerge past the hems of his sleeves and end in sharp points near his elbows.

"How'd you know it was me?" the boy groused.

"It's always you, Renji."

"Che. So's this him?" Renji's dark gaze flickered over the new arrival appraisingly.

Aizen nodded. "Kira Izuru, meet Abarai Renji. You'll be rooming with him, and yes, I'm sorry to say he is always this polite."

Renji only flashed a cocky grin. "I've got charm and class."

"If by 'class' you mean 'time to work on that extra credit paper Tousen-sensei is so kindly allowing you to write so that you actually stand a chance of passing Civics this semester,' then yes, Renji, you do."

"Nngh. It's three more weeks before that's due!"

"Cutting it a bit close, then, aren't we?"


"Library, Abarai. Now. And I want you there until dinnertime. This paper is the last string I'm going to pull for you with Tousen-sensei. I will not allow his faith in me be abused by your laziness, and that aside, you've worked too hard and come too far to give up on yourself now."

"Jeez, ration the melodrama, would you, Sousuke? I ain't -- I'm not giving up on anything. I'm not stupid."

"No," Aizen readily agreed, "you're not. Now go and prove it, and later on you can show Kira-kun here the ropes of Pure Souls."

Renji bowed with exaggerated depth -- "Hai, Taichou!" -- then gave Izuru a sympathetic smile. "Be seeing you, roomie."

"He's a good kid," Aizen said, turning back to Izuru. "A little boisterous at times, but a good roommate."

Izuru studied the departing redhead's back, but said nothing. Aizen cleared his throat.

"Anyway, speaking of that room. . ."

He led Izuru into the large house, into a modest genkan painted white, the floor paneled with blond wood. The walls were lined with scuff marks and hastily discarded shoes. Izuru toed off his black Converse and nudged them into a corner, while Aizen traded his environmentally-friendly-looking sandals for a pair of well-worn beige slippers.

Two staircases stood on either side of the hall just beyond the genkan.

"Left one leads leads to the south wing, right to the north, the boys' rooms and girls' rooms, respectively," Aizen explained. "A good way to remember it at first is to think of the phrase, 'Women are always right.'" He winked. "Once you've settled in, if you want to visit a female friend in her room, the only rule of thumb we have around here is that the door is to remain open at all times. TV room," he gestured at the open doorway to his right, then to his left, "sitting room -- it doesn't see much use -- mess hall, kitchen, Momo-chan."

A small form that had been spelunking the enormous stainless steel refrigerator spun around, revealing itself to be a girl of about thirteen, with rounded cheeks and brown hair done up in a cloth-covered odango.

"Sousuke-san! You snuck up on me!" she gasped, blushing to match the plateful of watermelon wedges she held in quivering hands.

Aizen chuckled apologetically. "Sorry. Hinamori Momo, this is Kira Izuru, our newest."

The girl nodded sweetly. "Nice to meet you."

"Hey," Izuru mumbled.

Aizen raised an eyebrow at him. "Ah, you do speak. Good to know."


"Please, don't be -- I only meant that such is not always the case here. No one's going to judge you for being quiet at first, Kira-kun. Isn't that right, Momo-chan?"

"That's right, Sousuke-san!" Momo beamed.

Game room, Aizen's office, library ("Renji! Be still my heart, you're actually here!" "Blow me." "Pardon?" "I said, you know me! Study study study, work work work. . ."); finally, the tour ended in a reasonably spacious bedroom that was somehow divided starkly in two despite the absence of any visible lines. One half, presumably Izuru's, was spartan bare -- a twin-sized bed outfitted in navy blue, dresser, desk, and lamp -- while the other side was what Izuru would come to define as "Renji."

The bed was an unmade gash of black and white and red and, curiously, pink, in the form of a crumpled-up yukata. On one of the walls was a poster, not of the expected masturbatory fodder of a scantily clad woman in a pornographic pose, but rather, of all things, a baboon. The large scarlet heart of its ass wagged proudly in the air above a caption of "Kiss It."

Other, smaller pictures were taped up here and there, mostly images of popular manga heroes, save for one semi-anachronistic wall scroll depicting a battle scene in feudal Japan.

"You're free to personalize your side as much as you like, with the exception of paint," Aizen told him. "Allowances here are meager, but we do what we can to give everyone enough to let off some steam once in a while. Some of the older kids choose to work part-time for extra spending money. If that's ever what you want, just let either myself or one of your new teachers know, and we'll be glad to help you find something. The house works in conjunction with Seireitei Academy, where you'll be attending school, and from time to time some of the faculty will come and help out here, for mentoring or chaperoning, or just to seize control of the pool table or PlayStation for an evening. We're a pretty close-knit system.

"But I don't want to overwhelm you too much just yet -- we can discuss your enrollment and the specifics of your situation tomorrow, after you've settled in a bit. Most of the kids don't come home until around dinnertime, so you've got a couple of hours of quiet time to yourself. If you need anything, anything at all, I'll be in my office, or you can ask Renji or Momo. Any questions?"

Izuru shook his head.

Aizen smiled again, glasses flashing in the afternoon light that filtered yellow-gold through the windows. "All right, then.

"Welcome to Pure Souls, Kira-kun."

I remember Halloween
Dead cats hanging from poles
Little dead are out in droves
I remember Halloween
Brown leafed vertigo
Where skeletal life is known. . .
-- The Misfits, "Halloween"

A/N: What to say. . .this is my bit of fluff on the side, a self-indulgent something-or-other I'll be playing with in between bouts of working on stuff that actually stands a chance of making me money (which, to segue into a disclaimer, is not happening here, because Bleach belongs to Kubo Tite-sama). There will be angst & yaoi, het, inappropriate age gaps, various kinds of abuse, foul language, and possibly psychosis; pretty much your average rainbow of modern adolescent turmoil. Poor Kira-kun. Poor everyone.