Disclaimer: Kubo owns. I only play. You do not sue.
Summary: In which there is a distance that can't be crossed even if you travel forever, so Ichigo picks up the phone.
Note: Written for Short Precarious Anecdote Month. Also for Ishida's birthday (November 6, 2012).
"What's an English adverb that means to do something in a senseless, stupid, or foolish way?"
"Are you trying to insult me again, Kurosaki? I assure you trying to do it in your terrible English isn't going to be any more effective than when you do it normally."
"I'm just doing a crossword puzzle."
"Oh. Try ridiculously."
"How many letters?"
"Is the last letter Y?"
"Not sure, but the second last letter is L and the third one is F."
A long pause. "Try daftly."
DAFTLY, Ichigo wrote. "Thanks, Ishida."
"A word of that level shouldn't be a problem for you in the first place. Was that all?"
"Oh, sorry, were you busy? My bad."
"It's not that I'm busy." Ishida's voice wavered. "It's-- Hearing your voice is--"
"It's okay," Ichigo said, cradling the phone between his shoulder and his ear. It made him feel somehow closer to Ishida. "I get it. Do you want me to stop calling you?"
"No, don't do that." The speed of Ishida's answer made Ichigo smile for days.
The dangai fell as collateral damage in the conclusion of the Thousand Year Blood War between Soul Society and the Quincy order. Its absence resulted in all living souls that had come to Soul Society through the dangai becoming trapped there.
Regular Shinigami, Hollows, and purified spirits could still move between worlds unimpeded. As for Ichigo and Urahara, they were stuck until the dangai was restored. When they'd tried to cross through a senkaimon, they'd been thrown back like tennis balls.
Chad and Inoue had returned home before the dangai's collapse. When they tried to come back to Soul Society, the senkaimon Rukia had opened had rejected them too.
Mayuri supposed that part of the dangai's function must have been to facilitate the entry of living souls into the realms of the dead for reasons known only to the King.
"The dangai isn't like a building," Urahara had told him. "We can do as much as we can to restore it, but parts of it need to regenerate on their own."
Ichigo entered the Thirteenth Division as a temporary member. He trained with them, ate with them, partied with them. It wasn't a bad time; for the first time in years no one he cared about was in dangers. It just wasn't the life he had expected.
He graduated from high school thanks to Urahara using his shop employees to smuggle tests and homework assignments out of Karakura High. The Shinigami representatives brought those into Soul Society and then carried them back again when Ichigo was done with them, and then Kon submitted them at school.
He missed his sisters, his dad, his friends. He missed Ishida. He could talk to them all on the phone Urahara had developed, but voices weren't people.
Besides, the phone could only call out; no one could call him.
Regaining his powers had been worth all the pain -- he'd been able to help restore the life-soul balance, to save Soul Society from destruction, to restore the Quincy order, who, though unable to return to the world of the living, now oversaw Hueco Mundo.
But the more time passed, the more often he thought that he could trade all of that for just one breath of Karakura Town air.
I'll wait for you. So don't do anything stupid and listen to Urahara-san.
Ishida had said that to him, but how could he wait? Ishida was going to university. He would meet lots of new people, and though a loner like him would probably not make a bunch of new friends easily, someone would notice him the same way Ichigo noticed him. Someone would. How could Ichigo ask Ishida to wait?
They'd been meeting in secret for nine months before the Quincy attacked Soul Society. Nobody knew. They'd never talked about the future, or even about how they felt for each other. Ichigo knew how he felt but he hadn't wanted to burden Ishida with it -- they had to be realistic, after all. Ishida was going to become a doctor, and Ichigo would probably do the same: there would be appearances to keep up.
He wouldn't make it difficult for Ishida to break things off cleanly.
"Plural for stroke of a bird's wings in flight? Nine letters."
"Wingbeat. No, plural? Wingbeats."
"W-I-N-G-B-E-A-T-S. Oh good, it fits."
"Did you really call me just to help you solve another crossword puzzle?"
Metallic buzzing somewhere in the ether between them. Ichigo tried to picture Ishida: was he in bed? At the orderly desk in the hospital? Stopped in the midst of an errand? He never complained about where Ichigo's calls reached him, only about the reasons for those calls.
"Would that be bad?" he asked. "Do I need a better reason?"
"I-- guess not? Though I still find it hard to believe that nobody in Soul Society speaks English."
"I wanted to hear your voice."
"W-what's so special about my voice?"
"It's the next best thing to your face. I really miss you, Uryuu."
"Don't call me that."
Ichigo's body felt like a pillar of ice. Is this the day he tells me he's stopped waiting? "Why?"
"I don't want to hear it when we're-- you know."
"What?" We're breaking up? We're practically strangers by now?
Ishida cleared his throat. "You know. Not in the middle of doing it."
Ichigo's relief was so profound that his words became a torrent. "Why, does it make you remember things from when we last did it? Does it make you hot? Do you finally want to try phone sex?"
"I don't have to listen to this, Kurosaki; I'm busy, so don't call me if you're just going to bully me." Click.
Ichigo looked at the book of crossword puzzles open in front of him. Each solution had come from a phone call. Ishida thought Ichigo only called when he found a very difficult word; Ichigo let him think that.
The book's bright yellow cover announced its difficulty as HARD in bold black letters. One puzzle per page, average of forty words down, forty across, and he'd only filled ten pages so far. Eight hundred or so words, about one per day -- sometimes more.
Either way, two years had passed.
"Not making much progress on that puzzle book, are you, Kurosaki-san?" Urahara asked, walking into the room.
"Why, do you have another one lying around for when I'm done?"
Urahara smiled. "You won't be needing another one."
Ichigo's heart beat faster. "Does that mean what I think it means?"
"The probability that you're thinking about a hippopotamus in a bright green tutu is very low, so I'd say there is a fair chance--"
"Urahara-san, I'm really kind of in a hurry, so just tell me. Please?"
"All right, all right, no need to go into battle mode, Kurosaki-san. The final layer of the dangai has been restored. I've personally confirmed that it's safe, so you can go back to the human world any time."
Ichigo stood outside Ishida's apartment, hesitating.
He had come back to Karakura Town two hours ago, kicked Kon out of his body, hugged his sisters and shook his old man's hand. There wasn't much to catch up on -- since they talked on the phone every week anyway -- so once they'd eaten dinner, he'd made an excuse to leave and sprinted to Ishida's place.
It felt really strange not to be able to use shunpo whenever he wanted.
Should he have called first? Ishida hadn't liked unannounced visits before they'd been separated, always mumbling something about neighbours -- as if anyone would think twice about a guy visiting another guy's apartment, unless they had noisy sex, which Ichigo and Ishida didn't.
I guess he'll just have to forgive me this time, Ichigo decided and rang the doorbell.
Footsteps approached from inside, and Ichigo began to sweat even harder -- the run had exhausted him; stupid Kon hadn't bothered keeping him in shape -- as his heartbeat quickened to a feverish rate.
"What are you doing here?" Ishida asked, peering through a crack in the door. "Is something the matter?"
Ichigo blinked. He had been so excited that for a few seconds his mind didn't even register the cold indifference in Ishida's eyes. When it did, it was as though someone had punched him in the throat; for a few agonising seconds, he couldn't speak.
Ishida sighed with impatience. "Well?"
"I-- I'm sorry?" Ichigo stammered. "I should have called ahead. I, uh. I'll see you later. I guess."
His body felt numb and unresponsive as he walked away, his mind rushing to make sense of what had just happened. Could it be that he hadn't been talking to Ishida all these years? Had Urahara known that Ishida had moved on and... fabricated an Ishida for Ichigo to talk to? But that made no sense. Urahara didn't know what they were to each other. No one knew.
"Wait! Y-your voice. You... You aren't Kon, are you?"
The gnawing, desperate ache in his chest dissipating, Ichigo turned around. "Why would Kon visit you, Ishida? It's me."
"Oh, I really screwed that up," Ishida said without looking at him. "I-- I just got so used to knowing that if I happened to see you around town, it wasn't you."
Am I just a voice in your ear now, Ishida? Is that what you're trying to tell me?
Ishida finally made eye contact. "Come in, let's not talk out here."
He didn't glance around to see if anyone was watching, the way he always used to do in the past.
"I love you," Ishida said, barely waiting for the door to close behind Ichigo.
Ichigo gaped at him. "Me too-- wait, Ishida, why'd you have to say that? You can't risk your future over someone like--"
"I don't care about that. If you break up with me over something as daft as appearances or whatever it is you've been thinking about on your own, I'll never forgive you."
"I'm not going to break up with you for any reason," Ichigo said.
Ishida hugged him with awkward abruptness, slipping his hands up under Ichigo's arms, pressing his forehead against Ichigo's shoulder. "I love you," he mumbled. "Ichigo."
Ichigo put his arms around Ishida's shoulders and closed his eyes. "I love you too, Uryuu. And now I really want to kiss you."
"I'm sorry," Ishida said with a sigh as he pulled back. "It's just, every time I look at you I think you're Kon, and that's--"
"It's okay," Ichigo said, releasing him. "I can wait. Or we could blindfold you."
Ishida blushed. "Pervert. Wait here; I'll make some tea."
While Ishida was in the kitchen, Ichigo took the opportunity to look around, but the only thing that had changed in this tiny room were the books on the study shelf: Forensic DNA Typing, Genome Analysis, Digital Imaging in Cytopathology, Human Molecular Genetics... not the standard pre-med stuff he'd expected to see. Was that why Ishida said he didn't care about appearances? He'd given up on a medical career? Because of me?
In the middle of Ishida's desk lay a leather-bound black journal open to a new page. At the top of that page, wingbeats was written in English with Ishida's precise, economical style. Curious, Ichigo flipped back through the journal, finding pages and pages of words, all of them in English, all of them familiar.
The back of the journal contained perfect copies of the crossword puzzles Ichigo had been "solving" with their conversations. On the first puzzle, the daft part of daftly was circled in red.