Across town, standing inside a phone booth, Orihime lifted the receiver and pressed it to her ear.

Listening to the dial tone, she peered outside through the glass, squinting into the sky. Cumulus cloudscape hung in the sky. Above Karakura, an airplane crept by.

There is no time limit. There will be time, there will be time.

For us.

:

Tatsuki was on her feet in an instant.

Sensing an angry outburst, Ochi-sensei held out a hand. "We'll talk about this later." Tatsuki hesitantly sat down, fists curling. Her intense reaction did not come out as a surprise to those who knew the dark-haired girl. Tatsuki always worried about Orihime; her best friend was peculiar, led a peculiar lifestyle, and possessed peculiar common sense. She was also clumsy and it frequently got her into trouble but Tatsuki had learned to deal with it.

This time, however, Tatsuki was downright alarmed. What could have happened? Something big she was sure.

Waiting for the first morning break was a torture. What did she mean by Orihime being no longer a student of Karakura High School? Different thoughts cycled through Ichigo's mind, none of which made sense. He thought hard, clutching the edge of his desk with a crushing grip. Nothing concrete came into mind. What was going on? Where are you? He stared outside the window, eyebrows furrowed deeply. In the distance, an airplane cut across the clouds.

Thirty minutes later, Ichigo, Tatsuki, Sado and Uryuu gathered outside in the hallway, facing Ochi-sensei.

"Is it because of her financial background?" demanded Tatsuki, her fists shaking at her sides. Her gut told her this was different from what had happened months ago, and it gave her hope that Orihime was here, in this world.

"No. She completed her requirements, took her records and left."

Their eyes widened.

"But why?" insisted Tatsuki, confused. "She never said a word to me!"

"Obviously," said the teacher with a sigh. A wounded look passed over Tatsuki's face. "But what I said is true. Inoue is not going to continue her secondary education here. She didn't mention where she planned to transfer but she explained that something important came up and she needed to be somewhere as soon as possible. Seeing there's nothing wrong with her appeal to take the finals a week earlier than scheduled, the school board granted her request and she passed all of them. Excellently, if I may add."

"This is not making any sense." Ichigo finally spoke in a low voice after his long stony silence.

They glanced over at him; he was staring right ahead, eyebrows furrowed above narrowed amber eyes. He looked upset, trying to conceal his distress by scowling. And when he seemed unable to bear it anymore, he turned and took off.

In minutes, Ichigo was out in the courtyard, turned and bolted down a street. He felt the road closing in on him. He was breathless, not because of running. When did Karakura become so stifling? He felt an invisible force push him backward, preventing him from reaching his destination.

Then an image of a smiling face floated inside his head. A kiss, honey-colored eyes reflecting the sunset, her delicate hand on top of his. Her lips curling in a sweet smile. Was it a memory, a hallucination?

Kurosaki-kun.

He ran faster.

Orihime's apartment building came into view. Ichigo took the stairs, two at a time, found her door and banged his fist against the wood. The hinges creaked under the blows.

"Inoue!" he shouted.

There was no answer. He knocked again, three times, four times, five times. No answer came. He tried the knob. It was locked. He rattled it until it gave away. Ichigo then shoved the door open; it hit the wall with a loud crash.

Inside was a strange silence. A quick inspection told him that the apartment was empty. Her brother's picture was gone from its usual place. The stuff toys on the shelf, on the other hand, were still there. Books, comics, and magazines were piled neatly. The colorful fridge magnets, pictures, stickers, and reminders on the small fridge were set in a straight row. Garbage bags, thrown away. Everything was clean and orderly. Gone was the lively chaos. He was trapped somewhere else, an alternate universe, a different time. Where are you, where are you, where are you.

Tatsuki, Ishida and Sado turned up. Tatsuki started to search the place frantically for her redheaded best friend. Ishida knew it was futile, but did not stop her. Instead, he focused on their orange-haired friend.

Ichigo was staring at the spot where he kissed her, where he held her. The emptiness was gnawing at his insides. Pulling, twisting. He felt weak, but this kind of powerlessness was not a mere absence of physical and spiritual prowess. Squinting into the emptiness, he was desperate to find a trace of her: the scent of tea, wasabi, sweet potatoes; the sound of clinking china or opened faucet behind the bathroom door; messy pile of manga and books or scattered color pencils, clips and highlighters.

For a moment, he thought he saw her, watching her favorite show. She was laughing, her hair falling down her back to the floor. Smiling, she then got up and approached him until they were face to face. He felt a soft touch on his shoulder, leaving a mark on his skin, in his soul.

Then she vanished, and all he saw and felt was the emptiness she left behind. With bitterness, he realized people can fall in love with ghosts, with emptiness created by an absence of a person.

A ringer ripped in the air, startling them.

It took a few seconds for Tatsuki to realize that it was her phone's ringing tone. With a shaking hand, she took it from her pocket and checked the caller ID. The number flashing on the screen was unfamiliar.

"Hello," said Tatsuki in a hollow tone. A pause, then:

"Orihime!"

Heads turned toward a frantic Tatsuki. "Where are you? Are you okay? What happened? We're so worried—" She frowned. "What? What do you mean you can't tell me?" Her voice sounded wounded. "What are you talking about? What! No. No. Where are you? Orihime—" She paused to listen, eyebrows furrowing, then she scrunched her face up, looking indecisive, and glanced over at Ichigo, who looked ready to combust on the spot or break something. His eyes were alive with something fierce and painful.

She sighed, "Okay." Tatsuki held the phone out to Ichigo. Without a word, Ichigo took it and marched down the hallway, entered her room and sat down on her bed. In here, there were traces of her presence. He could smell her scent. It was not good enough, though.

"Inoue." He could not recognize his own voice.

"Kurosaki-kun."

Something in his body lurched. Involuntarily, his hand shot up to clutch at his chest, as though he was about to catch himself.

Composed, he now gripped his knee hard with the same hand. "Where are you?" He was surprised how calm his voice was. "Tell me. I'll pick you up."

A long silence came on the other end of the phone.

Then, a sigh and her soft voice saying, "Please don't get mad."

Ichigo ran a hand through his hair, messing it up more, feeling as though he'd burst or break or both.

"I'm sorry. I really wanted to tell you and say goodbye properly but… I can't. I'm afraid if I told you face to face…" She paused, took a shaky breath and continued softly. "I can't say goodbye to you in person. It'd be so painful. I don't think I can bear it."

"Inoue, I don't understand. We—" He stopped, his voice failing him. "We were—" Another pause. Frustrated with his ineloquence, he gripped a fistful of his hair.

He cared for her deeply, the weight of his feelings both crushing and liberating, but what about her? Of course, she worried about him all the time but she worried about everyone. She loved all of her friends dearly; he was not a special case. What about those kisses? Did they matter to her as much as they did to him? Did she give him liberties because he was her friend and she did not want to hurt his feelings? He felt a deep stab in his chest at the last thought. Was that the case? Had he taken advantage of her kindness? Fuck. What a horrible friend he was.

If she felt something special about him, she would not do this; she would not disappear like this. What she felt about him was completely different from what he felt for her. At this realization, his lungs filled with cramping pain. He was strong, but this feeling of hopelessness was something he could not fight. Nevertheless, what he felt was not important. He can deal with it. What he needed now was to know where to find her. He needed to be where she was.

"Where are you?"

She did not answer. It was frustrating.

"Why are you doing this? Do you hate me for something I did? Tell me what it is and I'll apologize!"

"Y-You did nothing wrong, Kurosaki-kun! I—"

"Make me understand why you're walking away from me!"

There was a gasp. In his pain, he did not notice.

"I'm fucking losing my mind. Just tell me. Say something. Say anything."

"I love you."

His mouth hung open in shock, his heart freezing for a second before beating so fast that it hurt. He felt like he was about to faint.

"This… this is not how I want to tell you. But I don't want you to think that you're not important to me and that those moments we shared don't matter to me. I want, I want so much to stay but I have something I must do. It's something that I have decided on my own."

Ichigo swallowed, a bright red hue coloring his cheeks and the back of his ears.

"I know even if I told you not to worry, you'll still worry about me but I still want to ask you: please don't worry. I'll be alright. I can't tell you where I'm going to be but I'll be safe and I'll take care of myself because I want to see you again and tell you in person that I…" Her words trailed off.

She took a deep breath.

"Kurosaki-kun, I understand if you're angry—"

"I'm not." Ichigo interrupted her. Not knowing what else to say, he hung his head, resting his arms on his thighs and gripping the phone tightly. "Inoue, I—" He stopped himself and took a breath. Her faint scent soothed his nerves and cleared his head. "Come back soon. If you don't, I'll find you. I don't know where I'll start but I'll definitely find you. Promise me."

"I promise."

They were suppressed but he could still hear the soft sniffles on the other line and it made the dull ache in his chest throb acutely.

Ichigo bowed his head again, swallowing with difficulty and pressed the heel of his free hand to his eye.

"Don't cry… Orihime."

She gasped and when she spoke, he figured she was crying again. "O-Oh, I-I'm n-not crying. It's my allergies…"

"You don't have allergies."

He heard her sniffle and take a deep, shaky breath.

"When we meet again, I'll give you my answer."

"W-What answer— Oh. I… Okay."

"I want to see your face while I tell you."

"U-Un…" A pause. Then: "I-I have to go."

He felt breathless again. "Orihime…"

"Thank you, Kurosaki-kun."

Why did it, a thank you, sound a lot sadder than a good bye?

Still resting his arms on his knees, Ichigo kept the cell phone pressed to his ear, unwilling to let go, listening to the dial tone, waiting.

Nothing.

Ichigo pressed his free hand to his eyes.

The silence was suffocating and painful and heavy with memories, emptiness, her voice, her smiles, her taste, her scent. He wanted to break away, to be where she was, right now, this moment, this minute, this second. But he was here and she was somewhere, alone. The distance was immeasurable and cruel.

But under the same sky, someday, one day, there will be time, there will be time.

:

The truth is: the world, in all its chaos, can come up with many coincidences, chances, opportunities. One moment, one instant, one minute, one second, one nanosecond links one active event to the next event.

We are infinite.

:::

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:::

April.

I want to see you. I need to see you. Sometimes I fear what we had was just a dream.

Outside, the cherry blossom trees were blooming. It was eight-thirty in the morning.

"Kurosaki."

The pen stopped. He closed the notebook, looked up and raised a hand.

:

July.

"What do you mean 'Inoue is not here'?" demanded Rukia. Behind her, Renji was frowning, looking confused.

He gave her a flat look, but Rukia could read an emotion in his eyes, poorly hidden. "She left."

"Where did she go?"

"She didn't say."

She wore a look of bewilderment before scowling, the expression ineffectively hiding her worry. "You don't know where she is?" She saw him flinch as though she had struck him. "You let her go without even asking where she's going."

"Kuchiki-san," Ishida interrupted, noticing the look in Ichigo's eyes. "It's not what you think."

"Do you think," Ichigo began coldly, "I'll let her leave and go to a place where I could not protect her?"

"Kuchiki," Sado said, stopping Rukia before she could respond. "Stop, please."

She frowned at Sado. Ichigo glowered and decided to leave, shutting the door firmly behind him.

In silence, they stared at the door.

"What happened?" asked Rukia afterwards.

Ishida told her.

:

October.

"Well, how was college?" asked Tatsuki, idly spooning her parfait. The café was crowded, jazz music floating from overhead speakers.

He shrugged. "The usual."

Ishida adjusted his glasses. "I still find it hard to believe you took journalism."

He looked up from his coffee and smirked. "I'm still surprised you didn't take fashion design."

Tatsuki snickered. Sado looked on, smiling, serene as always while Ishida huffed.

:

June.

Rukia waited for his reaction, anxiety twisting her features.

"I'm sorry," she sighed.

He did not reply. But Rukia knew he was furious and yet… Why aren't you yelling? This is not like you. She wanted to say, but decided not to. Perhaps, he had matured. A lot could happen in a year. Or maybe, Orihime's absence had taught him patience. On waiting, patience is essential.

She heard him take a deep breath. He had spun around, his back to her, hiding his expression.

"Ichigo—"

"I'm fine." He sat down on the edge of his bed. "I just need some time alone."

With a nod, she said, "Sure," and left through the window. Renji arched an eyebrow at her which she replied with a shake of her head. "Let's give him time and space," she murmured.

"I found out from my captain about Inoue's agreement with Soul Society."

"Agreement?"

"Yes. You remembered what Hitsugaya-taichou told us before you went to rescue her?"

"About her powers being dangerous."

"And that her powers will be stripped off of her. Instead of doing that, they decided to implement a different course of action. They accepted Inoue's offer."

"What did she offer?"

"You will not like this."

"Doesn't matter. She still left. What is it?"

"According to Ukitake-taichou, Inoue offered to leave Karakura."

"What! This is her home! Why would she—"

"Because she doesn't want you to protect her anymore."

He had looked at her then and Rukia regretted what she had said almost immediately. She figured he'd prefer being struck by a weapon than by those words.

He felt a strong emotion fill his lungs, overwhelming him. He needed to let it out. Deciding to hit the gym to release some steam, he stood and prepared his things.

That night, he realized that he needed a new notebook. Bending down, he rummaged inside the bottom drawer and found an empty notebook.

He began, again.

Dear Orihime,

:

September.

The lecture went on.

She looked outside the window, staring at the clouds, admiring the weather.

"I suppose. We're under the same sky after all."

Idly, she drew strawberries and moons in the margins of her notebook. A broad sword with billowing bandage attached to its hilt, a mask, one and five. Ichigo.

She smiled. Every ending has a new beginning.

The bell rang.

:

December.

He looked outside his window, watching the snowfall.

The distance between us is making me insane. Waiting for you is the most painful thing that I've ever done. But there is nothing left for me to do but wait.

She looked up as fine snow began to fall. Catching a couple of them, she watched them thaw.

"Merry Christmas, Kurosaki-kun," she whispered.

Please wait for a little longer. I'll be stronger, strong enough to stand beside you, so much stronger to protect you and our friends. It's a long wait but it'll be worth it.

Until then, I'll go forward. And I hope you do the same.

:

February.

He stared at the broad rectangular box and pink, small teddy bear being presented to him.

"What?" His scowl deepened in confusion.

The girl blushed. "I-I made this for you."

He did not know what to do. The girl fidgeted, put the box and toy on his desk and left before he could ask her what they were for. Figuring Yuzu would like the stuffed bear, he decided to keep it to give it to her when he got home.

Later, he met his friends at a café and gave Kiego the chocolates.

"Freebies!" yelled Kiego tearfully, latching on the box. "Is this for real? Ichigo giving me chocolates?"

"They're not from me. A girl from school gave them to me. It feels like a waste to throw those stuffs so I'm going to give them to you. My sisters already gave me plenty to last me for months."

:

May.

She looked up to the clear sky, big cumulus clouds hanging over the sea. On her lap were five postcards, addressed to five different people.

Sea-scented breeze blew, tossing one postcard away from the bunch. It landed on the vacant space next to her. Written on it were:

Honest hearts produce honest actions.

After piling the postcards together, she stood, took a deep breath, and lifted her arms in front of her.

"Shiten…"

:

November.

He stared at the postcard Tatsuki had given him three months ago.

"They came yesterday in the mail." She had said.

He never grew tired of reading the same lines over and over again.

Honest hearts produce honest actions.

Yours is pure and sincere. To me, that's one of the reasons why you're so strong.

There was no return address. On the other side, however, was a picture of the star-shaped former fortress Goryokaku.

:

January.

"Ahhhh my son is graduating from college! I am impressed! Commencing Kurosaki Super Warm Group Hug in one, two, thr—!"

Without looking, he raised his fist.

"Omph!" Isshin clutched his sore face.

"Daddy!"

"Way to go, Ichi-nii."

He smirked.

:

March.

"Congratulations, Inoue. You made it to the top five. Good job."

Blushing but pleased nonetheless, she said, "Thank you."

She left the office, smiling.

"Hey, Inoue."

She looked over her shoulder. "Himura-san."

"I heard about your achievement. Congrats." He said.

"Thank you."

"You deserved it. Third place?"

She smiled. "Second place, actually."

"That's great. Wanna celebrate?"

"I'm sorry, I can't. I have work."

"I see."

"But thank you for the offer. That was very kind."

She turned to leave and hardly took a step when Himura spoke again.

"Wait."

She spun slowly to face him.

"You'll probably say no but I still want to try."

"Himura-san…"

"Will you go out with me?"

She took a minute to assemble her words together. "My heart is already spoken for."

They lapsed into a silence.

"For a second there, I thought you're going to say yes." He grinned. "I asked you out at least four times since our freshman year. You never said yes. You always answered either being busy with your part-time work or completing your extra projects."

"I'm sorry, Himura-san."

"Don't be. You never led me on. It was I who believed I had a chance. I suppose this guy is too perfect to be forgotten and replaced."

She smiled gently. "He's not perfect. But he's everything to me."

Eight hundred thirty kilometers away, Ichigo was reading the seventeenth postcard she had sent.

I hope you don't mind me sending postcards every now and then. I thought this will make you worry less about me. I want to let you know that I'm fine. I will not lie and say I don't get lonely. Sometimes I do and when it becomes unbearable, I just tell myself that I'm just on a very long vacation.

"A very long vacation," he repeated. With a small smile, he rubbed the pad of his thumb over the area where she wrote her name.

:

The fifth April.

The fifth spring, the last spring, the first spring.

Every ending has a new beginning.

Under the same sky, there will be time, there will be time.

He joined the rest of the pedestrians. Earphone in each ear, he walked, eyes gazing straight ahead. His hair, as usual, was unkempt, bright orange under the glare of sunlight.

In his pocket, his cell phone vibrated. Incoming call.

He paused at the intersection, the traffic light flashing green for vehicles, red for pedestrians. He took his vibrating phone from his pocket and flipped it open; an unknown number was flashing on the screen. He took off one of the earphones and dropped it to his chest. News from the front, news from the front, we're living in troubled times!

He let it ring, debating internally whether to take it or reject it. In the end, thinking it might be an emergency, he pressed the accept button. At the same time, the traffic light turned red. Vehicles stopped and pedestrians rushed past him to cross the street.

"Hello."

His scowl deepened when no answer came. For three seconds, he waited. One, two, three. He then opened his mouth to demand a reply when a sigh came and a word.

One word.

In one word, she turned over his world.

:

"Kurosaki-kun."


disclaimer. Bleach © Kubo
title.
to all my dreams, the answer
summary.
In one word, she turned over his world.
notes.
the end! …perhaps? :] thanks very very much for reading and for your lovely comments and encouragement! (^x^) AND OH: Honest hearts produce honest actions belongs to B. Young