To anyone off the street, Ichigo Kurosaki was an open book: his bright orange hair and scowl warned everyone of his obvious delinquency, he likely had poor grades, no friends, and a lot of experience in fights.

The last part was true, but the boy was also bursting with secrets: he could see ghosts – or had been able to; he did in fact have more friends than he could probably name, or name correctly; his grades were good, his family life wasn't in shambles, he had spent quite some time in the past as a shinigami, a monster, and finally a war hero, though he didn't like the title; he was in love with his best friend.

He kept all these secrets, but the last one he kept the best. He'd kept it from himself until very recently, but coming to terms with it hadn't put him at ease any.

Ichigo had never been in love before, and genuinely thought it was something he just wasn't interested in. He never felt the need for a girlfriend, or longed to even test whether or not he liked a girl, because dates as a concept made him uncomfortable. Maybe he was scared, but he wasn't going to tell himself that.

And how did anyone know when they were in love in the first place? If everyone started off having never been in love, how could they tell when it happened? If you thought about them a lot and wanted to be with them again, was that love? Or did you just miss them, and love was going to be more intense? How did you know this wasn't as intense as it was going to get? Not having a frame of reference was a pain in the ass, but it did allow him to decide that he missed her instead.

He had missed her, his best friend. Missing someone was okay, he'd missed people before. His mother, for instance, and nobody would think it weird to miss someone important to you if you didn't see them anymore. Literally didn't see them anymore. He mused sometimes that she could be around without him realizing it, but he didn't like to think she'd not at least try to let him know.

So missing was definitely okay, and for the first few months, that's just what he decided he did – all he did. Merely missing her allowed him to think about her more freely, and often, than if it had been something more, which it certainly was not. The irony was lost on him that the rationalization he used to think about her was letting his mind do what his heart was telling him he wanted. Because he began to think about her more and more: first, only at home after school, but it wasn't long until thoughts of her pulled his attention away from classwork.

Except it was okay. He was only thinking about what would happen when they met again. If you missed someone, that's what you did, he knew. So he'd run it back and forth through his head. He plotted out all the things he'd say and predicted how she'd respond, and if he didn't like it he just backtracked a bit and retried it.

Then one time his imagination went to a very...odd place. He hugged her. Immediately he thought he'd accidentally taken it too far, but then, why should he feel guilty? Hugging was okay, especially if you hadn't seen the person in a whole year – and it had been that long. Yeah, he bet it was acceptable behaviour, so he let himself continue, because it was only platonic. Right?

With that settled, Ichigo was free to think about hugging his best friend all he liked, and again gave no thought to what he was slowly allowing himself to do. Sometimes they'd hug right off the bat, but then he'd be struck guilty by how manipulative he thought he was being to his dream-best friend and rewind it so that their friendly greeting ended on a hug instead. It started becoming very important to him where he placed the hug: if it was too soon, he might give the wrong impression (to himself? Or her? He guessed either.), but leave it until too late and it lost some of its meaning, didn't it? Like it was an afterthought. That wasn't okay for a friend behind a year's worth of missing.

Finding proper hypothetical hug placement became a sort of game, one he ended up liking. But then his dream-best friend threw him a major curve ball when she kissed him quickly on the cheek.

Jeez, was that okay? Why was he asking himself? It was her fault, she'd made the move. He mentally chided her forward actions instead of doing so to himself. If it was her fault, then he still only missed her. Being her friend, he let it slide the one time, then the next couple of times. She was clearly just overexcited. He couldn't really blame her.

Except soon it wouldn't stop ending that way, with a kiss. He never let it begin with one, that was just for couples, but it always ended with one. And he'd toy with it being as quick and shallow or as deep and passionate as he felt that day, and on some days he felt it should be the latter. Then some days turned into most days.

By roughly the year-and-a-half mark, thought of kissing his best friend had become commonplace along with with hugging and heartfelt hellos in his little hypotheticals. Again, it was okay, because every day, they were apart a day longer, and he knew what they said about absence (though he mentally replaced heart with friend). That being that, he could probably justify a peck on the cheek, at least. Maybe. Probably.

It wasn't until the day his friend Ishida had asked him if he had feelings for their mutual friend Inoue that things started getting weird. Of course, he quickly answered no, as simply as if he'd been asked if Byakuya Kuchiki was a party animal. He figured by the way the normally-composed and eloquent Ishida had reddened and stammered his way through the question that maybe he was interested in Inoue and was seeing if he'd be stepping on any toes. He wasn't.

After that, though, Ichigo's mind really went into overdrive about how easy it was to answer no. So you knew for sure when you didn't love someone, then. Maybe that was how you could tell if you did, by simple process of elimination. On a whim, he ticked off his female friends who easily came up no. Except there wasn't very many, and even after he'd lowered the criteria enough to shove in Rangiku-san and Yoruichi-san among others, he eventually had to come to his best friend: Rukia. He tried, hoping, for a simple no, but what his mind let him have was no?

That sucked.

He really didn't want to be in love with anybody, much less her. He was never the kind of person who could see himself being lovey-dovey, or blushing like an idiot, or putting rings on any finβ€”

Anyway, he wasn't like that. Right? He'd been through enough weird changes in his young life to know when they were happening, though, and unfortunately, he had to admit they might be again. Possibly.

So he rolled over and tried to ignore them, hoping they would stop. He accidentally caught view of his alarm clock beside his bed, and realized how late it was. How long he'd spent thinking about her tonight. Against his better judgement, he allowed himself to step back and tally up the amount of time in the last week, month, year-and-a-half, that he'd spent giving her his undivided mental attention...

Shit.

No. Was that right? There had to be other things he'd thought about in that time. Come to think of it, what had the last few months of school even been about? Were his grades slipping? Had he even done any homework? When was the last time he hung out with his friends?

It scared Ichigo that he couldn't answer any of these questions with any degree of certainty. The only thing he knew for sure was that he'd been thinking about Rukia the entire. Damn. Time. He asked himself the question again. No? He thought on it for a long time, maybe, until he'd exhausted his brain enough for sleep to creep up on him.

No?

Hours later, he awoke with a start, a nosebleed, and a full...head of questions. Why had he had a dream like that about her? Was that the first time? He couldn't be sure, actually. But it was definitely the most intense time yet.

When it was clear his body wasn't going to calm down by itself, he got up, ran to the washroom and blasted himself with a very cold shower. After he'd gotten out, dried off and dressed, he faced himself in the mirror. He looked deep into his own eyes and searched for a real answer.

No?

...Yes.

Shit.

So here he was, a little over two years since he'd last seen his best friend. Who he was in love with, goddammit! He still kind of hated it, but at least he could focus on school now. Admitting it had its advantages. So long as he didn't need to admit it to anyone else, he guessed he'd be fine. He found himself half-hoping (but fully-not-expecting) that it might even go away as long as he never saw her again. But he didn't really want that to happen, did he? He wasn't sure. All he could be sure of was that he had to get to Urahara-san's shop, for the first time in two years. He let out a breath, and kept walking.