Friendship is…a strange thing. There’s usually no formal beginning and, even less often, a formal end. It can build or dissolve over time; all on its own, it will transform from a vague notion to an established fact and whether you like it or not, it might unravel in imperceptible increments until there’s nothing left. Somewhere in the midst of those extremes, things happen–many, many things; highs and lows, progressions and plateaus–all kinds of things. But if you ask, most people can’t even remember the first time they called someone their friend–when they think back on it, it seems like it was always that way.
Yamaguchi doesn’t remember either, but he thinks it’s most likely because whatever is/was between he and Tsukishima was only ever described as such by other people. It was definitely never said by Tsukishima–not that Yamaguchi ever heard–and not because it was beneath Tsukishima or it wasn’t true, it’s just that acknowledging such a commitment–not to mention the emotions–was sometimes beyond him. Oh, and that’s not because he doesn’t understand it…to some degree, it’s just because Tsukishima thinks it’s bothersome and he usually has no immediate use for emotions beyond manipulating other people’s. And wow, this is really not making Tsukishima look good. But he’s not a bad guy…well, he’s not that bad. Ah, but that’s not really the point here. The point is friendship is a strange thing and being without a definitive beginning or end can leave things in between a bit confusing.
For Yamaguchi, the confusion settled about him when he questioned what he felt for Tsukishima. There was definitely admiration and some envy, that was how it all started, so there was really no need to question those, but one day there was something else. One day right before they graduated from junior high he noticed that a new, or maybe not exactly new, but an unregistered feeling was floating around his heart. It wasn’t until it started crowding his thoughts that he figured he should do something about it. And like everything else, he went straight to Tsukishima.
Clarity. That’s what he expected from a Tsukishima answer, but instead, he walked away confused, maybe 10 times more confused than he was to begin with.
“What you’re describing sounds like love and if it is, I’d rather not continue the conversation,” is what Tsukishima had said.
Love. The word lodged itself in Yamaguchi’s throat like a fish bone. Try as he might, he couldn’t get it out. In his head, all the other thoughts parted like the Red Sea to give it room to breathe–no more crowding. But that can’t be right…right? He’s not perfect, but Tsukishima’s rarely wrong, so…maybe it is? But…no. This unknown feeling surged most in Tsukishima’s presence, so it couldn’t be…could it?
The truth? It was and Yamaguchi already knew. Some time shortly before graduation, he admitted it to himself. He understood that if this was really all a surprise to him, he never would have presented it so vaguely to Tsukishima. No names or even generic descriptions, just the basic structure of the situation, enough that he could get his point across without arousing suspicion.
Most would describe them as best friends, though they were really each other’s only friend for a while. There were acquaintances, sure, and teammates, but, in all honesty, they only had each other. Tsukishima seemed like he didn’t need anyone, so, for the longest time, Yamaguchi felt like his presence was merely being tolerated, which was kind of great when you consider that Tsukishima suffered no one. But they’ve long since passed that and Yamaguchi had become pretty comfortable with his relationship with Tsukishima…or he had.
What was there to be done about it? It took Yamaguchi the whole break and the first week of high school to figure that out. No. It only took a day for that, but he spent the rest of the time gathering the courage to confess. Also, he had to figure out how. Tsukishima didn’t want to be bothered. He never hid his annoyance when he was confessed to, but the girls never seemed to stop asking. Yamaguchi remembers how after one particular confession where a girl yelled from a window as they passed–no preface, no pretense–Tsukishima commented on the lack of creativity in all the other girls’ approach. Not that he had a preferred aesthetic, it’s only that Tsukishima observed that they all stood before him fidgeting as if they were in danger of relieving themselves on the spot, they all bowed at the same angle, they all blushed the same hue, and they all shoved nearly identical envelopes in his face. But regardless of their approach, he didn’t want to be bothered, so even the tactless (according Tsukishima) girl who yelled from the window–the only one he didn’t audibly sigh at–got rejected. With that to contend with, Yamaguchi’s courage wavered. Oh, but perhaps their existing relationship would serve as a springboard for… Perhaps not, this was Tsukishima and the idea of anything more was probably not that appealing to him. But who’s to say? It’s not like he ever talked about these things, so there really wasn’t much to go on.
Timing was a thing and Yamaguchi hadn’t mastered it yet. Though, in retrospect, timing wasn’t really the issue. They were set to play against the other two first years on their soon to be new volleyball team. And it was on their way home after their defeat that Yamaguchi decided to confess. He failed. Actually, he didn’t. He managed to get it out as plainly as possible–no letters, no yelling–but Tsukishima didn’t get it. He made a face–not the same one he made with the girls, but more like the one he makes when someone’s telling him something he already knows. But what do you do with that?
Yamaguchi was sure that whatever Tsukishima knew, it wasn’t what he was trying to tell him. So, he tried again. A week later, after practice, after they had settled into their study session, after they had gotten through math and history and were working on Japanese lit., after Tsukishima had, for the nth time, absentmindedly traced the edges of the pale yellow envelope with the delicately embossed fossils that he found in his shoe locker, Yamaguchi tried again.
Tsukishima didn’t lift his head, but his eyes peered over his glasses in acknowledgement.
“I finished my summary, can I read yours?” Yamaguchi picked up the worksheet sliding toward him and his face lit up. “So neat! No matter what I do, my penmanship will never look this good.” He stroked the sheet, occasionally lingering on the name at the top of the page.
“You’ll smudge it.”
“Oh… Sorry, Tsukki.” The apology was so soft and trembly that it could have been mistaken for a purr. “It’s just that you’ve always had such pretty handwriting, Tsukki.”
Tsukishima stopped reading for a moment. Though traces remained, it’s good that the things Yamaguchi endured when he was younger didn’t linger too much for too long. That he could derive any amount of awe from something so mundane was…was… He stumbled on the thought. He looked up and quietly watched Yamaguchi who seemed to be positively charmed by the page before him. Ever so faintly, the corner of Tsukishima’s mouth curled at how Yamaguchi expressed himself, even without words, like the little crinkles that trimmed the corners of his eyes when he laughed or got excited and the way he covered his mouth and turned away when he was a little embarrassed…it was so…so… And things like the way Yamaguchi filled in the blanks for him for things he was unable to say…Tsukishima thought that it was really…cute…
He quickly turned his attention back to his homework. He couldn’t be filling his head up with this kind of nonsense–there’d be no end to it and nothing good would come out of it. There’s no point in ruining the perfectly good relationship they have now by introducing feelings. Even to broach the subject could be awkward. Just because he’s all smiles when they’re together doesn’t mean he’s… Well, it doesn’t have to mean… Tsukishima set his jaw tightly and continued sifting through these and other abstractions in an attempt to regain his focus and just as he was trying to decide if he was getting closer or further away, his courting of denial was interrupted.
“A-Are you going to read it?” Yamaguchi asked as he stared at what was definitely a love letter that Tsukishima was still absentmindedly defining again and again. “It’s the first one I’ve seen you not toss right away.”
He held it up. “It’s a nice envelope.” Tsukishima was particularly fond of the embossing–the tiny ridges felt nice against his finger tips.
Yamaguchi was pleased, he’d spent a lot of time picking it out.
Tsukishima’s attention was split as he’d still not completely disengaged himself from the idea of something more with Yamaguchi. That was going to cause a problem.
“But why should I care what a stranger thinks? All I know about this person is that they have good taste in envelopes–that’s hardly anything to go on.”
“I think that’s what the contents of the envelope are for, Tsukki.”
“Well, I guess, but even if they tell me their life story, I don’t think I’d know them any more than I do now.”
Yamaguchi couldn’t help but acknowledge the irony.
“There’s no point in getting mixed up in this kind of thing.” Tsukishima said as he looked down at his homework.
He wasn’t sure if it showed, but Yamaguchi didn’t bother trying to hide his disappointment.
“It’d make much more sense if I dated you.” It seemed like a very offhand comment and it was only the barely audible gasp that came from Yamaguchi’s direction that alerted Tsukishima to the words that just came out of his own mouth. That definitely wasn’t supposed to happen.
“Are you…s-serious, Tsukki?”
Was that hope or just curiosity he heard in Yamaguchi’s voice? Tsukishima sided with curiosity; it was his only choice because there was no way he could answer hope. Though still unsure, he opted for what he thought would do the least damage in the long run and, with his eyes still glued to his book–not that he could read a word of it–he whispered, “sorry, Yamaguchi,” and wished to one day be forgiven for his cowardice.
As Yamaguchi wondered why a response was not immediately forthcoming, Tsukishima broke his silence.
“Of course not. That kind of thing is nothing but awkwardness and trouble. And who wants to be bothered with that?”
In his head and his heart, Yamaguchi screamed, I do, Tsukki! I want to be bothered with that! However, the words he allowed to be heard were quite different. “…Yeah…who wants to be bothered with that?”
The shuffle of papers and the rattle of pencils let him know that Yamaguchi was packing up his stuff. He finally looked up–but still not quite at Yamaguchi–when he accepted the worksheet being returned to him.
“I better get going. Thanks for helping me out. See you tomorrow, Tsukki.” Yamaguchi made his way down and bid farewell to Tsukishima’s mother on the way out.
Tsukishima could only tell himself that it was for the best. People he could stand were hard to come by and there was nothing good to be had with such a risk. Also, not knowing (truthfully not being brave enough to know) what Yamaguchi thought about it made his decision seem all the more right. Everything was fine the way it was; if it wasn’t broke, there was no need to fix it.
“If you can’t lose something you never had, what do you call this,” Yamaguchi asked the night as it did very little to obscure the flickering shadows within him. Anyone would think that Tsukishima’s dismissal was something of a denouement, but it wasn’t quite over. Yamaguchi managed to escape without being directly rejected, but there remained the issue of the pale yellow envelope that Tsukishima still had in his possession. He could only hope that it remained sealed.
The next day, the air was strange between them and Yamaguchi’s morning greeting was not as enthusiastic as it usually was. The trek to school was marked with a silence that was nearly palpable. Tsukishima’s mind was occupied with his own dastardliness and as he spied him out the corner of his eye, he wondered if Yamaguchi could see through it. Meanwhile, Yamaguchi, as covertly as he could manage, tried to gauge whether or not Tsukki had read the letter by stealing glances. The day went on like this, but thankfully Tsukishima had class duties and needed to stay behind a bit. Yamaguchi told him he was going to go on ahead; he didn’t want to lie, so he omitted the explanation altogether.
Tsukishima was equally relieved to have a reason not to walk home together. He wanted to treat this like anything else, but this was Yamaguchi and if he couldn’t be honest with him about his feelings, he could at least not lie to himself about how much they mattered. He wanted nothing more than to return to how they were before, but because it was guaranteed to be awkward, Tsukishima was loath to do anything about it.
Alone in his room, Yamaguchi tried to work out what he should do to get things back to normal. He was surprised to see that it wasn’t just him that was on edge, but without knowing what had Tsukishima somewhat out of sorts, he was at a loss as to how he could counteract it.
On his way to school, just before the point where his and Yamaguchi’s paths converged, Tsukishima resolved to clear the air that day, or that night, actually. There was practice later and if the tension was still hanging about them by the time it ended, he would deal with it, whatever that meant.
With the daylight came clarity; though belated, it was somehow still on time. Yamaguchi felt that if it was the letter making things awkward, then it was. His feelings were genuine and he wouldn’t deny them if he was ever asked and they’d just have to sort things out from there. They could handle it. But if it wasn’t the letter, then… Well, he was sure they could handle that too. This didn’t have to mean then end and nothing really had to change. Worrying wouldn’t help anything–it would only lead to more confusion–so the only thing he really could do was bank on their friendship and believe that everything would be okay. He saw Tsukishima waiting for him at their morning meeting spot and felt that that was a good thing–at least he wasn’t being avoided.
Everything’s going to be okay. Yamaguchi soothed himself with this mantra one more time before he revived his familiar salutation–and he made sure to put an extra bit of heart in it, “Morning, Tsukki!”
And with that, he was off the hook. Whatever was there the day before was gone, at least on Yamaguchi’s side. Contrition settled somewhere in Tsukishima and he tried not to let it show. It would take some time before he really understood what had transpired at that moment and many moments before then. Something inside him that had yet to be fully discovered understood that this was the reality of the course of friendship. It would take some time before he truly recognized that Yamaguchi had made an effort–a conscious one; one he didn’t have the guts to make–and he didn’t want it to go to waste, because, intentionally or not, Yamaguchi had saved him. And soon he’d understand that it wouldn’t be the last time.