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Tsukishima stood in the biggest media store they had in town—basically the only one. Had been standing there for quite some time, actually—and not that he had nothing better to do, though at a closer inspection that was likely to turn out to be true, but he chose to disregard a fact as simple (and inconvenient) as that, especially since it didn’t make any particular difference: he was there, he was alone, and he was at a loss of ideas, no matter how you chose to look at it.

He threw a sidelong glance at a clock on the wall and had to check twice: apparently he had been there for almost an hour already, an amount of time extraordinary for Tsukishima Kei to be spent on... well, whatever it was. Not window shopping, but somewhere near—borderline ridiculous either way.

At first he strolled rather purposefully, even if pointlessly, down the aisles. Then he backtracked and did it again. And a third time, closer to despair. Then he had to shoo away an annoyingly friendly and helpful assistant who only tried to do his job, less out of pride than of having no idea what he wanted—and he wanted something Yamaguchi would want. Of which—come again—he had no idea. Which was rather catastrophic, to say the least, for the store was closing in about another hour, and his zero progress in the one already past deemed it highly unlikely for him to succeed in the next fifty or so minutes.

He almost seriously considered walking away and forgetting about all this at all. Especially since he already got Yamaguchi a present, and it was one hundred percent what he wanted, for it was discussed and documented and agreed upon, several times. He even got it wrapped almost too neatly to his liking, as if he were trying too hard, which was not far from the truth. It wasn’t bad at all, that present. It just wasn’t special enough, didn’t feel right. Because, well, seriously—he couldn’t give his best friend a video game for his sixteenth birthday. About half of Japan’s population played it, or was playing it, or would be playing it soon. There was a 99% chance that that Nekoma brat played it already or was in the process, which was infinitely worse.

He somehow floated over to a magazine stand and all but fell on the couch in front of it, reserved but tired, wishing he didn’t care: he was sure there was such a time, even if he couldn’t remember when exactly. There was surely time when he at least didn’t care so much, when he knew he could give Yamaguchi Tadashi virtually anything as a present and he would be happy just because Tsukishima gave him something—anything—and it didn’t bother him so much. He never gave him crap, of course, but the choice was never so hard to make.

He closed his eyes, leaning back, and motley dots started dancing in the dark before him, familiar faces of the musicians on the covers dissolving into watery mess. He wondered if he would ever find the answer to the problem of how exactly a stray thought of how it would feel to kiss Yamaguchi could lead to him head over heels in love with a guy, even if he spent a sufficient amount of years alongside the guy in question. The “being-in-love-with-a-guy” part itself didn’t bother him almost at all, as he took it matter-of-factly: he established it, comprehended it, embraced it, in a way, and moved on. It was not such a big deal: guys fell in love with other guys all the time, and not that he was particularly special. It was pointless to waste energy on something he could not change, and it did not deserve any additional ruminations; for him it was better to act upon it, even as clumsily as he managed to.

And Yamaguchi was not a bad guy to be in love with. Given his teammates, he could have done much, much worse. Yamaguchi was great. Handsome, even, if unconventionally—but Tsukishima never went for conventional. Handsome, and funny, and pretty smart; the sole fact that Tsukishima didn’t hate him even for a day spoke for itself. Yamaguchi was special—had always been, even if he didn’t get it right away.

It was good. Everything was good. Except for the fact that he was stuck, and being in love imposed certain problems on him—namely, how to choose a present that would be personal, but not too much, and how to keep a straight face when Yamaguchi would do all those things he always did—and he did a lot of things, most of them in dangerous proximity of Tsukishima, and most of them adorable on a disturbingly grand number of levels. And “adorable” shouldn’t even be in the vocabulary of someone like Tsukishima Kei if he was not thinking about little animals. (Not that he did that too often, either. No, almost not at all.)

But anyway: For his birthday Yamaguchi gave him a rare book he was sure he only mentioned once in passing, planning to buy it later—he really wanted that book, but gave up on it since he couldn’t find it in stores. Looking back, he was so surprised he probably didn’t even thank Yamaguchi properly. At least not in the way he would have liked (seriously, since when did he start thinking about things like this at such great lengths?). It never went out of his head, which was a problem, and a huge one at that. The one that had to be dealt with quickly.

He forced himself to open his eyes again, and the light bouncing off of the glossy covers of the magazines almost hurt him—if not with its violent, invasive brightness, then with the triviality of the world it shone on. He looked around, got up slowly, as if in doubt, skillfully avoided eye contact with any of the staff members, and threw a melancholy glance at the magazines again, then at the rows of CDs, trying to figure out what clues concerning what he knew about Yamaguchi he could summon to his rescue. Which, again, was not much: he knew so much about him that it was overwhelming, messy little but so important details getting into his line of sight. And why was he here anyway? A media store had never been anyone’s first guess for birthday shopping, except maybe when shopping for a music maniac, which hardly described Yamaguchi.

He caught attention of another staff member eager to help him buy anything—he was starting to think at least half of their town’s population worked here—and had to migrate to yet another row of shelves, pretending to be very, very interested in the new single of what’s-their-name, so much as to actually put on the headset they offered at the stand to listen to the song, reading the cover of the CD without any signs of comprehension. At least the music was good, rich with bass lines and pregnant with potent, glorious rhythm.

And, well—what music did Yamaguchi like? As in, was there a band, or a singer, or even a genre that he liked the most—not something that Kei had shared with him, but something that... defined him somehow? Something he could get him to show that he, Tsukishima Kei, knew him well and cared enough to seek it out—all for him, like Yamaguchi did with that goddamn book.

Yamaguchi did have a good taste in music, even considering him being constantly torn between more or less depressive indie musicians, most of them Western, most of them equally liked by Tsukishima, and bright, suspiciously upbeat pop stars, most of which Tsukishima couldn’t even tell apart. When they got to the topic of music several years ago, Yamaguchi gave him his favorite CDs and Tsukishima gave him a crash course in the best music there is or was, or would ever be, and all of it blended together beautifully. Surprising each other in this field was highly unlikely.

This was getting more and more ridiculous by the minute, in more ways than one. (Shit.) But something tickled his consciousness, something there but not quite, so close he had to strain himself to focus on it, on that non-thought, a distant feeling, like a call, and—yes. This must be it. This had to be it, and if it isn’t, he be damned.

Tsukishima took off the headset, the sound of the song dying, deformed, suppressed by the buzzing of the evening store life, the faceless non-music they played in the background. He felt sorry for it; it felt wrong somehow to just leave it here, with no one to listen to it (“Bestseller,” claimed the colorful stickers all over the stand, but Tsukishima had never heard of the band, and it alone spoke volumes), but it was a whiff of the moment, and he had things to do.

He walked down the aisle again, feeling incredibly stupid, and stopped only when he reached the wall with the too-familiar stand now in front of him, a mere 50 cm of thin air separating them, and he lingered not—now, with the pointless, enraging hesitation gone, he wanted to get this done with and get out, and then yes, forget about this whole embarrassing situation for another year. Or—Shit, again—at least for another month and a half. Tsukishima felt like hating and consequently ignoring all holidays for the rest of his days was not a bad life choice.

He scanned the stand, once, twice, not really interested in prices, for he’d reached that state when it simply didn’t matter anymore, and not that he couldn’t afford any of them pretty shiny boxes. He picked up one, then another, slight indecision still reigning him; he decided on a third, choosing as he would choose for himself, only better—it was a present still—and then finally walked away.

On the way to the cashier’s desk he picked up the single, too; the song had been playing in his head ever since he put it down, and the least he could do to thank those guys was buy their CD.

It would go well with his present. It most certainly would.

There was a loud celebration: he should have anticipated that those shitheads of a team would throw a party, what with their talk of friendship and other nonsense—he should have, and he did, but it was still astonishingly annoying and outright bright and messy. Someone even managed to sneak beer in (he would bet on Tanaka), and Hinata hugged Yamaguchi and shouted and practically danced around him all too much to Tshukishima’s liking, but no one asked him, really, and he had sworn he would shut up for once, especially since Yamaguchi seemed to like all of it, even though he tried not to show it too much. Tsukishima was in no position to deny him this pleasure. Learning to be considerate and not a possessive asshole was not easy enough; Tsukishima had to remind himself again and again that he and Yamaguchi were friends, and nothing more, and these... teammates of theirs somehow qualified as friends, too. Tsukishima hated to be associated with them in such a way, but it was his problem, and only his—and he played along as best he could.

Thinking about it didn’t do much good—he sat in a corner, watching Tadashi laugh at Hinata’s stupid jokes told with too much vigor and too much throwing arms around. The desire to break the shorty’s neck was not a good one, he knew. Friends (he winced at the notion each and every time it popped up in his head) didn’t do that. Considerate boyfriends (this word disgusted him even more) didn’t do that. It didn’t take much to see that he wasn’t managing either, but he at least tried, anyone could give him that—for maybe an hour, but he did, and it was already more than could be expected of him.

He sipped his drink, opted for a move, seemed to calculate a good one—and suddenly caught himself consciously, actively thinking of what he was going to say to Yamaguchi, something that was never a problem. He thought of what to offer as an explanation for why he wanted to leave so soon, why everyone else should just shut the fuck up and back off. He knew that technically he had no right to—another fact that had never crossed his mind before, but he truly missed the time when there were only the two of them, without additional noise and formalities and social duties. He desperately wanted that back, even for a brief collection of moments during their walk home.

He wished they both lived a long, long walk away from here. He hated himself for being a sissy.

He may have decided everything already, but Yamaguchi knew nothing of his plans on him, which made things a lot more complicated. Tsukishima didn’t want to explain himself. He just wanted to wake up one morning in the reality where they could kiss and hold hands and, well, do whatever else they were supposed to do, but most likely what they already did plus kissing and holding hands. Maybe going to the movies, if that wouldn’t be too awkward to do as a couple. They occasionally ate out on Sundays and spent more time at each other’s houses than most people usually did—they were basically dating already. Adding romance to the picture would only complete it.

Tsukishima shook his head, appalled at the kind of thoughts the sight of Yamaguchi put into his mind. This whole predicament started with a stray thought like that, and for all he knew, he could be planning their future together by the end of high school. Not that it won’t be nice, too—

He caught himself again, slamming his forehead and almost breaking his glasses: keeping to himself thoroughly messed up his thought process sometimes. And then, like the root of all evil, Yamaguchi was next to him with those glinting eyes he had, inquiring softly if everything were all right.

“It’s too loud here,” Tsukishima said, not really trying to conceal his irritation: he was well past that, and the beer he had been drinking didn’t make a better person out of him. And Yamaguchi, the pure soul that he was, so nice and lovely and pleasing, chuckled and emitted an “I’m sorry, Tsukki,” which made Tsukishima realize just how badly he had underestimated the problem of being in love in general and being in love with Yamaguchi in particular. His short, cheery phrases made his stomach turn; was this cheerfulness genuine, or was he deliberately trying to take away all the balance that Tsukishima tried so hard to maintain? He didn’t know, but was determined to find out. If only he could get him alone.

(Flashes in front of his eyes: dark alleys on their way home, Yamaguchi either trailing a step behind or walking a step ahead, humming, chatting—though Tsukishima would prefer him silent, anticipating, with the same eagerness to please he had now. And then: he grabs his hand, turns him around, steals a kiss: Anything not to speak, all of it should be obvious—and doesn’t Yamaguchi like him back anyway? Or is he only seeing what he wants to? He surely hoped that Yamaguchi liked him back; it would be so, so awkward if he confessed, and Yamaguchi Tadashi looked him in the eye and said that Sorry, Tsukki, I don’t swing that way. He would probably have to change schools. Or move away. Certainly drop volleyball. Not that anything would matter then.)

He felt that Yamaguchi was about to ask another question concerning his state and well-being and if he could do anything to improve it, and Tsukishima knew that if he did, he might snap, and things would get ugly fast—but Daichi saved them all with words of wisdom, even though he only said it was time to go, for everyone had school tomorrow, and he and Suga had to drive home. Tsukishima strongly suspected that not everything was how it seemed with those two—or rather, it was exactly how it seemed. He chuckled despite himself; would Yamaguchi and him be that obvious, too? Were they already? He wanted to get to those alleys sooner. He wanted to get at least somewhere that didn’t involve his teammates talking and laughing way louder than was permissible.

When they parted with everyone else, there was about five minutes’ silence as they walked, not exactly comfortable but acceptable, with Tsukishima rebuilding from scratch the confidence he seemed to have lost with the presence of all the others—not something he was accustomed to, but something, he felt, he would have to put up with for the time being. There were a lot of things about him, about his life, about the world around him that had changed, and he was slowly getting used to it. If he’d read the situation right—and he no doubt did—everything was going to get so, so much worse in this regard. He could only wish this phase would be over quickly, the shyness, the sweaty palms, the questioning looks—he believed that a lot of it would stay, evolve, but still stay, and he couldn’t tell how he felt about that. He couldn’t tell how he felt about anything right now, except for the thick air, the smells and the faint light; the shaky feeling of uncertainty was new, too, but somehow pleasantly refreshing. It was something not unlike a promise, and that promise he was glad to embrace.

The present—the second part of it, at least—still lay in Tsukishima’s bag, waiting, making him restless, wary of every breath he took.

“Hey, Yamaguchi,” he started, finally ready, his new flattery self taking over the calm, not-giving-a-shit sarcastic Tsukishima.

Yamaguchi stopped, turning to him, an uncertain expectation sprawled across his face.

“I got you something,” Tsukishima said; at least his words didn’t betray him yet.

“I don’t understand,” Yamaguchi replied slowly, his quizzical look making Tsukishima think again of not bothering with the present at all, just corner him and kiss him while no one was looking.

But no. He put too much effort into this whole enterprise, and effort was not something he was willing to go to waste because of certain urges Yamaguchi evoked in him. At least not now.

He fumbled with his bag, too self-conscious, trying to look cool while Yamaguchi went on,

“You already gave me a present, right? I just... Oh,” he gasped slightly, looking at the compact plastic box in Tsukishima’s hands: a pair of earphones, expensive by the look of them, thin, slight wire laying neatly in its place. He didn’t know what to do with it, how to react, but took it nevertheless, still beautifully bewildered, “Sorry, Tsukki, but now you’ve completely lost me.”

Apologizing again: he should have foreseen it too. Tsukishima tsk-ed, then brushed it off and polished it with a smile. “Open it.”

Yamaguchi looked at him, still profoundly confused, and Tsukishima started to think that he really, really should have just went with a plan that involved more manhandling Yamaguchi than trying to apply to higher matters, like music. “Just do. Okay, forget it. Give it to me.”

He snatched the box from his friend’s clumsy hands again (another “Sorry, Tsukki” lost in the process), struggled with it for a bit, but finally managed to extract the delicate piece of technology from its plastic coffin. He put the jack into his iPod, stealing glances of Yamaguchi every now and then to ensure that he was still with him, trying to determine just how stupid an idea it was in the first place (terribly, terribly stupid). He put the right phone into his own ear, and offered the left to Yamaguchi, who took it wordlessly again, then hit Play—and finally Yamaguchi’s face lit up as the steady, roaring sounds of a rock song started their flow.

“I thought we could use them,” he offered, but Yamaguchi didn’t listen, trying to pay attention and failing as joy took over—he did that sometimes, and Tsukishima loved it in him. He was excited and grateful, which made Tsukishima feel cruel somehow, because it was no big deal, he was not even sure of the message he had put into this gesture, and Yamaguchi made such a fuss out of it, as if he had done something really grand. Something important.

With a loud “Thanks, Tsukki!” Yamaguchi tiptoed a little, so close, so dangerously close, and planted a light, almost nonexistent kiss on his cheek, like a little girl would reward her champion. If it were someone else Tsukishima would consider it degrading, but now he only wondered if it were the beer still speaking in the other teen, though by all laws of the Universe he should already be sober. He caught a glimpse of understanding and dread in Yamaguchi’s eyes—and before he could back away he seized his arm, giving him no room for escape, and kissed him, clumsily, awkwardly, but kissed him nevertheless, his hazel eyes watching as Yamaguchi’s own slightly widened in shock, then closed. It was a good sign, and when he opened them again Yamaguchi’s cheeks flashed bright red visible even in the uncertain, useless light of a street lamp.

It was not bad, for a first kiss. Yamaguchi’s expression was far better, and Tsukishima could not help but chuckle: it was good. Everything was good.

“Do you like it?” He asked, putting the fallen-out headphone in again, trying but failing to sustain his calm, grateful again that no one else was there to witness his too-broad smile that was forever reserved for Yamaguchi, who looked bewildered and flustered and still confused, but now most delightfully so. And he almost asked what exactly he was supposed to like, Tsukishima could tell.

“Yes!” He exclaimed instead, taking a step closer and tucking his hand under Tsukishima’s arm so that they would walk in sync, listening to the same song while Tsukishima himself wondered why it took him so many years to think this elegant solution up, but he was glad he did it now. “Thanks, Tsukki,” Yamaguchi uttered again, still blushing and fidgety, his fingers moving restlessly, his words a mess even more than usual, “this... that’s my best birthday, you know,” he finally managed to get out.

Tsukishima knew, but didn’t say it out loud, still trying to sort out pretty much everything when Yamaguchi looked up at him again and said, “You are going to come over tonight, right?” And he gave up and smiled with more enthusiasm than he ever thought he had in him: he was going to ask if he could come over himself.

He was wrong about one thing, and happy to discover it: everything was going to change. Everything changed already.