Mrs. Tachibana first suspects something is strange when her oldest son starts middle school. Makoto starts behaving differently, spending more time at the pool and less time with his best friend, Haruka, who has been around since they were too small to remember meeting. Mrs. Tachibana speaks with Mrs. Nanase every so often during this time to check up on Haruka, and she is disheartened to hear that Haruka doesn't seem to be spending any time with his new friends outside of swim slub practices. While Makoto works through whatever middle school identity crisis he is having, Haruka spends the time alone.
When Mrs. Nanase goes to spend the week with her husband when he is injured at work, Haruka is left at home by himself. Normally, the Tachibana family would be thrilled to take him in for the duration of her trip, but with Makoto seemingly avoiding Haruka, Haruka decides he would rather stay in his own home. Mrs. Tachibana can't blame him. She wonders if she should speak with Makoto about whatever is going on, but she trusts that her son is able to handle it. If there is something seriously wrong, he will come to her eventually.
She reverses her decision a few days later when Haruka lands in the hospital after collapsing. Apparently, he hasn't been eating the food she prepared for him all week. She wonders if it was simple apathy that had him neglecting his health, or if maybe it was some sort of silent rebellion for being left alone. The question then becomes whether it was caused by his parents' absence or Makoto's. She thinks maybe her son has more of an effect on his best friend than any of them really understand.
The problem seems to solve itself after that. Makoto and Haruka are friends again. Makoto is no longer making excuses to leave early for school or staying extra late to swim. From her window she can see them meeting up on the stairs in the morning and parting ways in the afternoon. She is happy that her son has his best friend back, and that Haruka isn't lonely anymore. She loves him like a son, too, and she wants him to be happy.
Later that same year, Haruka withdraws again, but this time no one knows why. She frets when she sees Makoto come home day after day looking tired and dejected. She wonders if this friendship is too much for him, if he should find some more friends, like those nice boys from the swim club that stayed with Haruka after his collapse until his mother came home. She hates seeing the light in her gentle son's eyes dimmed because he can't help his friend. But maybe just as much, she hates seeing the shell of a person Haruka is becoming. Every time she sees him, such a young boy with such seemingly heavy problems, she wants to hold him tight and sing to him until his troubles fade away and his soulful blue eyes start to smile again.
It is three years before the life in his eyes comes back.
It is also over those three years that she learns that maybe the "something strange" she had begun to suspect is only strange because her son and Haruka are both boys. She decides to continue watching.
Makoto is the greatest friend anyone could ever have. Mrs. Tachibana doesn't think she is biased in saying so. Over the last three years, as Haruka has withdrawn farther and farther into himself, she has seen her own son show more loyalty and support than most married couples, especially since he still doesn’t know what went wrong. It is at this point that she wonders if what she sees in her son is a one-sided feeling. She's not sure if she hopes more than it isn't or that it is. She wants her son to be happy more than anything, but she doesn't want him to have a hard life, either. She wonders if she is a bad mother for even entertaining the hope that her son's first love is unrequited.
When the boys start the swim club at their high school, Mrs. Tachibana is overjoyed to find that Haruka is finally coming back to the world. Makoto is ecstatic, though he doesn't show it outright. But there is a spring in his step, a glint in his eyes, a warmth in his tone that has been missing since the winter of their first year of middle school. Haruka has begun to talk more, to open up about what he's feeling, even if only vaguely. Still, it's a start. He begins spending more time with Makoto again, like when they were children, eats more meals at the Tachibana home, and becomes more involved with the twins. Although he has always been there for them, even during his three-year hibernation from the world, he is warmer now and more personable.
One night as she is walking by Makoto's door on her way to do the laundry, she overhears snippets of a conversation between the two about the return of a boy named Rin. She vaguely remembers the name from when the boys were in elementary school, but otherwise isn't sure of its significance. Whoever he is, though, he seems to have brought the boys back together, and for that, she will be eternally grateful to him.
She tries not to make it a habit to listen at Makoto's door. She owes her son his privacy. He is sixteen, and for all she knows, they are talking about things that are none of her business and that he would not appreciate her overhearing. But she can't help herself sometimes when a noise catches her ear that she's not expecting.
She is on high alert after the boys return from their training camp after learning that her son nearly drowned. At first she is furious that they did not seek medical attention, and that she wasn’t even alerted to the incident at all until they came home, but when she realizes that Makoto really is okay, and that Haruka was the one who risked his own life to save him, she feels nothing but relief, gratitude, and overwhelming affection for the stoic boy she has known for most of his life. When she remembers how she felt about his friendship with Makoto during middle school, she feels guilty that she ever thought there would be anyone better for Makoto than Haruka.
One night not long after the camp, when she gets up in the middle of the night for a glass of water, she hears Makoto talking on the phone. She can only assume it is Haruka, unless she has misread the situation entirely and Makoto suddenly has a girlfriend. She pauses to listen when she hears him sniffle, alarmed, trying to decide if she should give herself away and go comfort her child. She is just about to open the door when she hears Makoto speak again.
"It's just a dream, Haru-chan. I'm okay."
"I promise, really. You don't have to."
"It's just... Sometimes I feel like I rely on you too much."
He chuckles. "Okay, Haru. Thank you. I'll see you soon."
So Haruka is coming over, presumably to comfort Makoto. It's sweet, she thinks, but it makes her wonder how often Makoto sneaks his friends — or really, just his best friend — into her house while she's sleeping. When she goes back to her bedroom, she lies awake and waits to hear the telltale sounds of Makoto walking to the door, the door opening and closing as quietly as possible, and two sets of footsteps leading his room before that door closes as well. She can't stop herself from getting up to hear what's going on. She really, really hopes she won't hear something she'll regret listening in on.
She can hear murmurs through the door, but not much distinguishable dialogue. She hears the ruffling of sheets and is about the fling to door wide open, but then she hears nothing. It has gone quiet. They must be asleep. She goes back to bed.
In the morning when the twins rush in to wake Makoto up, Haruka is already gone.
She doesn't catch Makoto sneaking Haruka into the house again for a very long time. Whether it's because he doesn't do it or simply because she hasn't noticed, she's not sure, but she chooses to trust her son. If something is going on, he will tell her. She hopes.
Once the drama of their second year of high school has resolved itself, Makoto seems to be the happiest he's ever been. Haruka seems happy, too. Haruka eats dinner at the Tachibana household at least once a week, and during those times, Mrs. Tachibana takes the opportunity to observe the soft-spoken boy. It is not at all lost on her that Haruka seems happiest while listening to Makoto speak or sneaking glances at her son when he thinks no one is looking.
But she is always looking. She sees all and she knows all.
Observing her own son yields similar results. She concludes that they are completely taken with each other. They each hang on the other's every word. Makoto is still in the habit of speaking for Haruka when he knows Haruka doesn't wish to speak for himself. They know each other well enough at this point that they only need to exchange glances to understand each other. Mrs. Tachibana knows that it doesn't take more than a brief glance, which is why she suspects the longer bouts of sustained eye contact probably don't serve any practical purpose.
She also notices the forced distance between them, larger than it was even just last year. They aren't ready for the family to know anything. They sit on opposite ends of the couch when they're in the shared living space. They sit across from each other while doing their homework rather than beside each other like they used to.
But when they think no one is looking, it's a different story. In the winter of their second year, Mrs. Tachibana is home waiting for her children to arrive home from school. It has been snowing the entire day, and she is ready to greet them with hot chocolate and maybe a family movie night. She peeks out the window to see if anyone has returned yet and sees Makoto gingerly dusting the snow from Haruka's hair. Haruka is standing very close to him, gazing into his eyes, and it is obvious what is about to happen. She feels she should avert her eyes and give the boys some privacy. However, the moment passes, and Makoto steps away after brushing more snow from Haruka's shoulders. Both of their cheeks and noses are tinged pink from the cold, and they both look so handsome.
Mrs. Tachibana feels a surge of pride and affection for both boys, and she hopes that someday, hopefully soon, she will be able to talk openly with her son about the person to whom he gave his heart.
Mrs. Tachibana is surprised when Makoto doesn’t spend Christmas Eve with Haruka that year. She had assumed that even though they don’t want the family to know anything yet, they would still find time to see each other. She feels confused and somewhat sad for her son. She and her husband have a date night every year on Christmas Eve, and Makoto watches the twins. Haruka normally comes over to help watch the twins when Mr. and Mrs. Tachibana are out, so why should Christmas Eve be any different? Her son should be able to spend Christmas Eve with the one he loves.
When she asks Makoto what Haruka is doing and if he would like to come over and see the twins for a while, he becomes nervous.
“He’ll be here tomorrow,” he says, which doesn’t answer either of her questions, but she leaves it at that. It’s true that Haruka will be over tomorrow to spend Christmas with the Tachibana family, his second family, while his own parents are away. Just like every other year. His parents will come home for the new year, and Haruka will see them then, and Makoto will visit the shrine with the Tachibanas in the morning and the Nanases in the evening. That is the tradition.
Maybe she should invite the entire Nanase family over New Year’s Eve this year. The Nanases are as good as family anyway, especially Haruka. If Makoto and Haruka can’t see each other on Christmas Eve, they can at least ring in the new year together.
They do not kiss on New Year’s Eve. Mrs. Tachibana is beginning to wonder if they are even aware of how in love with each other they are.
She goes to sleep that night after clearing the tea cups and small plates and making sure the twins are soundly asleep. She will have to wake up early to begin making the soba, so she sets an alarm for 5:00 before bidding her husband a happy new year and drifting off in his arms.
At 5:00, she shuffles out of bed, wraps herself in her bathrobe, and begins the task of making the buckwheat noodles for the toshikoshi soba. For as long as she can remember, her family has always eaten the meal on New Year's Day, although it is traditionally consumed on New Year's Eve. She prefers it this way. She enjoys waking up early and making the noodles from scratch. She learned it from her mother as a child, and it allows her to spend some time alone reminiscing about her childhood and remembering wonderful times with her mother.
The sun has almost completely risen by the time she hears timid footsteps sneaking down the stairs. She stops what she is doing and turns around to find Haruka sneaking out of her house. He freezes when he is caught and looks like a deer in the headlights.
"Haruka, honey, it's early. Where are you going?" she asks. She already assumes he was here to watch the sunrise with Makoto. She wishes she had been informed that he was in her home all night, but she can only assume his parents don't know, either. She sighs. This sneaking-Haruka-in thing is not a great habit for her son to have.
Haruka looks guiltily at his socked feet. "I should get home before my parents worry," he says, though they both know that his parents won't be awake for a few more hours.
"Go back to sleep, Haruka," she tells him. "Your parents will know where to find you."
He nods and turns to head back up the stairs.
"Oh, and sweetheart?" she calls. "You don't need to sneak around. You're always welcome here. Don't feel like you have to leave in the middle of the night. It’s not safe to be out by yourself at all hours, no matter how close you live.”
He bows his head slightly and murmurs a small, “Thank you.”
Seemingly out of nowhere, Mrs. Tachibana is seized with an immense wave of emotion, and she shuffles over to bring Haruka into a tight hug. Her head only reaches his chest, and she wonders where all of the time has gone.
Haruka is clearly confused, but he hugs her back anyway.
“I love you, Haruka,” she begins. “We all do. You are just as much a part of this family as any of my children, and I will never be able to thank you enough for the love you show Makoto and twins every day.” She pulls away, pats his arm, and looks him in the eye to speak her final thought. “Please take care of my son. He is a good boy.” Then she shoos him back up the stairs to sleep.
She calls the Nanases a few hours later to make sure they know that their son is safe. Mrs. Nanase tells her they assumed as much. They share an exasperated laugh over how attached their children are. Mrs. Tachibana considers bringing up the idea of the two of them being together romantically, but decides it would be best for Mr. and Mrs. Nanase to come to the conclusion on their own or hear it from their own son when the time is right. They hang up the phone, and Mrs. Tachibana finishes putting together her New Year’s Day meal.
When she goes to wake the boys, she finds them tangled together just like when they were children. Even in their sleep, Makoto holds Haruka like he is the most precious thing in his world, and Haruka clings to Makoto like he is his salvation.
She thinks that maybe both of those things are true.
Their third year of high school spells trouble.
Mrs. Tachibana is completely distraught to learn that Haruka has no plans for the future, and it is made worse when she sees how broken apart her son is because of it. For months, she has been discussing his plans with him, and she is delighted to learn that her son has ambitions of Tokyo and teaching children how to swim.
It is extremely upsetting that he seems to be incapable of being happy for himself because Haruka is struggling so much.
She tries to talk with Makoto a few times about the situation, but he becomes upset and closes himself off to discussion. She can see how painful it is for him. She feels pain, too. She wants her precious oldest son to be happy — he deserves it more than anyone — but she knows that he cannot be happy while Haruka suffers. For seventeen years, she has watched Makoto put Haruka before himself. Sometimes she thinks he is too pure and selfless for his own good.
She truly wants Haruka to be happy, too, and she prays that he finds a future for himself soon — for his own sake, and for Makoto’s.
The worst pain she has ever felt is seeing her son come home after having his first fight with Haruka. He looks empty. He doesn’t cry, at least not that she sees, but his whole countenance emanates sorrow. He comes home and informs her that his night was horrible, that he is sure Haruka hates him now, and that he feels like the worst person in the world for leaving him behind. When she looks into his eyes, all she sees is pain and heartbreak. She holds her son and assures him that Haruka could never hate him, because he loves him too much, and that he will find his way. Maybe he just needs a little push.
The next day, she learns that Haruka has gone off to another country in search of a dream. It seems a little dramatic, if she’s being honest, but maybe drastic times call for drastic measures.
While Haruka is gone, which is only for three days, she spoils Makoto rotten. He is clearly bothered by Haruka’s absence, though he will never say it out loud. She makes his favorite food, brings home a chocolate cake, takes him to see a movie he’s been dying to see, and buys him a new video game (“to play with the twins”) that she knows he will enjoy with Haruka when he comes home.
When he sets off to greet Haruka at the airport and compete at Nationals, he is practically vibrating with anticipation.
Later that night, when she has almost drifted off to sleep, she receives a text message from Makoto that reads, “Haru is back!”
She understands what he means. Haruka has found his dream. He is happy again.
Makoto sounds happy, too.
A few weeks later, when Haruka announces over dinner that he will be attending university in Tokyo, too, Mrs. Tachibana thinks that Makoto may literally explode with happiness.
She can’t help but beam at her two boys. They should never be apart.
The summer ends, and the boys retire from the swim club for good. Their fellow club members throw them a small party in the club building to celebrate their accomplishments and send them off properly. It is clear when the boys return home that it has been an emotional day. They both look happy but completely exhausted. They retire to Makoto’s room early.
These days, Haruka spends more nights at the Tachibana house than his own.
Whereas once, she may have been concerned about the nature of their relationship and the amount of time they spend with each other, she has come to learn over the years that things are simply better when they are together.
The door is open when she goes to bring them tea a while later — probably Ren and Ran’s doing; they have a horrible habit of never closing any doors, cabinets, drawers, or anything else that opens. She walks inside to set the tea on Makoto’s desk. The boys are sitting out on his small balcony holding hands. It is the first time she has actually seen them in an openly romantic position, aside from when she saw them sleeping. Somehow, seeing the affectionate gesture while they are awake seems infinitely more intimate.
It is purposeful.
She knocks on the glass to let them know that she is there. They don’t seem to hear her. Makoto is saying something to Haruka, and Haruka is giving him his full attention. She waits until Makoto finishes talking to knock on the glass again, a little louder this time. They still don’t hear her. She is starting to get impatient. If they don’t come in soon, the tea will get cold, and she will have to make more.
She lifts her hand to rap on the glass one last time, but stops herself when she sees her son’s lips form the words, “I love you.” Immediately, she shifts her gaze to Haruka, who is smiling softly at his best friend while he holds Makoto’s hand in both of his. She witnesses his own, “I love you, too,” and drops her hand.
Her eyes sting. Her son is in love, truly in love. There is a lump in her throat. She turns to leave, no longer caring about the tea. If she has to make more, she’ll make more.
Her first born son, her beautiful, gentle, perfect son, is in love with his best friend, and he is loved in return.
She can’t think of anything better. She is so incredibly happy, she actually sheds a few tears.
When her husband asks her what’s wrong, she tells him, “Nothing is wrong. Everything is wonderful. Our son is happy. He’s found his dream, he’s going to college, and he’s in love.”
Mr. Tachibana doesn’t quite understand (he’s not nearly as perceptive as his watchful wife), but he hugs her tightly anyway. If she’s happy, he’s happy.
It is two years before Makoto and Haruka share the news of their relationship. Mrs. Tachibana tries to act surprised, she really does, but she has seen it at all this point. They really aren’t as sneaky as they think they are.
Haruka stays with Makoto in the Tachibana household for every break from school, given his training schedule allows it. They don’t even bother to bring out the spare futon anymore. How they think they’ve gotten away with anything over the past two years, she will never know.
She has also seen them holding hands as they leave the house and come home. They may think they are being sneaky by not reaching for each other until the door closes and letting go before it opens again upon their return, but they are not.
Multiple times, she has seen them kiss. Usually they are very private about it, but two more New Years have passed, and both times they shared a kiss at midnight while they thought everyone was too preoccupied to notice.
There have also been two Christmas Eves, and both times a sitter watched the twins while Makoto spent the evening at Haruka’s house. His empty house. She tries really hard not to think about that at all.
Still, when she finally hears it from her son himself, when she is finally allowed to know everything that she has known for nearly eight years, the first thing she manages to say before she can stop herself is, "I'm so happy you finally told us."
She probably should have expected the confused and embarrassed expression on her son's face, but Haruka's expression is amused.
"She's known for almost three years," he says.
Makoto is flabbergasted. "We've only been together for two!"
Mrs. Tachibana laughs outright at that. They may have only acknowledged it two years ago, but they have been together forever.
She looks around at her family. Her oldest son is flustered but happy. She can feel it coming off of him in waves. His best friend, the love of his life, her second son, is just as happy. Maybe even more so. He has a place he belongs, a whole family who has chosen to love him. He has gained so much from his relationship with his best-friend-turned-lover, and his peace and gratitude are written all over him. Her husband seems like he didn't see this coming, but he is also happy and at peace. She knew he would have no problem with it. He's a good man. It's why she loves him so much.
Haruka reaches over to lace his fingers with Makoto's. They share a gaze full of so much love and devotion that she feels her face heat. But she doesn't look away. Finally, finally she is able to share this beauty with her son.
In that moment, she feels complete.