Chapter 1: wednesday my empty arms were open, thursday waiting for love
Nothing could have prepared Makoto for the day Haruka showed up at his front door.
With bated breath, he clutched his chest because how else could he hold himself together? His heart was a time bomb ticking in his rib cage, threatening to explode any second. He blinked once, twice, before testing his voice.
The world paused at the sound of his deep, quiet voice. Nanase Haruka was standing outside his door, his features looking different and familiar at the same time— the shape of his face sharper and more matured than he looked all those years ago, but with that same smooth expression and those electric blue eyes that could always pin Makoto in place.
Nanase Haruka, the boy he grew up with.
Nanase Haruka, his best friend, who would always stand between him and the menacing ocean.
Nanase Haruka, his lost lo—
“Makoto? Are you okay?” asked Haruka, his eyebrows raised in concern.
He opened his mouth in a desperate attempt to form words, any words, but no sound came out. A gentle meow interrupted the awkward silence .
He gaped at the white cat nestled in Haruka’s arms.
“Oh yeah. I believe she’s yours?” said Haruka, offering the cat to her owner. “I’m here to return her.”
Arms wide open, Makoto welcomed Nikko home. “Nikko! Where have you been?” He cuddled her and peppered her face with kisses until he felt his eyes glisten with tears. He bowed. “Th-Thank you very much! Please come in.”
Haruka hesitated for a moment before following Makoto inside his apartment.
Throughout the years, Makoto had imagined their reunion multiple times, in different seasons, under different circumstances. He had them all mapped out in his head. In his favourite one, they would bump into each other at Shibuya Crossing, in the midst of faceless people. Once he got over his shock, Haruka would say sorry awkwardly, and Makoto would say it’s okay and they would have coffee together and laugh as they talked about everything that happened since Haruka left.
Of all his imagined scenarios, none of them included Haruka knocking on his door to return his lost cat.
“I found her three days ago, but I only saw the signs yesterday,” said Haruka, sitting on the couch.
Makoto rummaged inside his fridge to look for something to drink. Not knowing how else he could find Nikko, Makoto had called Nagisa and Rei to help him put MISSING signs around their neighbourhood.
“But someone else called to ask my address,” he said with a frown.
“That was my housemate.”
“Ah, I see.” Makoto returned to the living room with two bottles of orange juice. “Orange juice?”
“Thanks,” replied Haruka, and with a hint of smile in his lips, he added, “Don’t worry, I took good care of her.”
Makoto found himself taking the deepest breath he’d taken all day. “Thank you again, Haru! I was so worried.” He picked up Nikko who was purring and nuzzling his ankles. “Oh, I missed you too, Nikko!”
He sat with Nikko on the opposite end of the couch as though he was afraid Haruka would evaporate if he came too close. “D-Do you want coffee instead? Or tea? I’m sorry I don’t have a lot of drinks in my fridge. I haven’t been to the supermarket lately—”
“It’s okay, Makoto.”
His heart surged at the mention of his name. “Right.”
He patted Nikko’s fur to ebb the tide of self-consciousness in his chest. He was seeing his own home through Haruka’s eyes. Suddenly aware of the dusty shelves, the stacks of books and the pile of clothes on the floor. His unmade bed. The dirty dishes in the sink. Haruka was seeing the tiny, unkempt space he was living in, the same one he’d lived in since moving to Tokyo for university. But of course Haruka had already left by then.
“ Sunlight, huh?” asked Haruka, the corners of his lips tugging teasingly.
Makoto touched his nose to Nikko’s and smiled fondly. “She’s my ray of sunshine.”
The white cat purred as if in agreement.
“I got her when I moved here and she’s my favourite company,” said Makoto just as Nikko leapt from his lap to rub her head gently against Haruka’s hand.
“Sh-She likes you.” His cheeks heated up at how comfortable his pet felt around Haruka despite meeting him only a few days ago.
“I guess you’re not the only cat whisperer in Tokyo,” said Haruka.
Makoto laughed sheepishly and cleared his throat. “Speaking of Tokyo, what brings you here?” and he added with haste, “if I may ask.”
Nikko lifted her chin as Haruka stroked the top of her head, indulging in the attention he was giving her. “I’m here for a swimming competition,” he said. “It’s in three weeks, but I figured it’d be nice to explore Tokyo because I never really got the chance when I was still living here.”
Makoto’s face brightened. “You swim competitively now?”
“Yes,” he replied with an enthusiastic nod. “Do you remember Kirishima Natsuya?”
“Ah, Natsuya-senpai? Our swim club captain in middle school?”
“The very same. I met him again at a tournament in America some years ago. We travel together from time to time.”
“Haru, that sounds great!”
“He acts like an annoying big brother, but other than that, it’s the happiest time of my life,” he said. “I swim when I want, where I want.”
A soft smile lingered in his lips, making Makoto’s heart skip a beat. He couldn’t remember the last time he saw this sight. He imagined Haruka lying on his back and gliding across a pool, feeling the water embrace him with his eyes closed.
Memories of their last meeting flooded Makoto’s head. They had yelled words that cut deep into each other’s hearts. Haruka had wanted the world to leave him alone and let things be. For Makoto, it was a desperate attempt to make Haruka see some sense. Ever since he found Haruka and Rin arguing in the locker room during regionals, he had been terrified that Haruka would quit swimming again like he did in middle school, only this time for good.
What dream? What future? I don’t have any of that! These words were gusts of wind that blew Makoto away. How could Haruka believe this? For his natural skills and all the hard work he put into swimming, he deserved to have a bright future ahead of him.
Knowing that Haruka pursued doing what he loved most gave Makoto a rush of relief.
He gave his best friend a big smile. “I’m so happy for you, Haru!”
Haruka’s eyes glinted under the soft afternoon light. Had it really been eight years since they last saw each other? It was only natural to see Haruka age, but he had aged in a way that suited him. He looked like he had gained more muscles from swimming competitively, his skin a few shades darker from traveling across warmer places. Despite those slight differences, Haruka had the same haircut from when they were children. He still wore loose clothes like he was always ready to strip them off and jump into a pool. The faint scent of chlorine still clung to him.
Makoto must have been smiling for too long because Haruka whipped his head to the side, something he did every time he was embarrassed. Makoto’s cheeks burned up. He searched around the living room helplessly and found framed photos of him and his younger twin siblings, Ren and Ran. “The twins still ask about you sometimes.”
“Oh,” Haruka blinked. “How are they?”
“They’re doing very well,” he said. “They’re in high school now. They moved to Tokyo with our parents a couple of years ago. Still as lively and talkative as ever.”
Haruka chuckled. “Do you visit Iwatobi often? How are your parents?”
“They’re okay,” said Makoto. “Dad got a job offer here, that’s why he and Mom and the twins moved. It’s great because we can see each other every weekend. We visit Iwatobi every summer.”
“How long are you staying in Tokyo?”
“Maybe three more weeks,” replied Haruka. “I’ve already visited my parents in Osaka, so I’ll probably stay for a couple of days more after the tournament, then fly out.”
Haruka’s phone chimed before Makoto could say something. He watched Haruka’s expressions change as he read the message— his eyebrows scrunching, his lips frowning, and his face gradually smoothening with indifference.
“It’s Natsuya,” said Haruka, slipping his phone back to his pocket and taking a deep breath. “We rented a house with some other guys who are also joining the tournament, and they’re having crisis in the kitchen. Again.”
He took another breath and searched Makoto’s face, letting another moment to pass before hesitantly saying, “I have to go.”
Haruka stood up. “Do you still see the others?”
“Uh yeah,” he said, following Haruka to the door. “Nagisa and Rei moved to Tokyo too. I see them once in a while.”
“I see. Maybe we can all hang out sometime before I go.”
“Yeah, sure! I’ll let them know you’re here.”
Haruka nodded and started putting his shoes on. Nikko rushed to his side, purring and nuzzling his shins, telling him not to leave.
Makoto laughed. “Nikko, Haru has to go.”
Haruka petted the white cat and gazed at Makoto wordlessly.
He cleared his throat. “Haru,” he said. “Thank you again. For taking care of Nikko and bringing her back.”
Haruka shrugged. “It’s nothing.”
And without thinking, Makoto threw his arms around Haruka and hugged him so tightly that he felt his friend stiffen. “Sorry” he said, laughing nervously. How he wanted to kick himself. Tachibana Makoto, what do you think you’re doing?! “I-I’m just so happy to see you again.”
The words flew out of his mouth before he could catch them. Blush creeped up from his cheeks to the tips of his ears.
“Me too,” Haruka told the floor.
His friend looked at him and blinked a silent inquiry.
Fists clenched, Makoto asked, “Are you free tomorrow?”
“Do you wanna go out?”
Haruka fished his phone out of his pocket and asked for Makoto’s phone number. Then, he rang it so Makoto could save his. “There we go.”
Makoto picked up Nikko in his arms and waved her arm at Haruka. “Bye, Haru!”
“Bye. See you tomorrow.”
Makoto smiled at him for the last time and closed the door. Leaning against it, he let his legs give in and melt to the floor. His skin tingled where it touched had Haruka. His cheeks and his ears were still warm and blushing. He heaved a long and heavy sigh, then pressed his phone to his lips. Warmth bloomed in his chest. Joy sparked to his fingertips. He felt eight years younger.
Nikko meowed at him. You’re grinning like an idiot.
Chapter 2: when i run out of road, you bring me home
Makoto looked at Haruka like he was the sky and he was swimming in a river, lying on his back, floating, floating. Makoto's eyes were so bright, his smile pure and full of joy. Haruka hadn’t seen that look for years and for a moment, he forgot how to breathe.
"As for myself, I had a lot to say. But I was silent."
- Albert Camus
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Tokyo had 13,047,446 residents. When Haruka saw MISSING signs about the cat that followed him to his rented apartment after swim practice, he told himself there was no need to worry. Everything was fine. He looked at the poster again and again and again, making sure this was the same white cat with lime green eyes, who purred sweetly and walked circles around his ankles.
Then, he read the text about the owner: If found, please return to Tachibana Makoto, along with his phone number.
Tokyo had 13,047,446 residents and Tachibana Makoto was a very common name. There were probably hundreds of men and women with that name, written in the same kanji characters: a nerdy, Veterinary medicine student, a dad with seven cat-loving children, or an old cat lady who’d lost track of how many cats she’d adopted.
Haruka walked back to the apartment with these thoughts spinning around his head like dares on a roulette until a dull ache sliced through his skull. With every heavy step he took, his soles dragging against the asphalt, he had a feeling he knew which Tachibana Makoto it was, and he was definitely not an old cat lady.
You look pale, Nanase. Is something wrong?
He shook his head and waited for another day to ask his housemate to call Tachibana Makoto and tell him we found your cat, give me your address so I can bring her home.
Haruka would never forget how his hands trembled upon ringing the doorbell, how he almost turned around and thought this was a mistake I should have asked Mizuno to return the cat , but it was too late because the door had already opened and there stood Tachibana Makoto— not a nerdy, Veterinary medicine student, nor a dad with cat-loving children, nor an old cat lady, but his childhood best friend— frozen in place, those forest green eyes, the ones he’d known for years, wide with shock.
Since the day he decided to enter the tournament in Tokyo, Makoto’s Tokyo, he’d lie awake at night imagining an unexpected reunion with him. Of course, he did. The city might have 13,047,446 residents, 282 subway stations, and 23 wards, but he didn’t take away the possibility of a chance encounter. He imagined accidentally meeting him at a temple, lighting an incense while Haruka and his fellow athletes said their prayers, or at a coffee shop by the bay, reading a book and occasionally gazing at the water while it shimmered with the sun’s most brilliant, final colours.
He had imagined countless scenarios like this but none of them involved returning his lost, precious cat.
Haruka was proud of himself for maintaining his calm disposition as he talked to him, able to tease and joke lightly while keeping away from retracing their painful last memories together.
I’m going to Tokyo.
The deafening BOOM of fireworks, colours blooming in the night sky.
Breathlessness drowning Makoto’s apologies.
Do what you want!
The sound of his own voice and footsteps running far, far away, echoing in his ears.
He showed no sign of remembering as he sat next to Makoto, talking about his present life.
His life without—
He was close to giving himself a full mark until his childhood best friend decided to hug him and almost made him crumble like a butter cookie in a clenched fist.
Are you free tomorrow? Makoto asked.
Yeah. Haruka replied on instinct.
Do you wanna go out?
And that was how Haruka found himself sitting on the top bench of Makoto’s local swim club the next day, watching him teach primary school kids how to swim with kickboards. He had finished training early this morning so he decided to visit Makoto at work and have lunch together.
Makoto looked up and waved at him, pulling him away from his thoughts. His smile promised, I’ll be with you in a minute.
Almost nothing had changed since he’d last seen Makoto coach children in their old swim club back in Iwatobi. His enthusiasm shone in the way he talked and guided children with their strokes. Only this time, he spoke more confidently and polished his teaching techniques, completely owning the class.
By the end of their morning session, Makoto congratulated everyone for a job well done, giving each of them a high-five. His class of six children gave him one last look, waving before going out the door, eager to tell their waiting parents how their swimming class went.
“Goodbye, Tachibana-kouchi! See you on Friday!” They said in unison, big smiles and high-pitched voices despite their exhaustion.
“Sorry to keep you waiting, Haru,” said Makoto after showering. His light brown hair was more tousled from being blow-dried, and the hood of his parka hung lopsided from his broad shoulders. He had his backpack on, ready for their lunch out.
“Don’t worry about it. We finished training early today.” Haruka handed him a foam cup. “I got you hojicha on the way here.”
“Ah, thank you, Haru!” Makoto accepted it with a wide grin, tilting his head to the side.
“It’s nothing.” Haruka turned his head to the side. There was no need to make a big deal out of it. He just happened to remember Makoto liked hot roasted tea while he was on his post-training tea run.
“Shall we go?” asked Makoto.
Haruka nodded and followed him outside the swim club. The late-winter wind swept across the neighbourhood. People rushed to their destinations, digging their hands deep in their coat pockets, exhaling foggy breaths.
“You know, it’s been a while since I’ve been to Tsukiji,” said Makoto, gazing up at the grey sky. “I think the last time I visited was last year, when a friend asked me to show her around.”
Haruka raised an eyebrow. “You should visit more often to eat the best kinds of fish.”
Makoto chuckled. “You’re right.”
Even at midday, this part of the city was engulfed in silence. The only sounds Haruka could hear were their footsteps hitting the pavement and the cars passing. He sipped his tea. “Your students seemed to enjoy the class a lot.”
He watched as Makoto’s face blushed. “Ah, yeah. I enjoy teaching them too,” he said. “They start out very shy and clingy, kind of reminding me of how I was when we were kids.”
A smile eased itself into Haruka’s lips.
“Some of them would throw tantrums for the first couple of meetings, then after a few more, they would get comfortable and would surprise me by swimming across the pool with little to no support,” said Makoto. “Remember Kisumi’s brother, Hayato?”
Haruka nodded. The names took him back to the time Makoto was helping Coach Sasabe at their childhood swim club. He remembered Makoto asking him for advice because he was at a loss. Hayato still hated swimming despite the techniques Makoto taught him.
“He struggled learning how to swim until I taught him how to swim backstroke so he would be less afraid, like what you suggested. At the end of it all, he came to me and said: I’m not scared of swimming anymore! I had fun!” Makoto smiled fondly. “ I still hold on to his words even now. I remember him every time my new students tell me how they love swimming. I love seeing the joy in their cute little faces and the way they grow fond of swimming and the water. They all remind me of why I pursued this career in the first place.”
Haruka responded with silence. He was not sure what to say next. Makoto rarely poured his heart out like that to anyone, not even him. It was something the two of them shared for different reasons. Haruka preferred showing more than telling. He wouldn’t say thank you when someone did him a huge favour; instead, he would gift the person something they adored. Makoto, on the other hand, naturally preferred keeping conversations as light-hearted as possible. He couldn’t trust himself to express his deep thoughts in front of other people, a trait he took with him from his childhood, when he was painfully shy.
This time, however, Makoto let his heart speak and Haruka should honour it with a response.
“That’s—” He tested his voice, and then he took a deep breath, willing his mouth to spill the words. “That’s incredible, Makoto. Really… I— I’m so glad to hear you’re living your dream.”
Makoto, who was staring at his shoes, raised his head to meet Haruka’s gaze, his eyes brightening. His expression changed from solemn, to surprised, and to the look he had when he heard about how Haruka was pursuing his own passion overseas.
“I started coaching kids for competitions too. Thought about stepping it up a bit,” continued Makoto, shoving his hands in his pockets. “I’ve also considered training to become a coach to professional swimmers, but maybe some other time. I love teaching children for now.”
“I see,” replied Haruka, tapping his fingers against his foam cup that was quickly losing its warmth.
They continued walking to the train station in companionable silence. Haruka caught himself holding his breath when Makoto got a bit too close, their arms brushing. It felt so strange and familiar at the same time. He thought about Iwatobi, when they used to spend each day of the year together, how they used to walk very close to each other along the seashore at sunset, talking about so many things, from the remarkable to the mundane.
Walking beside each other in the streets of Tokyo, holding foam cups of tea, and talking about life made him feel the same way he felt when listening to a song he hadn’t heard for years, surprising him when he still knew every word.
The train arrived as they fell into a neat line behind the other expecting passengers.
“We’re just in time,” said Makoto, grinning with amusement.
Together, they boarded the train to Tsukiji.
“It’s snowing,” remarked Makoto once they climbed out of the station. He tilted his head up, watching the sky with childish wonder. “You know, it’s rare for Tokyo to get snow. We probably get it one or two days a year.”
“Oh,” said Haruka, blinking. He watched the snowflakes fall on Makoto’s sandy brown hair, sprinkling all over the faux fur of his hood, creating a galaxy of stars on his black parka.
The wind blew, causing a shiver to run down his body.
“Should we use an umbrella? I have one in my bag,” asked Makoto, face lined with worry.
“It’s fine, really. Thanks,” replied Haruka. “It’s just a little snowfall. I want to feel it in my face.”
Makoto exhaled a soft laugh, If you’re sure.
They strolled along the Outer Market, following the tide of visitors along the open space with their hands buried deep inside their pockets and half of their faces under woollen scarves. Haruka took his time observing all the different kinds of seafood and street food sold in the stalls— giant oysters, fatty tuna bowls, crab fish cake sticks, and eel skewers— pausing from time to time.
“Is there anything in particular that you want to try?” asked Makoto.
“Yeah. I wanna try a sea urchin steamed bun.” Haruka pulled his phone out of his pocket to show Makoto some pictures.
Makoto hummed. “Okay, Haru.”
The two of them found the stall after asking around and got one bun each. Still steaming hot, the buns were big enough to fit and warm their freezing hands. They took a bite at the same time, sighing with delight as the flavours hit their tongues.
“Wow, this is so delicious!” Makoto said, his face glowing. He paused to find the words to describe the experience he was having, and failed, so he sighed again.
It was nothing Haruka had tasted before. The sea urchin cream in the centre was so soft, he could feel it melting in his mouth. The sea salt flavour in it was strong, but the squid ink-flavoured bun helped give it a mild taste.
They finished their buns with a couple more bites, savouring the mix of textures and flavours.
The corners of Makoto’s eyes crinkled when he smiled. The squid ink bun had stained his teeth black, and Haruka couldn’t stop himself from giving him a close-mouthed smile.
Makoto blinked, suddenly self-conscious. “What?”
Haruka pointed to his own teeth.
A deep shade of red coloured Makoto’s face. He covered his mouth with his hand while he ran his tongue in front of his teeth. Haruka did the same for good measure.
The two of them shared a laugh after it was all over.
“There,” said Makoto, flashing his perfectly-aligned teeth. “Is it gone?”
Haruka nodded, still smiling.
Makoto sighed a misty breath.
After that, they wandered aimlessly around the area until they decided to look for a restaurant where they could have a proper sushi meal.
“Look, Haru,” said Makoto, pointing at a massive fish head outside a sushi restaurant, inviting customers inside. It was bigger than their heads combined, its steely eyes round, its mouth open.
Eyes wide with awe, Haruka let out a tiny gasp. “Let’s eat here.”
Makoto chuckled. “Okay.”
The staff led them to the less crowded area upstairs. While waiting for their sashimi bowls, Haruka told Makoto about the time he went diving for sea urchin in Chile and how his host family made fresh salad out of it. He got stung countless times out of inexperience, but mostly because of his impatience to dig in. Makoto asked more about his misadventures abroad, listening attentively, while resting his chin on his hand, eyes wide with wonder. That’s awesome, Haru.
Haruka watched Makoto too as he talked. Sitting opposite him under the fluorescent lights, he could observe him better. Twenty-six suited him very well. He’d grown into his figure, had gotten broader and taller, maintaining the same height difference with Haruka all these years. His features were more chiselled, cheekbones stronger, jawline more prominent.
If they didn’t grow up together, Haruka wouldn’t believe he was the shy little boy who stumbled on sandcastles and cried loudly when he scratched his knees. He had fully emerged into adulthood, understandably more reserved and refined, but still radiated the warmth that Haruka knew he had, looking at people with his soft and droopy eyes and gentle smiles.
“Tachibana?” An unfamiliar voice called across the room.
Makoto whipped his head to the direction of the voice and squinted to recognise the face. “Watanabe?”
“Yeah, it’s me!”
A lanky man in his mid-twenties wearing loose clothing squeezed into the narrow space in between tables to reach Haruka and Makoto. Bumping his fist against Makoto’s, he said, “Long time no see!”
“Yeah, it’s been a while, isn’t it?” said Makoto. He gestured across the table. “Oh, this is my childhood friend, Nanase Haruka.”
“Watanabe Ryunosuke,” said the stranger. “Makoto’s university friend. It’s nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too,” replied Haruka.
Watanabe looked down from the stairs and announced, “Hey guys, look who’s here!”
More voices murmured among themselves, intrigued. Their footsteps echoed in the hall until two ladies and another guy came into view and went straight to Makoto to greet him. At first glance, Haruka could tell they were corporate people with how they wore their nice dark trench coats and kept their hair sleek and ordinary, like any other salarymen and salary women.
“It’s been too long!”
“Fancy seeing you here in Tsukiji.”
“Ah, I’m showing my friend around,” said Makoto, smiling at Haruka. “We go way back in Iwatobi, you know, where I grew up.”
The corporate guy gave them an amused look. “Wow. You must know each other very well!”
Makoto let out a sheepish laugh, his cheeks going red. “Y-Yeah, you can say that.”
He loosened up a little once his friends told him what they had been up to, relaxing in his seat and making small talk. Gone was the painfully shy little boy who always tugged at Haruka’s shirt because he didn’t know how to talk to kids he’d never met before.
Haruka tuned out their conversation, only having to feign interest from time to time. He let his mind wander back to Makoto’s apartment while they talked yesterday, for the first time in eight years. Some things stayed the same, like how his house smelled like oranges. Whenever he thought about the Tachibana home in Iwatobi, he would always remember Mrs. Tachibana bringing them oranges while they played video games or did homework in Makoto’s room especially at this time of the year.
Haruka had a good look around Makoto’s apartment while he was in the toilet, trying to find out what he missed out during his absence. Nostalgia danced in his chest when he saw their old relay photos, from grade school, middle school, and the last one in high school. Next to it were photos of the children Makoto taught at work. There was also one of him with Kisumi and Asahi, whom he seemed to have reconnected with in university.
Then there was the wall of photos with his other university friends. They laughed, made goofy faces, and clung to him. A boy who wore a feathery jacket and a flowing black skirt, a girl with blue hair and no shoes, a blue-eyed foreigner with lots of facial piercings, making the peace sign with a very huge grin. None of them looked familiar to Haruka except for Kisumi and Asahi.
Not far from them were postcards with lots of hearts and xoxo in untidy scrawls. European cathedrals, American skyscrapers, and an Indian flea market that Haruka visited last month. A lot of them described the incredible places they’d visited and how their day went, some more affectionate than others: I miss you , I can’t wait to see you again. Some of them were in English, leaving a bitter taste in Haruka’s mouth.
Makoto’s university friends wrapped up their quick conversation when another colleague called and told them they were at the wrong restaurant.
“—We went snowboarding in Niigata last week—”
“—We’re going to Seoul next month—”
“—You should come with us!—”
“—Yeah, we’ve missed you—”
One of the ladies, whose name already escaped Haruka’s mind, gave Makoto a playful shove and kicked-puppy eyes. “You don’t message us anymore.”
Haruka tightened his grip around his chopsticks.
“Ah, I’m sorry. I’ve been busy,” said Makoto, scratching his head.
“That’s why you have to come with us to Korea,” said Corporate Lady Number Two.
Makoto gave them an apologetic grin. “I’ll have to see my schedule.”
“Oh, come on, Tachibana. Have some fun from time to time,” said Watanabe. He gathered his oversized coat, preparing to leave with the rest of his friends. He winked. “I’ll message you next week.”
Makoto heaved a breath after all his university friends left.
“I’m sorry about that,” he told Haruka, picking on his half-finished sashimi bowl.
“It’s okay,” replied Haruka. “Where do you want to go next?”
After lunch, the two of them walked around Tsukiji in silence. It was still snowing a little bit, but the afternoon crowd had already left. Since Makoto was off for the rest of the day, he suggested they go to Odaiba, which was not too far away, to see the Rainbow Bridge and people-watch until sunset. Haruka doubted the sky would be as colourful in the summer, but he’d like to be by the sea and admire the calm waves.
Makoto was about to say something when a couple of foreigners with golden hair and black puffer jackets approached them.
“Uh, excuse me,” said the guy in English, phone in hand. “Do you know where Tsukiji Station is? Tsukiji Station?”
He said it very slowly, making sure they understood his words. Other people could have been confused with the way he stretched out the vowels in ‘Tsukiji’ like Choo-kee-jee , but Haruka understood perfectly.
While Makoto was panicking to construct sentences in his head, Haruka pointed his finger and replied calmly, “Just walk straight ahead then turn left.”
The foreigner’s face brightened with relief for getting the answer he needed. “Oh okay. Thanks, man!”
Once the couple went on their way to the station, Makoto was looking at Haruka like he had collected all the stars in the Milky Way and kept them in a glass jar.
“You can speak English fluently,” he said, staring at him in surprise. “Wow, I don’t think I’ve spoken it since university days. Never needed to use it. I mean, I had some foreign students at the swim club, but they spoke fluent Nihongo, but yeah…”
Haruka frowned. “Well, I had to learn it to survive.”
He remembered how difficult it was to learn the foreign language intensively at 18, how alone it made him feel to live in a country that didn’t speak the only language he knew, making him ponder why did I even decide to leave Japan? But he thought about his newfound dream, how much he’d like to experience the international stage of swimming, to be a part of it, so he spent hours and hours taking lessons when he was in America. When he left, he continued learning, watching Youtube clips and Netflix movies late at night until he fell asleep, practicing and exchanging travel stories with people he met on the road.
“You speak it like a native! You even got the accent, you know, like in American movies,” said Makoto. “Wow. Haru is good at everything he does.”
The look on Makoto’s face brought Haruka back to the times he’d won his freestyle races in primary school, every time people watch the prodigy with awe, praising him, and Makoto beaming at his best friend with pride.
He turned his head away. “Natsuya-senpai keeps nagging me to practice and speak more. He’s so bossy, I understand why Ikuya doesn’t want to be around him.”
Makoto laughed light-heartedly. “Natsuya-senpai will be Natsuya-senpai, I guess.”
“Hey I got the tickets for Ghibli Museum tomorrow, by the way.”
When Makoto asked him yesterday which places he wanted to see around Tokyo, Haruka mentioned he wanted to go to Ghibli Museum, but he wasn’t able to book a ticket in advance.
Haruka had been fascinated about Studio Ghibli films since he was a child, and Makoto knew it more than anyone. He was drawn into the quirky characters and how folklore was weaved into each of the movie’s storylines. He loved the films so much, he dared to dream about becoming an animator when he was in high school, but in the end, he didn’t believe he could make it.
Makoto said he could get tickets even with a short notice because he had a friend who worked there. He listened while Makoto told him about the time he took Ren and Ran there when he got his first full-time salary, vividly describing the exhibits. You’re gonna love it, for sure! The excitement in Haruka’s face must have been very obvious because Makoto laughed the way he did whenever Haruka showed the slightest enthusiasm about anything.
“Are you sure it’s okay?” said Haruka. “I don’t want to impose.”
Makoto shook his head. “I have a lot of vacation leave this year, don’t worry about it.”
“If you say so.”
Makoto fished his phone out of his pocket, feeling it vibrate.
“Good news,” he said. “Rei said he and Nagisa can have dinner with us tomorrow night!”
Haruka gave him a faint smile. “I’m glad. I haven’t heard from them for years,” he said. “Natsuya-senpai said he wants to see you. I think he’s planning a hotpot night with Nao-senpai.”
Makoto grinned. “I’d like that. I don’t think I’ve seen them since they graduated from middle school.”
Haruka fiddled with the zipper of his coat, listening to the echo of their footsteps hitting the wet pavement. “Have you heard anything from Rin lately? He’d been bothering me since I got here in Tokyo.”
Humming, Makoto answered, “He asked me if I wanted to go to Kamakura with him and Sousuke, visit some temples and eat seafood, maybe.”
“Me too, actually.”
“Are you coming?”
“Cool. I haven’t been there in a while.”
“I’ve literally never been there before.”
“It’s pretty popular amongst tourists, but is still very peaceful. It has a lot of ancient temples and good food. I think you’ll like it,” said Makoto.
Haruka nodded. “Time to see some old friends, huh?”
Makoto looked at Haruka like he was the sky and he was swimming in a river, lying on his back, floating, floating. Makoto's eyes were so bright, his smile pure and full of joy. Haruka hadn’t seen that look for years and for a moment, he forgot how to breathe.
He distracted himself by thinking about meeting Nagisa and Rei, Rin and Sousuke, and their two senpai Natsuya and Nao. It would be like old times. Would it be, though? After all this time? A rush of excitement washed over him as his stomach formed little knots.
Then, he gazed at Makoto again, and he told himself, yes it would be like old times.
here's something to feast on while i work on the next chapters.
have i ever told you guys i visited Japan while writing this fic? good times. my mind really hasn’t really returned from that trip tbh. i think it will stay there for a while. writing this helped me deal with the post-vacation blues. <3
also, i’ve made a Spotify playlist for all the songs that helped me write this story.
what do you think about Haru and Makoto’s non-first date? what do you guys expect to see next? double dates with ReiGisa, NatsuNao, and SouRin, maybe? we don’t know! feed my ego. validate me. please? otherwise, i’ll see you next update!
Chapter 3: and my heart is playing hide and seek
Haruka and Makoto catch up with Nagisa and Rei over dinner, observing what changed and what didn't over the last eight years. As the night goes on, Haruka realises how good it feels to be home.
Every time Haruka took the train, it always took him back to his first memories of Tokyo. He’d been to the city before. His parents used to bring him along when he was a child, but those times were a distant haze, a blur of colours, to him now.
When he first stepped in Tokyo Station a week ago, just when the trains were about to stop operating for the night, he was aware of the strong tide of shinkansen passengers rushing from different parts of the country. Nobody ever stopped walking. The stench of alcohol clung to salarymen coming home after a long day of work and drinking with colleagues. The shops had long since closed, shutters down and hiding behind protective nets.
The scene wasn’t any different in Shinjuku Station as he and Makoto tried to find their way to an izakaya to meet Nagisa and Rei, except they had been in train stations far too long because they kept taking the wrong trains together.
“We didn’t have to deal with this in Iwatobi!” whined Makoto, his eyebrows drawn together in frustration.
Thankfully, they didn’t have to deal with this when they went to Tsukiji, Ghibli Museum, or any other places they had been since yesterday, or else, they would have wasted their time train-hopping. Their luck must have run out this time around.
They stepped out of what seemed to be their fourth train that evening. Haruka had insisted on navigating with his own map application in their last train station to finally put Makoto at ease.
“I’ve been living in Tokyo for eight years and I still haven’t gotten the hang of riding trains. This is so embarrassing.” Makoto shook his head while laughing with disbelief. “I’m sorry, Haru.”
“It’s alright,” replied Haruka, stepping on the escalator that would carry them out of the platform. “We made it.”
Rush hour had taken over Shinjuku Station. People flowed in and out of the halls in a quick rhythm, heading straight to their own destinations, whether to the platforms or the concrete jungle outside the station. Nagisa and Rei were already waiting for them at the entrance. Their faces lit up upon recognising Haruka and Makoto in the whirlwind of crowds.
“Hey guys! Sorry to keep you waiting!” said Makoto, scratching his head in embarrassment.
“It’s okay, Makoto-senpai. We didn’t wait long,” replied Rei.
“Haru-chan!” said Nagisa.
Haruka prepared himself to be tackled into a big hug, but it didn’t come. Instead, Nagisa only flashed a broad grin. “Long time no see!”
“Yeah, long time no see.”
“We’re very happy to see you again, Haruka-senpai,” Rei said with a polite smile.
He still wore red glasses like in high school. Corporate look fitted him perfectly, his silk tie in a neat knot and his posture straight like he always meant business.
“Thank you for meeting me tonight,” said Haruka. “Shall we?”
“Let’s go,” said Nagisa, without the usual bounce in his step.
Something about him felt out-of-place for Haruka. It wasn’t the laid-back way he carried himself or the bright yellow parka that stood out in Tokyo’s black-uniformed locals. Maybe it took some time for him to warm up again, giving his usual cheery remarks or casual jokes, because he hadn’t seen Haruka since they parted ways in high school.
Something in the back of Haruka’s mind told him perhaps it was how adulthood had shaped him. He reminded Haruka of a mural painting he’d seen in Spain: larger than life and once had vivid colours that had faded in time. The thought put a concerned frown in Haruka’s face.
The four of them walked in silence, tracing Shinjuku’s narrow, winding alleys. Lanterns and blinking lights shone like stars in the night sky. The cold February wind blew, sending shivers to their skins, and their hands buried deep into their pockets.
They sighed with relief as they hurried inside the izakaya, stepping into a boxed world of shared dishes and cigarette smoke. Once they had located their reserved table and shed off their coats, Haruka let Nagisa, Rei, and Makoto order their food. He sat in silence as the three of them looked at the menu, pointed at the dishes they wanted him to try, their specialties, one of this, two plates of that, and don’t forget the grilled mackerel. Nagisa called the waiter and pointed at the menu, ordering rapid-fire, finishing with a smile at Haruka and the familiar glint in those magenta eyes.
Not long after, the food started streaming in. Most of them were yakitori of various kinds— chicken meatballs, green pepper with cheese, and many others that Haruka couldn’t recognise. They also had egg omelette, topped with mayonnaise and cheese. Smoke wafted across their table, signalling the arrival of his grilled mackerel. Clapping their hands once, they gave thanks and dug in.
Haruka sighed audibly, pleased with the taste of the juicy, savoury yakitori in his mouth. It was a flavour that he could only taste here at home. “This is so good!”
“Haru-chan, have you been eating well abroad?” Across him, Nagisa was shoving food on Rei’s plate. “What kind of food do you eat? Do you still cook?”
“Nagisa, that’s too mu— ahh!”
“Ahh sorry, Rei-chan.”
Makoto laughed beside him.
“I cook sometimes,” said Haruka. “I travel with a senpai from middle school. We meet Japanese swimmers along the way and we cook Japanese food when we can. Well, I do most of the cooking, really. But nothing beats the food here at home.”
“You’re as diligent as ever, Haruka-senpai,” said Rei. “What is it like living abroad?”
“Normal.” Haruka shrugged. “It was strange at first. The cars driving on the other side of the road, people making small talk all the time, being more opinionated in general, and less punctual. I got used to it I guess.”
“Wow, that’s awesome, Haru-chan,” said Nagisa, pinching a piece of egg omelette between his chopsticks. “And what did you miss the most? Did you miss home at all?”
The question was forgotten the next moment as the tap beer came, saving Haruka from an answer he was not prepared to make.
They shared a toast and chorused, “Kanpai!”
Slamming his beer glass on the table after a big gulp, Nagisa nibbled on his yakitori and fired away with his next questions. “When did you come back? Did you visit other cities before Tokyo?”
“I got here about two weeks ago, I think,” replied Haruka. “I visited my parents in Osaka, then spent a week in Kyoto. And met some deer in Nara.”
Nagisa’s eyes widened. “Did you? Were they cute? They’re free to roam around the city, aren’t they?”
Haruka nodded. “They were really cute, especially the babies. I fed them some deer cookies too.”
Nagisa gasped and tugged at Rei’s sleeve. “Rei-chan, we have to see the deer too!”
He kept his questions coming, feeding his curiosity about Haruka’s life overseas while munching on the food on the table. Rei interrupted him occasionally to ask for more details. All that time, Haruka quietly observed Makoto who preferred to listen, sometimes laughing softly at their friends’ hilarious remarks, and stacking finished yakitori sticks on the short glass in the middle of the table.
They talked and laughed and kept ordering tall glasses of tap beer. Haruka felt warmer, beads of sweat forming on the bridge of his nose, his ears and his cheeks heating up from the alcohol burning down his throat and seeing the patrons huddled close in their small tables.
At some point, he got tired of talking and tuned out Nagisa and Rei’s light chatter. He listened to the loud conversations surrounding them, his mind drifting to their neighbours sharing a toast and congratulating each other for a job well done, to the echoes of kanpai, to the slamming beer glasses on wooden tables. To the flash of green eyes and a gentle smile a few inches away.
“Are you okay, Haru?” Makoto asked in a low voice that only two of them could hear.
Haruka turned his attention to Nagisa and Rei who called the waiter to order deep-fried eel.
“So, uh, Rei,” he said. “You work as an accountant?”
Rei was lightly puzzled by suddenly being under the spotlight. He cleared his throat. “Y-Yes. I’m a legal accountant at a law firm in Chiyoda.”
“Rei-chan’s been working veeery long hours and he’s now in line for promotion.” Nagisa beamed proudly.
“Ah, that’s great. Well done, Rei!” exclaimed Makoto.
Haruka nodded. “And how about you, Nagisa?”
“I’m always free these days,” he said, grinning and scratching his head. “I quit my job because I didn’t like the boss. Rei-chan had been very nice to let me crash in his place.” He nudged Rei’s shoulder with his head. “I’ll pay you my rent share as soon as I get another job. Don’t worry!”
Rei huffed with impatience like they’d talked about this over and over. “I keep telling you, you don’t have to worry about what your parents say. I’m happy to support you.”
“Does this mean you’ll buy me a box of cream puffs every day after work?”
Rei rolled his eyes.
A faint smile graced Haruka’s lips. He didn’t have to look under the table to see their hands intertwined.
Makoto laughed and met Haruka’s eyes. They haven’t changed, have they?
“Anyway!” Nagisa turned to Makoto across him, startling his senpai a little bit. “Mako-chan, you found your cat!”
“Mako-chan had been very sad and worried when he lost Nikko-chan so Rei-chan and I helped look for her,” Nagisa told Haruka. “And Haru-chan found her! That’s so cool! It must be serendipity!”
“Nagisa,” muttered Rei, elbowing him.
“Dessert, anyone?” asked Makoto, perhaps a little too loudly. He grappled the menu from across the table. “Let’s see… They have ice cream… You like strawberry ice cream, don’t you, Nagisa?”
Half an hour later, they finished all the food and paid for the bill. The other patrons had packed up, easing themselves in between the backs of the chairs and saying goodbye and see you tomorrow.
“Ahh I’m so full!” said Rei, rubbing circles on his stomach.
“What do you guys want to do now?” asked Makoto.
Nagisa thought about it for a second, cocking his head to the side.
“We can go home,” he said, then, his magenta eyes gleamed. “Or party until the train starts operating in the morning!”
“Don’t be silly, Nagisa,” replied Rei. “Haruka-senpai has training and Makoto-senpai has work tomorrow.”
“I’m just kidding!” said Nagisa. “But really, we should do it one time. It’s Haru-chan’s first time in Tokyo with us, so we deserve to have some fun!”
“Haruka-senpai, you don’t have to say yes if you don’t want to.”
Makoto gazed at him, waiting for his answer.
“That’s okay with me,” said Haruka. “I haven’t seen you guys in eight years. Tell me what you’ve been up to. Show me around Tokyo.”
Nagisa’s face glowed like Shinjuku’s lantern-lit streets and launched into his spiel of places to take Haruka for the night. Rei shared his own suggestions too, and together, they planned their itinerary.
“Let’s hop into another pub or a nightclub—”
“Then, we can hit the arcades—”
“Or we can go to a sushi bar! I know a place that’s open 24/7—”
Makoto let out an amused laugh. “They’re so happy to see you.”
“I’m happy to be with everyone too.”
Haruka smiled, but didn’t let it linger. They shouldn’t know his heart was too big for his chest at the moment, filled with nostalgia and excitement of youth. Memories of the four of them together flashed before his eyes— attending summer festivals, jogging in early spring, stargazing in the islands, driving fast with the windows down, Iwatobi in four seasons. He was right when he thought it would be like old times, except this time, they were prancing around Tokyo.
Coats on and scarves around their necks, they stepped out of the izakaya, ready to face the winter winds with the promise of a late-night adventure.
Nagisa threw his arms in the air. “HARU-CHAN IS IN JAPAN!”
Haruka and Makoto, who were a few paces behind him and Rei, shared a laugh. In the dark, Haruka met Makoto’s gaze. Shadows and city lights painted his smiling face, a spectrum of colours catching on the tip of his nose, to the ends of his lashes, making his eyes shine brighter.
“It’s good to be home,” said Haruka.
makoharu double date with reigisa! yay! what do you think about aged-up nagisa and rei? and did anything change between makoto and haru? did they break the ice yet or are they still awkward with each other? as usual, let me know what you think! i love reading your comments and they keep me writing! uwu
if anyone’s interested, i made a Spotify playlist for this fic.
and if you ever want to chat with me, you can find me here:
see you next update!
Chapter 4: we all need someone to stay
Natsuya tells Makoto how he and Haruka met on the road, and Rin pesters Haruka about joining the national team.
The next time Haruka and Makoto went to an izakaya, they were meeting their middle-school senpai, Natsuya and Nao. They were already sharing a plate of grilled squid, four empty beer glasses pushed to the side of their table. When Natsuya saw them approaching, he crossed his arms with impatience.
“You’re late,” he said, frowning at Haruka.
Haruka blinked. “You said we should meet at 7 p.m.”
“I texted you earlier. I said we should meet at 6:30 instead.”
“My phone’s on Do Not Disturb.”
Groaning, Natsuya lamented, “This kid is hopeless.”
“Enough of that,” said Nao. “Come sit with us, Haruka, Makoto.”
“It’s so nice to see you again, Nao-senpai, Natsuya-senpai,” said Makoto, taking the empty seat beside Nao. “It’s been so long!”
“Yeah, it has been.” Nao rested his chin on his hand, regarding Haruka and Makoto with bright green eyes and a smile that always seemed to bring a sense of calm and comfort.
“Let’s order hotpot, shall we?” Natsuya asked after taking a big gulp of his tap beer.
“Yes,” the three of them chorused.
The staff immediately took their orders, including their drinks, and hurried back to the kitchen. This izakaya was unbelievably tinier than the one they visited with Nagisa and Rei, but it was less busy, so it didn’t bother Haruka that their table was tucked in a corner.
“Look at you two! You sure have grown a lot, especially Makoto,” said Nao. “How have you been?”
That made Makoto blush like every time one of his mother’s friends complimented him. The last time I saw you, you were this small and clinging tightly to your mother. What a handsome young man you are now! He never did learn how to respond to those comments without stuttering.
“G-Good,” replied Makoto. “I— uh— I coach children at the swim club in my neighbourhood.”
“How do you like it?”
“I really enjoy it a lot. The kids learn pretty quickly and are always excited to show off their new skills. They’re adorable.”
“I’m very glad to hear that,” said Nao, grinning. “And Haruka, how have you been?”
Haruka wanted to squirm in his seat. Every time people called him his first name was a stab in the chest. He never learned to love it, no matter how many times people said it was beautiful. It sounded strange to his ears like it belonged to someone else. Too feminine, too different . He’d corrected Natsuya over and over, but his senpai was cruel and relentless. In middle school, Haruka insisted he called him ‘Nanase’, but his senpai said the swim club was on a first name basis. When they started traveling together, he told him to address him as ‘Haru’, but all he did was raise an eyebrow and say, it’s not your real name, is it? It was a losing battle and Haruka knew better now that there was no point in asserting his preferences to his senpai.
“Not so bad,” he said with a shrug.
“Natsuya sends some of your photos together and mentions you from time to time,” said Nao. “It looks like you finally found something you want to do.”
The corners of his lips curled slightly. “I did.”
The server brought the pot of broth and put the cover on to let it boil for a while. Natsuya hummed with excitement, saying how hungry he was. The plates of thinly-sliced Kobe beef and vegetables arrived soon after.
“Ugh, shiitake mushrooms.” Natsuya eyed the plate of mushrooms in disgust. “Never really liked them. I only ate them when Ikuya was around to set a good example.”
“What an awesome big brother,” teased Nao. He picked up his chopsticks to put the sliced cabbage and onion into the pot. The smell of broth wafted across the room, promising sweet and savoury bowls of soup to warm them up.
The server came back with their ordered drinks and left. Two tall glasses of tap beer for Natsuya and Nao, and a lemon sour for Makoto. Haruka frowned at the mojito in front of him.
“What’s wrong, Haru?” asked Makoto.
“They got it wrong.”
“Oh yeah, you changed it to a lemon sour too.” Makoto slid his glass across him, closer to Haruka. “Do you want to swap?”
Haruka looked up at him. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah, it’s okay, Haru.” Makoto smiled. “You can have mine.”
Haruka wondered why their two senpai fell silent. Then, he found them sharing a knowing look, grinning.
Natsuya chuckled, “You still spoil him. Nothing has changed!”
Both of them ignored the comment. Makoto drummed his fingers on the table, pretending to be very interested in the stack of empty plates. Haruka whipped his head to the side, his face feeling hot, but not because of the steaming pot in front of him.
“Natsuya-senpai wouldn’t last another hour if he keeps drinking, you know,” Haruka told Nao.
Nao laughed with amusement, his eyeglasses catching the low light. “Yeah, I kept telling him to slow down while we were waiting for you guys.”
“Hey, I’m not a lightweight!” Natsuya huffed. His cheeks and the tips of his ears already had a reddish tint on them. Unruly strands of auburn hair fell above his slightly hooded eyes.
“Whatever you say,” said Haruka. “I’m not dragging you back to the apartment.”
“Me neither,” replied Nao.
Natsuya rolled his long sleeves up to his elbows out of habit. Even in the winter, he kept his signature look. “I can take care of myself, thank you very much!”
“Ah I think the hotpot’s ready!” said Makoto.
The broth bubbled away in the built-in stove, letting out ribbons of steam. They scooped some soup in their little bowls, along with the vegetables and well-done pieces of beef. Flavours burst in Haruka’s mouth after he dipped the meat in ponzu sauce. The citrusy soy sauce blended perfectly with the beef’s soft texture, making him want for more.
“How about you, Nao-senpai?” asked Makoto. “Did you ever go back to the swimming world?”
“I did, but not as a swimmer.” Nao took a sip of his tap beer. “I majored in Sports Medicine in university and coached kids after graduation, like you do. Then, I started training professional swimmers.”
Makoto’s eyes widened. “Wow, that’s awesome, Nao-senpai! Actually, I’m looking into that too, but I haven’t fully decided yet.”
“It’s very interesting especially for people with a nurturing personality like yourself,” said Nao. “Give it a try. I’ll give you my contact information if you need help with anything.”
“Thank you so much! I’ll keep in touch.”
“You’re gonna do great, Makoto,” said Natsuya, grinning from ear to ear. “I can tell!“
Makoto bowed his head at the compliment, blush slowly spreading across his cheeks. “Th-Thank you, Natsuya-senpai. I will do my best!”
Nao fixed his gaze on Haruka, who was sitting across from Makoto. “Haruka, how is it like to live abroad with Natsuya? He must be a handful, huh?”
“He’s a disaster,” replied Haruka in a heartbeat, munching on a carrot stick.
“Hey, why are you two ganging up on me?” Natsuya pouted, his shoulders slumping. “I just missed being home! I missed having proper hotpot as much as I missed heated toilet seats.”
Nao scoffed. “Nice analogy.”
Unfazed by the comment, Natsuya continued, “I’ve mentioned this to Nao before, and I’ll say it again and again: heated toilet seats are the best! Once you’ve experienced them, you can never go back. I don’t understand how some countries don’t have them. Who would want to respond to nature’s call in a freezing cold toilet seat all winter?”
It wasn’t hard to realise Natsuya was a talkative drunk before he could pass out from drinking too much. Well, Nao had probably figured it out a long time ago because they’d known each other since they were children. Haruka learned it the hard way, from all those long nights of bar-hopping since they started traveling together. Makoto was being his usual accommodating self, nodding politely and giving little remarks.
The three of them let Natsuya tell his stories because they knew it was only a matter of time when he would start nodding off.
“Anyway, I’m really grateful I met Haruka on the road— no really, I am.” Natsuya’s words were starting to slur. “Do you guys know how we started traveling together? You know this already, Nao. I told you a million times already. Okay, I’ll tell Makoto…”
Haruka opened his mouth to distract Natsuya— Makoto didn’t need to hear the nonsense he was about to tell— but he was unstoppable.
“So we met in America during a swimming competition, maybe five or six years ago? I was so surprised to see him— Nanase Haruka, my kid brother’s friend, that prodigy from Iwatobi, so I invited him over for dinner. But the little shit didn’t tell me he had fever and he passed out in my living room!” said Natsuya. “I remembered how bad I had it when I first moved out of the country, all alone and no one to take care of me when I got sick. Haruka didn’t deserve to go through all of that, so I adopted him until he got better.”
“And then I found out what kinds of junk he’d been feeding himself, so I started cooking for him,” said Haruka, hoping that would close the conversation.
“Since then, we’ve been traveling together. For the most part,” continued Natsuya. “Well, sometimes we’d visit different countries and meet again when there’s a swimming competition. Haruka doesn’t come with me when I visit Japan, but I persuaded him this time around, yay!”
“Is this your first time coming back since you left?” Nao asked Haruka.
“Wow, that’s an awfully long time to be away from home.”
Haruka simply shrugged.
“He’s like Ikuya: never listens, always brooding in the corner…” Natsuya slung an arm around Haruka’s shoulders liked a doting big brother. “But I’m tremendously proud of this kid for getting this far.”
The moment Haruka feared the most came when Natsuya squinted his eyes at him. He knew that look, those eyes glinting slyly, lips curled into a smirk. He was thinking about an embarrassing story to tell everyone.
“Do you know that he sometimes pretends to be mute to avoid socialising? That’s how much he hates people,” said Natsuya. “Don’t be deceived by that pretty little face. He’s a savage.” Then he snickered, tickled by a funny memory. “Oh my god, one time, we worked at a hostel in Brazil in exchange of lodging and Haruka was assigned at the bar. Obviously, you have to be charming and sociable to please the customers, but he just wasn’t into that. Girls and boys kept whispering amongst themselves, talking about him. They hung out at the bar, trying to make small talk and flirt but he just stared at them, frozen. God, he was so awkward! ”
Makoto covered his mouth with his hand and fake-coughed, suppressing his laughter.
Haruka glared at Natsuya.
“Annoying,” he said, looking away.
A thousand shades of green surrounded Haruka. A forest of bamboo trees towered above him, whisking him away into a timeless world of moss-covered stone lanterns and birdsong. He watched the bleak winter light pass through the empty spaces between groves and leaves. He didn’t think such otherworldly sight existed near vibrant, bustling Tokyo until he came to Kamakura.
Girls in colourful kimonos walked along the narrow stone path, making their way to the tea house where Haruka, Makoto, Rin, and Sousuke sat side by side facing the bamboo garden.
Rin took a long sip of his matcha and sighed happily. “Don’t you love it when you get to sit down and enjoy a cup of tea while looking out at a bamboo forest?”
Beside him, Sousuke gave him a long, amused look. “You sound like an old man who’s never taken a day off in his entire life.”
“Who is it who keeps complaining about back aches lately?”
“That was one time, after we helped Kisumi and Asahi move in to their new house.”
“Whatever,” said Rin, then he turned to his right, facing Haruka and Makoto. “Anyway, I’m so glad you two can join us today. Makoto, I haven’t seen you in a while! You really should take a vacation and relax from time to time. And Haru, god, how long has it been since we last saw each other?”
“Three years,” replied Haruka. The rich, bittersweet taste of green tea lingered in his tongue and on the roof of his mouth.
“Had it really been that long?” Rin chuckled. “Wow. You were in Sydney for a race, weren’t you? That was before I decided to move back here for good.”
“Yeah, you dragged me around and went drinking in Newtown until we passed out in the gutter,” said Haruka. “I remember that vividly.”
Newtown was blaring music and flashing lights. Bodies sticky with sweat from bouncing and graceless dancing. Chugging hard liquor one after another. Laughing with strangers, meeting Rin’s Australian friends, arms pulling them close. Stay for another drink.
“Good times!” Rin grinned, baring his sharp teeth. “To be fair, I was quite nervous about moving back to Japan. The thought of finally working my way up to the national team and taking the road to my dream terrified me.”
“But everything fell into place,” said Makoto, fiddling with his tea cup. He smiled at Rin. “You did it.”
“I guess so.” Rin folded his arms behind his head. “We were just a bunch of kids who wanted to swim. Well, I might have taken it a bit more seriously. Crying when I lost, dreaming to swim in a pool full of cherry blossom petals. Ah, our glory days.”
“You always did have a dramatic flair. Oh wait, you still do.” Sousuke nudged his arm, his teal eyes glinting teasingly.
Rin punched him on the shoulder. “You enjoyed it too, the pool of cherry blossom petals. Don’t deny it.”
“I did,” admitted Sousuke. He wrapped an arm around Rin and planted a kiss on his cheek.
Rin’s face was immediately covered by a pinkish tint. He slapped Sousuke’s thigh, reminding him that they had company. He cleared his throat. “So Haru, when are you joining the national team?”
Haruka rolled his eyes. “Not that again.”
“Everyone in the team knows about you and they’d love it if you join us.”
“I told you: I swim when I want, wherever I want.”
Rin made a noise of protest on the back of his throat. “I know you love visiting foreign places and doing whatever you want in your own time, but don’t you think it’s time to step it up? We can’t stay the same forever, you know that.”
There was a beat of silence. A flash of guilt crossed Rin’s face as his eyes caught the pained look in Makoto’s eyes. He looked away in silent apology. “Just— Just think about it.”
Haruka blinked and watched the bamboo leaves dance with the wind, free to move in any direction.
“I like to think I can convince my swimmer friends to join the national team. Just like this one.” Rin poked Sousuke in the shoulder, the gold ring on his fourth finger catching light.
“It took a while though, with the surgery and everything,” said Sousuke.
“I pestered you every day until you got that damned surgery and finally joined the team,” said Rin.
“Yeah, you did.” A small smile lingered in Sousuke’s face. He gazed at Rin fondly before taking his hand that rested on his thigh, threading their fingers together.
Rin and Sousuke. They weren’t Rin or Sousuke anymore, but Rin and Sousuke. They laughed and cried and teased and fought each other throughout the years, but they chose to be together despite it all. To build a home with each other.
“I’ll think about it,” said Haruka.
Rin’s face brightened. “You promise?”
They finished their tea and rode their rented bicycles to the other tourist spots around Kamakura. Makoto and Rin navigated while Haruka and Sousuke trailed behind. Let’s take it slow because we might lose Sousuke, teased Rin. They visited three more temples until they found the Great Buddha, Kamakura’s symbol. When they got hungry, they feasted on tempura, sashimi, and a variety of vegetables, which the city was famous for.
The four of them ended their day trip with a visit to the seaside. It was still too early, too cold to take a plunge, but Haruka was happy to watch the sunset. Unlike in Tokyo, the sky here glowed with brilliant colours. They sat on the shore, the winter breeze playing with their hair as they talked about dear old Iwatobi.
They made their way back to the train station after the sun sank in the horizon. Sitting across each other, they talked about how it was more convenient to take the train than to drive from and back to Tokyo.
Rin and Sousuke chatted softly until Rin fell asleep with his head on Sousuke’s shoulder. They held hands on the sliver of space between them, matching golden bands peeking out from interlaced fingers.
Haruka rested his chin on his hand as he watched the twilight view outside the window. Makoto had given him the window seat, as usual. His eyelids were feeling heavy, fluttering. Sleep was sinking into him as well.
“Aw, Nikko,” cooed Makoto. He was swiping at his phone screen with a broad grin.
Haruka blinked sleepiness away to look at Nikko’s photos on Makoto’s phone. The adorable white cat was clawing at yarn strings, lying on a carpeted floor that didn’t look like Makoto’s. “Where is she?”
“At my neighbour’s. Mrs. Nakamura always takes care of Nikko when I’m away,” said Makoto. “Oh, I can’t wait to see this cute little fur ball again.”
Haruka smiled in response.
“Do you wanna drop by my place?” asked Makoto, his hand curling around his phone a bit too tightly. “Nikko will be happy to see you. I mean, only if you want to. You don’t have to—”
Surprised by the sudden invitation, Haruka searched Makoto’s face as he rambled on. “Okay.”
“—Oh. Okay.” Makoto replied, drawing out a long and heavy breath. He grinned and put his phone back in his pocket before he could break it into half.
They didn’t say anything more. Haruka turned his attention back to the winding countryside view, face resting on his palm. They must have been halfway between Kamakura and Tokyo when a heavy weight fell on his shoulder.
“M-Makoto?” Despite Haruka’s shock, his voice was quiet. He doubted Makoto heard it.
His friend didn’t stir. Haruka looked around, checking if anyone could see their current state. Rin and Sousuke were both sleeping, leaning into each other. The old couple across the aisle were whispering amongst themselves. The ticket inspector was probably making rounds in the other train cars.
He sat up straight— gently, slowly— so Makoto’s neck wouldn’t hurt when he woke up, ignoring the ball of electricity bursting under his skin and the roaring of his heart.
Chapter 5: come home to my heart
Makoto blinked his eyes for a second and just like that, two weeks had passed and Haruka had only one week left in Japan.
Makoto blinked at the strobe lights.
Red flashed blue flashed purple flashed orange quicker than his brain could catch up. He closed his eyes, breathing in a lungful of air and counting to five before slowly breathing out, trying to get rid of his light-headedness.
Time was a hurricane that swept away everyone and everything around him: the people whirling across the dance floor, the bartenders sliding drinks behind the counter, the music booming from gigantic speakers, the countless conversations encircling him.
He blinked his eyes for a second and just like that, two weeks had passed and Haruka had only one week left in Japan.
It was Nagisa and Rei’s idea to go bar-hopping in Shinjuku again. This time, they were determined to party until the train would start operating again the next morning because they weren’t able to do it the first time they went out for dinner. When Makoto voiced out his concern about Haruka’s upcoming swimming competition, his response was a soft chuckle, it’s not the Olympics, don’t worry about it.
Nursing his beer at the counter, Makoto fished his phone out of his pocket to look at the photos he’d taken earlier. He and Haruka met in Shibuya after his shift at the swim club, walking with the scramble of crowds and exploring its sprawling streets for hours.
They took the train to the bizarre, charming mess that was Harajuku and found a café famous for 3d latte art. Makoto took several photos of the adorable cat that was swimming in his coffee cup to lessen the guilt of destroying such delightful work of art (and he might have secretly taken photos of Haruka sipping his latte very carefully so he wouldn’t ruin Totoro’s foam form).
In between people-watching and companionable silence, Makoto took snaps of Haruka and himself. Regret might have prompted him. He hadn’t taken a lot of photos when they were still together, but it was mostly because of Haruka’s aversion of having his photos taken, always whipping his head to the side when faced by a camera.
Makoto expected him to behave the same way when he reluctantly asked for a shot as they were strolling along Yoyogi Park. To his surprise, Haruka stopped by his side and leaned closer until his face was only a few inches away from Makoto’s. He even smiled— the rare kind that reached his eyes— and let Makoto take as many photos as he wanted all throughout the day.
“You alright?” Haruka sat on the barstool beside him and ordered another Black Russian.
Makoto stopped swiping and put his phone back inside his pocket. He smiled sheepishly and nodded.
He looked around and found Nagisa twirling under Rei’s arm and beaming at a couple of strangers. Haruka sipped his drink and watched the balloon lanterns around the room. Strobe lights and hologram patterns fell upon his dark hair and turtleneck sweater, giving an image of a thousand galaxies shining across the universe.
“It’s a cool place, huh?” Haruka asked, cutting Makoto’s train of thought.
“Yeah. It’s a bit more… artistic than the bars I usually visit,” he replied.
“Japanese bars tend to be more cramped than Western bars, but that’s what makes them more charming… intimate. I like them.”
“Oh yeah, totally,” said one of the three foreign men sitting beside Haruka.
Makoto gave him a second glance when he realised he spoke in Nihongo. His accent was a bit lilted but easy enough to understand.
All three of them were red-headed. At first, he thought they were siblings, but he noticed the lack of resemblance between them other than their hair colour and their eagerness to practice Nihongo.
Makoto chose to listen and let Haruka chat to them, finding it refreshing to see him less socially awkward. And he was actually engaging with them, giving opinions and asking follow-up questions. He didn’t give one-word answers anymore. Although to be fair, he only gave them to people who annoyed him, like that time in their senior year when they reunited with Kisumi.
“We did Street-Kart in Akihabara today. It was awesome!”
“What else should we do?”
“Should we go see the Robot Show? Should we try the Maid Café?”
He’d heard these things repeatedly over the years that he’d started calling them the Ultimate Tokyo Checklist for Tourists. He’d heard them from his university friends, his friends’ friends, and the travellers he had dated briefly. He’d honestly considered printing out a list and giving it to his future visitors to help them accomplish their plans quicker. Tokyo? Check. Next!
The three men happily prattled about the most exciting and eccentric things they’d seen and done only in Japan. Haruka listened to their recap while downing one cocktail after another, surprising Makoto by how much he could drink. He supposed it was one of the ways travelling had changed him.
He knew Haruka had a higher tolerance than him. He remembered the first time they went drinking one Friday night on their first year of high school. It was in Haruka’s house, where nobody would object to one of their underage exploits. Makoto had told his parents they would work on a joint project. He’d immediately regretted lying to his parents as he crouched over the toilet in the middle of the night, his stomach churning and his head pounding. He could still feel how gently Haruka pushed his hair away from his face while he threw up, rubbing circles on his back and fake-coughing to hide his laughter at the outcome of their stupid decision.
“We’re wondering how we can sneak in a katana in our backpacks.”
“We have three days left here.”
“We fly to Shanghai next.”
“How about you, Haru? When are you flying out?”
Makoto suddenly imagined himself sitting at the bottom of a pool as the conversation faded out like muffled sounds above the surface. The deep sounds blended in with the soft, ambient beats from the speakers until they were nothing but background noise. He sank into his seat, exhaustion putting weight on his eyelids, and nausea filling his gut.
He mused about his and Haruka’s two weeks together instead. They’d been meeting every day, holding foam cups of hot coffee and casually talking while exploring Tokyo. Sometimes, they would take a stroll with Nikko around the neighbourhood. The white cat grew fonder of him, always asking to be petted and sitting attentively by the door the next day, knowing Haruka would arrive soon.
It was only two weeks ago when Haruka reappeared in his life and their routine seemed very familiar, like how natural it felt for Haruka to be by his side.
“Makoto-senpai.” Rei called him, signalling it was time to hop to their next bar. Nagisa leapt to his boyfriend’s side and wrapped an arm around his shoulders.
He blinked. He didn’t notice when the three foreign men left the counter. The next thing he knew, Haruka was standing up and putting his trench coat on. He gazed at him, his blue eyes luminous in the low light. He tugged at the edge of Makoto’s sleeve.
“Let’s go, Makoto.”
He had no idea what Nagisa and Rei planned for the night, but he let the two of them drag him and Haruka to tick off their list, no matter how weird the items were. We’ll make this a night you won’t forget!
Their next stop was a karaoke bar where they drank sake and ate chips while Nagisa and Rei blasted bubblegum pop songs. Sometime while Rei was belting notes to an AKB48 hit, a group of friends with flashing teeth and brightly-coloured wigs stormed in their private room and danced with them. Naturally, Nagisa wouldn’t miss out on this opportunity to release chaotic energy and pulled Makoto and Haruka to the ‘dance floor’.
Makoto’s head was so hazy at this point, he almost felt like he was having an out-of-body experience, but he still found himself enjoying it.
A smile revealed itself in his lips as he met Haruka’s gaze across the room.
Nagisa, sweaty and tipsy Nagisa, nudged him in the ribs and leaned close to his ear. “I haven’t seen you smile like that in eight years.”
A blush crept across his cheeks, up to the shells of his ears. He didn’t know what to say.
They left the karaoke place after a handful of songs, skipping to their next bar. If his head wasn’t clouded with alcohol, he could have told Rei, Nagisa, and Haruka not to go deep into these narrow and shady alleys of Shinjuku because of their reputation for having small pockets of danger.
His suspicions were proven correct when Nagisa stumbled and bumped into a heavy-built man, too caught up telling his story about a man who was dressed up as a unicorn in Pub #3. The heavy-built man was handing a stick-thin, androgynous-looking person a clear packet of suspicious substance, which he dropped when Nagisa wasn’t paying attention to where he was going.
The world paused for moment when someone— barely three shops away— yelled POLICE!
Nagisa was the first one to unfreeze, flashing a desperate smile. “Oops?”
The heavy-built man emerged from the shadows, showing his scarred face burning with fury. “You’re dead!”
And that was when universe pressed PLAY, giving everyone the cue to scamper off, away from the terrifying— and most probably armed— man and the police officer.
Makoto didn’t have the time to think, instinctively grabbing Haruka’s arm and running as fast as his drunk head could take him. It was turning out to be an unforgettable night indeed.
Fuelled by panic, Makoto navigated out of Shinjuku’s winding alleys and into an arcade shop. He ran through the maze of the deafening POW POW POW POW and the flashing, blinding colours, exiting on the other side of the street. He didn’t know how far they’d gotten, lost track of who was pursuing who, only knowing they had to run away.
“—koto! Mako— to—!” Haruka heaved and twisted his arm out of Makoto’s grip. They stopped running and Makoto let go of his arm. Haruka bent over to catch his breath. Makoto forgot how he hated running. “We’ve— lost— them—”
Makoto inhaled and exhaled slowly, waiting for his breathing to go back to its natural rhythm. “We’ve lost Nagisa and Rei, too.”
Haruka nodded and shook the arm that Makoto used to drag him.
Makoto gasped in alarm, cradling Haruka’s pale and clammy face in his hands. “I’m so sorry, Haru! Are you okay?”
He dropped his hands, suddenly realising how much he was smothering him.
Haruka looked away. “Apart from almost losing an arm, I’m okay.”
“I’m so sorry!” Makoto repeated, reaching for Haruka’s arm to make it feel better.
“Relax, I was just joking.”
Blood rushed along Makoto’s veins, shading his face and his neck red. “Are you sure? You’re not hurt?”
Makoto sighed and laughed with relief, his heart pounding wildly against his ribcage. He hadn’t felt this rush in so long; he forgot how he could feel so alive. Haruka laughed with him, the sound of his laughter ringing in Makoto’s ears. He closed his eyes and touched his forehead against Haruka’s, their breaths mixing into clouds of mist.
They stayed still for a moment and pulled away, busying themselves with the graffitied walls surrounding them. If Haruka noticed how their hands were intertwined, he didn’t say anything.
Flurries of snow started falling, pattering and quickly sprinkling across the pavement. Makoto blinked, making sure he was seeing clearly and it was not just a trick of light. Snow hadn’t fallen again since their lunch out in Tsukiji. He shivered as cold settled into his skin. It was probably -2 °C, but he was still sweating profusely from running.
Haruka let go and slipped his freezing hand into his coat pocket. Makoto did the same. He watched the snow fall in the dark, mesmerised at the sight of them dancing and glimmering under the street lights.
He felt Haruka tug at his sleeve. “Come on, let’s look for Rei and Nagisa.”