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Three dates and a confession

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“Say, do you think Mako-chan is lonely?”

Nagisa’s question came as a surprise to both Rei and Kou, who had been discussing ways for him to improve his swimming speed, but stopped talking in favor of staring at the shorter boy. In hindsight, it had been suspicious for Nagisa to be quiet for such a long time without cheerily interrupting, but even that consideration wouldn’t have gotten the other two ready for that comment, so out of the blue and seemingly unrelated to anything.

Kou was the first to break the confused silence: “What do you mean?”

“Well, think about it! I have Rei-chan-“

“Who says you have me?!” Rei spluttered, embarrassed.

“Gou-chan has lots of other friends outside the swimming club” continued Nagisa, ignoring him as well as Kou’s correction of her name. “And ever since Rin-chan stopped being so gloomy all the time, Haru-chan has been spending a lot of time swimming with him in Samezuka”. Nagisa made a face, his brow frowning with concern. “But Mako-chan doesn’t really have anything like that right now”.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s lonely, however” said Rei, pushing up his glasses. “In fact, Makoto-senpai has given no indication that he feels that way”.

Nagisa shook his head, disagreeing. “Mako-chan is not the type to say anything about that. He’d just go ‘Don’t worry, I’m OK’ and say nothing is wrong” he said, imitating the older boy’s voice.

The other two went silent after that. It was true: after all, Makoto was not the kind of guy who would complain about something that bothered him. In fact, he was more likely to turn it around, and worry about the person asking him the question, until the initial concern was all but forgotten. Nagisa and Rei, specially, could still remember the incident at training camp, and how Makoto had not only agreed to go but also provided his camping gear in spite of his fear of the ocean.

It was Kou, however, who spoke up first. “If that’s the case… then what could we do about it?”

Nagisa smiled widely, as if he had been waiting for that question the whole time. “We need to find him a girlfriend!” he exclaimed in a cheery voice.

His big reveal, however, was not met with the awe he was obviously expecting. “A girlfriend?” asked Kou, confused.

Rei simply sighed and frowned. “I should have known it was just going to be nonsense”.

“It’s not, Rei-chan!” protested Nagisa. “If Mako-chan has a girlfriend, then he’d have someone else to focus on, right? And then he wouldn’t be lonely!” Kou seemed to be considering it, but Rei still seemed unsure, so Nagisa pressed on. “Mako-chan has always liked to take care of others, but now he needs US to take care of HIM! Are you gonna disappoint Mako-chan?!”

And that seemed to do the trick. Rei managed to mutter a weak ‘But…!’ that was easily drowned by Kou exclaiming ‘No!’. Knowing full well he was outnumbered and out-willed, Rei sighed in frustration and pushed his glasses up, admitting defeat. After all, if this was going to happen, he had to make sure Makoto-senpai ended up with a girl who would be perfect for him in every single way.

And thus, the operation “Find Mako-chan the Love of His Life” was started.

--

“So” said Rei later during swimming practice, while he and Nagisa took a break on the side of the pool, “I have found the perfect girl for Makoto-senpai”. He didn’t bother keeping the smug tone out of his voice – after all, he had made his choice after calculating all of his senpai’s preferences and likes.

But instead of looking impressed and praising him for doing such a good job like he was expecting, Nagisa frowned. “What? But Rei-chan, I already have a girl in mind for Mako-chan!”

That complaint was admittedly a curveball in his calculations. “Well, forget about her. The girl I have chosen fits the profile that is more likely to make Makoto-senpai happy. Anybody else would simply be inferior”.

“But that’s unfair!” complained Nagisa, loudly. “I also put a lot of effort into finding a good girlfriend for Mako-chan!!”

“Nagisa-kun! This isn’t some sort of competition-!”

“Gou-chan!! Rei-chan is cheating!”

“I already told you, it’s Kou!” she said, joining in the conversation. “What are you even talking about?”

Rei coughed and jumped in, determined not to let Nagisa paint him in a bad light. “I was just telling him that I have already found the perfect girl for Makoto-senpai, so there is no need to introduce another person to him”. To his surprise, Kou was not pleased with the idea, either.

“What?! No way! I found a really good girl for Makoto-senpai to date!”

“See, Rei-chan? We all wanna have a chance!”

“Have a chance to do what?” said a voice, interrupting their argument.

The three first-years jumped when they saw Makoto, the object of their discussion, suddenly walking up to them. The older boy didn’t seem to have heard more than the last thing they had said, since he was smiling at them in a fairly good-natured way, as usual. Nagisa, thinking fast, came up with an excuse: “We all want a chance… to try Haru-chan’s cooking! We were thinking of ways to convince him to make something that’s not mackerel for once”

“Ah, you might have a hard time with that…” Makoto said, apologetically, while Kou and Rei looked at each other, amazed that the lie had worked. “But maybe you can convince him to cook it in a different way, instead of grilled”.

As if hearing his name from across the pool, Haru chose that particular moment to come out for air. He looked over at them for a few seconds, making the younger members of the swimming club feel that he knew exactly what they had been talking about. As quickly as he had come out, however, Haru was soon swimming again, ignoring everything and everyone that wasn’t the water.

Makoto sighed, obviously used to that. “Either way, you two shouldn’t stay out much longer, or you’ll get cold and stiff”.

“Yes, Mako-chan! We’ll go in soon!” Nagisa exclaimed, smiling. He kept it up until Makoto was swimming as well, before turning back to Rei and Kou with a determined look in his face. “Let’s take turns, alright? I don’t mind going last, because I know the girl I chose will definitely win Mako-chan’s heart!”

“Hm, aren’t you confident?” said Rei, pushing his glasses up with a smile. “In that case, I-“

“I’ll go first!” interrupted Kou, cheerily, adding “What? You’ve never heard of ladies first?” when Rei gave her a look.

“Fine, then. I’ll be second” said Rei, resigned.

“Gou-chan, what kind of girl did you choose for Mako-chan?” asked Nagisa.

“It’s Kou! And you know Kyoko-chan, right? She’s in the class next to us, and she really likes Makoto-senpai”.

“Oh, yeah! She’s really popular among the guys because she’s really cute. Right, Rei-chan?” said Nagisa, shamelessly, causing Rei to choke.

“I told her Makoto-senpai was really good with math and that she should ask him for help” Kou continued, ignoring both interruptions. “But she got so embarrassed that I’ll ask him for her. Either way, he would never say no to helping someone who needs it, and I’m sure they will definitely hit it off!”

--

When Kou had asked him to please help a friend of hers in math, Makoto had easily agreed. He was decent in math, after all, and he was sure that he would have no trouble tackling first-year problems. It was a little weird that she hadn’t asked someone from their own year, but it was possible that the girl was embarrassed to let others know she didn’t understand something. He laughed, thinking of all the times he had to make sure Ran wasn’t embarrassing her brother for not knowing something, and reminded himself to be gentle.

“Haru” he said to his friend, who was currently looking out the window. It had been raining pretty hard, which meant there would be no swimming practice, so the other boy had been fairly restless during the day. In fact, it was amazing that he hadn’t gone home already, the way he had been doing now that the weather was colder and there had been fewer days when the team could swim. “I won’t be able to walk home with you today”.

Haruka turned to look at him, his eyebrows slightly raised. To most people, the change of expression would have said very little, but Makoto knew him well enough to know he was surprised. “Why?”

“Kou-chan asked me to help one of her girlfriends with math. I don’t know how long it’s gonna take, and I don’t want to make you wait around for no reason”.

Haru didn’t answer out-loud: instead, he seemed to refocus his interest back to the window. Makoto simply sighed, taking out his notebook. Maybe he could take Haru to the in-door pool over the weekend, since it seemed like the rain was not going to stop, and Makoto knew the more time it went without swimming, the more restless he got. Nonetheless, at least he had told him, so maybe now Haru could spend some time soaking in the tub after school.

So it was a surprise when Haru stayed behind in his seat after everybody else had left, even when Kyoko had finally showed up, looking down and thus hiding her face behind her bangs. Makoto sent him a questioning look, but Haru wouldn’t reply, so instead he turned to talk to the girl in front of him, currently looking anywhere but him. “You must be Kyoko-chan, right?”

“Ah, yes! Thank you for your help, Tachibana-senpai!” she exclaimed suddenly, facing him. “I know this must be such a hassle for you…”

“No, no, it’s fine!” Makoto assured her, walking with her towards his desk. Haru still hadn’t said a word. “I don’t know if I’m the best option to help you with this, though…”

Before Makoto could say anything to that, however, Haru pulled up a chair to his desk, with a loud scratching noise. “I’ll help, too”.

If Kyoko seemed surprise, it was nothing compared to how shocked Makoto felt. “Wha- Haru, you don’t even like math!” Haru gave him a look, but didn’t answer aside from that.

“It… It’s alright, Nanase-senpai!” she piped up, shyly. “I’m sure Tachibana-senpai can help me-“

“I want to help” cut in Haru, in a tone of voice that Makoto knew full well would accept no arguments. With a sigh, he gave in.

“Alright, then the two of us will help Kyoko-chan” he said. He noticed the girl in front of him was sending Haru a few cautious looks, so he smiled at her gently. “Don’t worry, Haru is really good at anything he sets his mind to – I’m sure he’ll be really helpful”. She still didn’t look convinced, but she smiled and nodded, opening her notebook.

After no more than one hour, they were already on their way back home. Makoto was admittedly impressed with how that study session had gone: Every time Kyoko had a question, Haru would jump in and answer it before Makoto even had time to think about it. Not only that, but whenever it seemed like the conversation was getting away from math, Haruka would quickly cut in with a note on one of the problems. For a moment, he had even thought his friend was as interested in numbers as he was in water.

Makoto couldn’t help being pleased. He knew Haruka extremely well, and knew that he would have much rather spend his afternoon soaking inside the tub than looking through first-year math with him. It made him think that perhaps, his friend had stayed behind doing something as boring as going over old math problems just to wait for him so they could walk home together, and the thought made him feel warm all over his body. Nonetheless, he made sure to shake that idea out of his head quickly – Makoto knew full well how easily he could get carried away in that line of thinking, and how it would be almost impossible to stop himself from fantasizing about something he couldn’t have.

Instead, he turned to Haruka, who was quietly walking next to him. “Thank you for staying behind with me, Haru”.

“It’s fine” he replied, getting a smile out of Makoto.

--

“I can’t believe Haru-senpai decided to stay behind with them!” complained Kou the next morning, as she was having lunch with Rei and Nagisa. “That’s not fair – I need another chance!”

“You had your chance, Kou-san” said Rei, smiling. “You should have known better than to think studying would foment a romantic mood”. He stopped smiling, however, when he saw the looks both Kou and Nagisa were giving him. “What is it?”

“We both thought Rei-chan would totally be into that kind of thing!” said Nagisa, cheerily, before bringing out his ‘Rei’ voice. “’Oh, fractions and multiplications are soooo sexy!! Oh, divide that for me, baby!’”

“I don’t sound that way!!” Rei protested, though Nagisa didn’t seem particularly bothered by it. “I already told you, my ideal date would be perfectly researched to make sure everything according to their taste!”

“Wait, when did you guys talk about this?” asked Kou, but her question went unanswered as Rei decided to get the conversation back to the subject at hand.

“In any case, your mistake was not giving the situation the proper romantic mood” he said, feeling particularly successful. “In fact, it is possible Makoto-senpai didn’t even notice that the study session was supposed to be anything beyond that”. By now, Rei could see he had the other two’s attention, and did a dramatic flourish with his hand before pushing his glasses up and delivering the final blow of his plan. “Which is why I made sure to tell Yamada-san that she would have to be direct when it came to her feelings or Makoto-senpai wouldn’t notice – she completely agreed!”

Much like he was secretly expecting, the revelation of who he had chosen for Makoto elicited gasps of surprise. “Masami-chan? The beauty? She likes Mako-chan?” exclaimed Nagisa, not trying to keep his voice down in the slightest.

“Makoto-senpai is really popular with the first year girls” said Kou in a matter-of-fact tone of voice. “But Masami-chan… She’s so cool and reserved… I didn’t think she would also like him”.

“Of course she does” said Rei, pushing his glasses up and looking fairly confident. “I’m sorry you won’t get your chance, Nagisa-kun, but I’m fairly confident Yamada-san will succeed with no problems”.

--

Makoto and Haruka had been walking down the stairs towards the machines in the first floor when they ran into a first-year girl, who had clearly been waiting for them. It was embarrassing, because Makoto was sure she had seen her around –and her long black hair had definitely been mentioned more than a few times by the guys in their class-, but he still could not remember her name no matter how hard he tried. He sent a desperate glance at Haru, who had simply looked away, seemingly uninterested, and Makoto knew he was gonna have to face this alone.

“Tachibana-senpai?” the girl spoke up suddenly, surprising him. “You don’t know who I am, do you?”

“Ah, no, it’s not that-!“ he said, panicking momentarily, but she had a small smile on her lips and didn’t seem to be upset, so he gave up after a few seconds. “I know, I just… can’t remember your name. I’m sorry!”

“That’s alright” she said, still smiling gently. “I’m a first-year after all, I don’t expect my senpai to know my name. I’m Yamada Masami, from class 1-D”.

“Masami-chan! I knew it was something close to that!” Makoto exclaimed, realizing belatedly that it might have sounded rude. “Ah, sorry!”

But Masami simply laughed quietly. “That’s alright. I was wondering… Would you like to eat lunch together with me today?”

Makoto felt his face heat up as he thought of a way to answer. He sneaked another quick look at Haru, to see what he thought of the invitation, but apparently this had been the moment he decided to go find the vending machines, leaving him alone to fend for himself. Obviously, he wasn’t expecting Haru to tell her no on his behalf, but he was so much better at rejecting people than he was. And, as much as he didn’t want to let himself think that way, a small part of him wanted to see if his friend would be bothered by the request.

“Please, senpai?” Masami spoke up, suddenly interrupting his thoughts.

“S-Sure!” Makoto said, realizing far too late that the sad face in front of him reminded him of his little sister’s: enough, at least, to make him give in almost automatically.

Masami’s face lighted up, and he realized that he probably wouldn’t have managed to say no anyway. “Thank you! I will see you at lunch!” she exclaimed before telling him where they would meet and running off, right as the bell for next period started ringing.

Makoto sighed, tired from a short conversation. He looked around for Haru, but he was nowhere to be seen, until he made it back to the classroom where he found him already at his seat, looking out the window. Tiredly, he went to sit next to him, trying to think of how he would diffuse the situation in a couple of hours when he had to go meet Masami for lunch. “Haru, I don’t know if you heard it back there, but I’m not-“

“I heard” Haru interrupted, surprising Makoto.

“Will you be alright?” he asked carefully, but Haru didn’t answer, so he just turned back to his notes, sneaking quick looks at his friend from time to time. For a moment, Makoto had thought that he looked annoyed: a thought that had him worried that Haru didn’t actually have his lunch that day. By the end of the period, however, Haru had the same bored expression he always had when dealing with something that wasn’t related to water or swimming.

At lunch time, Makoto had almost forgotten all about his friend, concerned as he was with finding the right words to reject Masami. The walk to the secluded garden area where they were meeting felt too short, and she was already waiting for him when he got there. Forcing a quick, nervous smile, Makoto greeted her while sitting down. “I’m sorry I kept you waiting!”

“That’s alright. Obviously, you would be busier than I am” Masami said kindly, bringing out her lunchbox, clearly big enough to share with other people. Makoto couldn’t help but be impressed: not only was the food appetizing, the rice and the vegetables had been carefully shaped as a Teddy bear. Without a doubt, it was beyond anything he could make himself at home. Masami must have noticed his look, because she laughed lightly and smiled. “Does it look good?”

“It’s amazing!” he exclaimed, nervousness forgotten. “Did you make it yourself? I could never do anything like that!”

“I did” said Masami, sounding very obviously pleased at the compliments. “Thank you, senpai. The girls in my class really liked my lunches on the first week, so I got in the habit of making enough to share” she said, putting the box between the two of them. “If you’d like, you can try some of my lunch” she leaned over, looking at Makoto’s lunchbox, and blinked in surprise. “You must really like mackerel”.

Makoto looked down and realized she was right: he had rice, some vegetables, and a ridiculous amount of mackerel, as he had made a habit of asking his mom to give him that on Mondays. All because of Haru, of course: his friend got so used to the slow pace of the weekend that when Monday came rolling around, it made him spend more time than necessary in the bathtub. Of course, this meant that he would usually have no time to make himself lunch, and he would usually be unhappy with anything that wasn’t mackerel. He was about to explain this, when a voice interrupted him.

“I forgot my lunch” it said, and Makoto didn’t have to turn around to know Haru was standing next to him. His timing was almost scary.

“That’s why I asked you if you’d be alright…” he sighed. He obviously had more than enough to share with his friend, but Haru didn’t have anything he could put some mackerel in. Makoto also didn’t have any money to lend him for him to buy anything in the cafeteria, not that Haru would be pleased with bread when there was mackerel right in front of him.

Makoto was considering just giving him his lunch when Masami piped up. “If you’d like, you can join us, Nanase-senpai”.

The suggestion had been stiff and short, making it obvious to anyone paying attention that she had offered out of politeness and had no real interest in having Haru join them, but that didn’t stop him. He quickly sat down between Makoto and Masami, not saying anything but snagging his chopsticks out of his hand. Haruka might be known for being taciturn and uncaring for others, but Makoto knew him better than that. He couldn’t help the small smile on his face, knowing that his friend had known how uncomfortable he was from the very beginning – and that he had gone out of his way to come rescue him even though the situation would definitely be an uncomfortable one.

After Haru’s arrival, any semblance of a romantic mood was completely killed, instead replaced with an almost awkward silence. A couple of times, Makoto attempted to get the conversation going again, but every time he began saying something Haru would interrupt, either asking him about class or the swimming club, so eventually he gave up. It was a relief when the bell rang to go back to class after spending most of their lunch break eating in silence.

Once he said goodbye to the younger girl, and he made sure she was gone, Makoto turned to his friend. “You know, I think she wanted you to say no”. He knew he should probably mention how Haruka had also been rude to Masami, but he would have felt hypocritical – after all, he was the one who had been looking for a polite way of letting her down.

Haru gave him a look before answering him. “But you didn’t want me to”.

For a moment, Makoto’s stomach dropped to his feet, fearing that Haru might have been implying something other than him being uncomfortable with a girl. A few seconds later, however, he shook it off: his friend was looking ahead, seemingly uninterested in putting him on the spot. “That’s true” Makoto admitted, still trying to shake off the surprise. “But she seemed so eager when she asked me… I couldn’t say no”.

“If you don’t like them, you shouldn’t give them hope” Haru said, somewhat harshly.

Makoto knew better than to ignore the advice. “I know” he said, legitimately feeling guilty. “I should have rejected her properly”. He smiled at Haru, relieved to see he wasn’t actually mad. “If this ever happens again, I’ll make sure to tell her I’m not interested!”

--

“I can’t believe it didn’t work!” Rei complained loudly, as the three first years walked back home together from swimming practice. “Everything was set up to be the perfect love story – the mood, the place, the timing-!!”

“There, there” said Kou kindly, patting Rei in the back. “Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be”

“I planned it perfectly – ‘meant to be’ should have nothing to do with it!”

“I bet you’re wishing you had given Gou-chan another try, right, Rei-chan?” Nagisa chimed in cheerfully, earning an angry glare from Rei and a loud complaint about her name from Kou. “Then you could say, ‘Since Kou-kun had another chance, then it’s only fair that I also have one’, right?”

“I’ve told you already that I sound NOTHING like that!”

“But it’s alright!” continued Nagisa, ignoring his friends’ protests. “Because I’m pretty sure I have found exactly what Mako-chan needs!”

“Really?” said Kou, her previous irritation evaporating in favor of curiosity. “What do you mean?”

“Think of it this way, right? Kyoko-chan was someone Mako-chan would have to take care of”

“So?” interrupted Rei. “Makoto-senpai is quite adept at taking care of others”.

“But he does that so much already!” argued Nagisa. “If Mako-chan spends his whole time taking care of other people, then it’s the same thing he’s doing with all his friends, right? So at first I thought Rei-chan was right, and Masami-chan would be perfect for Mako-chan”.

“Oh, I see what you mean!” said Kou, understanding. “Masami-chan is the kind of person who would take care of Makoto-senpai, instead of the other way around”.

“Which is the reason why I suggested her for Makoto-senpai in the first place!” Rei said, pushing up his glasses. “It is clear that he could use a reprieve from constantly taking care of others, and instead have someone watch over him instead”.

Nagisa, however, shook his head. “That’s what I thought too, at first, but I think Mako-chan really does like to look after others. Otherwise he wouldn’t be friends with Haru-chan!”

“Or you” muttered Rei, but went completely ignored.

“Wait, so what are you saying, Nagisa?” asked Kou, confused. “Makoto-senpai needs someone to take care of him, or someone to take care of?”

Nagisa stopped talking and frowned, seemingly thinking about the question. What he had said about Makoto had made sense to his friends, so they couldn’t help leaning in, waiting to see what conclusion he had finally arrived at. Finally, Nagisa smiled brightly and said: “I have no idea!”

This was not the answer either of them was expecting. “What?” exclaimed Kou “But this whole thing was your plan!”

“And I still think Mako-chan is lonely!” argued Nagisa. “I just don’t know if we can find him the perfect girlfriend anymore. He turned out to be pickier than I expected! But it would be good if Mako-chan could have some fun, too” he paused for dramatic effect, before smiling. “That’s why I told Junko-chan she should ask Mako-chan on a date!”

“Junko… Wait, do you mean Nakamura-senpai?!” Rei exclaimed.

"Yes! She asked me the other day, “So, you’re friends with Makoto Tachibana, right? Is he single?” So I told her “Single and ready to mingle!””

Rei was at a loss for words, so he just sent a desperate look towards Kou, asking for help. “I don’t really know Nakamura-senpai that well” she said, “but… I didn’t think Makoto-senpai was the type of guy she liked – she’s usually into more outgoing guys!” Not to mention that Junko was not really the kind of girl Kou had ever imagined Makoto going out with.

“That’s true” replied Nagisa, “but we’ve tried with girls who we thought Mako-chan would like and it didn’t go well. So obviously it’s time to think outside the box! Besides” he added cheerfully “Junko-chan is really bold! Mako-chan could use a girl like that”.

--

“Hey, Makoto! There’s someone here looking for you!”

The guy calling him from the door definitely had a teasing tone to his voice that Makoto found suspicious. More than that, there were a few classmates gathering around the door, giggling and blocking his view of whoever was at the door. Even Haruka was showing a little interest, lifting his eyebrows in surprise and sending Makoto a questioning look, at which he just shrugged: he really had no clue who could be there to see him. It did nothing to help the ominous feeling in his stomach as he walked towards the door.

When he saw who was waiting for him, he realized he had been right to be wary. Makoto might not have been the kind of guy who paid a lot of attention to girls, but even he knew Nakamura Junko, one of the most popular third years in the school, and considering how the last two couple of weeks had been going, he could easily imagine what she was there for. She smiled at him brightly, but didn’t make any indication that she was going to come into the classroom, so he stepped outside with some trepidation.

“Makoto-kun!” Junko said, cheerily. “You know who I am, right?”

“Um, yes, of course! You’re Nakamura-senpai” Makoto said before giving a quick look around. It wasn’t just the guys from his classroom watching, there were kids from other classes taking a peek – he could even spot Nagisa, Rei and Kou watching them from the stairs leading to the first floor.

“You can call me Junko!” she said, seemingly pleased that he knew her name. “Makoto-kun, the amusement park in the city has an October theme going on, all for Halloween, and I don’t want to go alone. Do you wanna come with me?”

Makoto tried his best not to balk. “H-Halloween?” he said, his voice squeaking much against his will. “Really?”

Instead of laughing at his obvious fear, however, Junko seemed pleased. Maybe she thought he was nervous at the idea of going out with her. “Yes! There are lots of monsters walking around scaring you, and they have this big haunted house”. She leaned forward, and Makoto barely managed not to take a step back towards the classroom. “Please?”

Nothing about the outing sounded appealing to him, from the date with a girl he only knew by name to the whole supernatural, and frankly terrifying, theme to it. People were whispering behind them, however, and Makoto couldn’t help looking around: everybody was looking at the two of them, smiling and eagerly waiting for his answer. His gaze came back to Junko, who was looking at him with a bright smile and clearly expecting a positive response from him.

He realized, with a heavy weight at the bottom of his stomach, that there was no possible way for him to say no, not without humiliating her as well as himself. “Is… is Saturday alright?” he said, barely hearing her answer when the guys behind him started to cheer.

The walk back to his seat was worse somehow, even with the many comments and pats on his back he got on the way there. Next to him, however, was the one person who was apparently uninterested in the whole situation, quietly looking at him with a very slight quirk in his eyebrows. Makoto sat down and took advantage of the noise in the class to lean in. “I couldn’t say no, Haru”. All he got in reply to that was a quiet snort, so he added: “It would have embarrassed her! I couldn’t just-“

“Then I hope you have a good time at your date” interrupted Haru, looking ahead and ignoring all of Makoto’s other attempts to get his attention.

--

“I can’t believe she asked him out like that, in front of everyone!” Kou said, though she sounded more admiring than surprised. When she turned around, however, she saw that neither Rei nor Nagisa looked particularly happy. “What’s wrong? They’re going on a date, like we planned!”

“Yes, but to a Halloween-themed park…” Rei answered. “How can I say this…?”

“Mako-chan is a huge scaredy-cat!” interrupted Nagisa, clearly having less qualms about saying it than Rei. “He’s definitely gonna be scared the whole time and look uncool in front of Junko-chan! And then everyone will find out and tease him about it”

“You’re taking it to the extreme, Nagisa-kun!” exclaimed Rei.

Kou, however, didn’t seem to think so. “If Nakamura-senpai finds out, she might tell other people – Makoto-senpai might never be able to get a girlfriend!”

“Wait, Kou-kun, I think you’re exaggerating-“

“What if we ask her to change where they’re going for their date?” she said, ignoring Rei’s interruption.
But Nagisa shook his head, frowning. “If we do that, she’ll want to know why we’re asking her that, and then we’ll have to tell her that anyway. Completely out!”

“If you insist on panicking about this” Rei chimed in, raising his voice slightly to make sure he was being heard, “then why not just tell Makoto-senpai to say he wants to go somewhere else?”

“If Makoto-senpai could do that, I don’t think this would be an issue in the first place…” Kou muttered.

“And there’s no way to tell Mako-chan without confessing all about our plan!” Nagisa added. “And then he won’t go on a date with her or with other girls, and he’ll be alone forever! You can’t want that, Rei-chan! It’s horrible!”

“I never said-! That’s-! Fine, alright, that is not an option. Do you have any ideas?!”

The three of them fell silent as they walked back to their classroom. They couldn’t tell any of the people involved in the actual date, at least, not without risking their whole operation. At this rate, it was clear that Makoto would have yet another failed outing with a girl, with the added bonus that he would be terrified throughout it and everybody would end up knowing about it.

They were on their desks and getting ready for class to start again when suddenly Nagisa stood up and exclaimed: “I know! We’ll follow them!” Nagisa’s sudden comment made Rei and Kou, as well as a few nearby students, jump and turn to look at him. Easily ignoring everyone else who was looking at him, he walked over towards the other two members of the swimming club. “We’ll follow them and make sure nothing scares Mako-chan! That way, even he can enjoy himself, and the date will go great!”

Rei and Kou shared a look, both unconvinced in the usefulness of the plan, before Kou spoke up. “Why don’t we make that plan B?”

--

In spite of the fact that he wasn’t particularly looking forwards to the date, Makoto had managed to arrive at their meeting spot at the entrance of the amusement park a good fifteen minutes earlier than he was supposed to. He had spent the whole day trying to think of ways to get out of the date, including faking being sick and suddenly being told to babysit his siblings, but they had all come crashing when he realized he had no way to contact Junko: anything other than standing her up would be impossible, and as much as he wanted to not be there, he would not even consider being that cruel to her.

And this time, he wouldn’t have Haru to come in and get him out of the situation. Makoto sighed, knowing full well that his friend had gone beyond the call of duty to help him already, but still wishing he was there with him, if only so he could hide behind him when something inevitably jumped at him and scared him. He bounced on his feet anxiously, knowing full well that every time Haru had intervened in his behalf, he had felt far more pleased than a friend should. The whole week he had gone between feeling relief at not having to actually reject them, and feeling guilty for thinking that, perhaps, Haru had intervened out of jealousy. The latter was a stupid thought that would often leave him feeling frustrated after the initial hope.

Suddenly, a rustling of leaves nearby interrupted his thoughts. Makoto spun around quickly, glancing towards the bushes where he was sure the noise had come from. There was definitely something moving in there, but he was sure there would be no employees outside the park, ready to jump at him. Trying to ignore the way his hands were shaking, Makoto took a couple of steps forward: it was probably just an animal, nothing to actually worry about-

“Makoto-kun” a voice said right behind him, making him jump at least a foot forward. When he turned around, Junko was looking at him, somewhat concerned. “Sorry… did I scare you?”

“No, no!” he hurried to answer, embarrassed. “I was just distracted, so you surprised me!”

Junko smiled, pleased at his response, and grabbed onto his arm tightly before starting to pull him towards the entrance, cheerily telling him how excited she was. It wasn’t unpleasant, but Makoto still felt a heavy weight at the bottom of his stomach when he thought about the date, and the talk he was gonna have to have with her after it. By the time he started being dragged towards the festival, he had forgotten all about the noise in the bushes.

--

“That was extremely close!” Rei whispered frantically into his phone, eyeing Makoto and Junko as they walked away from his hiding spot in the bushes. “Makoto-senpai almost came over to where I was!”

“Rei-chan, don’t let him out of your sight!” exclaimed Nagisa, who has already inside and comfortably hiding with Kou amidst the people walking around in the park. He had even had time to buy a cheap plastic mask. “You have to follow him, and tell us where he’s going!”

“Easy for you to say” Rei muttered, though he sounded far calmer now that the panic of being discovered had receded. Quickly, he gave his ticket to the attendant and walked into the park, following Makoto and his date while keeping some distance from them. “It seems that they are heading towards the games area. There is a high concentration of disguised employees in the area, so I suggest-!”

“Thank you, Rei-chan!” said Nagisa, cheerily interrupting him before hanging up and turning to Kou. “They’re going to the games, Gou-chan!! Let’s go!!”

“Call me Kou-!” she started saying, but the protest was lost when Nagisa started pulling her. “Wh-What are we supposed to do anyway? It’s not like we can keep them from going into the scary games!”

“I bet Mako-chan will avoid those anyway!” yelled back Nagisa, perhaps having more fun that he should be having with the whole situation. “But we can’t let him be too scared with tiny stuff, or there will be trouble!”

They arrived at the game area, which wasn’t as busy as others in the park, so Nagisa quickly pulled her behind the game stand where you had to throw a ring to get a price. She was completely out of breath with the effort of having to keep up with him, to the point that when he started talking again she completely missed it in favor of regaining her breath. “What did you say?”

“That they’re here already!” Nagisa exclaimed, pointing. And he was right: Makoto and Junko had arrived already, focusing on a shooting game. It was impossible to hear what they were saying from so far away, but it wasn’t hard to guess; with the way Junko was jumping, with her hands in front of her face, and with Makoto awkwardly reaching for one of the guns, it was obvious that he had been asked to win her a prize.

It was at that moment when Nagisa’s cellphone started ringing. “Nagisa-kun!!” Rei’s voice blasted out, clearly annoyed, when Kou answered it for him. “I would appreciate it if you didn’t hang up on me!”

“Sorry, Rei-chan!” Nagisa replied to the loudspeaker, too focused on the date a few feet away from him to really pay attention to his phone. “Do you see any ghosts nearby?”

“If you mean park attendants in costume” said Rei, and both Kou and Nagisa could imagine him pushing his glasses up wherever he was, “there is a great concentration of them on the lines for the more popular attractions, such as the roller coaster and the Ferris wheel. And of course, there is quite a big group by the haunted house, something which should be expected”.

“Rei, you sound like you’re really enjoying yourself” piped up Kou with a laugh, making the other boy babble an excuse about taking pride in a job well done. It went ignored, however, when she spotted something in the distance. “Wait, over there! Isn’t that a monster?”

She was right: a few steps away from Makoto, who was too focused on aiming for a prize to look around, there was what seemed to be a man in a werewolf costume, steadily making his way towards the couple and getting ready to jump. Before Kou or Rei could say anything, Nagisa yelled out “I’ve got it!”, lowered his mask, and ran out. His two friends watched as he quickly passed Makoto and Junko and tackled the poor park employee to the ground.

“Did he just-?! I-! We’re gonna get kicked out!” spluttered Rei over the phone, and Kou was inclined to agree, too shocked for words. Even Makoto and his date had noticed the commotion, since it would have been impossible to miss the group of people around the werewolf, who was slowly getting up and looking around for whatever had jumped him. The guilty person, however, was just now rounding up behind the game stand again, comfortably hiding next to Kou and taking off his mask.

“Mission complete!” he exclaimed, seemingly unaware of the mess a few feet away.

“Wait, was that your whole plan all along?!” Kou exclaimed, sounding as angry as she could while also trying to keep quiet. “What if Makoto-senpai had seen you!?”

“That’s why I got the mask!” replied Nagisa, dismissing her worries. “If he saw me, he wouldn’t have recognized me!”

“Besides, Nagisa-kun” Rei said through the speaker of the phone, “if that was your plan all along, why didn’t I do it? After all, I have experience in the track team and I’m probably faster than you”

“You wanted to jump out, Rei-chan? I didn’t know! In that case, you can do the next one!”

“That’s not the point I was trying to make-!!”

“Ah! Makoto-senpai is leaving!” exclaimed Kou, getting both boys’ attention. Makoto and Junko were leaving the game stand and heading away from there, both of them sending a couple of confused stares to the commotion behind them. “Wait, I think they’re going to the roller coaster”.

“We have to stop them!” exclaimed Nagisa, lowering his mask and hanging up on Rei once again. “I bet Mako-chan is terrified right now!”

“Actually” said a voice behind them, sending a cold chill down both Nagisa’s and Kou’s backs, “Makoto is surprisingly alright with roller coasters”.

Nagisa was the first to turn around and face Haru, who had somehow managed to sneak up behind them without being noticed. “Haru-chan!” he exclaimed loudly as he took off his mask. “What a coincidence to run into you here like this!!”

Haru didn’t respond, so Kou felt the need to fill the silence. “Haruka-senpai, we were just… we had heard so many good things about the Halloween setting…”

“We’re on a date!” Nagisa said, interrupting her and quickly grabbing her hand. Instantly, Kou pulled it back.

“No we’re not!”

“I know why you’re here” Haru said finally, apparently tired of watching them come up with excuses. “And this game of sending Makoto on dates ends here”.

Nagisa, who had been looking side to side and trying to find a good escape route, took exception to that comment. “It wasn’t a game! We were trying to find a girlfriend for Mako-chan!”

“That’s right, Haruka-senpai!” added Kou. “We were taking this very seriously!”

“Is that why you three made it a competition?” said Haru, eyes narrowing. “First was Kou, then Rei, and this is Nagisa’s turn, right?” His two underclassmen shrank a little at that, having no good retort for it.

“Oh, you heard that?” said Nagisa, in the most innocent tone he could muster.

“You shouldn’t make secret plans in the pool” replied Haru, for a moment sounding offended that the sanctity of his pool had been tarnished. He took a deep breath and continued, in spite of looking visibly uncomfortable. “If Makoto wanted you to find him a date, he would have asked”.

“No, he wouldn’t have” Nagisa pouted, but his complaint went ignored.

“So we’re going to-“ Whatever Haru was going to say, however, got interrupted by Nagisa’s loud ringtone. He sighed again, clearly exasperated. “Answer it. Rei should listen to this too”.

Before he could get a word in edgewise, however, Rei was already yelling through the speakerphone. “Red alert! Red alert! They’re heading towards the haunted house!”

“The haunted house?” said Haru, surprised, causing Rei to squeak out a weak ‘Haruka-senpai?!’ “Weren’t they going to the roller coaster?”

“I’m not sure what happened, senpai!” Rei replied. “They were in line for it, but now they’ve made their way over there”.

“There’s no way Mako-chan will handle the haunted house!” exclaimed Nagisa, brows furrowed in worry. “He got scared in the old swimming club, and there weren’t any actual ghosts there!”

The four of them went quiet for a minute. The three first years hadn’t made any plans as to how to deal with the couple actually going into the actually scary attractions, and even Nagisa seemed to realize that his plan of tackling threats would not work inside, where running away would be almost impossible – not to mention the many jump-scares that he wouldn’t be able to stop.

Suddenly, Haru spoke up. “Kou, come with me. Quick!” and ran off without explaining anything. Kou only had time to give Nagisa a confused look before she ran behind him, afraid that she was gonna lose sight of him.

--

Makoto had to admit that, in spite of his early trepidation, he had been enjoying his date so far. Nobody had jumped at him so far, and the one guy who had tried had fallen before he was even close, something for which he privately considered himself lucky. He hadn’t managed to win Junko a prize, but she was nonetheless fairly cheerful, if slightly too comfortable with holding onto his arm. As they lined up for the roller coaster, Makoto started thinking that maybe he had been worrying too much over nothing.

“This line is moving so slow!” Junko complained, sticking her head out.

“It is” Makoto agreed. “There’re a lot of people, too! It must be a very popular ride”. Junko pouted and crossed her arms, prompting him to add: “Why don’t we do something else? And maybe when we come back, the line will be thinner”.

The change was instantaneous, as she quickly smiled up at him. “What a good idea, Makoto-kun! Let’s go to the haunted house!”

Makoto had never regretted saying something so quickly before. “T-The haunted house? Right now?”

“Yeah!” Junko said, grabbing his wrist and dragging him away from the line. “I love scary things like that! Don’t you?” She didn’t seem too interested in the answer, however, as she just kept leading them away from the roller coaster and towards a small building, all painted black.

“Not really…” he said, but it went ignored as Junko quickly got them right behind another couple. In fact, the whole line seemed to be made entirely out of couples, lovingly holding onto each other.

It was amazing to think that just a few minutes ago, Makoto had been so relaxed and carefree; now, he was seriously considering faking a sudden stomach ache to get away. Next to him, Junko was chattering away, excited, and all he could do was watch as the line got smaller in front of him and the house got bigger as they walked closer to it. For the first time in his life, he understood what people meant when they said their feet felt like lead.

“Makoto-senpai!” said a voice behind, and when he turned around, he felt the weight on his stomach disappear right away.

“Haru?!” he exclaimed, so relieved to see his best friend that he almost missed the other person. “And Kou-chan? What are you guys doing here?”

He was looking at Haru when he asked that, but it was Kou who quickly answered. “I wanted to come to the park! But my brother didn’t want to come with me, and most of my girlfriends were busy, and Haruka-senpai said he could come”.

Makoto’s eyes widened in surprise. “Haru volunteered to come?” he said, prompting Kou to shake her head.

“Not really” she answered. “I have to organize swimming practices during rainy days somewhere with an inside pool as an exchange”.

Makoto laughed, but he glanced at Haru when Junko was distracted introducing herself. His friend wouldn’t look at him, his face turned away to look at something in the distance, but he knew him well enough to know that whatever Kou had said had been a total lie. Nonetheless, he didn’t press; partly because if Haru was lying then he probably had a good reason, and partly because he had felt so relieved to see him there that he really didn’t care why he was there in the first place.

“Pair up, pair up!” yelled a man by the front door, dressed up as a corpse. Makoto had spent the last few minutes doing his very best to ignore him, but now they were too close to the entrance to do that. “You can only go in twos, so pick your partner carefully!”

Suddenly, Makoto wished that he had paid more attention to the guy before. He could feel the blood leave his face as he imagined the prospect of going through a dark, terrifying maze with only Junko as company: as nice as she was, Makoto was sure that she was expecting him to protect her, and he was still not sure he wasn’t going to faint after a few steps inside that thing. At least if Haru had been there, it wouldn’t have been so bad, but he had no confidence that he would be able to endure it by himself.

“Um, Nakamura-senpai?” Kou spoke up, bringing him out of his thoughts. “Could I talk to you for a moment…?” She didn’t give Junko the time to answer, quickly grabbing her arm and dragging her aside to whisper something in her ear. Makoto took advantage of the opportunity and glanced at Haru, but his friend was still looking away from him, saying nothing.

Before he could ask what were he and Kou actually doing there, Junko and the other girl had come back to their spot in the line, smiling. “Makoto-kun! I hope you don’t mind, but I’ll be going through the haunted house with Kou-chan!”

“Really?” Makoto said, surprised. He looked at Kou, who glanced away covering her face in an exaggerated motion. Junko, however, blinked at him, waiting for an answer. “Sure! I don’t mind”. There was a lot going on here that he really didn’t understand, but he was definitely taking comfort on the fact that he wasn’t being forced to go through that house.

Before he could say anything else about it, the man at the door spoke up again. “Next two, you’re up! Be safe!” he said, leaning a bit too close for Makoto’s comfort.

Junko and Kou waved at the boys and stepped inside the open door. Makoto waited a couple of seconds after the door closed before turning to Haru, determined once and for all, to get an answer. “So, how come you two are here?”

Haru, who had finally turned to look at him when Makoto spoke up, glanced away again. “Kou said it. She wanted to come”.

His eyebrows twitched as he said it, however, a sure-tell sign that he was lying, as Makoto had learned over the years. Although he was happy Haru was there, the fact that he wouldn’t tell him why he was there, even now when they were alone, was starting to worry him. “Haru…”

“Are you enjoying your date?” Haru asked, interrupting him before he could say anything else.

The question surprised him. “I…” he started saying. He was having fun, but Makoto hadn’t particularly felt like he was on a date so far. Not that it surprised him: Junko was very nice, not to mention a lot braver than he would ever be, but he had known this whole outing was pointless from the beginning. And it didn’t matter if a girl was asking him for his help, or sharing her lunch with him, or even taking him out on an actual date; not when he had spent most of the time wishing Haru was there with him instead.

At the end of the day, Makoto knew that it would always come back to Haru, who would wait for him in his bathtub every morning, who would eat the other half of his popsicle, who was the reason he enjoyed swimming. Haru, who made his heart race.

And who was still waiting for an answer. Makoto bit his lip, trying to think of a good answer that wouldn’t give his friend the wrong idea. Before he could say anything, however, the man by the door spoke up again. “Next two! You’re up!”

“Wa-Wait, what?” Makoto’s voice went up to a high pitched when he spoke, but he didn’t care about that when he saw the door right in front of him opening up. “No, we’re fine-“

The man in front, however, had apparently decided to ignore him. Makoto felt a hand on his back push him forward, and suddenly everything around him was darker. “Have fun!” was the last thing he heard before the door closed behind them.

He definitely wasn’t having fun anymore. “T-They have to let us out!!” he exclaimed loudly before turning towards the door. “H-Hey! We don’t want to go through this ride! Let us out!” The only response, however, was the sound of a maleficent laugh.

“Makoto” said Haru, making him jump. “He’s not gonna open up”. Makoto gave a sad look towards the door anyway, hoping that it would spontaneously open for him. Of course, it didn’t. “Come on. The faster we start, the faster we’ll be out”.

Makoto nodded, and took a deep breath before catching up to Haru. After all, everything there was fake: the blood, the scary pictures, and the people who would come out and chase you. Even the story behind it, which he had pointedly ignored when Junko started telling him, was not real – after all, nobody had died in that house and no ghosts were haunting it. He was totally safe, and as long as he kept telling himself that, he would be alright.

A big, shadowy figure jumped out at them when they walked into a room, and Makoto’s hands were holding onto Haru’s shoulders right away. “W-What is that?!”

Haru squinted, trying to see in the poor light. “A dog doll” he said, not sounding particularly impressed. “The ear is falling off”.

“Oh!” Haru was right: it had just been a doll, which was now returning to its hiding spot. Makoto relaxed, but he still held onto his friend. As usual, the warm feeling under his hands comforted him a little.

The maze didn’t get better from then on. On the next room, fashioned like an old, dirty living room, a woman jumped out at them from behind the couch, and a man tried to grab them when they were near the door. In the one right after, a bathroom filled with blood splatters, Makoto was split between wanting to cry at the sight of a man hanging from the shower head and holding back Haru, who was looking at the water in the bathtub with interest. He wasn’t even looking after that, since his face was completely buried in Haru’s back, but he still yelled out when the girl – who had been lying on the bed of the next room, pretending to be a doll – jumped out at him and told him to play with her. He ran out, almost pushing his friend to the ground before holding onto him the moment they were on the hallway, burying his face on his neck.

“Makoto” Haru said as soon as they left the room, sounding a little breathless. “I can’t move like this”.

“Ah!” Makoto hadn’t noticed how much he had been clinging to Haru. He jumped back, giving him some room, before looking down at the ground. “I’m sorry, I’m just… I can’t…” His hands, now by the side of his legs, turned into fists in an effort to keep from crying. “I need to get out, I can’t…”

“Makoto” Haru said again, and this time his voice sounded softer. “It’s alright. We’re almost at the end”.

“It’s too much! I can’t…”

Suddenly, he felt soft fingers run over his hand before gripping it gently. Makoto looked up, surprised to see his best friend so much closer than before. “Yes, you can. We’re almost at the end”. Makoto still hadn’t answered, so he pursed his lips and added: “I won’t let go”.

And with that, Haru turned around and started walking again, still holding onto his hand. Makoto let himself be pulled, too focused on the tingly feeling running through his arm to protest anymore. The conflict inside him was almost hilarious – his heart was still beating in terror, but now it was accompanied by the familiar warmth that would grow in his chest whenever he thought about Haru. He was definitely becoming hysteric, he decided, and that was the excuse he was going to use if what he was about to do ended horribly.

Quickly, before giving himself time to change his mind, Makoto turned his hand and interlocked his fingers with Haru. He was still terrified of the haunted mansion, but now the fear that his friend would reject him was growing inside him as well. He waited, holding his breath, expecting Haru to pull away his hand at any minute and turn to look at him demanding an explanation. He was shocked when, instead, Haru didn’t turn to look at him, squeezing his hand as if telling him it was alright. It was as if Makoto’s panic suddenly left him, and he allowed himself to squeeze back as Haru pulled him through the last couple of rooms in the house.

--

Kou hopped from one foot to the other, trying to keep warm while she and Junko waited for Makoto and Haruka to come out of the haunted house. Next to her, the older girl was chattering away, and while she was doing her best to listen to what her senpai was saying, Kou couldn’t help being more concerned with the fact that the guys hadn’t come out of the house yet. What if Makoto had panicked and refused to go any further? He had looked so pale and scared when he realized he could only go with Junko that Kou had felt the urge to jump in and help, shyly asking her to go with her while claiming to be too embarrassed to be scared in front of Haru.

Something hit her leg, and when Kou turned around to rub it, she noticed a movement of yellow from the bushes. Five seconds after, Nagisa popped up from behind the plants, carrying a bunch of little pebbles on his hands, which he dropped the moment he noticed her looking at him in favor of waving at her. Behind him, Rei was pressing down on his shoulder, clearly begging him to go down again and hide.

She started gesturing as well, waving her hands down, when she heard Junko suddenly speak up. “Kou-chan? What are you doing?”

Kou turned back quickly. “Oh! I just saw a bug, and I was waving it away. They’re just so gross, you know?”

“I totally get you! I hate them! You know, one time-“

Her story was interrupted, however, when Haru and Makoto finally emerged from the backdoor of the haunted house. Considering she had been expecting him to be completely paralyzed in terror, Kou was amazed at how well Makoto looked: although he still seemed nervous, he was smiling at Haru as he said something to him about never going through something like that again. She frowned, confused – had she jumped the gun when she forced Makoto to go with Haru instead of Junko?

“Makoto-kun!” Junko yelled out, getting the two boys’ attention. “Did you like it? Wasn’t it fun? Especially when the dad comes at you in the end with his knife!”

“Ah” Makoto replied, his smile disappearing a little. “I didn’t really notice him-“

“Then we’ll have to go through it again! Together this time! It’ll be so much fun-“

To Kou’s surprise, Haru interrupted her. “Actually, Makoto-“

And even more surprising to her, Makoto spoke up. “Haru, its fine” he said, before turning to her. “The truth is… I don’t really like scary stuff like that, Junko-senpai”.

“Oh! That’s alright” she said, although she did seem a little less excited. “We can do other stuff. There’s tons of rides here!” Makoto nodded, and Kou almost giggled in delight. Perhaps the date was not lost after all!

“Kou. Let’s go” Haru said, and started walking away. She managed to give the couple a quick goodbye before rushing to catch up him.

“Was Makoto-senpai alright?” she asked as they walked towards the bushes, but got no answer.

Nagisa and Rei were already waiting for them, one of them clearly looking far more relaxed than the other. Once Haru and Kou reached them, and before either of them could say anything, Rei instantly bowed. “Haruka-senpai! I’m really sorry about all the trouble we’ve caused!”

“Thank you for going in there and helping out, Haru-chan!” Nagisa added cheerfully. “Now Mako-chan’s date will go amazingly!”

Haruka, however, didn’t seem particularly moved by that. “You three – sit down. We need to talk”. His tone was more serious than the three of them – even Nagisa – had come to expect from him, so they obeyed quietly. “I understand you were trying to help Makoto, but this kind of thing will only be more troublesome for him. And besides,” he added when he noticed Nagisa was about to speak up, “Makoto is the kind of person who needs to like someone before dating them, not the other way around”.

Nagisa sighed before pouting up at him. “I knew that, Haru-chan! I just thought maybe he would end up liking one of the girls and want to date them”. He sighed again, uncharacteristically contrite. “But I didn’t mean to cause him any trouble”.

“Why don’t you ever apologize like that when you do something to me?” Rei muttered next to him, earning him a bright smile.

“Because Rei-chan is never really that bothered!”

“I am plenty bothered! I always complain about it!”

“Either way” Haru interrupted before the argument got out of hand, “since this was troublesome to the swimming club’s captain, I think it’s only fair that you get swimming club-related punishment. So you two” he said, pointedly looking at Rei and Nagisa, “are going to start cleaning the pool weekly. Take out all the leaves and bugs from the water, as well as changing it regularly”.

“What? But that’s so much work, Haru-chan!”

“We accept our punishment without arguing!” said Rei, giving Nagisa a glare.

“Good” Haru said, before turning to the remaining first-year student in the group. “Kou. You will still need to set up those swimming practices in an indoor pool. Every rainy day.”

“Wait, Haruka-senpai” she tried to argue, “the only place where we could do that is Samezuka, and I don’t know if they will want to let us practice all the time! And besides, I just said that as a joke!”

“That’s your punishment” Haru said, in a tone that allowed no arguments. “But I can always think of other things” he added, but none of them spoke up this time. They all knew better than to tempt Haru into thinking of creative ways to punish them, some of which might include cooking mackerel and cleaning his house. “Good. Now let’s go” he started walking off, once again not waiting for the other three to catch up.

Rei sighed, getting up from the floor. “Does anybody else get the feeling we’ve simply gotten roped into setting up more swimming time for Haruka-senpai?”

--

It was getting dark by the time Makoto finally made it back to his neighborhood from the amusement park. The ride back home had been lonely, since he and Junko went off in different directions after reaching Iwatobi again, but after that afternoon, Makoto found that he appreciated the silence. Unfortunately, once the sun had set the day had gotten considerably cold, and once he stepped out of the bus he realized the light jacket he had on would not be enough against the chilly night wind.

Wrapping his arms around himself and hoping it would keep him warm, Makoto started making his way towards his house. Aside from a couple of people keeping their stores running, the streets were deserted and quiet, and Makoto tried his best not to feel scared by every moving shadow he spotted out of the corner of his eye. After all, he had survived a haunted house that day; a walk down his street should not be an issue for him. Valiantly, he walked forward keeping his eyes up ahead, and he would have made it home without any issues had it not been for the shadowy figure sitting on the steps by his house, which made Makoto startle with a jump.

After a couple of seconds, however, he recognized who the mystery person was. “Haru?!” he exclaimed, going over to stand by his friend. “What are you doing out here?”

Haru, who had been looking at his friend’s small panic attack without saying anything, turned his face away from him. “I wanted some fresh air” he said, but moved to the left, giving him some room.

Makoto obliged, sitting down next to his friend, smiling. “But it’s so cold tonight!” He knew Haru was lying, much like he had known there was definitely more going on back at the amusement park than what he and Kou had let on. At least this time, however, he knew what was going on. “You didn’t have to wait for me, you know”.

All the answer he received to that comment was a tsk of his tongue, which told Makoto he had hit the mark. The two of them continued to sit comfortably on the steps without saying anything for a while, which suited them both just fine, in Makoto’s opinion. Just when he was considering getting up and forcing him to go inside and warm up, however, Haru spoke up again. “How did your date go?”

It was that question again. Makoto found himself struggling to think of a way to answer; particularly when all he wanted to do was ask his friend why he was so interested. “It was fun, I think. After you two left we went on some rides, and we bought some popcorn” he sighed and rubbed his hands together, trying to warm them up. “But I spent a lot of time thinking over how to tell her I wasn’t interested, and I think she noticed”.

Even though he was never rude about it, Makoto was used to telling his stories while his friend looked away, not providing much input – later during the day, he would ask him something about it, or make a comment, and Makoto would know that he had listened to the whole thing regardless of how it had looked before. This time, however, Haru was looking at him, and even though he had initially planned to end the story there, having his friend’s attention made him feel like he had to keep going. “I think I was worrying too much! She cut me off after I started and told me she couldn’t be with a guy who didn’t like scary stuff anyway”. Haru frowned, prompting Makoto to add “She said it nicely! She just likes horror movies and stuff like that”.

Haru seemed to relax at that, finally looking away, and a comfortable silence fell between the two of them. Now that he had been sitting down for a while, Makoto was really feeling the cold, and he was considering getting up and saying goodbye when Haru spoke up again. “What were you going to tell her?”

“Huh?”

“You were telling her something before she interrupted. What was it?”

“Ah! You want to know that?” Makoto hadn’t been expecting that question, and when Haru nodded he looked down to his hands, making time to think for himself. He hadn’t foreseen the conversation going this way when it had first started, but now he saw no way out of it – not without lying, at least, and Haru would catch that in an instant. “I was gonna tell her that it had been fun, but that I couldn’t really go out with her because I liked someone else. But she interrupted me, so I didn't say it in the end!”

He had rushed through saying it, but Haru caught it anyway and made an annoyed sound. “You shouldn’t have done that”.

“Done what? What do you mean?”

“Lie to her about it. Or try to, anyway” Now it was Haru who was rubbing his hands, looking down at them. “The only way you’re going to get them to stop is to be completely honest and tell those girls you don’t like them”.

There was a lot in that statement that Makoto could have commented on, like asking who “them” was supposed to be, or even mentioning that sometimes a small white lie isn’t that bad if it prevents hurting someone’s feelings. Instead, what escaped his mouth was “But I wasn’t lying!”

The mood changed so quickly, that it was as if someone had flipped a switch. Haru looked at him for a moment, obviously surprised even for him, before merely saying “Oh” and turning away.

Makoto, on his part, would have gladly returned to the haunted house if it meant he could make that slip of the tongue disappear. The silence between them wasn’t comfortable anymore, but he didn’t even dare to turn towards Haru, much less say anything else. Instead, he tapped his foot against the pavement and waited, trying to take deep breaths without his friend noticing, and trying to calculate when it wouldn’t be awkward for him to get up and go home. Maybe, he thought to himself, if he didn’t mention the conversation tomorrow, it could go completely forgotten.

“You should confess” Haru said, bringing him out of his thoughts.

He definitely couldn’t have heard that right. “What?”

Haru glanced at him. “You should confess. Then girls won’t ask you out”.

It was hard to read his expression in the dark, and it made Makoto feel as if he was walking in a path with no lights on. “I don’t know if they like me, though”. He rubbed his hands together, even though every part of him felt really warm already, and suddenly remembered the feeling of holding hands and their fingers rubbing each other. “And it’s scary to think of what would happen if they don’t”.

“You won’t know if you don’t say anything” Haru said, quietly.

Makoto could have easily laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation. “And if they say no? Then we can’t be friends anymore”.

He heard a sigh, which finally made him turn to face his friend. Haru wasn’t looking at him, either: instead, he was looking straight ahead, with his hands on the steps. Makoto knew him well enough to know he was purposefully looking away from him so he wouldn’t notice he was upset. Why was Haruka upset? “They’re not going to say no, Makoto”.

Suddenly, all he could feel was the same warmth he had felt back at the haunted house, when Haru had been holding onto his hand. “You think I should confess?”

“Didn’t I just say that?” Haru replied, snapping.

Makoto, however, ignored his tone and reached out, putting his hand on top of Haruka’s, making him finally look towards him in surprise. “Can I confess, Haru?”

Maybe it was because Haru was finally looking at him, or because the blood in his body, which was definitely pumping faster than usual, was making his eyesight better – but Makoto could see the way his eyes were widening in surprise, even in the dark. He felt himself starting to panic, but that was interrupted when Haru finally whispered “Do what you want”.

So Makoto squeezed his hand, much like he had done in the haunted house. “I like you, Haru. I like you so much! I don’t know since when, or how long, but I can’t remember a time when I didn’t. I know it might seem weird to you, and I’m really sorry to dump this on you like this, but I think I might even love-“

“I got it, already” Haru interrupted, and now Makoto could see the way his face was bright red, even in the dark. There was a brief moment of silence, before Haru sighed once again and leaned forward, resting his forehead on Makoto’s chest.

They stayed like that for a moment, with Makoto still holding onto his hand and trying his very best to calm down, even though by now it would have been pointless: there was no way Haruka couldn’t feel the way his heart was beating like crazy. “Haru…?”

He felt his hand being squeezed back, and Haru interlocked their fingers again. “I think… I feel the same” he said quietly, burrowing his face against Makoto’s chest even more.

Makoto had thought his heart was beating fast before, but it was nothing compared to how it was running after hearing Haruka say that. “Y-you do? Haru…” he pulled back, forcing Haru to stop hiding his face. “Look at me, please?” he whispered. He did it slowly and clearly reluctantly, but Haru turned his eyes up to look at him, and Makoto lightly rested his forehead against his. “Can I kiss you?”

“Don’t ask if you already know the answer” Haru whispered back, his free hand going up to grip Makoto’s jacket. Biting back a smile, he leaned in and finally kissed him.

Fantasizing about kissing Haru was not something Makoto had ever allowed himself to do, because he knew the moment he started, he would not be able to stop. It was torture some days, when he desperately wanted to give in if only because he felt he would never have anything beyond a daydream. But now that they were actually kissing, he couldn’t be happier he had restrained himself– there was no way his mind could have given him the little noises Haru was making from the back of his throat, or the way he had chased his mouth, demanding more, when Makoto pulled away a couple of inches. He let the hand that wasn’t holding onto Haru’s find his way to his hair, and then to his cheek, before finally breaking the kiss.

“Your face is so cold” Makoto whispered, lightly rubbing his thumb on his skin. “How long were you waiting here?”

For a moment, he expected Haru to tell him he hadn’t been out that long. Instead, he leaned forward, until his lips were by Makoto’s ear, and whispered, “Warm me up, then”. It sent a shiver that had nothing to do with the cold down his back.

Unfortunately, that was the moment when his phone started ringing, playing the ringtone he had assigned to his home number. Reluctantly, Makoto let go of Haru and answered. “Sorry, I know I’m late! I’m almost at the house now” he said. His mom chided him for not letting them know, but she didn’t seem particularly upset, which was a relief in a way.

“You better go now” said Haru once he finished the call.

“I know” Makoto answered, though he made no attempt to get up, or even move. Instead, he let his forehead rest on Haru’s shoulder. “I wish I didn’t have to, though” he said, lightly rubbing his thumb over the other’s hand.

Haru let him rest there for about a minute, before lightly pushing him off. “Just come over tomorrow, instead” he said, looking away as if to hide his embarrassment.

Nothing Makoto could have said about that would have come out as less than overexcited babble, so he simply smiled as a response and got up, before offering Haruka his hand. “You should go in, too. You’ll catch a cold”.

Quietly, Haru took hold of the hand being offered and stood up on the step, without letting go. Knowing full-well that if he took too long his mom would come out of the house and wait for him in the steps, Makoto let go of his hand – but not before leaning in and giving him a good night peck on the lips. “See you tomorrow, Haru-chan!” he said with a smile, before running off down the stairs and towards his house.

He was too far away to hear a reluctantly muttered “Don’t use chan”.

--

Nagisa had spent the last hour looking through different love stories online. Could he set up an accidental meeting between Makoto and a girl on a train? He could always have Rei pretend to be a mugger – Makoto would definitely intervene on her behalf! Of course, the hard part would be to find a girl who would send Makoto a present as a thank you, but there had to be one like that in their school!

He had started searching for more love stories when his phone had lighted up, signaling a message. Nagisa quickly jumped over to check it, just to see Haru had messaged him:

“Stop setting up dates for Makoto”.

Nagisa blinked. Was Haru spying on him? He quickly typed back a response:

“Ohhh!! Haru-chan is texting with me!! ┌(★o☆)┘ But what do you mean?? (‘◇’)? I just wanna make sure Mako-chan has someone special (○゜ε^○)Haru-chan should cheer him on, too! ヽ(*^ー^)人(^ー^*)ノ”

The answer came almost instantaneously:

“He doesn't need them anymore”.

Now that message definitely got Nagisa’s attention. Had something happened? And was Haru involved?

“Eh!! What do you mean?? (((( ;°Д°))))”

“Wait, Haru-chan, did something happen??? ヽ(≧Д≦)ノ Tell me, tell me!”

“No fair, I wanna know!!”

“Haru-chan!!! ヽ(#゚Д゚)ノ┌┛”

“Did you turn off your phone???”

“That’s mean, Haru-chan! (ノ_ _)ノ”

In spite of the rain of messages, however, Haru would not answer, so Nagisa decided to give it at rest for the moment. It was clear as day that something had happened after the date, and it was something that involved both of his old friends. He couldn’t help the smile that came to his face at the idea – it hadn’t been the original plan, but at the very least the core of it (finding a perfect match for Makoto) might have already come true. In any case, it wasn’t worth it to keep bothering Haru about it. Instead, he grabbed his phone to send a quick “Mission: Accomplished! ♪♪(o*゜∇゜)o~♪♪” message to both Rei and Kou.

After all, getting the full story from Makoto on Monday would be so much easier.