Halloween morning. A day for all pranksters and mischief-makers, when the day should be crisp and cool and the night auspiciously dark and scary. The moon should hang heavy and full, with maybe one or two wispy clouds sailing across it.
The weather isn’t actually shaping up to be particularly Halloween-y, however. It's a grey mid-morning, clouds everywhere, and it's been drizzling - the kind of rain that's not heavy, but just steady enough to be deeply irritating.
Sakura is deeply irritated.
She's staring down at some rough sketches for a Halloween-themed one shot manga, pencil shaking in one hand. There's no way she can do this. She doesn't even really know what it's supposed to be about.
"Nozaki," she says, turning to look at him. He's curled up on the couch under a crochet blanket, eyes closed, and he looks so spectacularly pathetic that she just sighs and turns back around.
There's a rustle behind her, and she turns again to see Nozaki working himself into a sitting position, eyes still closed.
"Sakura?" he asks, in a teeny, tiny, sad little voice.
She sighs again. "Nozaki," she says, in her best trying-to-be-patient voice, "pull yourself together! You're not even sick! You just have a wrist sprain!"
It's possible that her patience has run out.
He doesn't reply, but at least he opens his eyes and actually looks at her. "An injury is like being sick," he tries. "Anyway, I can't do it. It's up to you now, Sakura!"
And doesn't she know it. With the rest of the manga team also claiming to be sick to get out of having to baby Nozaki all day, it really is up to her to make sure this manga gets finished, but she's having second thoughts. Or fifteenth thoughts, maybe. She's been sitting at the desk all morning thinking about how she totally can't do this, and her back is sore.
Sakura glances out the window, and - hey. "Hey," she says, mouth blindly following her brain, "it stopped raining!" She springs out of her chair, and does a few excited stretches. "Let's go out," she suggests. "Maybe get lunch somewhere? I need inspiration!" she continues, as she can see Nozaki building up to a rebuttal. "It's decided, let's go!"
So they go.
Nozaki's still bundled up under the blanket, for some reason, but Sakura can't be brought down by nonsense right now. The sun is shining, and everything is gleaming from the rain. It's going to be a great day, she decides, putting the manga out of her mind for the moment.
They walk aimlessly, strolling through quiet streets together and just enjoying each other’s company with quiet conversation that's half nonsense and half stupid inside jokes. This is what it'd be like if we were on a date, Sakura thinks, and then can't stop thinking it. Even their footsteps seem to agree, tapping out date date date date against the sidewalk.
Maybe this is the time to ask him out for real, she thinks. The day is beautiful, there’s nobody around, and she’s pretty sure he’d say yes if she asked properly. That night at the fireworks – she never quite heard him properly, but his voice was deep and a little shaky and she thinks he might have said something like I like you.
It takes her a second to realise that with all this deep thinking, she’s stopped walking, and Nozaki’s stopped too and is staring at her.
“Nozaki,” she starts, hands in fists and voice small but clear.
“Sakura,” he cuts in, and grabs her by the shoulders. She almost has a heart attack, and is leaning in, eyes drifting closed, when he neatly spins her around.
Nozaki wasn’t staring at her. He was staring at this – a small store tucked between two cute houses.
“A shop?” she asks, and she knows her voice is loudly disappointed, but she can’t bring herself to care.
“A shop,” Nozaki agrees, and she’s building up to a really good ‘why the heck would I care about a shop, oh my goodness Nozaki, I was going to say something super important that would change our lives forever’ rant when he adds, “But there was a park there yesterday.”
There’s a moment of silence.
“What?” Sakura asks. “How is that even possible? Are you sure you’re not thinking of somewhere else?”
“I’m sure,” Nozaki says, “I came here yesterday to practice drawing from different perspectives – I climbed into one of the trees, and…”
He trails off, Sakura knows, because he doesn’t want to finish with ‘and I fell out’, which is exactly what happened.
“Weird,” she breathes. “Should we…go in?”
They go in.
It’s cramped and gloomy and dusty and full of dark wooden furniture and piles of ancient books. Light filters through filthy stained-glass windows, leaving pools of sunlight on the ground like spotlights. Behind the counter is a little old woman with piercing eyes that she trains on them the second they push open the heavy front door.
“Welcome to my shop of wonders,” she says, and for a moment Sakura really believes there’ll be wonders in this store. Then she looks around again, eyes catching on really tacky vases and a huge stack of VCR tapes.
“Hm,” she says, and turns to Nozaki so they can leave – but he’s gone, busily inspecting the contents of a huge cardboard box like there could actually be something good in it.
She sneaks over to him, keenly aware of the woman watching them, and tugs on the blanket he’s still wrapped in.
“Nozaki,” she whispers, when he doesn’t turn around, “c’mon, let’s go. This place sucks.”
He turns around, clutching a long, thin box in his uninjured hand. There’s a wild light in his eyes.
“Sucks?” he asks. “Sucks? Sakura – do you realise what this is?”
“A box?” she tries, but he shakes his head.
“Sakura,” he says, voice so full of passion that it makes her shiver, “this is a calligraphy set that’s maybe a hundred years old!”
Oh. Is that all. Wow, amazing. A hundred sarcastic remarks come to Sakura’s mind and are discarded, because she can’t bring herself to be that mean about something he clearly cares about. But – wow. Amazing.
“A hundred years old,” croaks the old woman, and Sakura almost jumps out of her skin as she realises the woman is standing right next to them. “Is that what you think, young man?”
“Am I wrong?” Nozaki asks, and peers closely at the box. “Is it even older than that?”
She chuckles kindly, but to Sakura’s ears there’s an edge of a cackle.
“Perhaps, perhaps,” she says. “Why don’t you purchase it and find out?”
So that’s how they end up leaving the impossible shop with an ancient calligraphy set. Outside, the weather is starting to turn, the wind whipping fallen leaves past their ankles. Sakura shivers, and Nozaki unwraps his blanket and carefully rolls Sakura up in it until she’s a warm, safe little Sakura burrito. She’s so dizzy from being surrounded by his scent that she doesn’t even notice they’ve walked all the way back to his apartment until they’re there.
“I guess we really should get back to the manga,” she says, with a regretful sigh. “We never even had lunch, though…”
“I’ll heat up something while you draw,” Nozaki says, and it’s not like she can say no to that. So Nozaki bustles into the kitchen when they get into the apartment, and Sakura finds herself back in the same chair she was in before their walk, with the same terrible sketches in front of her.
Craving another distraction, she spots the calligraphy set. She makes sure Nozaki is well and truly occupied in the kitchen before she opens it, and then can’t help herself from pulling out the beautiful brush inside. It feels – right, somehow. Like it was made for her hand. It’s smooth, yet textured, and Sakura already knows she could never drop it by accident. It’s almost – warm.
She takes it back to the manga almost in a trance. Pictures are spinning in her mind, and she knows how to finish the manga. She puts brush to paper, and is somehow unsurprised to find it drawing a thick black line, even without ink. Her hand moves smoothly and swiftly across the page, going over her previous sketches and turning them into a flawless, finished artwork.
With her eyes still fixed on the brush, she reaches her free hand out for more paper and meets warm skin.
“Sakura,” Nozaki’s voice filters in, sounding strained, “snap out of it!”
There’s nothing to snap out of, she tries to say, but her mouth doesn’t move.
“Sakura!” Nozaki tries again, and this time shakes her hand wildly until she blinks. Her hand is suddenly aching, and she realises it’s because she’s holding the brush in a death-grip, knuckles white and bloodless. Her hand cramps up as soon as she lets it drop, and the rest of the world comes rushing back. She can hear a car outside. And a bird.
And Nozaki -!
She looks up at him looking down at her, eyes huge and worried.
“Are you okay?” he asks. “What was that? It was like you were possessed! And is that my new brush?”
Sakura can barely focus on his words. She’s exhausted, like she just ran five blocks, and she knows if she stands up she’ll fall straight on her face.
“Um,” she says, and discovers her voice is as wobbly as her legs. “I’m okay. I drew the next page of the manga.”
There’s a pause, as Nozaki’s worried look turns confused. “No, you didn’t,” he says.
“I did too!” she says, outraged. “Look, it’s perfect!”
She picks up the piece of paper, and – it’s completely black. It’s so soaked with ink it’s dripping on the table, and before her eyes it tears in half.
“But…it was perfect,” she whispers, baffled. “The brush was drawing it perfectly…”
“The brush?” Nozaki asks. “Sakura, what are you even talking about? Come get some lunch, you’re clearly so hungry you’ve lost it.”
“I guess so,” Sakura murmurs, and Nozaki helps her out of the chair. It’s only then that she realises he’s still holding her hand, and she can’t fight back a full-body blush. His hand is warm, and it’s slightly sweaty - which should be gross, but it’s not. He leads her by the hand into the kitchen, and only lets go when there’s a crash from behind them, and then a scream that’s so loud and piercing they both clap their hands over their ears to try to muffle it.
Nozaki looks back at Sakura, and his mouth is moving, but through the scream and her hands over her ears, she can’t hear him. It’s the fireworks festival all over again, she thinks, exasperated, and she wants to take her hands off her ears and get closer and ask him to shout, but he’s already rushed out of the kitchen and towards the scream.
Sakura wants to scream. What if there’s something dangerous out there! What if he gets hurt! She takes a second to gather her courage, and, heart-in-mouth, dashes after him.
There’s a ghost in the living room.
There’s a ghost, and she’s screaming, and Nozaki is staring up at it, looking just as baffled and horrified as Sakura feels.
And then Sakura’s stomach sinks as she recognises the pattern on the ghost’s kimono as being the same pattern on the brush.
A mysterious brush from a mysterious store. On Halloween. Of course.
She opens her mouth to yell at the ghost and tell her where she can shove her haunted brush, when she stops screaming. Her eyes bulge, and she rocks back and forth with a jerky motion that flings her head back and forth. Slowly, she raises an arm and points it directly at Sakura.
She closes her mouth with a gasp, and takes an instinctive step back, stomach roiling. She wants to bring her hands up in fists, but she can’t seem to get her body to obey her instructions.
“Sakura…” the ghost moans, voice deep and resonant. Sakura can feel it in her bones. Nozaki is staring at her with absolute horror in his eyes, and she wants to throw up.
“What?” she squeaks instead, using up every last ounce of bravery she has.
“You must obey me…” she moans, and now the furniture is beginning to shake. “You must finish my task… You must complete my manga, Sakura…”
A glass falls off the table and shatters – and with it goes Sakura’s inability to move.
“Nozaki, run!” She gasps, and turns and bolts faster than she ever thought possible. She can’t spare a moment to look back, but she thinks she can hear footsteps behind her, and surely ghosts don’t make a sound when they run. The thought only scares her more, so she puts on an extra burst of speed and ducks into the one room in the apartment she’s never been into before:
It’s surprisingly nice, she notices, before flinging herself into the wardrobe. A hand grabs the door as she tries to close it, and she swallows a scream as she realises the hand belongs to Nozaki. She lets him in and they close the door as swiftly as possible without slamming it.
And then they’re alone in the dark, crammed up against each other. Sakura can feel warm solid boy against every part of her body. Nozaki’s arm-hair is brushing her own. His breath is hot on her forehead. Their legs are tangled together, and she loses a few moments to white noise with that realisation.
For a moment, she almost begins to enjoy herself, and then she hears it.
“Sakura…” the ghost moans from right outside the wardrobe. “Sakura… where are you, Sakura… Finish my manga, Sakura… I need you… Sakura…”
With every word, her voice gets further away, until finally it fades away entirely.
Nozaki breathes a sigh of relief.
Sakura is immediately in relieved tears, and is too worked up to properly appreciate it when Nozaki wraps his arms around her shoulders. It’s too much.
“Is it gone?” she whispers into Nozaki’s chest through quiet sobs. He doesn’t reply at first, just squeezes her shoulders.
“I hope so,” he says at last, softly. His chest rumbles as he speaks, and Sakura blushes so hot it dries up her tears.
“Um,” she says, trying to discreetly fan herself. Maybe this is the moment. They’ve faced certain death! They’ve survived! They’re trapped in a wardrobe together! They’re cuddling!!!
It’s definitely the moment, and there’s a certain patient quality to Nozaki’s silence that Sakura really, really wants to interpret as him also thinking that it’s the moment.
“Nozaki,” she says softly, drawing out his name, and blushes even further when his answer is mostly just rumble.
“Um…I have to tell you something…I mean…I’ve tried to say it before, but this time I’m going to be direct. Nozaki, I –“
Her phone starts ringing.
Sakura’s jaw drops in disbelief.
There’s a long, awkward pause where Sakura and Nozaki just stand in the wardrobe together and listen to Sakura’s ringtone, and then Sakura snatches it out of her pocket and stares at the tiny screen. She doesn’t recognise the number.
When she answers the phone, an elderly voice croaks out: “Hello?”
Sakura puts her hand over the phone and frowns up at Nozaki, even though she’s not sure he can even see her in the gloom.
“I think it’s the old woman from the shop!” she hisses.
“Who sold us the brush?” he asks, and she nods.
“Old?” the woman squawks, clearly indignant even through the tinny speakers. “Who are you calling old, you whippersnapper?”
Sakura winces, and takes her hand away from the phone. “Oops,” she says. “Sorry for calling you old, ma’am.”
The woman sniffs. “I was just going to give you some friendly advice for your calligraphy set, but now –“
“No!” Sakura yelps, and then claps a hand over her mouth. If the ghost is still in the apartment, she doesn’t want to let her know where they’re hiding. “No,” she says again, much quieter. “Please, oh my goodness, please give us advice.”
“Why are you whispering?” the woman asks. “Speak up! I can’t hear you properly through this blasted thing.”
“I don’t want the gho – uh, that is – I’m hiding? And I don’t want to be found?”
The woman sighs. “You touched the brush, didn’t you,” she says, and she sounds deeply unimpressed.
“Of course I touched it!” Sakura says, incensed. “It’s a brush! How else would I use it?”
“It’s not for using,” the woman says. “Silly girl. It’s a display piece! Why would you use a haunted brush?”
Sakura takes the phone away from her ear and frowns at it. How rude! Nozaki looks confused.
“What’s she saying?” he whispers.
“She knew it was haunted,” Sakura whispers back, because she clearly did, and she didn’t even warn them. How rude is that!
“Rude,” Nozaki agrees without knowing he’s agreeing, and Sakura wants to kiss him.
“Not rude!” the old woman snaps, and Sakura jumps. How can she even hear them? “You wouldn’t have believed me if I’d told you ‘now, don’t try to use the brush because it’s haunted by the ghost of a mangaka who is desperate to finish her last manga’, would you?”
Sakura can’t imagine she would have, but it’s kind of embarrassing to admit it, since it would clearly have been true.
“Alright,” she says into the phone with a sigh, “I’m sorry. Please tell us how to get rid of the ghost?”
“Fine,” the woman says. “It’s simple: finish her manga.”
Sakura rolls her eyes. “But that’s not simple at all!” she protests. “I can’t even finish our manga, let alone hers!”
“You’ll have to,” the woman says. “Otherwise she’ll kill you.”
And with that, she hangs up.
Sakura holds the phone pressed up against her ear for a moment, listening to silence, trying desperately to un-hear that last sentence.
“So what do we do?” Nozaki asks, when Sakura finally puts her phone back in her pocket.
Sakura shrugs limply. “Finish her manga?” she suggests. “Otherwise –“
No. She can’t say it. It’s too horrible a prospect to imagine, let alone say out loud.
“Otherwise what?” Nozaki asks, but she just shrugs again.
There’s another pause, where Sakura is keenly aware of how close they’re standing – but it’s like the sun has passed behind a cloud, and where before Nozaki’s body heat left her sweltering and flushed, now it leaves her cold. She feels sick to her stomach.
“What were you going to say?” he asks. “Before the call?”
She could say it, now, but –
“It doesn’t matter,” she says, and opens the wardrobe door, blinking hard in the sudden light.
It doesn’t matter if she like-likes Nozaki and he like-likes her back if they’re about to die.
They creep through the apartment, but there’s no sign of the ghost. When they get back to the living room, it’s like nothing ever happened. Only the glass in pieces on the floor, and the brush and the soaked piece of paper still on the desk back up their memories.
Sakura can’t face sitting at the table again, so she sits on the couch and pulls her legs up under her.
Nozaki sits down on the couch too, about as far away from her as possible.
“So…” she starts. She has no idea where to begin.
“We have to finish the ghost’s manga,” Nozaki says.
“That’s easy to say,” Sakura says. “We don’t even know how it starts!”
Nozaki’s silent for a moment, and Sakura adds, “We don’t. Do we?”
“I think…I might,” Nozaki says. “There’s an old legend that Maeno used to tell, about a Monthly Girls’ Romance mangaka who died horribly before finishing her manga. He said that every Halloween, her ghost would return and find someone else who had an unfinished manga, and try to force them to finish her manga.”
Sakura stares at him, open-mouthed. “You knew this could happen?” she cries.
“I didn’t think it was real!” Nozaki says. “I just…always tried to finish all my manga by Halloween, just in case. And I always have…except for this year.”
Sakura knows it’s not her fault that Nozaki sprained his wrist, but she still feels bad that she couldn’t finish the manga before Halloween for him. If she had…maybe they wouldn’t be in this situation.
“Hang on,” she says slowly. “Why did she ask me to finish the manga? You’re the mangaka; I’m just your assistant!”
“Maybe because you were the one drawing?” Nozaki suggests. “I was making soup.”
He’s probably right.
Sakura sighs. “So because you sprained your wrist, I’m getting haunted by a killer mangaka ghost. Awesome.”
“Killer?” Nozaki says, paling.
“Never mind,” Sakura says hastily, “figure of speech. Killer like good? Like, killer shoes! Killer ghost. Um. Did Maeno tell you what the mangaka ghost was trying to draw?”
“Yeah,” Nozaki says slowly, but his eyes are suspicious. “Apparently it was…a romance manga? About…tanukis?”
They’re silent for a moment. “There’s no way that’s true,” Sakura decides at last. “Not a chance.”
“We can probably Google it,” Nozaki agrees, and whips out his phone.
Seconds later, they’re staring at his phone in silence.
“Tanukis,” Sakura says in disgust. “Of all the –“
“At least they’re easy to draw,” Nozaki offers, and Sakura sighs again.
“Fine,” she says. “Let’s do this thing. But first…I have an idea.”
Three phone conversations and an hour later, the rest of the team is begrudgingly assembled in Nozaki’s apartment, and the brush is safely locked away in Nozaki’s bedroom where Sakura’s pretty sure it can’t do any harm.
“Alright, team,” Sakura says, from her position standing on top of a chair. She’s pretty sure it’s giving her more authority. “You’ve all been briefed on the situation! We have a manga to finish, and not much time, so we have to move fast! Nozaki’s been working on the scenario, and I have some sketches, so we should be able to head straight into inking and backgrounds! Now…let’s go!”
Sakura clears her throat, and there’s a flurry of movement as Wakamatsu drops his pen. Sakura rolls her eyes, then looks closer – that’s not a pen. It’s a brush.
“Hirotaka-san,” she says slowly. “Where did you get that brush?”
“It was just sitting on the table,” he says. “Isn’t it yours?”
“Kinda,” she says, trying really hard not to freak out. “Um…Nozaki…why don’t you put it away? Again?”
Once the brush is locked away – again, Sakura tries not to think in horror - they get immediately underway. The scenario Nozaki wrote while Sakura was calling the rest of the team is a little bit lame, even she has to admit, but it will have to do. The team is racing through it, and it’s definitely doable, even with the terrifyingly close deadline.
Sakura can’t hold back a shiver as she realises how literal she could take that, and her pen jerks across the page.
No – not pen.
Sakura drops the brush in horror, and squeaks out the tiniest, most terrified little “Nozaki,” in the universe.
To his credit, he’s by her side before it leaves her mouth.
“I just put it in my room,” he says under his breath. “Like – just. Thirty seconds ago. It was under the blanket with me.”
Sakura shivers again, a full-body shudder that rattles her teeth. “She’s getting impatient,” she whispers, trying not to directly look at the brush in case it gets ideas. “We need to hurry.”
“If you guys would stop gossiping,” Mikorin says, pushing a stack of papers across the table to Sakura, “you’d notice I’m finished with background effects!”
“Thank god,” Sakura says with light-headed relief. “We’re almost done, right?”
“I think so,” Nozaki says, looking at his assistant’s checklist. “Do we have the scene where Tanuki B realises that he’s always loved Tanuki A and runs to her side, but she’s with her family and refuses to even look at him?”
“Yep,” Mikorin says, tapping the stack.
“And the scene where Tanuki A finally defies her family to be with Tanuki B, but he’s already married Tanuki C and Tanuki A drowns in her own tears?”
“Super depressing, but I’m just finishing up now,” Hori says.
“And the scene where Tanuki C turns out to be Tanuki A’s long-lost twin sister and she and Tanuki B reunite the two families and live happily ever after?”
“Just finished,” Wakamatsu says, trying not to weep as he applies the final screentone.
“Then…I think we are actually finished!” Nozaki says, relief clear in his voice.
“Maybe we can finally lock this brush away for good,” Sakura says with a smile, looking down at where the brush is – no longer sitting on the table.
Her smile drops off her face.
“Where did it go?” she whispers.
“Where did what go?” Nozaki asks casually, looking down at his checklist with a slight frown. “Sakura – did you turn my Halloween one-shot into a Tanuki romance manga?”
There’s a long silence as Sakura looks around at the others, who are all looking down at their work, confused.
“I … don’t remember drawing this,” Hori says slowly, still holding his pen. He’s halfway through a line.
“Very funny, guys,” Sakura says. “We just spent an hour working on this stupid manga together!”
“An hour?” Mikorin asks, looking around. “But I just got here.”
Wakamatsu looks at his watch. “It has been an hour!” he says in surprise. “I have to go! Seo’s taking me to a haunted house.”
He leaves in a rush, and Mikorin and Hori follow him, almost in a daze.
Nozaki sits down at the table, and flicks through the finished manga pages.
“Sakura,” he says softly, “I really don’t remember working on this.”
Sakura would really like to burst into tears right about now. “What do you remember about today?” she asks urgently, hoping one of his memories will jog the rest of them.
But – “Nothing,” he says slowly. “You came over to draw the manga, and then you said we should – no, wait – then you drew it. And then it was now.” He’s frowning, though, like he realises that doesn’t match up to how the day has actually gone.
“Did we go somewhere?” he adds eventually, and now Sakura really does burst into tears.
Nozaki looks horrified. “I didn’t mean to upset you,” he says, and Sakura knows that, but – she can’t be the only one to remember what they’ve gone through today. She just can’t. And then she remembers the box.
“The box!” she cries, leaping out of her chair. “The calligraphy set that’s a hundred years old! You’ll have to remember when you see that!”
Nozaki follows her into his room, which he unlocks with another confused frown, and then they stand in the middle of the room together. Sakura had carried the box into the room herself and put it on the bed.
There’s nothing on the bed now.
She wants to rush off to the store with Nozaki and ask the woman to explain it to him, but she knows it’ll have turned back into a park. She doesn’t even want to look at the call history on her phone.
In a last-ditch effort, she opens Nozaki’s wardrobe and climbs in.
“Sakura!” Nozaki yelps, and she cuts him off by pulling him in after her and shutting the door.
They’re alone in the dark. Together. Again.
“Are you sure this doesn’t ring any bells?” Sakura asks, trying not to get distracted by how close they’re standing. “You had your arms around my shoulders! And –“
He puts his arms around her shoulders. “Like this?” he asks.
“Yeah,” she breathes, fighting a rising blush. He’s so warm. And solid.
“So we were doing this today,” Nozaki says, very thoughtfully. “No wonder you’re upset that I can’t remember.”
Doing what, Sakura wants to ask, but she can’t, because Nozaki is leaning down and kissing her, mouth soft on hers – softer than she’d ever imagined – and his arms are tightening around her until he’s really embracing her, intimate and warm, and one of his hands is running down her back, and –
She pulls away, something sharp and painful in her chest. Nozaki thinks she’s upset because he can’t remember them kissing, not because he can’t remember a near-death experience. But –
If he thinks they could have kissed, then –
Oh my god.
“Oh my god,” Sakura says. “Nozaki. I like you, and you like me.”
“That’s why we kissed,” he says, like she’s an idiot. Which she is, because she stopped kissing him even though they like each other.
“We like each other!” she says, because her brain has completely detached from her mouth.
“Yes,” he says patiently. “That’s why we kissed.”
Sakura takes a second to reconnect her brain, and thinks hard. They like each other. Maybe it doesn’t matter if he doesn’t ever remember the mangaka ghost, and anyway, maybe one day he will remember. He kind of remembered them going somewhere, right? And…maybe next year if Sakura has a half-finished manga by Halloween, they’ll see that little shop again, and Sakura can wring some answers out of that old woman.
Either way –
“We like each other,” Sakura repeats softly with a grin, and pulls Nozaki down into another kiss.