Running into people in Ikebukuro Station is normal. Sayo needs to transfer from the Seibu Line to the Yamanote every morning, criss crossing towards her destination through a swarm of bodies going the same, different, every way. It’s like a sport, if she were the sporty type; or a war, if she were the fighting type - but she’s neither, so she keeps her eyes straight and tries her best not to notice the silence that seems so odd in a place filled with so many people.
Of course, there’s not just the living to deal with. Ikebukuro Station is teeming with the lost, the wandering and the confused, and it doesn’t take them long to notice that she can see them. Mainly due to Yoshioka and Megumi’s insistence they come to school with Sayo every Thursday and Friday (“We’re bettering ourselves!”), and this knowledge spreads like wildfire.
Trying to communicate with her, swarming around and making the track from one train line to the next even more hazardous and tiring. She’s got the living to contend with, who ram into her like she’s not even there as they sprint for a train they’ve probably already missed; and the dead, who think that maybe she has time to save them between school, a part time job and an attempt at a social life.
Sayo begins wearing earphones against the living, and an ancient warding-off charm against the dead. The station gets easier to deal with, but she still sees every single one of them - living, dead, in between - even when they think she doesn’t.
“You think too much,” and she suddenly misses Nezu - blunt, easy-yet-difficult-to-understand Nezu - like an ache.
Since junior high school finished, and high school, Sayo doesn’t see many of her peers from Class 3-2. Risa’s good at keeping them in the loop on Line - their group chat is long; four years of pictures and congratulations, but with university beginning, it seems like they’ve run out of time and things to talk about. The silence from before, when she’d made it her goal to be as antisocial as possible without getting in too much trouble, seemed to be dulled for a while by their chatter and her inclusion. But now it was back, without Nezu to counteract it, and she can’t help but feel a little lonely.
It’s okay, because Sayo meets Kana-chan for coffee every month in a tiny, cool cafe in Shinjuku every month. She listens with a half-smile as she’s told about Kana and Aida-kun’s plans to move in together, about Asuka-chan’s role in a summer drama and how everyone seems to be doing okay.
“How about you?” is the way it always goes, and Sayo clutches her coffee cup and manages to make her bare bones life sound a little more exciting. She has Kamiyama-sensei and Akane - but she can’t tell Kana about them, so instead it’s embellished schedules and made-up dates (just so Kana stops asking).
“I haven’t spoken to him,” and it’s true. It hurts, but it’s true, and Sayo’s almost forgotten his face until she runs straight into his chest, halfway between the Toho Line gate and JR Central Entrance.
She mistakes him for a ghost, until he smiles like he’s been waiting his whole life to see her again.
They go to a Doutor Coffee because it’s close and Sayo’s worried if she pulls him somewhere further, he may disappear before her very eyes. It’s loud, full of peak-hour customers, busily drinking caffeine to buoy themselves through their long commute home or second jobs; families waiting for Shinkansens and tentative couples on dates. There’s the dead, too, of course - Yoshioka and Megumi stand out, stealing the essence of the latte belonging to the salaryman sitting next to them as they watch Sayo and Nezu with great interest.
Sayo can see how uncomfortable Nezu is. He was never good in crowds, or in loud situations - unless it was fighting, or a soccer game, and she’s suddenly taken with how similar he is to Ikebukuro Station. Quiet, but loud; busy, but almost detached, and she takes a moment to look at him properly for the first time since they’d run into each other while he busies himself with putting sugar in his coffee.
His hair is shorter, his shoulders broader - and he’s still wearing a hoodie under his jacket, but it seems to fit him better now. She’s managed to get a short rundown of his life since school and it seems to be mostly centred around keeping his father in line and his becoming a mechanic. The grease build up is obvious under his fingernails, crescent moons of black that he tells her are near impossible to get clean. “Part of the job,” he’d muttered, before shoving his hand under the table like he was embarrassed.
“You’ve always had beautiful hands,” and it’s out before she can stop it. He looks at her with surprise - with large eyes and a stripe of confusion, in that way he always used to in junior high, and it is enough to shut down their conversation for ten minutes.
Megumi’s chirpy voice is in her ear before she realises. “Get out of here. Take him somewhere else,” and Sayo sees Yoshi giving her the thumbs up across the room.
Taking Nezu’s hand out from under the counter, she pulls him up off the chair.
“What - where?”
She doesn’t know, so she shrugs and drags him out of the cafe, linking her fingers into his like it was the most normal thing in the world.
They end up in the Toho Department Store, on the Men’s level. It’s quiet, and despite the expensive clothes, Nezu begins to relax and the conversation becomes easier. They talk about school - she tells him about studying Japanese Mythology, but not about the ghost professor who’s helping her pass, and about spending time with Kamiyama-sensei and his girlfriend.
“Girlfriend?” Nezu snorts. “I thought he was gay.”
“Funny, you gave me a pretty hard time about him in junior high.”
“That’s because -” he stops, closes his mouth and starts aggressively rifling through a rack of clothes. “I just thought it was weird.”
“It kind of did look weird, though. I guess I just didn’t understand why you cared so much.” She steps closer to him, their shoulders touching, her heart beating for a reason she can’t quite understand - it feels like inevitability, so she grabs out a leather jacket from the rack and holds it against him so he can’t see her hands shaking. “This would suit you.”
“Why didn’t you keep in touch after school?”
It’s sharp, and almost desperate, the way he says it. She can see it in the tight way his mouth is held, from the frown lines on his forehead - he’s angry with her. He’s been angry with her probably since high school, and like the supreme jerk he was, he did nothing about it. Because that’s Nezu, and she was never sure what it meant in junior high and she’s even less sure now.
She couldn’t understand why he cared. Why he followed her, why he watched for her. Why he only seemed to smile for her, why he only danced with her at Risa’s sixteenth birthday party. He was questions without answers, manifesting in faces like the one he was pulling now, and suddenly Sayo feels just as angry.
Third year of high school, and Kameyama-sensei had asked after him when they were cleaning up the semi-reunion for 3-2 that Sensei had hosted and Nezu hadn’t bothered to attend. “I don’t know,” was all she could say, and she’d started picking glue off Sensei’s work table. “He’s avoiding me, and I don’t know why.”
“You don’t know...oh, Sayo-chan.” Akane had sighed. She had been sitting across from Sayo, dressed in a pair of Kameyama-sensei’s now-burnt pyjamas, a strange smile on her face. “You really don’t understand?”
“What? No. He doesn’t return my mails. He doesn’t come to parties anymore. I think he might have a girlfriend or something...” It was the first time she’d verbalised that thought, and it made her heart feel heavy. “Whatever, I don’t get it. I guess he has different priorities.”
Akane and Kamiyama-sensei had exchanged a look - an annoying adult look with half-smiles, making Sayo spit out a rather loud “what?!” in frustration.
“He loves you. Which is why he avoids you.” Kamiyama-sensei smiled at her, then Akane. The blood rushed to her face, and she began to stutter. “It’s been like that since before I was around, I bet,” Sensei continued. “Nezu-san isn’t great at people, you know that. He’s great at self preservation. Amazing at it, actually. He's jealous and confused, and he gets angry instead of doing anything constructive about it. He doesn’t get you, not really, but he loves you. And it’s easier to avoid dealing with things that might open a to door happiness, because you have to give up a little of that protection.”
“I...” She hadn’t known what to say. She’d felt confused, angry, happy and sad, all at the same time - like she was now, four years later in the middle of Ikebukuro Station - because she’d realised that Nezu was the only person in the world who seemed to be able to pull these emotions from her, even as a kid.
He made her want to pay attention to the living when she was slowly but surely becoming exclusively about the dead, and she sighed, putting the jacket back and facing him squarely.
“You had my mail address.” He goes to say something - an angry excuse - so she barrels on before she loses her nerve. “You had my Line username, my phone number, my home address, my mother’s phone number. It hurt me when you didn’t call, when you upped and disappeared. If you had a girlfriend or you hated me, you should have told me. You shouldn’t have left it up to me to continue our friendship -” she chokes a little on the word - “because that’s not how it works. These things are a two-way street.”
“I was busy.”
“Too busy to tell your friend why you stopped talking to her? Well, Ryosuke? I was busy too.”
For whatever reason, it’s the wrong thing to say - and he turns and walks away from her without a word.
Yoshioka-san follows him to work at her request - the path he takes, the habits he has. She feels weird doing it, like a stalker; but the hole he left in her heart when he walked away from her was enough for her to listen to Akane’s insistence that if he was worth it, it was worth doing something a little out of her comfort zone to ensure he never turned his back to her again.
She feels sixteen again, back at Risa’s birthday party and BIGBANG’s ‘Bad Boy’ playing over the dark room. Pairing off, hormones hiding in shadows, and before she could feel awkward enough to leave, she'd felt his arms around her. Like a perfect fit, and not a word had been spoken as they’d rocked back and forth, his mouth in her hair and their left and right hands linked. She thinks that maybe he wouldn’t have been so brave if the lights were on, but it was enough for her to learn that - to her - being held by him seemed to be the most natural thing in the world.
It was remembering that moment, that tangible teenage flight of fancy she’d tried to throw under the carpet, that made her reach out and do something so supremely Not Her. She wasn’t good at people, but if she was good at ghosts? Sayo knows she should at least be able to get them to help her where she so magnificently failed, even if that means having them stalk for her.
Yoshi tells her he eats gyudon every second night at at a Yoshinoya in Nishi-Ikebukuro, so she’s there when he arrives. Anger tightens his face, and she’s afraid he’s going to walk out until he sits down beside her and orders for the both of them.
“I would ask why you knew I came here, but I’m sure you’ll tell me my ancestors told you.”
Reaching forward, Sayo pulls chopsticks for the both of them out of the holder and smiles. “A ghost named Yoshioka, actually. He’s been stalking you for about a week for me.”
Nezu says nothing, but she sees him relax slightly out of the corner of her eye - just a little - and they eat in absolute silence.
It becomes a thing. Sometimes they talk and sometimes they don’t - short sentences about their days at work and the TV they watched, until a month into their tentative arrangement the dam she didn't know was inside him bursts.
“I know you have university and work at your cafe but you see Kamiyama-sensei a lot and his...girlfriend.” Nezu stops, quirks his head to the side and runs his hands through his hair. “And I thought that maybe you never contacted me after Risa’s birthday party because you were -”
“- embarrassed that I’d come up to you but I just knew if I didn’t do it then, I’d never do it and maybe I’d lose you to...someone else. Then you were there and I could have kissed you but I didn’t have the guts and I kick myself every night because of that because you smelled like vanilla or something fruity and when you didn’t call I thought you hated me -”
“- then you’re telling me about Kamiyama-sensei and his girlfriend like it’s the best thing ever, because I know when you’re happy. And you’re happy when you talk about Kamiyama-sensei, in this way I want you to be happy about me, but I don’t know how to say that to you-”
He looks at her, and licks his lips, his expression akin to a dog that’s about to be hit on the nose for doing something bad before surprising them both by taking her hand. “Are you Kamiyama-sensei’s girlfriend? If you are, that’s okay, because you’re both grown ups now but I just wanted to...ask.”
His voice is tight, his hands are clenched, and Sayo bursts out laughing. He’s beautiful. Really, truly, honestly - she sees the boy he was and the man he’s become all in his expression, and Sayo’s suddenly seized by the overpowering urge to kiss him.
So she does. Long, hard; using it to say everything she possibly couldn’t because she’s her and talking to the living isn’t as easy as others make it out to be.
They break apart, and he’s staring at her in disbelief. “What took you so long?”
“I took the same amount of time as you, Ryosuke,” and she stands up, grabbing her bag. “Let’s go.”
“Uh - my house.” She ducks her head and doesn’t look at him as she busies herself with her bags, because she already knows the face he’s pulling and it’s enough to make her lose her nerve. “Don’t get the wrong idea, I just have some things to tell you and I’d prefer you didn’t freak out and try and act all cool in public.”
Nezu’s brow furrows, as he gathers up his jacket and bag. “I don’t try and act cool.”
“Of course you don’t,” and he takes her hand before she has the chance.
Her apartment is tiny - a 1K in Shimosato that’s stifling in Summer and freezing in Winter, despite the air conditioner, but it’s hers. She wasn’t really close to her family, and they hadn’t blinked when she left, claiming it was easier for her to find work on this side of Tokyo. It’s stacked floor to ceiling almost with books - on everything, but mostly mythology and the mystical seams that held Japan together. Sayo’s good at university. She’s good at analysing, cataloging and arranging things so they’re as close to black and white as they’re going to get. There’s a sense of accomplishment when her ghost professor praises her, and tells her she’s on the right path - the very same one that seemed so strange and scary when she’d first realised she could see ghosts as a child, their faces moving from sad to confused to happy all in an instant once they knew she could acknowledge their lonely, endless existence.
Part of her wonders if maybe part of them had rubbed off on her. Accidently, or maybe inevitably, they seemed to enter her soul and made her uneasy with the living. The living always wanted something, anything - impossible feelings and relationships that made Sayo retreat further into herself as she grew older, because it was easier to understand the dead.
But there was always Nezu. Two doors down, until he moved; big brown eyes that became heavier and more filled with anger as they grew up. From playground to schoolyard, he was there. He always seemed to find her, like she could always find him, and she never really questioned it because it was just...them. Never close, or too far - there was never a classification for their relationship, it was just the way it was.
It was easy, and Sayo knows from listening to Kana-chan run around in circles about Aida-kun that that’s exactly how it’s meant to be. She’s not so good with the living, but Nezu makes her want to try, which is why he was now pacing around her tiny kitchen picking up and putting down everything in what she can only assume is nervousness.
Suddenly she feels shy, and her skin seems like it may actually begin to hurt if she doesn’t touch him again, so she pulls up courage from somewhere and breathes out. “Ryosuke.” Sitting down on the single bed, the bed covers rumpled from her habit of not making the bed, she pats the spot next to her.
He swallows heavily, and starts wiping his hands on his pants, before moving across the room and sitting a meter away from her, back straight like her father is about to burst into the apartment waving a baseball bat.
Slowly, she scoots over and wraps herself around him, ducking under his arm and finding the perfect place for her to fit. There’s no hesitation, his arms curling around her like it’s the most natural thing in the world - and she tells him everything. About her ability, about how scared it made her and how Kamiyama-sensei can see them too. She talks about Akane, who’s become like a sister, and how somehow, she managed to make Kamiyama-sensei a better man. How Akane managed to make them all better, and Nezu says nothing as he pulls her closer around him.
Sayo’s almost out of breath when she finishes.
“You do smell like vanilla.” He makes an obnoxious show of sniffing the air. “Your apartment kind of smells like...those shops with crystals and stuff.”
“Juniper. It’s juniper. It wards off ghosts and sickness, among other things.”
“Oh.” It surprises her when he kisses her forehead, his lips lingering as he spoke. “So you really can see ghosts, huh?”
She smiles. “You always said I was weird.”
“Not weird.” A beat. “Is that ghost who followed me around for a week actually real, then?”
“Yoshioka? Oh, he’s real. He’s a wandering ghost, with his girlfriend Megumi. He told me you really like sleeping in the nude and watching variety shows with Nakai Masahiro.”
She feels his skin start to burn with embarrassment. “I - what? That’s an invasion of privacy and he should...does that mean there’s probably other ghosts watching us now?!” He springs apart from her, waving the air with his right hand but still keeping their left hands locked. Like he doesn’t want to ever let me go again. “Ghosts be gone!”
It’s so cute, and she finds that she almost starts crying - because he not only believes her impossible truth, but seems to actually not care.
“There’s a charm on the door, they can’t get in unless I let them.”
“I’ll teach you about them.”
He frowns, disappointed, like she’d taken a plate of cake away from him. “Now?”
“Well, not now,” and there’s that shyness again, but she meets his eyes and smiles tentatively. “I thought maybe tonight we could just -”
And he’s kissing her, hands in her hair. Desperately, like she’s about to disappear, and she returns with the same fervour; pulling his jacket and hoodie off and letting her fingers clutch at his tanned skin. If she smells like vanilla, he smells like a car shop - but it’s probably the best thing she’s ever smelt, and she almost falls against him like some brainless girl in a 10 o’clock drama.
“I found you,” he mutters against her mouth, before running kisses along her jaw.
Sayo just smiles as she reaches to turn the light off.
“I want to meet Akane. And Kameyama-sensei.”
So there they were, holding a strawberry shortcake and a bottle of wine (“He’s our teacher! We can't drink in front of him!” “We’re twenty years old!”), the door swinging open to reveal Kamiyama-sensei’s broad, teasing smile with Akane close behind where Nezu can’t see her.
“Nezu-kun. Still wearing hoodies?”
“Sensei.” Nezu curtly bows, and almost shocks out of his skin when Kamiyama-sensei grabs him into a hug.
“It’s been too long. Come in, come in.” Pushing Nezu into the apartment, Kamiyama-sensei turns to Sayo and winks. “Akane, you’ve met Nezu before.”
“She has?” Nezu freezes in the living room. “When?!”
Akane bursts out laughing. “Should I short-circuit something?”
“Maybe a bit of levitation,” Sayo says as she sits down, pulling Nezu with her. He’s frantically looking around the apartment like - well, a ghost - is about to jump out at him. She grabs his face and turns it to Akane’s direction. “Ryosuke, this is Akane.”
“Nice to meet you,” Akane says, using a small amount of her energy to push a current of air towards him. He’s not quite looking at Akane when he bows at her, but it’s close enough.
“Akane-san. Nice to meet you.” Turning to Sayo, he begins pointing frantically. “I just felt something? Was that her?”
“She has energy, all ghosts do. It works differently to ours, but she can use it to manipulate things on our side, like the air or electricity.”
“Oh.” He takes the beer offered by Kamiyama-sensei without any of his previous hesitation regarding drinking in front of their former homeroom teacher, and begins to scull.
“He’s nervous, then?” Akane laughs, taking the essence from the beer Kamiyama-sensei puts in front of her - causing Nezu to stop drinking and gape.
“Can they...you know, drink?”
Sayo patted his hand. “Sort of. I’ll explain it later.”
Slowly, but surely, Nezu begins to relax. Mostly because of Kamiyama-sensei, and his honesty - he tells Nezu of how Akane, as annoying as she was (“Hey, Aki! Jerk!” was the response), made his life worth living, even with all the obstacles they had to overcome. How we never know how, when or who is going to change our lives, but we need to be ready for it when it happens.
“Accept it - and them - with an open heart, even if yours feels like it’s been closed so long, you couldn’t possibly pry it open again.”
He talks of Class 3-2, how in all his years of teaching he’ll never come across a group like them, because their relationships were forged in a way that was unbreakable. Like him and Akane - impossible, but inevitable, and he wouldn’t change anything for the world.
Sayo knows he’s talking about her and Nezu, too - and she takes his hand while Akane looks on and smiles.
Kamiyama-sensei has taken Nezu out onto the balcony, leaving Akane and Sayo to finish up the bottle of wine.
“I told you he loved you.”
“I told him everything. And he didn’t leave.”
“You don’t understand?”
Sayo shakes her head, and takes a sip of wine. “I tried to tell my parents so many times, but they just dismissed me. Said I was being silly, that they were just imaginary friends. Then Nezu would come over and play, and I wouldn’t feel so alone. It’s that same feeling.”
“He’s the first person you’ve told since your parents?”
“After Kamiyama-sensei, yeah.”
“They’re very similar, you know.” Akane points her head in the direction of where Kamiyama-sensei and Nezu were standing, heads bowed low in conversation. “Both stubborn, both afraid of being happy. But they’re both smart and brave in other ways. And loyal.”
“Loyal.” Sayo gets the meaning, and she has to ask. “Are you worried that...Kamiyama-sensei, I mean -”
“Will leave me for a living, breathing human?” Shrugging, Akane pulls her legs under her, the white of her kimono brushing against the pale wood floor. “Of course. In my heart - as much as it’s still a heart - I know he won’t, but I still worry. I worry that I can’t make him happy in all the ways a living woman can - “ she pauses, coughs slightly, and Sayo didn’t know that ghosts could blush - “but then I can’t see anything but happiness in him when we’re together.”
“You’re making it work.”
“We’re making it work. Faith is love, Sayo-chan. And really, that’s what brought you two back together.”
“And having Yoshioka stalk him.”
Akane bursts out laughing and covers her face. “Ah. Sleeps in the nude, likes Nakai Masahiro. He told me.”
“Yoshioka-san." Sayo clicks her tongue. "I should be appalled, but I’m so used to his inability to keep secrets now."
“So does he?”
“Sleep in the nude?”
They’re taking their time walking back to the station, hand in hand. The wine has gone a little to Sayo’s head, but she knows that she’d probably feel the same way even without it - the night wrapped up with Kamiyama-sensei’s insistence they take the rest of the strawberry shortcake and a small electricity show from Akane that made Nezu’s eyes wide with amazement, and Sayo can’t hide the grin radiating from her face.
“So what did you talk about with Kamiyama-sensei?”
“He said if I hurt you he’d hunt me down and break both my legs. Also he really likes his girlfriend. Like, doesn’t shut up about her.”
“They’re in love!”
“I get that.” Looking down at his toes, she barely hears him speak. “I know what it’s like to love someone that much.”
Giddy, almost, and she stops, pulling him to face her.
He raises his eyebrows. “What for?”
“For bringing me back from the dead.”
Before he can say anything she pulls herself up on to her toes and kisses him at the exact same time a streetlight blows out in front of them, spraying like fireworks and lighting up the night sky briefly.
“Ghosts?” Nezu looks down at her and smirks.
Sayo catches Yoshioka and Megumi waving, and she smiles.
"You should probably get used to them."