how I wish chivalry were dead
She is pretty, if Matoba were to think about it for a long time and with wide-open eyes.
Not the kind of prettiness depicted in movie posters or scouted from idol agencies. Not either the knife-like beauty of the women Nanase likes to link arms with in the dark gardens of formal functions, when the men they work with have been subdued and she can go out for a smoke and some velveteen words, afore the hours she vanishes and then comes back from smelling of heavy perfume. Matoba cannot imagine that Natori would know how to go about seducing those women—the first for they know his kind, the second for his shyness would not allow it to happen. They would devour him.
But this woman is pretty. She has lively eyes a little wide apart, and rosy skin from sunlight and wind. She is two heads shorter than Natori and confident in bowing to him and asking for him to sign the picture of him she carries inside her stickered wallet. There is no hesitation in her politeness, nor either the flushed-embarrassment that most fans harbor around him. Natori speaks to her with something like delight for a minute longer, and Matoba watches from a few steps away and studies her, him, in turn. Studies the picture they make together.
He feels like an old woman appraising her progeny’s match.
“I loved your latest movie so much,” the woman is saying, blushing but not awkward, “I went to see it twice.”
“That’s very kind of you. Thank you.”
“Please, don’t thank me. You’re a wonderful actor.”
And so on and so on.
Natori doesn’t quite step out of the skin he puts on during those encounters. Under the honed and perfected act Matoba can glimpse the teenager he once met who clutched the strap of a bag to his chest as if brandishing a shield. But she is so natural and sincere that he sees the compliments widen his smile and brighten his eyes, and this, more than beauty or wits, makes the woman worthy of consideration.
She evidently has no wish to shorten their conversation. Her words have drifted toward names and titles he doesn’t know or wish to know, but which must mean something to Natori, for he answers her in eagerness. Matoba looks away from her—them—and to her friends still sitting at the terrace of a café nearby, both of them whispering, snapping pictures with their phones.
They see him. He smiles fleetingly at them; they lower the devices.
“Natori-san,” he calls, crossing the distance between them in two short steps.
This is enough to wash even the threat that the woman poses out of his mind; two steps and he is here, in this space, able and willing to put a hand on Natori’s shoulder.
Natori tenses, naturally.
“We should be going.”
His eyes are quick to look Matoba over, wide and then narrow, as if Matoba’s presence will always be a surprise to him. His smile is weak when he replies, “You’re right.”
The black lizard which has elected his body as host peeks from under his collar, as sharp on his skin as it always is and always will be. Sharp enough for Matoba to see its tongue flick and taste his presence. He takes back his hand; there is no need yet for this fight.
Natori bids the woman goodbye. She bows back to him, enthused and as lovely as he is. Matoba can see no suspicion over her face when she politely acknowledges him. He cannot be sure that his smile won’t frighten her as it did her friends, so he does not smile.
There is no reason to resent her for her luck either; after all, luck is also what brought him to meeting Natori today.
The man who called upon the Matoba for help is very old and very paranoid. He was once part of a clan himself, and somewhat gifted of sight: he can see shadows in sunlight and feel air move over his skin, colder or hotter than the wind outside allows. Most of the exorcists know not to take his requests too seriously, for they are half of the time the fruit of an overactive imagination within a dusty, empty house. But he called, and this time his words were accompanied by others, with proof enough of ayakashi activity for Matoba to travel himself.
He has escaped his enemy again two days ago. He can even afford to travel alone this time, and Nanase encouraged him to. Loudly.
The man lives in a town south of Matoba’s home city. Very few homes here bear the same taste of tradition and spirituality, and most of the streets are wide and linear, with quirky shops lining the sidewalks and computers available for use everywhere. At this time of day some high schoolers roam the streets, sipping on cold drinks, their uniforms undone. Natori has loosened his collar and rumpled up his shirt with his fidgeting.
What an agreeable surprise it was to arrive and step out of the car, only to meet his eyes from the other side of an unknown street. Natori stilled in the light of late afternoon as if haunted by a ghost of his own, then thinned his lips, then bowed. Matoba returned only a smile.
He filed away the knowledge of his client’s dishonesty and decided to consider this a holiday.
They walk now through the busy streets in the direction of the man’s home. This cheerful town makes for a sharp backdrop against Natori’s ever-tense silhouette, his poorly-fitted clothes and old, worn-down hat. A mind less versed into the study of this man would consider it disguise: loose clothing to mask his shape and a cover for his blond hair and glasses to hide his eyes, to twist away his recognizable features. But Matoba watches the old belt looped around Natori’s hips and thinks of comfort. He sees his eyes through the untreated lenses of the glasses and thinks of practicality. It would be difficult to disapprove of the man’s outfit even if he did not care for Natori feeling at ease.
He does not expect Natori to speak to him, though they walk side by side. Matoba knows to content himself with a glimpse over a crowded room and nothing more for months at a time; to be in Natori’s presence like this, alone, is feast enough. There is no need for words.
So he inhales on his surprise when Natori declares, “I heard you’ve been busy. I didn’t expect to meet you here.”
“I have been busy,” he replies, recovering quickly enough. Natori gives him another of those wide-and-then-narrow-eyed glances, and he continues, “Summer brings about spirits who wake from the winter. You should know this.”
“I do know this.”
Of course he took it as offense.
“I’m only disappointed to learn that some people still don’t trust me to work on my own,” Natori says, looking ahead. His shoulders are rigid under the soft of his shirt; the tendons in his neck are raised sharply under his skin. “It wouldn’t have surprised me five years ago, but now?”
Matoba doesn’t believe that their client distrusts Natori, only that he distrusts the world. He says nothing of it.
Houses grow wider and father-between the more they walk. Gardens lushen with trees that cast shadows on the road, that pepper the sidewalk with fallen leaves and make the air vibrate with buzzing insects. A massive bush of hydrangeas spills over the low stone wall of an estate before them. Honeybees work every one of its blue flowers. Matoba picks one of them between two fingers, cutting its step with a nail so he can brush a thumb to the heart-shaped petals as he walks.
They arrive soon before the home of the one who called them. As expected, the house is old and more traditional, the garden cut with stones and decorated with a green pond where koi fish swim languidly. Natori marks a pause at the gate, but Matoba advances without hesitation, and doesn’t miss the jolt of surprise that the other gives.
“There’s no need to be so tense,” he tells Natori.
“I’m not tense,” Natori replies tensely.
Matoba smiles. It only seems to unnerve Natori more, which is a shame.
“You always act so surprised to see me,” he says. “This must be the fifth time you jump out of your skin in the last hour.”
He can read the denial on Natori’s face clear as day, and waits for it in amusement. But either Natori has grown out of defending himself as fiercely as he did when they were children, or he thinks Matoba will only send him more of his remarks if he does.
“I’d be less jumpy if you were more normal,” he says.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, Shuuichi-san.”
He refrained from using Natori’s first name in front of the woman, aware of the image which Natori must convey for this side-job of his, but there is no need for such precautions now. Natori glances at him again. Wide-eyed and then narrowed.
He says, “You look like you should be taller.”
Matoba finds himself at a loss for words.
They stand still for a second at the wooden gate of the estate, two steps between them and the greenery around rolling with wind and life, before Natori grows enough mind to show embarrassment. He rubs the skin of his nape where the lizard has taken refuge some time ago, looks away. Says: “You used to be taller than me. Every time I look at you I—you just. You feel like you should be taller. Always have. It’s surprising, when I look at you.”
Scrawny little thing, aren’t you, Nanase said to him when he was but a child and she finally understood that he never cared for anything but honesty out of her. That’s another thing you’ll have to work with.
“Do you feel threatened by me?” Matoba asks.
He knows the answer Natori will give before he can form it in his own head—he knows immediately that it is a lie. “No,” Natori says.
Just like before with the woman Natori was so easily charming, the distance between them is crossed in less than a second. For all that Natori sees him approach and knows his hands are bare, unarmed, he draws in on himself; he sharpens like the subject of a photography put into focus, and his eyes turn wild.
The lizard, Matoba’s lifelong enemy, skitters across his face and rests upon the bridge of his nose.
Still, he has no intentions of harming Natori. He never has and never will. He brings up the hand where the blue flower is still held and slithers it into the small, breast-height pocket at the front of Natori’s shirt. He doesn’t linger, doesn’t touch, and draws away at once. Natori’s chest is still under the white cotton. When it finally twitches, the flower is nudged out of place and falls fully out of sight, resting against his heart.
“I am not tall,” Matoba says.
He is almost close enough to feel the air that Natori’s breathing moves.
He doesn’t take advantage of it. He steps back without looking at Natori’s face and then turns away to observe the garden again. He can endure summer heat well, better than most, so he knows that the warmth crawling up his skin is not due to sunlight.
Natori follows him only when he is halfway to the front steps of the house. His shoes creak against the dirt path, but his gait seems to have eased.
Matoba waits until he is standing by his side once more to ring the old bell. Immediately the sound of hurried footsteps filters in through a beaded curtain—it is too hot, no doubt, to keep doors closed—and he fetches a smile that is not brought out of pleasure or even satisfaction. He doesn’t look at Natori to study him and find out if he understood his words. It’s unlikely that he did.
That flower will have to be enough of a peace offering for now.