Warnings: infidelity, general sad natsuyuu things.
It isn’t often that Hiiragi makes what could be considered a friend. She is only decent to Natori’s other shiki and never more than this to others’. Natori knows, however, how much she appreciates the snake-like spirit that follows under this man’s shadow. She has conversed with it every time they have crossed paths under the last four years, conversed and not simply replied, so he sees no reason not to linger and wait as she says her goodbyes.
Snow has landed and melted upon the woolen gloves he wears, heated by the coffee he holds to ward off the cold. It is lukewarm now when he sips from it; tasteless, too, but that is a given for any of the modern shops that litter the city’s broader streets. He only needs the caffeine. Next to him, Sasago gives something like a sigh.
“You’re too nice to her,” she says. It isn’t the first time. “You’ll catch a cold.”
It is always awkward to speak to his shiki when in sight of regular people, so all Natori does is tighten the scarf around his neck and shoulders. Sasago seems to understand the message. She goes back to looking irately to the other side of the restaurant’s entrance, where Hiiragi and the snake-shiki are.
The man it belongs to comes back from his trip to the bathroom inside. He has washed as much dirt as he could off of the hem of his thick jacket, though some stains remain from the humidity. If he is surprised to see Natori there still, he says nothing of it. He bows his head, calls his shiki, and walks into the cold outside with one hand atop his earred cap.
Hiiragi floats back to Natori’s side.
“You took your time,” Sasago says. “We have an appointment soon.”
“We won’t be late,” Hiiragi replies, toneless.
Natori would wager that other people would hear no difference in how they speak to each other, or to him, no matter the topic. Ayakashi have no need for air or pumping blood. Their voices come not out of physics or biology, but spirit. Tone must be difficult to master without the chemistry of emotion to back it; the result is that any spirit he meets sounds definitely inhuman.
We have an appointment, he thinks, amused. As if his life belongs to them, the difference being too trivial to mention.
Natori wipes fat drops of melted snow off of his gloves. The wet sinks into the wool and cools at his knuckles. “What are the news, then?” he asks as he starts walking. “Any juicy gossip from your friend?”
“He is not my friend,” Hiiragi says evenly. He knows she doesn’t mean it in any bad way. “And no, nothing of note. Nothing we haven’t heard over and over for the past week.”
“Then why did you two talk for so long?”
Hiiragi was opaque until Sasago’s question. She turns translucent now, as good a sign as any of her wanting to drop the topic. Her way of being embarrassed, Natori supposes.
“I wanted to know if the invitations were sent out already,” she says.
“Of course they aren’t. The engagement has only just been announced.”
“It is always good to prepare.”
“Wedding, wedding, wedding,” Sasago sighs. “I grow tired of hearing this word. If Master goes, then I will not.”
“Who’s getting married?” Natori asks.
They have walked into a narrow and deserted street. The ground here is near-untouched by snow, protected by the roofs above that almost touch from each side of the road. Only a thin white line spreads under his footsteps.
Hiiragi replies, “The head of the Matoba clan.”
Natori doesn’t know why his first thought at her answer is to look around for witnesses. He already looked once when they entered the street, to be sure that he could speak to them. He doesn’t know why he feels like making sure that no one sees him.
“Matoba,” he repeats. “Matoba Seiji?”
“Yes,” Hiiragi says.
“Master, if you go, I will not.”
Why would I go? Natori thinks.
He realizes that his steps have halted. Hiiragi and Sasago have made no mention of noticing, only stopping along with him, their conversation ongoing. Natori rubs new snowflakes off of his gloves, watching the wool tear in little transparent threads that catch upon the light. He should have worn another pair.
He walks again. His shiki follow. He feels like asking them, Isn’t Matoba Seiji too young to marry? But the thought almost makes him laugh—Sasago and Hiiragi have no notion of human age. He barely feels like he has a notion of it either.
“So this shiki wanted to talk to you about Matoba’s wedding,” he says instead of anything else.
“It’s all every shiki has been talking about for a week,” Sasago replies, cutting Hiiragi short. She truly must be annoyed. “Even some ayakashi are aware. They’re afraid.”
“They say the clans like to organize hunts for weddings.”
That would be like Matoba Seiji.
Natori walks forward. The narrow street opens to the edge of the frozen river, where in spring children play ball and old ladies walk their dogs. It is as deserted now as the rest of town, plunged into dark even this soon in the day, too cold for most to brave outside of necessity. He has twenty minutes still before his script reading.
Sasago doesn’t notice, or care, that he has left the topic behind. She tells him: “You will get an invitation. Will you go?”
“Why would I get an invitation for Matoba’s wedding?” Natori replies.
“It will be the biggest event of the year. Of course all exorcists from the clans will be invited. Will you go? I won’t go.”
“I’m not going to make you go if you don’t want to.”
This seems to satisfy her. She leaves his side to float by Hiiragi’s, who has gone silent and opaque once more. They have enough substance to the both of them that some snowflakes slow as they traverse them, held back by something barely weaker than wind. If he had called Urihime too, perhaps some would have stopped entirely and caught onto their bodies.
Natori dismisses Sasago and Hiiragi when he reaches the studio. The heat inside the building makes him shudder bodily, makes the wet wool stuck to his hands and hair all the icier. He shakes his gloves and hat off, puts them by a heater to dry. Greets the woman in the lobby, who smiles bashfully at him.
Matoba Seiji is getting married, he thinks, waiting for the elevator.
He sees, when he blinks his eyelids, the red rays of sunset above the river where he grew. He sees his own palm creased from having pushed onto grass, the parasitic spirit on his skin moving about freely. He sees fifteen-year-old Matoba Seiji’s silhouette on the opposite bank, draped in elongated shadows.
Matoba Seiji is getting married.
The last few times Natori has met Matoba were in Natsume’s presence, while fighting off ayakashi.
Every time he has met Matoba in his life, truly, has been coincidence. Even when he knew the possibility to see him was there—during meetings with other exorcists, during hunts whose subjects had garnered enough rumor to bring several more exorcists their way—he never planned to meet the man. Once, he remembers, it was Matoba who seemed to plan to meet him.
Natori doesn’t expect to see him walk out of a restaurant with a woman on his arm while he is shooting for photos, which is reason enough, he supposes, for Matoba to do just that.
His job for the day is coming to an end when he sees them. He and the photographer, technicians, director, have privatized a corner of the largest street in the city, where a piece of colorful art once commissioned by the mayor leaps and crawls along a grey wall’s surface. Natori has spent the past four hours posing against this wall in various outfits. He is to be the face of a local brand’s spring/summer collection; the weather being as it is this time of year, they took him and all the equipment to the chosen location for the shoot the moment the sun shone.
It isn’t late, only about four, but the light has already dimmed too much. Natori is waiting on a bench with a cup of coffee in hand, his ugliest and warmest jacket shoved over the clothes that the brand sent his company. He knows this is probably the last outfit he wears, that he will need to come back tomorrow to finish up with better light. At this point, he is just waiting to be told to go. A small group of young girls has assembled by the ribbon that security taped around the place to secure shooting space, waiting for him to sign some things.
And Matoba Seiji is walking down the front steps of a restaurant on the opposite sidewalk, dressed in an all-black suit, a woman on his arm.
Natori stands up.
By his side, his manager says nothing. She is deeply involved in explaining to the photographer why exactly Natori will not be available to shoot in the morning, yes, she knows it’s bothersome, but they should have booked him sooner. The group of girls by the security tape shivers like a single living organism at the sight of him moving. Matoba, on the other side of the street, pauses in his steps and looks away from his woman.
Natori is rarely the one aware of Matoba’s presence first, rather than the other way around. He finds the difference futile when the same old suspicion grips him the second their eyes meet, no matter that he is wearing sunglasses, no matter that he knew he would attract attention when he stood.
For a moment, he considers sitting down again; but Matoba is saying something to the woman who accompanies him, and she nods and looks at him too, so now, he has no choice.
His every step toward the couple is still heavy. Reluctant.
“Shuuichi-san,” Matoba greets pleasantly.
He and the woman have approached the tape, left alone by the man who watches over it after a nod from Natori. Natori waits until he is done stepping over it to reply, “Good afternoon.”
Matoba smiles at him.
“Were you working?” he asks.
“No, I was about done,” Natori answers. “We’re just wrapping up.”
His eyes fall again to the woman by Matoba’s side.
“Let me introduce you,” Matoba says, disturbingly smooth in appearance and voice alike. Natori has seen him in a suit before—he thinks he has—but Matoba looks like he should not be so at ease in one. “This is Ohta Shinobu,” he adds, one hand not-quite touching the woman’s shoulder.
Ohta bows in perfect manners, demure and pretty in her elegant jacket and with silk-like gloves on her hands. They clutch a cream-colored purse to her belly. “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” she says.
Her voice is as soft as she looks. She is tiny next to Matoba, who has never been so tall himself. Her face is heart-shaped, her long hair tied at her nape and adorned with golden pins. He cannot tell for sure if she is twenty or thirty, though he would guess her to be a few years older than Matoba and he.
Natori doesn’t know if she is as he expected her to be. He doesn’t know if he expected anything.
“Natori Shuuichi,” Natori replies. He tries to smile as he does for the girls who wait a few dozen meters away. “Pleasure to meet you too.”
Matoba says, “Ohta-san and I are engaged.”
When Natori glances at him again, he finds Matoba looking at him, smiling, his only visible eye glinting softly in the setting sun. “I heard,” Natori manages. “Congratulations.”
He expects Matoba to introduce him to her, but Matoba does no such thing. He cannot tell either if Ohta Shinobu has any inkling of who he is, either via his clan name or because she has seen him as so many others have, in posters or television ads.
“You will be invited, of course,” Matoba says before Natori can continue examining his fiancée. Natori looks at him again, surprised enough that a small exhale leaves him and draws vapor out of the icy air. “We just decided on a date for the ceremony today.”
“Oh, I never expected to—”
“All the clans will be invited.”
Ohta shows no surprise at those words. Her smile remains polite, cute almost, her body’s attention turned to the man beside her unthinkingly. As Natori guessed, she is of their world.
“I know you have a busy schedule, Shuuichi-san,” Matoba says. “But if you could make room to attend the reception at least, it would make me very happy.”
His voice is as self-assured as it always has been, as it always is when talking to Natori. Natori has been cold all of this afternoon despite the hot drinks and portable heater, condemned to doing nothing but wait in-between shots of different springly outfits, and yet his neck feels warm.
“All right,” he concedes. “I’ll be there.”
Matoba’s smile widens. It is sinister on his face, as always, despite the fine suit and elegant company. Natori has never known another human who could look so otherworldly, who could at first glance belong to the world he sees clearest through fake glasses or mirror shards. He doesn’t know what to do with himself when Matoba bows again and directs Ohta Shinobu to the left, leaving him with a last parting glance. She says goodbye to him; Natori answers her mechanically.
Behind them, the woman who is usually with Matoba, Nanase, follows. He hadn’t noticed her before. She has a sleek phone stuck to her ear, is muttering softly into it, but her eyes find Natori’s anyway.
He remembers that she used to smile when she saw him. When he was a child and he stumbled upon Matoba as he worked, or the other way around, Nanase would look at him with a nasty twist of her lips. She does not smile now.
Natori stands still on the frozen sidewalk for a moment after they are gone. The last few minutes were enough to darken the street even more, and he knows for certain that he will not be called again to shoot today. Behind himself, he can hear the sound of equipment being folded and turned off, and a cheer has risen over the group of girls from before. When he looks, he sees that his manager is talking to them. If they are smiling like this, then it must mean that she agreed to a few minutes of greeting and signing.
Natori tightens the scarf around his neck. His own skin feels hot at the tip of his fingers, and it is without much thought that he looks down into the street and to where Matoba is ushering Ohta Shinobu into a black car waiting for them on the road.
Matoba doesn’t look back at him. His hand hovers around Ohta’s elbow as she bends and sits at the back.
It never really touches her.
“See,” Sasago says, “I told you.”
They are back from an exorcism two cities over, she and Urihime and Natori, and Natori has barely had time to take off his shoes at the entrance of his apartment. He sees what she is pointing to: a small pile of letters behind the slit of his mailbox, one of which is finely-decorated enough to mean only one thing.
Natori hums. He finishes undressing with more care than usual, folding his coat and scarf, turning his gloves the right side finger by finger. When he does not have anything more to do that would not seem obsessive, he bends down and picks his mail up.
Electricity bill, newspapers, an invitation to the neighborhood association’s bimonthly meeting. There is nothing there to hold his attention, nothing except the thick envelope in midnight blue with his name painted onto it in white ink.
It isn’t as gaudy as the other wedding invitations he has received in his life. He can feel that Sasago is waiting for him to open it, and so he does under her attentive eyes.
The simplicity disappears within two lines of the letter inside. It is brief and yet somehow extremely pompous, and Natori almost has to blink and bring it closer to decipher the calligraphy. It sets the wedding date to the last Saturday of June. The place is not anywhere he knows, a hotel somewhere near the biggest Shinto shrine in the region.
“Will you go?” Sasago mutters by his side as she did all those weeks ago. “I don’t want to go.”
“Then don’t,” Natori replies. “I said I wouldn’t make you.”
“It’ll be so boring. I hate weddings.”
He throws the letter onto his coffee table and sinks into his couch. Without thought or intention at all, he grabs the remote for his TV and turns it on, muted.
He should dismiss Sasago and Urihime, he thinks. Send them back to whatever realm they roam when they are not of use to him. Natori doesn’t like to recall all the times he has been here or in another place, sitting in silence with his shiki beside him, the rooms around him cold with lack of humanity.
It’s almost like cheating friendship.
Urihime enjoys turning over his place when she is allowed inside. She is finishing her third turn of the two rooms that compose his home now, more silent as always than the other two. She floats above the coffee table and lowers a ghostly hand until it traverses paper.
“Do you think Natsume has received one, too?” she asks him.
Natori has not considered that before.
He looks at the invitation. It seems almost unthreatening, devoid of anything he would expect there to be in a Matoba wedding call—an attached spirit, a test of sorts, perhaps even the hunt which Sasago mentioned. But the thing is only paper and ink, however rich the paper, however carefully-painted the ink.
If Natsume has gotten one… Natori has only seen enough of the boy’s relationship with Matoba to realize that there sits an odd mix of fear and curiosity. He doesn’t know why, exactly, Matoba is interested in Natsume. He still hasn’t figured out either the mystery that Natsume carries with him and which makes that powerful cat-like spirit cling to him.
“He shouldn’t go,” he says. This is his only certainty in the matter.
“Does that mean you won’t go?” Urihime asks.
“I don’t know.”
Urihime leaves it at that. Sasago continues to look pleased with the renewed confirmation of her not having to go at all.
Natori dismisses them. He sits alone in his cold living-room, watching the silent TV, thinking about Natsume and Matoba.
Thinking about Matoba and the woman whom he did not touch at all.
Natsume is not any happier to see him at the front gate of his school than he was the last time.
“Please don’t come here,” he tells Natori, almost embarrassed. His forehead is a little sweaty despite the cold, and he is carrying an extra bag today, with a pair of sneakers tied to it. He’s probably just come out of his P.E. class.
“Hello to you too,” Natori grins.
Natsume’s face scrunches a little more. Natori sees him spy the high school girls who have gathered around and started whispering. He flushes from the attention; Natori bites back his laughter and asks him to follow.
The cat spirit finds them before they can reach the coffee shop he intends to take Natsume to. It doesn’t greet Natori, only sits atop Natsume’s head, the fat sides of its body almost blinding the poor kid.
Natori orders for the both of them. He feels the ayakashi’s glare all the while.
“I received an invitation,” Natsume says as Natori comes back with their drinks. He looks curious now rather than reluctant, and Natori says nothing, simply watches him rummage through his backpack for the same night-blue paper and ivory ink that sits upon his table at home. “To Matoba-san’s wedding,” Natsume adds.
He tries to hand the envelope over to Natori, who shakes his head and grabs his coffee instead. Natsume lowers his hand slowly.
“I figured that’s why you were here,” he says, confused.
Natori feels a little bad. “Can’t I just go visit a friend?” he asks.
Natsume’s lips twist downward, but he doesn’t deny the claim.
“Well, actually,” Natori says. “I did come here to talk to you about this.”
“I knew it.”
“A Matoba clan head wedding,” the fat cat says in its high and grating voice. It sits on Natsume’s lap now, close enough to the table to make a grab at the pastry Natori bought. “That means a ceremonial hunt, of course.”
Of course, Natori thinks dryly. It seems he is the only one in their business who knows nothing of those things.
“The food will be very good,” the cat adds.
“I don’t think you should go, Nyanko-sensei,” says Natsume. “You’ll be taken for prey.”
“Then bring me back some dessert.”
“I don’t think you should go either, Natsume-kun,” Natori interrupts.
They both stare at him in surprise, cat and human alike.
“I haven’t decided yet,” Natsume replies after a brief silence. “I don’t… I don’t know what to think of Matoba-san. I don’t know why he would invite me to his wedding.”
Natori hesitates. He taps the side of his paper cup once, twice, with the tip of his finger. It isn’t hot enough to burn him even if he were to wrap his entire hand around it.
“He probably didn’t,” he lies. “He’ll be way too busy to oversee every little detail, I imagine. Every exorcist in the region must have been invited. That woman who follows him around, Nanase, she must have added your name to the guestlist.”
Natsume only looks slightly disappointed. The cat in his lap swipes a piece of cheesecake from his plate and licks it off its paw, looking satisfied and entirely unsurprised.
Natori washes his guilt down with tasteless coffee. “It’ll be a big event,” he says, “so I understand the curiosity, but it could be dangerous for you as well. You never know what can happen with so many of us in one place. Other people may try to use you for their own benefit, if they notice that you can see.”
Natsume seems to take his words to heart. His serious face becomes lax, the way it does sometimes when he thinks himself alone, when he sees something that he is the only one to. Natori cannot help but follow his gaze, looking intently at the window they are seated next to. There’s nothing outside that he can recognize as wrong, even with his glasses.
The cat has stopped its incessant plate-picking. It watches Natsume, its body not soft but tense, coiled like a spring.
“I see,” Natsume says at last. All at once the cat loosens and looks ready to purr, and Natsume scratches behind its ears out of habit. He smiles at Natori. “Thank you for the warning, Natori-san.”
“You don’t need to thank me.”
Conversation after that, as always, is awkward. Natori’s public persona is useless on Natsume, and Natsume has little he is willing to share—willing to share with Natori. Natori is not obtuse enough not to recognize that. But this is an indulgence of sorts, he thinks, leaving the dregs of his coffee to cool. Sitting here with someone he likes, someone who knows.
None of his shiki know or care enough about human matters to make fun of him for hanging out with a teenager. Sometimes, Natori wishes they did.
The sky is black and clouded when he separates from Natsume, though it isn’t six-thirty yet. Natori finished his official work at noon and has no other plans to hold him back from going home. His phone is silent, his emails and texts all read and answered.
The invitation still waits upon his coffee table.
The last Saturday of June. An auspicious day, the most auspicious of the calendar, during the most auspicious month. The greenery shall be lush still from the rainy season, the flowers in full bloom, the weather clement. An ideal day for a wedding.
Natori has plans for that day. His agent made an appointment with an up-and-coming screenwriter whose last drama ended up third in number of views for the season. He showed interest in having Natori play one of the two male leads in the next. Natori’s agent has been diligent in reminding Natori to watch the man’s previous works in the five months they have until the meeting.
The excuse is so perfect, it’s almost gift-wrapped.
If you could make room to attend the reception at least, it would make me very happy.
Natori moves from the entrance of his apartment. There’s a broken ballpoint pen hanging into a bowl in the kitchen, alongside post-it notes and twisted paperclips. He takes it as he goes.
He writes his name with it on the second letter inside the night-blue envelope. The paper is so smooth and dark that black ink barely shows, and this is like the Matoba clan, isn’t it, to expect their guests to ink their reply in white, too. This is like Matoba Seiji.
Matoba Seiji is wedded to Ohta Shinobu on a bright summer morning.
Natori has promised his presence to both the hunt and the reception, so he is standing among the guests when the couple comes out after the private, family-only ceremony. He drove for two hours into the countryside to reach the hotel where the reception is to take place and a room has been reserved in his name. The whole building has been privatized for the event; even so, he can now count more people than there can possible be rooms to offer. Some will have to abstain from drinking and drive their way back home.
The bride’s friends, a group who seems comprised of mostly-normal girls, have been waiting for her to appear with bated breaths. They exclaim in joy at the sight of her in the procession, all-clad in white and unmistakable next to Matoba himself. She smiles at them and waves her hand happily. The rich cloth of her shiromuku sways into the agreeable breeze that has risen a few minutes ago.
Natori tries to find fault in her, to find her enthusiasm lacking in some way, but if she is here out of duty only, she shows no sign of it. If he were a passerby, he would think her just another happy newlywed.
If he were a passerby, however, perhaps he would have better things to look at than her.
Every exorcist here has come with their shiki in tow. Shadows linger where shadows there should not be, and looming figures float above and between the guests, translucent in the sun. Some are engaged in conversation with each other, just like their masters. Some look bored and wait for the hunt to begin. All here gifted with sight can recognize those not in the know: they walk and stumble through the spirits unknowingly.
He has never seen so many shiki in one place before. The memory of showing up unprompted to his first exorcist’s meeting pales considerably.
Natori has Urihime and Hiiragi by his sides. Sasago, after another bout of complaining the last time he summoned her, has been left alone. His shiki are distracted; the presence of other shiki—the feeling of wild ayakashi close at bay, dark and cloying—keeps their attention more than the people do. Even so, Hiiragi is curious.
“This is Ohta Shinobu,” she says, looking at the couple being swarmed by family and guests.
“I suppose her name is Matoba now,” Natori replies. He is looking at her, too.
“She is not like I expected.”
Natori is surprised enough to glance away from the bride. Hiiragi usually prefers to be a head or two above him when her movements are free. She is below him now, her feet almost touching ground, her expression as unreadable as ever.
“What did you expect?” Natori asks her.
Hiiragi’s consistency flickers. She looked almost solid a second ago; now he can see the grassy ground through her, and he understands with awe that she is reluctant to answer him.
“Not this,” she near-snaps.
He is too confused to do more than watch as she floats away from him. She has rejoined the snake-shiki whose company she likes, now, and the man the creature belongs to bows his head in Natori’s direction before slipping away.
Natori looks back ahead.
Matoba Seiji is staring at him.
Natori’s back tenses, though it should not. He has worked himself into coming here, has prepared both in terms of material needs and… and whatever else there is. He saw Matoba smile over the crowd when he came out of the ceremony, saw him speak to a few guests, speak to the Nanase woman. Natori has already recognized Matoba’s presence here. He came here knowing in advance that he would see him. There is no reason at all for the same-old nervousness to grip him now—he is not in any way surprised by the other being around.
But Matoba is looking at him, directly at him, not simply in his general direction. No matter how many guests there are standing every way Natori walks, he can tell that Matoba’s eye is not on them. The cloth he has wound around his right eye is black, made, it seems, out of the same material as his haori. It must be embroidered with protective charms, if he could not write them on it. His sinister smile has widened.
He is not touching the wife who stands by his side.
Natori finds himself bowing the head awkwardly in greeting and then looking away. He walks into the crowd of guests until he is certain to be out of sight, until the burning at his nape abates. Hiiragi comes back to him as she sees him move and talks to Urihime, her behavior from before apparently long forgotten.
It is just as well, for the couple and their family proceed in direction of the hotel.
The shrine is about a ten minutes’ walk away from it. Natori stays in periphery of the procession, far at the back where only a few distantly-interested men drag their feet. Even so, he can see the top of the bride’s wataboshi swaying with every step. A couple girls have recognized him from the bride’s entourage as well: Natori can see them muttering to each other and shedding glances his way.
This is too much, he thinks a few minutes later as he changes into more comfortable clothes for the hunt that is to follow. The room he was given—for free—doesn’t look cheap at all. He has packed three different outfits for the day alone, four if he counts the one he intends to sleep in. A Matoba wedding is indeed a bother, as Sasago has said.
Way fewer people wait downstairs now than there were at the shrine. Most of them are men, although some women linger here and there, their shiki in their steps. Nanase is leaning against the side of the front door, clad once more in a sharp, black suit.
Natori feels some comfort at the sight. It was very odd to see her dressed as tradition orders.
“If you will follow me,” Matoba says right next to him.
Natori doesn’t jump out of his bones only because he was already too tense to. He doesn’t turn his head either, instead keeping his breath held in as Matoba steps forward and enters his line of sight, exiting a room which Natori now recognizes as a wide dining hall.
He should have waited by the elevator instead. Or outside.
Ohta—Matoba’s wife is here as well. Matoba has left his hakama behind and regained something like his usual appearance, umbrella and all, although his eye is still covered in black. She is wearing something different as well, something Natori guesses to be a family heirloom. She holds a bamboo sword in one hand, and her shoulders are covered in armor.
They take their cars their time, following the Matobas’ to the edge of woods that sweep over sharp hills. A barrier has been installed at the opening of a dirt path, guarded by two men who walk toward Nanase as soon as she steps out of her vehicle.
She is the one who speaks next, after Matoba has cut open the barrier-ribbon keeping the forest sealed.
“There is only one ayakashi here which needs dealing with,” she announces to the fifty-odd people gathered around her. “We have reduced its roaming perimeter over the past five months but not tampered with it in any other way. The ayakashi takes the shape of a one-eyed old man carrying a golden arrow.”
Her smile turns delighted.
“Whoever can steal the arrow from it first wins,” she announces. “The time limit is five hours. Good luck.”
It isn’t nearly as simple as Nanase made it sound.
Natori half-expected it, which is the only reason why he did not suffocate upon entering the woods. Some of the men and women around were not so ready. A few fell under the weight of the wood-spirit’s hatred, a few more held their necks as if they were being hanged with rope. Natori breathes and breathes until the horrid cold alleviates from his body. Urihime and Hiiragi have become less consistent too, whipped thin by the monster’s aura.
“Matoba clan bastards,” one man who entered after Natori grunts, pushing himself off the ground. His knees are stained with dirt. Natori supposes that this is the reason only the bride and groom are hunting in fancy ceremonial garb.
“They’re being awfully nice,” another says. “My father went to one of their hunts twenty years ago. There were no restrictions, and more than one feral ayakashi.”
“What does it matter anyway? This is just so Matoba Seiji gets to catch the spirit in front of his wife. His robes are probably sewn with enchantments.”
“I didn’t feel like waiting it out with the women outside…”
Natori advances into the forest until the voices behind him dissipate. Matoba and his wife are long gone, entered before anyone else and no doubt already close behind the spirit’s steps. Already he can feel the oppressiveness diminish, as if the monster has realized that it is being hunted and is running away.
“Keep an eye out,” he tells Urihime and Hiiragi. The old leather bag he has strung over one shoulder contains his equipment; Natori opens it and fishes paper and ink out, his mind already running with tracking spells. “That woman never said there was only one spirit we should be wary of, only one that we should catch.”
“Yes,” Urihime says.
Hiiragi elevates through the trees’ canopy and vanishes from view.
For most of the hour that follows, Natori is alone.
He litters his path with shikigami, establishing a narrower outline for his target to roam, preparing traps in the shape of culs-de-sac. Boars must live in these woods; bark has been torn out of many trees, leaving gashes almost like wounds into the whiter wood beneath. The rare few other exorcists Natori crosses paths with ignore him, fueled by competition. Some go so far as to throw him dark looks, although they have never met each other before.
It is familiar, in a way. Natori used to get this kind of welcome out of clans who dismissed his name and abilities. He finds it in himself to smile and look harder, to almost wish to best Matoba at this game and catch the spirit before him, no matter how feeble the odds are.
He isn’t the one to find the ayakashi, however.
A shadow spreads over the ground and blocks off the sunlight, and Natori cannot breathe.
A one-eyed old man carrying a golden arrow, Nanase said. As he drops his bag and falls to his knees, as he clutches at his throat to try and make way for air, Natori thinks, this is one way to put it.
The ayakashi is immense, easily the width of three of the pinecone trees which it shakes and uproots on its way. Its deformed head only vaguely resembles a human’s, and the folds of what looks like skin may seem like wrinkles to a half-blind man, but there the similarities stop. It has no mouth or nose, no ears, only a single black eye staring Natori down as it crawls closer and closer. The golden arrow that Nanase mentioned is only easy to find in contrast to its blood-red body; it is plunged into the beast’s heart, rid of a few golden feathers, dripping blood onto dirt and grass.
It’s monstrous. Natori finds his breath again only after hitting himself in the stomach and forcing himself to cough, and then again it is such thin air, such weak oxygen, that his lungs and head burn.
“Urihime,” he croaks.
She doesn’t need any more than this. Her body, less affected by the ayakashi’s aura, makes a barrier that he uses to draw on the soil and trap the monster in place.
It barely holds for more than a second.
Natori can only watch, nauseated, as the ayakashi breaks out of the seal with nothing more than a twist of its shadowy body. It shakes and shakes among the trees, close to the ground, the golden arrow hitting against bark and tearing it apart. He can barely breathe, barely think at all, let alone to find a way of pinning this creature in place.
The ayakashi has no voice, but it looks like it’s screaming. Its black eye weeps and weeps over the lowcut grass. Its chest wound bleeds liberally, spilling a substance almost like mud.
Natori only has enough time to thank himself for telling Natsume not to come, before the ayakashi rushes at him.
Something tugs on his collar with enough strength to make him fall on his back. Winded, Natori watches the ayakashi sweep over him, silent but for the sound of broken wood, vanishing in the shadow.
“Shuuichi-san,” Matoba Seiji’s voice says. The hand fisted into Natori’s collar loosens. “This is why most exorcists work in pairs.”
Natori exhales all at once.
Matoba is crouching next to his fallen form, no doubt to avoid being hit in the ayakashi’s course. Other than some dirt on his hands and knees, he looks entirely unscathed.
“You’re mad,” Natori tells him.
Matoba laughs. “It’s been said,” he replies, rising to his feet.
His extends a hand for Natori to grab. Natori does so unthinkingly, only then realizing how weak his limbs have become in the aftermath of the monster’s aura. Urihime hovers above them both, looking troubled; Natori can sense that Hiiragi is approaching as well, having felt his call.
“This is madness,” he repeats once he is certain his own legs can support him. The hand which Matoba took to help him stand feels warm. He presses it to the wounded bark of a tree for coolness. “Did you spend five months making it madder and madder on purpose?”
“It’s my wedding,” Matoba replies evenly. “I should be allowed to have some fun.”
Natori’s mouth closes. He forgets what he was about to say.
There’s nothing to read on Matoba’s face, truly. Not now and not any time they met before. Natori turns away, watching the ravaged place where the ayakashi slithered a moment ago. The very grass has been uprooted, and everywhere the mud-like blood touched seems to have rotted.
“This is dangerous,” he mutters. “People could die.”
“People can die of many things.”
For a tense second, neither of them speaks.
Then Matoba laughs softly. From the corner of his eyes, Natori sees him check something on his tall bow. His fingers are careful. Long and callused and infinitely precise.
“No one will die,” he declares. “I have my people monitoring every inch of this forest. This ayakashi is blind with pain and anger and will not chase after anyone as long as it can flee. We just need to catch it and take the arrow from it—it should vanish after that.”
Easier said than done. From what Natori has seen of it, the arrow is thick and deeply buried, probably right into the monster’s heart, or core, or whatever else is keeping it of this world.
“Well,” Matoba says, unbothered by Natori’s silence. He steps forth on the ravaged ground, smiling light-heartedly. “Shall we, then?”
“Where’s your wife?” Natori asks.
He doesn’t know what he expects Matoba’s reaction to be. A startle, a glare, another smooth-voiced comment to divert attention. But Matoba chuckles lowly, his long fingers stroking the bow in his hands, his feet solidly planted onto the forest ground. Flickering sunlight washes over him through the canopy of trees, shining off of the gold thread Natori can now glimpse, woven into his eyepatch.
“Shall we?” Matoba repeats.
The forest is so quiet now, so silent around them. The crushing aura of the ayakashi is gone, following it wherever it is rampaging now. Natori can hear no sound of the other exorcists, can see no trace of them through the bushes and shadowed trunks of trees. Small animals scurry away in fear before his and Matoba’s feet. A bird shrieks loudly once, shaking its wings against leaves before taking flight.
“I’m glad you came,” Matoba says a few minutes into their trek.
Urihime and Hiiragi have gone away to search for the ayakashi. None of Natori’s tracking shikigami have reacted yet. He has nothing to hold his attention except for the man beside him.
“I said I would,” he replies.
“I know your day job takes up a lot of your time.”
Natori’s mouth twists almost into a smile. His day job.
“Today is an occasion for my clan to establish and secure bonds,” Matoba goes on. “Hardly any guest is here for something other than business. I would like it if you could find it in yourself to enjoy the celebration.”
Why do you care so much? Natori wants, or doesn’t want, to ask.
On the day they met at his shooting and twice now in the span of a few minutes, Matoba has said those things. It would make me happy. I’m glad you came. I hope you enjoy yourself.
Why does Matoba Seiji care so much about Natori being here? Why does he care if Natori enjoys himself or finds the whole ceremony boring?
“I don’t often see so many exorcists in one place,” Natori says carefully. “It has been interesting. Your bride looked quite happy as well.”
“Yes, she’s been looking forward to it. The ceremony and the hunt both.”
Natori almost asks him if he has been looking forward to it, too.
He bites the inside of his lips only enough for a measure of ache to make itself known to him. He doesn’t want to actually cut them. “Have you two known each other for a long time, then?” he asks.
“Three years,” Matoba answers, not missing a beat. He isn’t even looking at Natori; his eye is fixed on the tracks etched onto the ground, the way that Natori’s should be. Natori cannot stop looking at him instead. “Shinobu-san belongs to an old Okinawan family of exorcists. It didn’t take long for her family and mine to reach an agreement, once I voiced the idea.”
Matoba turns his head to look at him.
Natori has not realized before that he is walking in his blind spot. It feels almost a given, what with such a terrifying ayakashi at large, to make up for Matoba’s right eye. It felt obvious as well not to be so directly in his line of sight. Matoba has to face him almost completely in order to see him.
“I really am,” he says softly, “happy that you are here.”
Natori should congratulate him. He should wish him something, a good life, a happy marriage, or tell him of the procession’s grandeur earlier, the bride’s beauty.
He can’t say anything at all.
One of his shikigami calls to him as it burns to ashes. Matoba sees him halt in his steps and simply watches him, nodding his head when Natori takes the lead to where the beast has fallen into his trap.
It isn’t far, a couple hundred meters at most, and they make it in a handful of minutes without the need to run. Natori sees the ayakashi emerge through an opening of the trees, thrashing silently against the barrier he has made on his way, still looking absolutely monstrous. He quickly closes the gap that the spirit has fallen into, and this time, the thing cannot escape.
Matoba has lifted his tall bow. An arrow sits between his fingers, calligraphied paper wound around its long shaft; when he looses it upon the ayakashi, it makes more of the mud-like blood rot the grass and bushes.
“We’ll need to tear the arrow out of it by hand,” he declares. “Shuuichi-san, I’m counting on you.”
He leaps onto the gouged patch of earth.
Natori has no time, no breath, to call him mad. The ayakashi feels that someone else is where it is struggling, and its attention narrows onto Matoba with the strength of a thousand rainclouds, rancid and as heavy as stone. Natori has to struggle to stay upright under the flood of miasmic fear and hatred that suffuses the air. He cannot imagine how Matoba is standing so seemingly unbothered, so close to the monster.
He calls for Urihime and Hiiragi, for Sasago even, who materializes next to him and immediately flies to where the ayakashi is advancing. Matoba’s arrows sink into its body and do not come out, shining white over red, barely slowing it down. In the middle of it all the golden arrow glows, catching sunlight and blood.
Matoba grabs the ayakashi by hand once he is close enough. Smoke arises where his fingers dig into the shape of the monster, and with it the scent of cooked meat, unbearable, nauseating. Natori runs to him without asking himself why, with no plan at all; when Matoba turns around to make the ayakashi face him, he doesn’t hesitate.
His skin burns upon contact with the ayakashi’s smoke-like skin. Urihime and Hiiragi act as a barrier to the pain, their hands covering his and absorbing the burn of the spirit’s rancor. Natori grits his teeth and wraps his other hand around the golden arrow’s shaft.
It is buried so, so deeply. Whatever once wounded this creature did so with the intent to curse it, to use gold as a linchpin and trap it to the human realm. The arrow doesn’t hurt Natori’s skin as it does the spirit’s—poisoning its blood and mind until only madness remains—but his own sweat makes his hold slippery.
He thinks he can hear Matoba’s voice in the middle of it all. He can’t see him, not with the ayakashi between them acting as a smokescreen, and whatever words or cries are thrown his way are muddied by the thick silence of the creature, by its voiceless screaming. Natori takes his burned hand off of the ayakashi’s body and pulls with both palms around the shaft this time.
Inch by unbearable inch, the arrow loosens. The muscles in Natori’s arms and back shake under the effort of tugging it out half a palm’s width, then two. It feels like an hour later that he sees the arrowhead emerge and the substance that the ayakashi is made of vanish at its tip.
Natori falls harshly to the forest ground, one of his knees shouting with pain at the contact. His left hand is singed and bleeding around the arrow’s tail. He feels, he thinks, as if he has just pulled the heart out of someone’s unbroken body, tearing lungs and ribs apart with only the strength of his back.
With great effort, he lifts his head and looks ahead.
Matoba sits on his back on the damp soil, his fine clothes ruined by dirt, both of his hands stained with blood. He is as red-faced and panting as Natori. Sweat has slickened his temples and stuck his black hair to his skin. He smiles. He laughs, even, lax and loosened as Natori has never seen him, his head falling backwards till he lays entirely on the ground. One of his long-fingered hands comes to rest upon his chest, creasing the line of his clothes and exposing his collarbones.
With the blood on them spreading over his skin, he looks like he is the one whose heart just got torn out.
Later, as Natori offers the golden arrow to Nanase and receives official congratulations—as he smiles emptily at her ceremonial words—he looks at Matoba Shinobu.
Her own robes bear the marks of the hunt. A dark smudge by her knees suggests that she has fallen, and though she remains smiling, content, Natori can tell that effort has tired her. She does not stand as tall as she did coming out of the shrine hours ago.
It should not come as a surprise that she is looking at him, too. Most who stand around him are: he is, seemingly, the one who thieved the arrow from the ayakashi and won the game. Matoba, who stands by her, is looking at him as well. He has not said anything of his own involvement in freeing the spirit.
But Natori’s chest goes tight when he meets her eyes. His uninjured hand clenches on nothing.
His shoulders ache and plow, burdened with greater exertion than they should.
Natori has no idea if the old man and woman seated at the far end of the reception hall are Matoba’s family.
He has no idea if Matoba even has family. He supposes that Matoba does, as he said earlier when he spoke of his engagement. If not parents, then perhaps grandparents, or an aunt and uncle. His wife’s mother and father are easy enough to spot—she has the same nose, he the same elegant chin and brow—but whoever the other couple seated next to them are, Natori cannot recognize any of Matoba’s features in them.
They are far from him, after all. Perhaps this is why he has trouble seeing them. The silkpiece bearing Natori’s name at the highest table is almost right by Matoba’s side.
He hesitates to sit at all. To his right, an old exorcist has already taken place, his shiki slithered under the tablecloth and hiding in shadow. He is not one of those who participated in the chase earlier; his face is almost as wrinkled as the ayakashi’s was, and his left hand trembles when it lifts above the table. At Natori’s left, in the lone chair that separates him and Matoba, Nanase has taken place.
“They won’t be long now,” she says absently.
He doesn’t have to wonder if she is speaking to him. There isn’t anyone else around yet, after all.
Natori sits carefully. The wooden chair is not uncomfortable at all, but he still feels as though it is about to cut into his backside.
“Were Matoba-san’s associates too busy to attend?” he asks her.
“Oh, not at all,” Nanase replies. One corner of her mouth has lifted in mimicry of a smile. “They’ll be filling this table with business talk before long.”
He gets the message even without the amused glance she gives him. If the Matoba clan’s closest associates are indeed here, then Matoba meant for Natori to sit so close.
“I haven’t prepared a speech,” he tells her.
“You won’t have to give one.”
The wrinkled man next to Natori stands up shakily. Natori cuts his conversation with Nanase short in order to help him steady himself—from under the table, he sees the man’s shiki do the same, its two emaciated hands wrapping round the man’s knees to alleviate their burden.
Natori barely listens to his thanks. Matoba and his wife have come into the room, dressed once more to suit the occasion. The gold thread embroidered in Matoba Shinobu’s irouchikake catches the light with every step she takes and shimmers beautifully.
They come in swarmed with other men and women, most of whom take the direction of Natori’s table. Shinobu’s girlfriends from earlier separate from her with shy, excited smiles.
Natori feels a shiver when Matoba walks behind him and Nanase to reach his own seat. There is only so much space between their chairs and the wall, and so much more room Natori can give by sticking close to the table. He tenses when Matoba’s arm braces against his as he goes.
His hands, like Natori’s, have been taken care of and bandaged.
“The hunt was beautiful,” the old man next to Natori says. “I expected nothing less impressive from this young man. He has always been eager to please.”
Natori did not pay attention when the other was thanking him a moment ago. He does now, turning to him as Matoba and his wife link hands to sit—but can it be called touching? Can it, when Matoba’s awkward, injured fingers brush over hers through a layer of white cloth?
“Have you been to many in the past?” Natori asks. He hates the tightness that has developed in his throat and makes his fingers clench. “I never knew about this tradition before coming here.”
“You’re from the Natori clan, aren’t you,” the old man says.
Natori falls silent. His eyes slide to the piece of dark silk on which his name is embroidered, in full view of the man next to him. He should’ve known.
The man shakes a stiff hand his way. His shiki helps him sit and once more vanishes in the shadows by their knees. “There’s no need for that now,” he tells Natori. “No shame at all. I have lost count of how many of the great clans have fallen. If anything, you should be praised for trying to revive yours. I have been hearing about you.”
“I’m no one important,” the old man says. When he smiles, the deep, deep lines of age on his face twist and break. “Truly, this seating arrangement surprises me. I wouldn’t presume to know Matoba Seiji very well.”
“Neither would I,” Natori mutters.
Next to them, Nanase smiles.
The last few guests find their seats in the wide and gold-lit room. Most of the men, including Natori, have left their hakamas behind and changed into formal suits. The women, however, shine out of so many colors that the room feels almost crowded. Only Nanase has not gone back to wearing a kimono.
Matoba rises from his chair. His wife stays seated and smiling next to him, once more made-up and coiffed as tradition orders, her hand braced around the empty cup before her.
“Thank you all for being here,” Matoba says in the silence that takes over the room.
Matoba has never needed to shout or force his way into being listened to, Natori thinks. His voice carries over distance as clearly now as if borne by technology. Natori has never not heard him across a crowded room.
“It is an honor to see you all gathered here to celebrate with us. Centuries of friendship have come to fruition today in uniting the Matoba and Ohta clans; the day has been clement, the oracles auspicious, and the hunt,”—Matoba inclines his head, not enough to see Natori, not enough that Natori should feel the need to look away from him—”handled with great professionalism from all of you.”
With one hand, Matoba grasps the empty cup before him. His other frames his wife’s shoulder just shy of touching her. She rises as well, cup in hand.
A barrel of sake sits at the end of their table. A waiter from the hotel breaks it open after a nod from Matoba. Other workers come in quick steps, carrying white pitchers which they spread evenly over the assembly, filling cup after cup.
They drink, all of them, in honor of the newlyweds. The sake is fragrant and smooth under Natori’s palate. It warms within his neck, goes down his chest pleasantly. It leaves a peach-like taste over his tongue.
“Now,” Matoba says, “to today’s winner.”
This time, he does turn and face Natori fully.
There is no avoiding his gaze. Everyone else has remained seated; even if Natori were sitting where Shinobu’s friends are, or at the family table far back, Matoba would see him. With only Nanase between the both of them, his presence feels as crushing as the ayakashi they fought.
Natori grabs his now-refilled cup. He pushes his chair back with a sharp shriek of wood, lifts his cup in Matoba’s direction. He thinks it almost—almost—amusing, the way that both of their hands are bandaged just the same, almost as if they were taken in a brawl and then separated.
He can’t find it in himself to answer Matoba’s smile. The fruity sake leaves his mouth too-dry, too-sweet.
“Congratulations,” the old man says to him.
It is a few minutes later, after food has been served to all guests and conversation has risen in a cheer. This, at least, feels like a normal wedding: men in suits speaking loudly of business, young women in bright-colored clothes laughing together, the va-et-vient of waiters refilling empty glasses. A touch less tradition has been allowed, even: bottles of European wine have been opened and served, and the carte for the meal indicates several of the desserts Natori likes to buy when he comes by pastry shops.
The old man congratulates him for the hunt. Natori listens to him distractedly, picking at his plate, drinking his wine.
“I heard how you banished that ayakashi. I am too old to participate now, but I do remember such a hunt in my youth. I was only a child…”
“Has the Matoba clan always enjoyed putting on such a show, then?” Natori asks to entertain him.
This man doesn’t look so bad. Much better at least than the two seated after him, whom Natori remembers badmouthing Matoba at the edge of the forest. He probably just needs someone to talk to.
“It was a wedding from your clan,” the old man says.
This gives Natori pause.
The old man smiles at him. His face is so wrinkled it has become ageless, carved up by his frowning and laughing, tanned heavily by the sun. Urihime floats behind him. Natori can tell that she is listening too.
“Who was it?” Natori asks.
At once images go through him of his father, of his mother as pictures show her.
“Your grand—ah, perhaps great-grand-aunt,” the man answers. “Natori Riyo.”
Natori’s chest is tight, now, with more than apprehension. “How…”
“She married into a clan from Hokkaido. I thought I had forgotten all about it, but now,” the man makes a sweeping gesture with his shaking hand, showing the room and guests, “it’s all coming back to me. It was such a grand celebration, too. We had to hunt a two-headed boar spirit in the valley behind her home…”
He pauses. His stiff hand goes back to the tabletop, where he has been handling his chopsticks and food with surprising grace in spite of his constant trembling.
“It was her husband who caught it for her,” he says with a smile. His skin shows creases like the passage of lightning. “She was happy. Several of the boys in those days were quite in love with her.” He laughs, “I was among them, of course. The competition was fierce over who would catch the spirit, but it was her husband who won.”
The old man’s skeletal shiki peaks at him from under the tablecloth. Its single eye is wide open, with a weepy quality to it that reminds Natori, frighteningly, of Natsume.
“Natori Riyo,” the old man grumbles. “Yes, I remember her.”
His voice is vanishing into a thin wisp of air.
“She used to write me beautiful letters…”
He looks exhausted, all of a sudden, the way that the elder sometimes do: as if breathing is enough of an effort to make, and one should not ask them for more. His shiki crawls out from under the table and murmurs into his ear too lowly for Natori to hear.
The piece of black silk on the table before him bears the Matoba surname.
Hiiragi says, “You should eat, Master.”
Natori’s stomach feels knotted and twisted. He wants to look to his side and watch Matoba Seiji, wants to read over his face whether he did this on purpose, and for what reason. But he can hear Matoba speaking to someone in front of him. Matoba is not paying attention to Natori at all.
So Natori eats. He doesn’t taste any of it, not even the finest dishes served on lacquered wood. Only the sweet-smelling sake which feels like peaches on his tongue.
The evening unfolds slowly. Speeches start at the peak of drinking, when many of the men have reddened and their shiki sway from side to side. Many speak in booming voices of the grandeur of the Matoba name, of Matoba Seiji’s work in hauling his clan to the top. Others, on the side of the bride, recall her great accomplishments, her studies, her manners. A few stand drunkenly and attempt humor.
The two men on Natori’s right speak one after the other. The old Matoba man is too weary to do more than bow his head and thank Matoba Seiji for his invitation in a weak, shaking voice.
Natori makes no speech when all eyes fall on him. He bows his head stiffly in the couple’s direction and looks away.
“It’s too bad for Matoba Seiji’s hands,” he hears one of the two men from the forest say. A quick glance is enough to establish how red-faced he is, and his next words are slurred. “Too bad for his wife tonight, hah.”
His friend laughs.
Yes, this seems almost like a wedding.
The reception ends a little before ten. Matoba Shinobu stands by the entrance of the hall with a wide embroidered bag. She picks gifts out of it to send her guests out with, bowing and smiling, looking very put-together in spite of the comments that drunk men and women make to her. Matoba is by her side.
The old man who was Natori’s neighbor walks to them slowly and awkwardly. His shiki is pressed to his side the whole while to support him step by step. It still looks about to cry, as it has every time Natori has glimpsed it.
He doesn’t hear any of the words that the old man exchanges with the hosts, but Matoba himself is the one who hands him his gift. The old man bows twice in a row after receiving it. His shoulders are shaking.
“Shuuichi-san,” Matoba greets when no more people stand between Natori and him. “I hope you had a pleasant evening.”
His wife bows. Her smile does not waver once.
“I did,” Natori replies.
“Your hand has been tended to, I presume.”
Natori’s bandaged hand curls by his side, and an echo of pain travels up his wrist and arm.
“It has,” he says. In fact, a doctor was waiting outside the woods this afternoon, ready to tend to injuries big and small. “Thank you for inviting me. I hadn’t seen a clan head wedding before.”
“I knew you hadn’t.”
Matoba turns away before Natori can react to his words. It is just as well, because Natori has no idea what to say—no idea if he should take offense at the comment or consider it another of Matoba’s quirks, devoid of any meaning. He watches the man’s hands, burned for much longer than his, disappear within the bag to retrieve a wrapped-up box.
Natori had to think long and hard to figure out what to gift Matoba Seiji for his wedding.
He thought of money for all but a second before dismissing the idea. Matoba had no need for money from him, after all, and there was always the chance of his wife being offended, even if Matoba himself was not. Any other gift he could think of seemed so futile; he could hardly imagine Matoba Seiji in need of kitchenware, or wanting for a trip overseas.
So he went back to his family home. He greeted the lone servant who still works there twice a week. He climbed to the attic where he had spent so long as a child, pouring over faded texts, taking naps in the shade. Breathing in the silence and dust.
Matoba is oddly still when Natori hands the scrolls over to him.
“I didn’t know if there was somewhere I should have put it before now,” Natori tells him. “My apologies if I was mistaken.”
Matoba doesn’t answer. He takes the scrolls from him and thumbs at the opening for a glimpse of their content.
Natori knows what he’ll see there: the calligraphied name of one of his shikigami techniques.
When he looks at Natori again, he isn’t smiling anymore.
“Most people gave money,” he says.
Natori’s breathing shakes. “I figured you’d appreciate this more,” he replies.
But the word vanishes into silence, and Natori has the unprecedented pleasure of seeing Matoba Seiji speechless.
He knows that this is way outside of the rules. His clan may have fallen to nothingness, his father may have never been able to see as Natori himself does, but he knows this: clan techniques are not to be given away.
He doesn’t care, though. He didn’t care when he found the scrolls rolled into a corner of his miserable attic, abandoned when he left his home behind, and he does not care now, with Matoba struck speechless with surprise.
Natori does not use those techniques. They are ancient, outdated, meant for consulting with spirits and not for trapping them. He has little use for them. Matoba has even less.
“Thank you, Natori-san,” Matoba Shinobu says to him.
Natori has almost forgotten her presence. He tears his eyes away from Matoba’s face and bows to her a little late after she does, feeling all the while Matoba’s eye on him.
Matoba hands him his own gift silently. For a second, Natori cannot take it from him at all: Matoba’s fingers still hold tightly against the wrapping, a resistance that would request forcefulness to pull away from.
He lets go slowly. The weight of his hand vanishes, leaving the box as light as air.
Natori makes ample use of the en suite attached to his hotel room.
He runs himself a bath in the wide tub dug into the carrelage. He sniffs at the different soap and shampoo samples organized color by color on the spotless-white sink. He has already showered once after he came out of the woods, but the aches in his body are starting to make themselves known again. His left hand throbs unpleasantly when he unwraps the gauze around it.
The burn isn’t as bad as it had felt upon contact with the ayakashi. Its fear and hatred had consumed it and made touch painful to the human body, but to seriously hurt or scar so directly would require greater power than Natori can imagine. His skin is red and lightly-blistered, and the shadow that has taken his body as host tiptoes around the burn slowly, but it doesn’t look too bad.
The muscles of his arms and back ache more, frankly.
So he takes his time in the hot water, a cooling mask over his face, until at last his body loosens. Until he can roll his right shoulder or bend his left knee without feeling sore.
Hiiragi is the only one of his shiki still left when he comes back to the bedroom. Sasago had vanished the second the ayakashi was defeated, and Urihime stayed only long enough to appraise the reception hall and listen to the old man’s tale.
She is floating above the one and only chair in the room. Natori smiles at the sight—it’s as if she is trying to do as she saw people do for the past few hours, and failing unknowingly.
He sets his toiletry bag down onto the desk. “Did you have fun?” he asks her.
“It was not as boring as Sasago said,” she replies evenly.
Natori chuckles. He watches her fingers hover over the still-wrapped gift he had put there and forgotten about. Although he can tell that she is curious about its content, he knows that she will not ask what it is.
Natori isn’t sure he wants to know himself.
“You can go now if you want,” he tells her. “I don’t think there’s any more surprises in store.”
Her silhouette vanishes slowly, growing more and more translucent until even her outline is gone.
Natori sits on the bed with a sigh. The clock on his cellphone tells him that it isn’t eleven yet; he did not spend as long as he thought in the bathroom, enjoying the rare luxury of unlimited hot water. He goes through his emails with blurry eyes, takes off the untreated glasses he wears out of habit in any exorcist gathering, listens to his two voicemails. One of them is his agent wishing him a good weekend and apologizing for not seeing him yesterday. The other is advertisement.
He lets the phone fall onto the bedcover and lies down, staring at the ceiling.
Matoba Seiji is married, he thinks.
Matoba called him senpai, once. The memory comes to him as easily as blinking: the dark night of that very first meeting, the red cloth strung at the top of a tall tree. Matoba Seiji’s voice saying, Not bad.
Natori is only twenty-four. He doesn’t know how much younger than him Matoba is, though probably a year or so, no more. Twenty-three feels like such a young age to drink three times from three cups, to walk into the sun next to a woman in white. To hold oneself with as much poise as Matoba Seiji did all day.
She was happy, the old man had told him, speaking of a woman who must have died decades before Natori was born.
Will Natori look back to this day once he is old and wrinkled, and remember Matoba Seiji as happy?
His back itches, suddenly. His legs twitch with the need for movement. Natori pushes off of the bed and grabs the lightest of his jackets, the shoes he wore for the hunt, with half-thoughts of walking round the hotel grounds and the dirt paths outside until his body tires out. The key to his room gives a chime when he tears it out of the lock.
Matoba Seiji is standing behind his door.
One of his hands is raised to knock upon the panel. He lowers it almost absently, his eye fixed onto Natori’s, his mouth parted on no air.
“I was just,” Natori starts.
He finds no words to finish.
Matoba comes to before he does. He looks beyond Natori into the still-lit room, sweeps over it quickly. “You’ve left your gift behind,” he comments, “so I assume you weren’t about to disappear into the night.”
Natori’s grips around the door-handle tightens.
No, he thinks in a fright. “Yeah,” he says. “Come in.”
Matoba does so silently. Natori thinks too late to make room for him to go through the door; their bodies end up almost knocking together before he steps away, and even then Matoba’s arm touches his.
He finds himself paralyzed once Matoba is inside. Thoughts of closing the door or keeping it open war within his mind, each as unthinkable as the next.
Matoba seems to feel no such awkwardness: he stands directly by the desk, right next to the chair that Hiiragi occupied earlier in her odd near-human way, and puts a hand atop the gift-wrapped box he gave Natori earlier. “You haven’t opened it,” he says.
Natori closes the door. “It’s a little late. I was thinking I’d open it back home.”
“Aren’t you curious?”
No answer here feels like the right one. Saying no would be to lie, and saying yes as well. Telling Matoba that Natori feels the need for distance before he looks—because he is tired of the tension that grips him whenever he stands so close to Matoba, because he doesn’t know that what he’ll find within the box won’t pull him into staying—well. This would be too much like the truth.
Matoba doesn’t look offended by his lack of answer. He takes his hand off of the desk and turns to face Natori. The only light in the room comes from the yellow bedside lamp, and under its glow, his eyepatch once more shines goldly.
“I came here to thank you more properly,” Matoba says, “for your gift earlier.”
“You don’t have to.”
“I do. I couldn’t do it with so many people around, or they would have realized what it was.”
He means that people would have realized how foolish Natori was.
Matoba lifts a hand to his face. His fingers rub his forehead under the black strap of cloth there in a surprisingly vulnerable gesture. “I’ve had no time to properly read them yet, but I will, as soon as I can.” He adds, “I hadn’t expected anything like this. Thank you.”
It gives Natori enough confidence to step away from the door. “Take your time,” he replies. “They say a married man is thrice as busy as before.”
Matoba’s smile at those words looks almost shaky.
“How is Natsume-kun?” he asks all of a sudden, and just like this, the odd tension is back.
“Why do you ask?” Natori replies.
“I assumed he didn’t reply to my invitation because you told him not to. Was I wrong?”
Natori doesn’t answer, which is as good as a confession.
Matoba hums. “It’s just as well,” he murmurs. “I don’t think he would have enjoyed the hunt very much, though I’ve no doubt that he would have won it. It would have been quite the sight…”
“Did you come here to talk to me about Natsume, Matoba-san?” Natori asks.
For barely a second—in the lapse of time it takes for Natori to look between Matoba’s hands and his face—Matoba stills.
“No,” he replies, just a tad too late. “No, I did not.”
Silence stretches between them. Leaves rub together in the wind, the rustling sound carrying through the open window. Cool air reaches the collar of Natori’s cotton shirt and draws goosebumps out of his skin.
“You don’t need to thank me,” Natori says again. He feels at the thin edge of hot and cool, of tired and wide-awake. He feels like glass marred with break lines, a hit away from shattering. “I know you’ve been busy. You should go get some rest.”
You should go back to your wife, he doesn’t add.
“Won’t you open it?” Matoba asks.
His hand once more touches the box atop Natori’s desk.
Natori crosses the distance between them in a handful of steps. Matoba makes room for him almost immediately, moving out of his trajectory in a way Natori only now notices has become familiar, expected even. Whenever they meet, Matoba greets him. Wherever Natori goes, Matoba makes way.
The gift is still as light as it was when Natori first grabbed it. He unwraps it without tearing the paper and finds a flat wooden box within, shaped almost like a book, its sides near as thin as paper. The motifs on it are hand-painted. Bits of color have washed away with time and left only the green and black outlines of flowers.
When he slides open the top of it, he is met with a stack of paper.
They are letters, he thinks at first; but then not only that. His fingers brush through pages and pages of notes, some still in their envelopes, some barred through and discarded. He finds several pages clipped together with thread and reads only enough of them to recognize them as stories.
Stories short and long, all of them unfinished, annotated by the same hand which wrote them. Some cover pages and pages of the same size. Others pick up and continue, it seems, on scraps of paper torn from books, on the backs of old missives. On shikigami paper.
She used to send me beautiful letters.
“Why are you doing this?” Natori asks.
He feels as if the room around him is lacking air. His injured hand shakes when he closes the box again, and not even the sight of an unsmiling Matoba—of Matoba looking earnest, looking almost pained—is enough to stay him this time.
“What do you want?” Natori says. Hot and cold, tired and wide-awake. “Why am I here? What do you want from me?”
“Nothing,” Matoba says.
Natori chuckles emptily. “Like I’ll believe that after today,” he retorts. “After everything.”
After Matoba’s hand in his collar, pulling him away from the path of the grieved ayakashi; after the sight of him laid upon the ground and laughing, his bleeding hand on his heart; after each and every time he has looked at Natori, spoken to Natori, moved toward Natori in body or in mind.
“Who was she,” Natori ends up saying. He sees now, looking down, that the box bears her name: Natori Riyo. “Who was she to you?”
“No one. She died long before I was born.”
Natori puts the box down so slowly and carefully, he barely feels when it touches the desktop. “You wanted me to talk to that man during dinner,” he says.
“I did,” Matoba admits.
Matoba walks to the open window. His movements are no less sharp for the wide hakama he wears. Daylight stays for so long now that the sky outside is still just short of deep blue, still only pale enough for his face to be rid of shadows.
“Records of Natori Riyo are few and far-between,” he says. “I know her only via the genealogies I was taught when I was young, and then through a few mentions here and there. She was an exorcist of the Natori clan.”
“I gathered as much, thank you.”
Matoba smiles. He is still looking outside. “There’s nothing special about her,” he goes on. “She got married. Had a child who died too young. Then she spent the last of her days in Sapporo with her husband, who outlived her by a decade. I don’t think your grandparents even knew her.”
Matoba says, “She liked to write.”
And Natori can see no reason why he should say this, no reason why he should gift him the fruit of, probably, months of research, in the form of Natori Riyo’s never-born stories and letters. He can’t understand any of it, the box or the old man, the letters and stories, until Matoba meets his eyes again.
Until he does.
“Why do you,” he begins; but he knows better, doesn’t he.
He knows better than to ask this question out loud. No matter how many times it has flickered through his mind in the months leading to the wedding, in the hours since Matoba said, I hope you enjoy yourself.
Matoba is the one to moves toward him. Natori is too paralyzed with the realization of Matoba’s convoluted way of telling him to be happy, his chest too tight and painful, to wish to avoid him. His blood seems to jump through his veins when Matoba takes his injured hand in his and turns it palm-up to expose the blisters to light.
“This should be gone within two weeks,” he says. His voice is soft enough to be a whisper, but Natori knows he would hear from a mile away, just as he would have felt Matoba’s eye on him across the wide reception hall.
“You were burned more than I was,” he replies.
“Of course. It would be quite in bad taste to have my guests injured more than me.”
Natori exhales something like laughter. He has never felt less like laughing.
The outside of the gauze wound around Matoba’s fingers is dry, its touch uncomfortable against the still-singeing burn in Natori’s palm. When Matoba tries to take his hand way, Natori grabs his wrist.
For the second time today, Matoba looks at him in wonder.
It is easy enough to unwind the bandages. Natori only needs to press open the clips keeping them tied and then unroll them one by one. He does so in silence, his blood beating past his temples and warming up his neck, until both of Matoba’s palms are exposed. The burns on them are, indeed, deeper than Natori’s. The white and smooth inside of his fingers is red even on his right hand’s pinky. His skin is greasy from the cream applied on it, and two spots of his left hand are still seeping drops of blood.
“Whose idea was it to organize something so dangerous for a wedding?” Natori asks the swollen silence.
His thumb strokes and presses the center of Matoba’s palm. He can still feel softness there in-between calluses, even if most of it has grown hard and dry through years of relentless training.
Matoba’s other hand, the bleeding one, escapes out of Natori’s hold. It grabs Natori’s collar, shaking almost as badly as the old man’s did. His only visible eye glows and glistens in the dark, like those of the lone shiki who err after their oblivious masters, like Natsume’s eyes do when his mind folds unto itself at whatever it is he is the only one to see.
“It’s my wedding,” he replies.
It sounds so well-rehearsed, so often-told. Like Matoba has had to say it over and over again as a last line of defense ever since he was born.
Guilt is what Natori feels when he grabs onto the silky hair at Matoba’s nape, and guilt again pushes him forward, pushes him past the shattering point until the only thing he has to bite is Matoba’s own mouth.
Guilt doesn’t go further than that.
Matoba almost falls into it entirely. A shaking second goes by in which he seems to have lost sense of gravity and Natori’s hand in his hair is the one thing keeping him up. Natori feels him shudder, feels him shake, in the moment it takes for full reciprocation to bloom. He feels Matoba’s burned skin against his neck and does not think of being strangled, feels his dry lips open and does not think of being eaten alive.
Natori kisses him through the swaying, kisses him through the inexperience. Matoba’s face warms and reddens, and Natori doesn’t pull away. Matoba’s body clings to his uncontrollably, and Natori pushes into it, bends and lowers the neck, doesn’t stop. Doesn’t let go.
He is the one that night to pull off Matoba’s haori. He is the one to tug upon the string holding the hakama to his waist, to tear away the wedding clothes and christen this hotel, this land, with Matoba’s moaning. There is a bereft wife somewhere inside another moonlit room, and Natori is taking her naked husband to his bed.
The thought, however absent-minded, burns within him. It makes his fingers press into Matoba’s skin until bloodlessness paints it white. Little red spots appear over Matoba’s ribs and in-between his thighs.
He’s so skinny. Long-limbed, lean and taut, like his skin is only ever a second away from tearing open. It doesn’t matter how often Natori has seen him wield bow and arrow or wrestle spirits to the ground. Laid over creased sheets and divested of all clothes, Matoba Seiji looks vulnerable.
What do you want from me?
He has always known, hasn’t he. He always knew what the scrawny teenager in black wanted.
He knows what he refused himself on that riverbank all those years ago.
“Shuuichi,” Matoba says, his mouth pressed just under Natori’s ear.
His voice is rough as Natori has never heard it before. He has already come once under Natori’s pressing hands, looking like a feline in possession of a fat mouse, and still his body clings to Natori’s from breast to hip to leg. Still he sounds as if greed is moving through his lungs rather than air.
Each kiss he offers Natori feels like drinking out of the ceremonial cup. Once, twice, three times.
Natori can do nothing but watch as Matoba arches beneath him, his scarred skin sewn with moonlight, the cloth around his eye so loosened by friction that it barely hides anything. He doesn’t look there anyway; who could stare at Matoba Seiji’s hidden eye when they have him naked, when every time Natori moves Matoba’s chest shudders and beats under his palms? He strokes Matoba’s sweat-slick skin until his own wound burns. He pins Matoba’s wrists to the bedding rather than hold his hands, knowing that the burns there would ache and take away from pleasure.
Matoba’s hips are made of cutting bone, of skin stretched so taut over them that a caress feels like enough to wound. Natori bruises himself on them when he takes him. Matoba looks—lost, or perhaps only brittle, under the weight of his body. His hands roam up and down Natori’s back despite their open wounds. His mouth, when not on Natori’s mouth, pants and whimpers by his neck wetly.
Natori doesn’t need to ask him to know that he’s never done this before, one way or the other. He thinks he knew before even touching him. It is the reason why the name that escapes him with orgasm is not Matoba, but Seiji.
Matoba looks at him from his halo of black hair, with his red and damp face, with his mouth still open. Natori strokes it with his left hand once and fleetingly. Salt makes the heel of his palm sting. His fingers cover Matoba’s eye long enough for Natori not to see what he knows he will.
The ache in his back is different, now, than it was when he pulled the arrow out of the spirit; but Matoba looks the same laid upon his sheets as he did on the ravaged forest ground when Natori pulls out of him.
He kneels up above Matoba. He looks down at him while his breathing steadies and the sweat cools over his back. Matoba’s eyes are closed. His lips are stretched into a smile.
This is, Natori thinks, what he has tried to stave off since the very first day they met. Since Matoba first followed him. Since that day on the riverbed, saying a boy’s name in secret.
This is what it means to surrender to Matoba Seiji.
Breakfast is served to the guests in the hotel’s actual restaurant this time. It’s an old-fashioned place meant for seating way fewer guests than the hall they used for dinner, and fewer of them there are, dispersed through the hotel ground and nursing hangovers. Natori counts thirty of them around him only. Some must still be sleeping upstairs and waking with the sun. Others have left already.
There are no seating arrangements here, so Natori grabs some coffee and then goes outside to drink it. He watches the sunlight bead grass and flowers with gold. Trees plow under the rising wind, and he can see to the west the forest where he hunted yesterday.
People come trickling out one after the other.
Matoba isn’t long to show up either.
He looks proper in every way. He greets his guests with a smile, suffers what must be quite a few comments from the more loose-tongued of the bunch. His wife is by his side again, dressed in a sweet sundress. The gold and silver bracelets at her wrists knock together with a charming sound every time she moves.
Natori looks behind himself. Nanase is standing there with a cool smile on her lips. She holds a grease-stained paperbag in one hand.
“For you,” she says, handing it over. Natori takes it silently. “The croissants here are marvelous, and I refuse to let a single guest go without one considering the price we paid for the pastry chef.”
“Ah,” Natori lets out. He shakes out his stupor. “Thank you. I didn’t think to try them.”
“You and the rest of that lot. This is no time to be awake.”
“I imagine you have work lined up after this.”
Nanase’s smile thins. “I’ll have to accompany him on his honeymoon,” she says. “There is quite a bit of business to make in Okinawa, now that the Ohta clan has opened its doors to us.”
“Are they actually going to take a break?”
Natori didn’t mean to ask it. He has felt loosened and weak since the moment he woke up, and he did not get much sleep. Not even the sight of Matoba coming out of the doors earlier was enough to make him startle.
Matoba left his room almost immediately after the both of them were done last night. He picked up his clothes in silence, still smiling, asking nothing of Natori at all. Not even to use his bathroom.
He bid Natori good night. He opened and closed the door himself. Natori sat on his hotel bed for a long time after he was gone, looking at Natori Riyo’s painted box over the desk, looking at his own hands and wondering why he could not feel anymore the shape of Matoba’s sharp body.
“She will,” Nanase says, breaking him out of his thoughts. “She has family and friends there to entertain her. Matoba-san has already warned her that he’ll be too busy to spend much time with her.”
Natori is not mellowed and hopeless enough not to feel shame.
“Are they,” he starts.
Nanase brings her coffee to her lips. She does not look at him, only at the couple a dozen meters away currently bidding their guests goodbye. Natori doesn’t think he is imagining the fondness in her eyes.
“Matoba-san,” she says, “will put his duty above everything else.”
But Matoba did not. Not when he invited Natori here and not when he abandoned his wife in the woods to find him. Not when he gathered Natori Riyo’s lost writings for the purpose of making Natori happy. Not when he invited that old man to sit by him and tell him of his clan.
Not when his hips and hands dug bruises into Natori’s skin and he panted and he wept and looked ready to devour every second with the greed of a thousand gods.
Nanase looks at him, and Natori knows that she knows.
“It’s been a pleasure to see you again,” she tells him. “We hope to continue working alongside you in the future.”
“Of course,” Natori replies.
She walks away, tall and sharp as a spear, until she is by Matoba’s side. His blind side.
Natori makes his way to his car slowly. Heat is starting to gather above the night-cool ground. Already the jacket he put on when he went down for breakfast feels stuffy, and although he cannot feel the ayakashi on his skin, he knows he will find it somewhere on his neck or face, basking into the sun. He drinks the last of his coffee and throws the paper cup into a bag he keeps for that purpose beneath the passenger seat. He sits down, turns on the ignition, opens the windows. Sets his bag down beside him.
He drives to the gate where Matoba Seiji and Shinobu are waiting, standing side by side and not touching at all.
“Thank you for coming,” Shinobu says with a deep bow. Her pleasant smile and voice cover the background noise of Natori’s car radio, which he let play on low volume while he was driving here yesterday. “We hope to see you again soon.”
We, not I. As if his life belongs to her, the difference being too trivial to mention.
Matoba meets Natori’s eyes above her back and nape.
“Thank you,” Natori says. “For the gift.”
Matoba’s smile widens. “It was nothing,” he replies. “If you ever get the time, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the stories.”
Natori’s hand finds the bag he has put on the passenger seat. It traces through it the shape of Natori Riyo’s box.
“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, I’ll tell you.”
Shinobu rises again. It is not so easy anymore to look at Matoba with her standing between them, so Natori turns to the road in front of him. He doesn’t hear the parting words he gives them, or those Matoba replies with. He doesn’t feel his feet and hands drive the car out of the alley.
The countryside lengthens before him infinitely. The blue sky overhead is near as clear as water. Cool wind tangles in his hair almost like human hands, louder than the music he plays or the occasional buzzing of his phone.
Natori drives through it all feeling like the chest whose arrow was pulled out of is his.