“I’m looking for someone I can use,” Matoba Seiji says the first time they meet. His eyes are lit strangely by the torchlight behind them and the moment seems to carry a strange weight. Around them, the masked monsters are perfectly silent and still as they watch their exchange, before they’re distracted by the red kimono caught on a tree, which is, yes, a little odd.
Shuuichi catches a glimpse of him again, on his way out of the meeting—he’s alone, a dark silhouette perched in the window, with his eyes fixed pointedly on Shuuichi. He looks, in all definitions of the word, hungry.
Whatever. Shuuichi doubts he’ll run into the kid again.
Shuuichi runs into the kid again when he’s being ambushed by a giant flying mophead youkai. By its three horns, he recognizes it as the youkai responsible for injuring Takuma, and he’s still fumbling with an talisman when a whip of light lashes it from the tree line. It lurches away, outraged, as the Matoba kid hops out of the bushes.
“I almost had it,” he says, breathless. He stares after the youkai with delight, clutching a handful of paper talismans. “Are you after it too? Then, do you want to work with me?”
In the daylight, Matoba looks less mysterious and powerful than he had the night before and more like the last pick in gym class, or an eager puppy, with his toothy smile and large ears and school uniform. He looks like a nerd.
“Fine,” Shuuichi says, surprising them both. “I guess.”
Matoba's smile grows even wider. It feels like being punched in the face. “Great. Tell me, what do you know about water youkai?”
Nothing, is the answer, so the next thirty minutes become a crash course on more obscure river youkai and fire-based sealing circles. Matoba is arrogant, but willing to share his knowledge, casually describing youkai and exorcists Natori has never even heard of before. Natori listens attentively. After about twenty minutes of lecture, he starts asking questions. Rather than betraying his lack of learning and turning Matoba away, the questions seems to delight him, and he even takes to demonstrating simple techniques and drawing diagrams out in his geometry notebook.
As they talk, Matoba sends up an odd paper doll to find the creature without luck and they circle twice through the woods without any luck.
“It must have run off for now, but it will be back soon.” Matoba tears out the scribbled notes—sacrificing an entire page on trigonometry—and hands it to Shuuichi. “Want to meet here on Saturday?”
Shuuichi considers. Matoba is looking up at him with an expression that’s half smile, half smirk. He is, Shuuichi notes with satisfaction, a few centimeters shorter than Shuuichi.
“I can bring some diagrams for the Okinawan reverse water sigil,” Matoba says hopefully.
“Fine,” Shuuichi agrees. He scowls a bit for good measure. It will give him time to figure out the three-point fire circle thing, at least.
Shuuichi holes up in the storehouse for the rest of the week, weeding through the old manuscripts for useful spells. He lies about an art project to buy ten bottles of black ink, a clay pot, and several reams of parchment from the only craft store in town. He finds vanity glasses at the pharmacy, which he takes to wearing on his walks to school, easily picking out smaller youkai he had not noticed before.
On Saturday, he arrives at the line of jizō statues to find Matoba Seiji perched at the end of the row like a stray cat.
“No sign of it so far,” Matoba says, jumping down to stand next to him. He looks even more carefree and young in a hoody and sneakers. A long, thin sports bag is slung over one shoulder. “What’s in your bag? You look prepared for a war.”
Shuuichi scowls. He’s aware he may have over-prepared and he doesn’t want Matoba to mock him, but he shows him the contents of his bag anyway.
“I wasn’t sure what would work.”
“The incense is overkill, but this is good quality paper,” Matoba says, examining everything with a nod. “Although with enough practice, you could probably get a spell to work with tissue paper, if you wanted. Natoris have always been notoriously good with paper—it’s said they could use it communicate with the gods.”
Shuuichi blinks, surprised and pleased by that tidbit of information. “What on earth did they have to say to the gods?”
Matoba stops short and looks at Shuuichi. Then he laughs, loud enough that Shuuichi starts to feel cross with him again.
Shuuichi huffs. “Alright, don’t tell me.”
“No, no, it’s a valid question! I’m not sure I know the answer though. Maybe some kind of negotiation or stewardship.” Matoba wipes his eyes, grinning. “There aren’t as many gods around these days, and humanity has mostly lost touch.”
“Oh.” Shuuichi files this away for the future, then asks, “What’s in the bag, anyway?”
Matoba glances at the long bag on his shoulder. “It’s a bow that break apart and folds down.”
“Archery?” Shuuichi is surprised. “You don’t really strike me as especially athletic.”
“How dare you,” Matoba says, perfectly bland. “I use it for exorcisms, anyway. With luck, you’ll get to see it soon enough.”
In the end, they visit Takuma, who apparently lives nearby. The older exorcist scolds them over tea and sesame pudding and tells them not to do anything needlessly dangerous. They sit shoulder to shoulder on the same side of the table and shamelessly promise to behave.
Then they go to the border of Watanose and Umaaraizuka. They find a road along the river where the youkai is most frequently spotted and settle down to wait along a low stone wall. In the distance, the sky is a flawless blue, which the river echoes back. It’s a pretty spot.
He sighs, running a hand through his hair, only to feel another hand else tug at it away. Shuuichi stills.
Matoba pulls his hand closer to himself and peers at it. “What’s with your lizard anyway?”
As if sensing the attention, the lizard darts from Shuuichi’s palm. Matoba turns Shuuichi’s hand to find the lizard sprawled across his knuckles, amused. “I’ve never seen a curse like this before.”
“Let go,” Shuuichi breathes.
Surprised, Matoba does. He holds his hands up in surrender, perhaps sensing the alarm in Shuuichi’s voice. “Just curious,” he soothes. “We don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”
At his knuckles, the lizard flicks a tongue and crawls to his wrist. Natori feels it distantly, like condensation dripping under his skin. He twists his wrist, trying to startle it, but the lizard settles like a stubborn bracelet. Matoba watches with undisguised interest.
“Do you feel it when it moves?”
Shuuichi shrugs. “A little. It’s like... when sweat runs down your back? But under the skin. Mostly I don’t notice it though.”
Matoba hums. It’s obvious he wants to ask more questions, but Shuuichi doesn’t care. He shakes out his sleeve and crosses his arms. Sensing the end of the conversation, Matoba changes tracks, and starts telling Shuuichi about local youkai. It’s less frenetic than his last lesson—mostly anecdotes, clearly intended to inform without condescending—so Shuuichi settles in to listen.
The creature appears just as the sun begins to set, drawn by a pair of amateur exorcists. Sealing it is quick, with a fire circle incantation and one well-timed arrow.
(Exorcism by arrow proves to be incredibly cool. Shuuichi is never going to let Matoba know it.)
“You know, Matoba,” Shuuichi says, dropping down next to him on the grass. “You’re kind of a nerd.”
Matoba splutters. It’s so uncharacteristic for such an arrogant know-it-all that Shuuichi bursts into laughter and keeps laughing, clutching his side and wheezing on the ground. After a week of stress and research and neglected sleep, it’s cathartic.
He wipes his eyes to find Matoba looking at him with a weird mixture of fascination and disdain.
“You can call me Seiji, you know,” Matoba says, blowing his hair out of his eyes.
Shuuichi is quiet. He hasn’t been on a first name basis with anyone since grade school. “Fine. Then, you can call me Shuuichi, I guess.”
Seiji beams at him. “Shuuichi-chan?”
Shuuichi leaves, already regretful.
Of course, Seiji receives most of the credit for sealing the youkai. It rankles Shuuichi, but he tries not to let it show.
“Sorry,” Seiji says. He looks as insincere as ever, but Shuuichi is starting to suspect that’s just how Seiji always looks.
“It’s fine,” Shuuichi says. He imagines squashing the ugly jealousy in his chest with his history textbook until it squelches into jealousy jelly. It does, actually, make him feel a little better. “I’m not doing it for attention, anyway.”
Seiji flops down next to him on the window seat. “What are you doing it, then?”
Shuuichi still isn’t sure of that, himself. He remembers Takuma saying, I want to protect people if I can. I want to exorcise them of their fear. He remembers the axe-wielding shiki, who had wanted his dying exorcist to be happy. He thinks of the lizard crawling its way across his fingers, of his father. He struggles to find the right words for it. “I want to be good at something, I think.”
Uncharacteristically, Seiji is quiet beside him.
Feeling foolish, Shuuichi huffs. “What about you, why do you want to be an exorcist?”
Shuuichi looks at Seiji, and finds him leaning against the window with his eyes closed, neatly framed in a square of sun.
Or at least, apparently. Shuuichi squints at Seiji, deeply suspicious. “Are you just pretending to be asleep right now?” After the last week of working with the kid, Shuuichi is familiar with Seiji’s tendencies towards manipulation and needlessly absurd strategies to get what he wants. That, and no one can fall asleep that quickly.
Seiji doesn’t twitch. Shuuichi watches, but Seiji remains motionless, his breathing even and slow.
Well, Shuuichi supposes, removing his glasses to rub at his eyes, it doesn’t matter. He’ll find out eventually, and anyway, he’s tired too.
He leans back against the window and turns his face up to the sun.
Shuuichi expects that to be the end of their collaboration. As the heir to Matoba clan, Seiji has all the resources and manpower he could need for tracking down stray youkai, so it’s a surprise when, a week later, Sumi tells him he has a call on the landline.
"Shuu-kun," Seiji greets.
“How did you get this number?” Shuuichi hisses into the landline phone. The entryway not his favorite part of the house, since sound echoes to any of the adjacent rooms and up the stairwell, and it’s tricky to see anything but the stairwell. It’s easy to be surprised or eavesdropped on, but the only other phone is in his father’s office, and he’s definitely not going there.
“It was in the phone book,” Seiji says innocently. Shuuichi can tell that he’s smiling, even if he can’t see him. “Why, did you not want me to call? If this is a bad time I could always call back later—”
God, no. That would be worse, probably. “It’s fine.” A headache pinches his temples, so Shuuichi pushes his glasses up to rub his eyes. “What do you want?”
It comes out sharper than he intended. Shuuichi winces. On the other end of the line, there’s a chilly pause.
When Seiji speaks again his voice sounds more neutral and placid than before. Businesslike. “I have an exorcism you might find interesting, in Kita Park. Apparently anyone who leaves offerings at a shrine there goes blind for a day. Curious, yes?”
Shuuichi presses his back against the wall and leans as far as the phone cord will allow, where he can see a sliver of his father’s office door. It’s closed. Sumi, he can tell, is pretending not to eavesdrop in the kitchen. “Why not just deal with it on yourself?”
“We work well together, don’t you think?”
Shuuichi hums doubtfully.
“And I found a old manual on preparing ink for exorcisms that you'd enjoy,” Seiji says. “I could bring it. If you're interested.”
The cool indifference does nothing to hide Seiji's eagerness. Most likely, the nerd has never had to lie a day in his life. Shuuichi sighs.
“Fine, fine, fine," Shuuichi says, surprising no one.
Seiji’s smile on the other end of the line must be a sharp, pleased thing. "Great!" Seiji says, suddenly chipper. "Friday, after school, at the park?"
"Wait, what are we—"
"Bring snacks," Seiji continues, "also dried lotus root and wild chrysanthemum buds."
"What? No, I don't—"
Seiji hangs up.
"Ugghh." Shuuichi drops the receiver so he can air-strangle an invisible Seiji. "Little nerd—!"
It does, actually, make him feel better.