Hasetsu did not often see cold storms like this. Wild winds and whipping rain, yes, even broiling fogs off the sea. The snow tended to come in mild exhales, at least nearer to the shore and at the lowlands. The tall mountains stirred their own trouble, pitching it down on gentler folks at their feet. But with global climate change, people all across the world were slowly adjusting to extremes and lurking storms.
A clash of fronts was the sudden alarm raised by the meteorologists.
“Yuuri, you’ll have to help us bring in the statues and ornaments from the baths. I don’t want anything damaged by this storm,” Toshiya called out to his son. The TV glimmered, swaths of red and green storm front clouds chasing across Japan’s coastline. A surprise storm, out of nowhere!
Yuuri, rinsing dishes with his mother, leaned against the sink to look out the window. A dark sky crawled like murder. That was the last thing they needed. If the weather really turned sour, Minako and Yuuko would both close their respective businesses. Minako wouldn’t dream of having her student out to the studio and Yuuko had no reason to even unlock the rink for the zero skaters that would come. And so, there went Yuuri’s fun and his jobs.
He was an instructor at the dance studio and Ice Castle, part time at each. Minako had him run the beginners courses for a few different rounds of students while Takeshi had hired Yuuri back when Yuuko had gotten pregnant and in the subsequent time following the delivery as she raised her rambunctious triplets. This busyness, combined with helping his parents at Yu-topia, kept Yuuri in check. He biked or ran all around town, kept his body moving, his days full, and this….usually helped put him to bed. His quiet and small life in his hometown couldn’t swallow him with its vague emptiness at night if he made himself tired enough.
Just looking at the clouds roll in boded ill for Katsuki Yuuri.
It hailed. At first cloud break, the sky shattered and dropped pellets at them, making the roofs sound like tin and toys. Then, the temperature caught up with the atmosphere and the hail shivered into sleet and then snow, back and forth. The wind picked up, sliced around the mountains, and the ocean groaned awake, dredging up the belly aches of volcanoes so that the air smelled not of boiling salt but of sulphur and animal, like hot oil that cooled quick with ones cold breaths, settling on the tongue thickly. It was unthinkable weather. The baths steamed meekly, bullied by what came from on high. The guests staying at Yu-Topia were cowed, grumbling softly, gathered at windows to watch. It stormed for two days, relentless, shaking. The slats of Yu-Topia rang and rang with the weather.
Hiroko broke out kotatsus and filled the inn with the smell of cooking. Yosenabe because the closer markets and grocers had been wiped of goods. She had to make do and she did. Yu-topia was impenetrable, her good will and fat smile enough to put even the orneriest of men at ease.
“It’s seriously weird,” Mari commented, sipping on a cold beer. She and Yuuri were up after most of the patrons had gone to bed and the cleaning was done. The storage closet was packed with pretty much everything the two of them could possible lug inside. With their dad’s bad back and mom needing to keep the place running, it was a lucky thing they had two helpful kids! A cooler of beer and a box of karinto dad had found somewhere (Yuuri stopped himself from searching for an indication of its date) were their just rewards.
“I guess it’s better it started as rain otherwise we’d be shoveling snow for days,” Yuuri mumbled around the aluminum lip of his beer. “If it lets up tomorrow, I’m going to check on the rink. Yuuko’s worried about the power lines but Takeshi doesn’t want her going out.”
“What, so they’re sending you?” Mari eyeballs her baby brother. “What a dedicated coach, baby bro.”
“They have a family. At least if I trip and die in the ice, I’m not leaving behind anyone,” Yuuri reasons with puffed cheeks. He flicks the tab on his can, its ring dull and short, and chugs the rest, belching loudly thereafter. Someone’s got to do it.
That night in bed, Yuuri couldn’t sleep. Instead, he watched and rewatched his friend Phichit’s routines posted on his Instagram. Yuuri had met the Thai skater by chance right out of college when Phichit and his family had been on a brief vacation in Japan. They’d stopped by Ice Castle so their son, who was in professional skating, could practice a little. Phichit had been so kind and bubbly, even Yuuri was enamored by the easy friendship, even if it was now relegated to digital. He likes to think he’s a grounding presence for Phichit, someone outside of the world of ice skating who still knows all the technical terms.
‘I see you cyber stalking me Yuuri’ Phichit DM’d him. Yuuri rolled over in bed, squinting at his phone. ‘Why are you awake?’
‘I could say the same thing for you’ Yuuri typed back. He ached with a depressive fatigue that wouldn’t let him lay comfortably even as his eyes burned for sleep. Small. He had a small life. He just wanted to watch his friend go on to his dreams in the dark of his bedroom.
Yuuri doesn’t trip and fall and die. He doesn’t even need his umbrella. The storm looms overhead, mellowed; the sun tries and fails to break through, but it isn’t near-night with darkness. There are few cars passing by; some people wave at Yuuri. Locals. A tourist asks for directions. The weather is passing and people return to their lives. The ice had just been a pause, a breath; nothing could quiet the busy hum of daily chore.
It took longer than normal to get to Ice Castle, Yuuri taking a leisurely pace. He wouldn’t want to slip on the lingering ice. Farther into the town, at the main center, workers were scraping and salting. He’d hope for it to melt naturally but the temperature had taken a steady low. Without the wind, the sea was slate. Yuuri paused crossing in cross the small bridge that traversed an inlet, looking out across a monochrome of gray.
“Takeshi?” Yuuri rang from inside Ice Castle. “H-hey. Everything’s good at the rink….mhmm. No damage that I saw. I really didn’t’ see much other than some branches brought down…Yes, I’m skating. I came out here, I thought I’d….yes…I’m testing the ice’s integrity. Yes! Okay, Takeshi. Talk to you tomorrow.”
Yuuri slid his phone back into the pocket of his coat hanging over the wall of the rink. He pushed off, gliding with a shallow scratch of noise. He had turned on the lights to make sure none of the wiring had gotten damaged, not that’d he’d have any clue what to do if it had other than told Takeshi. With such a cloudy day, Yuuri could get away with opening the skylight, and he wanted to, but no telling if there was ice up on the roof that might mess it up. He made due with the outer lights, pale yellows melting under the blades of his skates.
When Takeshi had become the manager, granted a lot of control by a distant and non-present owner who swept up the income and managed the licensing but little else, Takeshi had lobbied for a glass ceiling. And he’d gotten it. Above the rink, panes of glass let the sky open up over the ice. They covered it during the day so the sun wouldn’t melt the ice, but now they hosted night skates and special skates for firework shows. Lights along the inside of the wall would paint colors, but the stars would be above, kissing down at them. In The winter, with the early sunsets, Yuuri found himself under the stars and moon almost everyday, caught in the middle of two glistening planes.
He passed a few laps in silence, swaying and dancing figure eights. He loved the solitude but wouldn’t risk too much footwork and certainly no jumps without someone else at the rink. Safety first! he taught his students. Ice Castle did okay but the bleachers never filled for anything more than local competitions or kids loitering and chattering while they took breaks. It did just as well as his parents’ onsen, Yuuri guessed. It did just as well as any small business in Hasetsu. It endured. It was doing better than the past, actually, with the brain power and love of the Nishigoris pumping into its creative energies. They hosted all kinds of skating events. And Yuuri was a proper skating coach, just about. He was hoping to get some full-time students soon, hopefully. Maybe. He got them good enough for coaches in major cities to swing by and sweep them away to better schools and scholarships and promises of futures if they sweated out their youth. The social media page for Ice Castle boasted lots of little rising stars for the pride of Japan, and though Hasetsu was a name just finding its way back onto people’s lips and into travel pamphlets and websites, his town still had a long way to go to flourishing. Ends were met.
The ringing of his phone broke Yuuri from his pensive thoughts.
“Coming, coming, sshh,” he whispered to his phone. “Ah, Mari… Hello?”
“Oh, good, you’re not dead,” his sister greeted dryly. “That’s all. Get home, mom’s worrying.”
She hung up. Yuuri hung his head, laughing briefly. Such love his family held for him.
Yuuri headed home, the world just as he’d left it: still and poised, like a held breath. He expected a cloud burst by night, a heavy saturation in the air pressing against his cheek like a lover’s temper.
Just as he’d looked out at the ocean as he crossed the bridge headed towards Ice Castle, so again did he leaving. But this time, there was a bullet hole fracture in the layers of gray. Below the bridge and towards the road, washed in by the licking tongue of the waves and now pitifully crushed on the rocky bank, lay some creature of feather. Yuuri froze, struck by the sad image. It laid perfectly whole, white feathers well and truly dirty with mud, not a speck of red to be seen. A morbid and childish curiosity kept him looking, leaning into the rail of the bridge to peer down for some indication of species.
Two great wings unfurled in a fit, surprising Yuuri. He gasped out into the day.
“Hang on!” he called to the bird; the sound of stiff feathers battling against the stoic bank caught to his ears. Hopping in place, searching for the best route down, he eventually had to run to the edge of the bridge and slip underneath the guard rail of the road. His momentum sent him scrabbling downward, body falling and legs barely keeping up, his trainers squelching in wet earth and ankles daring his fool headedishness to push them into more treacherous territory so they could give out and thwart his noble goals. He landed gracelessly beside the bird, heaving for breath and shaking.
“H-hey, stop, you’re gonna hurt yourself,” Yuuri advised, hands up and hovering. The struggle of its wings ceased and a long sender neck uncurled, rose; a black face peered at Yuuri, small beaded eyes aglow with a frightening clarity of mind. “A swan?”
Yuuri scrambled backwards despite his heroic intentions. He’s seen swans and geese for for people’s ankles and knees with monstrous conviction. Phichit himself was even the source of Yuuri’s knowledge about their small needly-like mouths. But the creature didn’t hiss or spit or squawk. It stared.
“Get a hold of yourself, Yuuri!” Yuuri put a hand to his forehead, groaning. The swan finally tooted at him. Yuuri thrust a finger at it, not exactly the calming gesture the situation called for. “I’m going to rescue you so don’t bite me. Don’t bite me. Don’t bite me. Nice swan. Good swan. Dirty swan, gosh, you poor thing.”
Yuuri kept up his narration as he picked the swan up; he couldn’t decide if it was heavier or lighter than he expected. “You’re a turkey,” he found himself appraising, cradling the thing in his arms. It swung its dark face around to him again and this would surely be when he lost his nose or an eye or his entire life but the thing gave a squeaky honk and curled its neck into its back and compacted itself in his arms. “You must be really sick if you’re not screaming,” Yuuri worried. “Oh, shit, how am gonna get you to a vet? Are you dying? Nothing looked broken.”
Maybe it’d be best to take it home first and get Mari to give him a ride. Yes, duh, he had to. He didn’t even know where there was a clinic or if one would be open.
Yuuri looks down at the swan, cradled in his arms. He could make it home carrying it but it’d be a close call. And, oh gosh…getting back up the bank. Yuuri said a prayer for grace and fortune and picked his way back up the steep incline, trying not to jostle the poor bird. And…he made it. He ducked under the rail, blinking in surprise at his own capabilities. And not a minute later walking did Minako pull to a stop beside him.
“How did you manage to end up like this?” she called from the open window.
“Get in, Yuuri.”
“You must be a lucky swan,” Yuuri whispered to the bird. It tooted softly. “And smart. Huh.”
He got in the car and at Minako’s demanding eyebrow, explained exactly what happened. She agreed; that was one lucky bird.
Until it got to the Katsuki’s.
“Let’s eat it,” Mari suggested, tapping ash out into the thin dusting of snow now quietly building.
“We‘re not eating the swan,” Yuuri defended, cradling it to his chest and trying to hide it in his scarf. It honked in displeasure and made a fluttering motion with its wings, one rising and knocking into Yuuri‘s face, sending his glasses flying.
“What if we get snowed in here, huh, then we‘re eating it,” Mari teased maliciously, delighting in her brother‘s squinty-faced anger.
“Dad!” Yuuri cried. “Mari‘s smoking on the porch!”
“Yuuri,” Mari hissed.
“Mari, I better not find any butts out there!” their dad hollered out the window.
“You’re such a baby,” Mari snipped, stomping off the porch to smoke away from the onsen. Yuuri stuck his tongue out. He regretted chasing her away before she could hand him his glasses. He almost dropped the increasingly agitated swan trying to pick them off the ground, having to juggle it from arm to arm to bespecle himself once more.
“Is that dinner?” his dad asked upon seeing the swan.
“No! Why is everyone trying to eat this bird?” Yuuri wailed, fed up. “It washed up on the beach, okay?”
“Oh the poor thing. I bet he was someone’s pet or such and got blown away by that awful storm.” His mother swept in with all the love and concern Yuuri expected. “Go to the bathhouse and make it a warm bucket of water to clean up with. Find out what they eat too.”
“Pork katsudon,” Yuuri said hopefully. His mother smiled wider.
“We don’t have the ingredients,” she informed cheerfully. Yuuri sighed but he knew what was in the fridge too. Now he just hoped he could make it through the bathhouse without any hungry guests kidnapping this bird.
Yuuri stripped off in the bathhouse and sat on a stool, a warm bucket of water sloshing as he inched it a little closer. The bird was tightly curled once more, head staunchly tucked into its feathers.
“Hey, now, let me look at you,” Yuuri murmured soothingly. He had an old rag, sorry bird, and some dish soap. He knows people use it when birds get stuck in oil spills, and while he didn’t think that had happened, it would work just as well. Yuuri hummed and stretched his fingers gently at the swan’s head, trying to coax it out of hiding. When that failed, he bit his lip and risked his very life. “I’m going to touch your wings, okay?”
Then: he died.
No, he didn’t. He thought he would have, hand shaking and one eye shut in fear, but he carefully pried the wing away from the body, stretching it out with his hand. It was so much bigger than he expected, as long as his arm. Maybe there was oil on the swan…Seeing his chance, Yuuri got to work gingerly, washing the wing from the inside crook to the long stiff plumage that brushed the stone floor. He knew birds preened and distributed oils through their plumes, so he just had to get the worst of it off.
It took a long time because Yuuri, even though the swan didn’t make any noise or motions at him, worked carefully. Bending over from the stool put a hot burn in his back after so long, but he cleaned as much as he could of the swan, even picking it up and wiping at its underside. Its stillness alarmed him, so he cooed at it, narrating each of his motions and even drawing wild speculations and questions about its origins, its fortune, wishes for its well-being. He found himself after a time simply stroking its wet feathers, the bird in his lap. From the glass windows, he watched snow fall, gather on the rocks but vanish into the spring.
“You can stay here, until the spring. Or forever. Up to you, swan.” It wouldn’t be a fuss. They’d get it through the last leg of winter and maybe the early storms, but it could come and go as it liked. It was a bird, after all.
“The Katsuki family is very respectable,” he joked. To a swan. God, if his sister could hear him. Or Phichit! That’d end up on the internet in a heartbeat.
Apparently too the swan judged him because finally it stirred, lifting its head and pressing its dark face suddenly to Yuuri. He squawked in remarkable imitation of a previous sound the bird had made. It threw its head back and made a staccato hissing noise, freakish barbed tongue protruding. Yuuri screamed and flailed. The bird flapped its wings and honked, hoping and flopping into the bucket of water with a splash. It barely fit but made a go of it anywhere, flapping water onto its back and dunking its head. It was theatrical and messy, water spilling freely, but the black face, dunked again and again, rooted against the breast feathers and back feathers, slowly lost some of the dirtiness.
The bill of the swan was…shiny. It looked polished and…golden. The bill was gold. Or it at least had been painted that way. It definitely wasn’t natural. Definitely a pet. Some weirdo owner probably lacquered the bill or something. Jeeze, the shit people did to animals.
Seeing as the bird was now contentedly floating in the bucket, Yuuri abandoned it briefly to wash the dirt off himself and cleaned up the room. He dried off and put on his clothes and finally chased the bird out of the bathhouse and into the main of his family’s inn.
Yuuri quickly explained his speculation on the bird’s bill and his thoughts that, assuming the bird didn’t cause mayhem that it should stay in their care. No one objected, though there were worries about it pooping all over the place. Birds poop a lot.
“Keep it in your room,” Mari suggested.
“Make it a diaper,” his mom advised.
“How about the storage room, with the boxes? Just put down paper, get it a bucket of water. Maybe it’s house trained, who knows these days,” his dad said. That was surprisingly a good idea. So Yuuri did.
He got honked at and chased when he tried to leave the bird there.
“Please, stop, I left you seaweed, I’m sorry,” Yuuri yelled, dashing down the hall, the swan at his heels. “Don’t maim me, I’m a dancer! I have a wife and kids! Okay, I don‘t, but I love my family, please!”
It didn’t maim or murder him. But it did follow him into his room, feet slapping on the wooden floor. Yuuri hid on his bed, heart racing. He could hear Mari cackling in the distance on the phone with someone. Probably Minako. Once the chaos of the moment passed and the swan waddled about the room, investigating, Yuuri settled enough to take a photo and send it to Phichit.
‘I adopted a swan’
‘THAT IS SO COOL WTF’
It slept on his computer chair and didn’t poop everywhere. But the swan also didn’t eat anything, to everyone’s concern, but the bird didn’t seem worse for it. Yuuri tried letting it outside to no success.
“I don’t think it has a butthole,” Yuuri conspired to Mari one night as they sat drinking and playing Jenga. “I’m worried.”
“Maybe it’s a god,” she shrugged. She pretended to dislike the swan, accusing it of always being underfoot and being creepy, but Yuuri saw her scratch its head in passing on more than one occasion.
The swan, sitting beside Yuuri, honked softly and pecked its bill at the Jenga tower, knocking it down.
“Or an asshole,” she amended. “One big asshole.”
The weather had warmed, and what snow there was melted under the bright sunny days that followed. With it came a bloom of guests at Yu-Topia. Yuuri ran around with the rest of his family when he was home, and biked to Minako’s studio for the afternoon ballet classes. He didn’t have any real students at the skating rink, although he was supposed to lead a class this weekend to move on from waltz jumps to a basic salchow. Yuuko and Yuuri had been working on a sort of extended step-by-step open lessons to increase skater competency. Sure, people liked going round and round, but if they could do jumps and skate more efficiently, they came back more and more. Double win!
Yuuri guessed it was joy at the storm having passed that brought a bloom of energy to Hasetsu. It seemed like the inn was busier now than it had been in previous years this week alone. He’d worked on digitalizing their records in his spare time and the numbers suggested his sensation was in fact accurate. Three new students signed up for Minako’s class, one of excellent potential. Yuuri landed a triple toe loop when he was playing around with Yuuko. And the swan became his companion, nestled in the basket in front of his bike when he went to work. It was properly clean these days, nearly glowing white and pristine. Its gilded bill caught sunlight and flared blindingly. It was beautiful, and Yuuri felt blessed in its strange presence. There were moments of the week that Yuuri felt carefree, enchanted and almost magical Everyone was busy, a little frazzled, but smiling. The air was clear, bright with a refreshing cold.
But with so many things, a simple embrace of good fortune did not heal all. The popularity of the inn, the addition of students, and the weekend jump lesson wore Yuuri out. Not simply physically, he had the endurance to go go go with his body, but he himself had hit the wall. His responses lagged, his lessons became mechanical. He shrugged off Yuuko and barely managed to entertain the triplets’ antics on the ice.
He hit his bed at the end of the week and couldn’t rise and couldn’t sleep. The week was great, everyone was in good spirits, the world moved on and on and Yuuri felt cored and empty. What if this is as good as it gets; his parents are radiant with joy, proud of what they’d built. Mari even had a date with some man who’d visited. Minako had praised Yuuri but her passing remark that, if only he’d gone on to do ballet professionally, or skate, what a wonder he would have been -- Yuuri felt wasted. He’d wasted his youth. He’d quivered and cried at the final shove from junior to senior competitions and withdrew. Too much money. He would have had to leave home. How could he have done that, left everyone, convinced himself he could dance for a living -- he hadn’t. He hadn’t. He’d gone to the nearest college, gotten the safe business degree, and learned his mother’s recipes. He’d nailed himself here to Hasetsu, contented himself with teaching little kids, to only playing at the dreams that had danced in and out of his childish mind.
I should die. Right now. I should just die.
He didn’t mean it, much, but it was comforting and terrifying at once to think. He’s going to be doing this for the rest of his life?
Yuuri lay in bed, face down and smothered on his own wet choked breathing, feeling his heart race for hours, it felt like. He wouldn’t sleep. He knew it. Tomorrow would be a dazed hell. He pushed up and found his glasses, blinking around his dark room. His childhood bedroom. He should get an apartment…but what’s the point when he helps his parents so much? It was better to keep saving money.
The swan’s luminous presence was not to be seen. Yuuri’s door was ajar, so he guessed it’d waddled off. Shit. He tiptoed through his home and inn but saw no familiar feather. What if someone stole it? It couldn’t have run off. Did someone let the swan outside? Shit. Shit. It’s too cold at night.
Yuuri put on coat and shoes, hopping from foot to foot before he rushed outside, breath puffing in clouds before his face.
Maybe it was he who left the swan out. He hadn’t closed his door, and it had gotten out. It didn’t matter how. But it wasn’t anywhere in the house or the inn, it wasn’t around the hot springs; it wasn’t in the little stone pond with the koi out front. It had no name to call, no tag, just a golden bill that would probably get its head cut off by someone wicked.
Yuuri started walking. He went to the studio. He went to the grocery store. The Post office. Anywhere he’d taken the swan on one of his errands. They were smart creatures. Maybe it flew off. Maybe it was gone. How fitting. Of course. He crossed the bridge. He searched around Ice Castle. And there he paused. Moonlight laid herself across the glass doors of the entrance; there was no logical reason to go inside, but still, Yuuri felt compelled. It was that simple. A stone of certainty settled in his stomach, its round solid shape dense, crunched by the nerves of his stomach. Go inside. His heart growled. He did.
The dead center of night. The door closed snugly behind Yuuri, sealing him in Ice Castle, ghostly still. The dark behind the front counter looked darker. His damp sneakers eeked on the floor. He crept, trying to hold his breath, unable to. He couldn’t name the hush in his body, but a hot terror soaked through him, delivering the sensation of having wet his pants. He trailed his hand along the wall, following a tendril of knowing. Something. Something. He recalled now the same unease following a horror movie seen with friends as a teenager, every shadowed renewed with teeth and grasping hands. Hadn’t he wanted to die?
But the swan, that’s why he was here; and where was here? A skating rink, of all unlikely places for a swan, even as peculiar a swan as he’d acquired through whimsical happenstance.
When he turned finally to behold the rink, Yuuri expected a cult worship, murderers, Yuuko and Takeshi having weird kinky sex on the ice on a blow up mattress -- that oddly specific detail is entirely Yuuko’s fault -- instead, he got a naked man.
At least, he thought it was a man. The glowing figure beneath the moonlight might not be a man, might not be man at all. It was radiant. Arms outstretched, long hair flowing wildly, the figure floated rather than skated. Yes there! A bare leg, muscle in high relief, skin like pearl, rainbow in the light, revealed an arched naked foot.
Yuuri gasped. Feathers sprung from the heel. On the wrists, over slender fingers, bloomed more. As the skater spun, a whip of motion, body singing with the lightness of itself, Yuuri amended his thoughts. Surely this was a god. He couldn’t hold back his inhale, gasping then for air.
The freezing of the figure was like music leaving the world. It wrapped its arms around itself and shied visibly, as if now aware of its nudity. While it was cleanly outlined by the moonlight flooding the rink -- only now did Yuuri realize someone had activated the roof covers -- Yuuri couldn’t see the face or the body in any detail. But it was naked, it was feathered, it was on the ice moving without skates. It was magic. A mirage, an illusion. Yuuri had been enchanted.
“I’m dreaming,” Yuuri whispered and rubbed at his eyes, knocking his glasses off in his haste. They clattered to the floor, bouncing and sounding like a box of glass breaking in the deafening silence of the rink. Yuuri dove for them, shoving them on his face and looking at the rink, heart in his throat.
It was empty.
He clutched the wall, a cry leaving his lips. No. No. Come back. But the ice was white with no one.