The first time his mother explained it to him, voice calm and soft in that way mother’s voices often where, he was too young to fully understand what it was she was telling him: Their family was cursed, and death would come for them, eventually. He had found it strange, then, only ten years old, because everyone died eventually, that much he understood, at least, but that didn’t make them cursed. It only made them human, as everyone else was.
He understood, though, when he was older, by the time his mother pushed a worn iron necklace into his hands, the metal rough, the clasp strong but ancient. It seemed such a fragile, flimsy thing, all the same as he slipped it on. “He’ll come for you when you turn eighteen,” she explained to him, and she was always such a bright and bubbly women that the somberness of her tone seemed strange. It was enough to alarm him, to take her seriously. “He’ll come and steal your life away, just as he did your father’s.” And she only talked about his father with a soft smile on her face, but now she only looked forlorn.
Death came for everyone, eventually, but Death would come for him sooner, and he was only a few weeks out from his eighteenth birthday. His mother explained it to him, the curse upon their family: as the son of his father, who was the son of his father, who was the son of his mother, and so on and so forth, Death haunted them and waited to snatch them away. That was the curse they bore, to die long before their time. And now only he and his sister were left, of all the ancestors that had bore them. Death had gotten to each and every one of them, eventually.
(And Death would not be sated until they were all of them gone)
He struggled to make sense of it all from his mother’s explanation, thinking surely this wasn’t true, surely it was some trick. And then Mari sat him down and made it real , the only other one left in the world cursed as he was. “There are wards,” she told him, “To protect yourself,” and she gestured to the chain around her neck, and he noticed that it matched the one his mother had handed him. He had never put much thought to it before, but she always wore it, now that he did think to notice it. “The Onsen is a safe haven, it’s blessed,” she continued, and she only rarely ever left, and he had always assumed she was an introvert, only it made so much sense now. “When you’re here, Death can’t come for you, he can’t enter.” But he wouldn’t be there forever, and they both knew it.
He was a prodigy, a rising star in figure skating, and he was abroad almost more often than not, had his eyes set on a school in America, on a prospective coach there. And his mother, always so supportive and loving and kind, had been dropping hints for months that he should reconsider leaving home for so long, and he had always assumed she had just been worried, that she would miss him and couldn’t bear the thought of him going away for four years.
But it all made sense, every small thing falling into place within the bigger picture. His mother was worried, but not for any of the reasons he had thought, for a different reason entirely than anything he could have fathomed a year or two earlier. But there were wards, Mari told him, he would still be able to protect himself, surely.
She tapped her fingers against her own necklace, which was thinner than his own. “Iron protects you,” she told him, playing with the metal idly. “But always in a circle, necklaces, bracelets, that sort of thing. It has power in that form.” She sighed and dropped her hand back into her lap, shifting and digging through her pockets. She was fidgety, and they were all nervous gestures that reflected his own when he was anxious and he understood her sudden pauses, her hesitation and occasional fumbling for words. “Anyway, it will keep him at bay, but he’ll still be there, watching. And there are other things too, a few rare sigils, but they’re really too complex to be of much use. Rings of salt, but again, not much use to you.” She finished with her pockets and pulled from them her cigarettes, lighting one with a gesture that could only be called frustrated. Yuuri understood that, as well. “Sprigs of eucalyptus, motherwort, if you can even find it. And iron, as I said before. Iron is best.”
She watched him carefully and he felt dizzy beneath her gaze, beneath the information she was regurgitating to him, beneath the weight of the iron curled around his fingers. He pinched a finger between the links and flinched, jerking his hand from the necklace and letting it fall into his lap. And Mari only watched.
“Of course,” she continued after a long moment of him trying to steady his breathing, which she allowed him the time to do. “You’ll need more creative ways to protect yourself while you skate.” And he frowned, looking down to the necklace once more. As a piece of jewelry, it was awkward and a bit unsightly, but nothing out of the ordinary. But on the ice— He didn’t know, hadn’t yet put thought to it beyond whether or not he would even make it that far because he was starting to feel more and more as if he didn’t even have a chance.
But Mari had made it six years already, and that had to count for something. She fumbled once more in her pockets and held something out to him, pressing it into his palm. He looked down and it was a worn ring, iron and cold and somehow still delicate. “It’s not ideal ,” she explained. “It’s too small, and more likely to—” she didn’t say and only trailed off, taking a drag from her cigarette. “It will keep you safe, that’s what’s important.” He slipped it on, and it fit snug and comfortable on his ring finger, so that’s where he left it. “It’s an heirloom, as well. I mean, I guess. I found it in dad’s things a few years ago.”
Yuuri looked down at it where it shone slightly against his finger. It was old, definitely, clearly roughly forged (was that how you shaped iron? He didn’t know) and it was crisscrossed by scratches and strange angles where it had been warped from age. “What did we do?” he asked at last, quiet and sullen as the mood that had fallen about the room. He forced his head up and met her eyes. “What did we do to deserve this?”
Mari shrugged. “I’m assuming some great, great, great someone or other wronged Death, but who knows,” she said. “Mom might now, but she probably won’t want to talk about it.”
They’d wronged Death, and here they were wronging Death again. Correcting a wrong with another wrong, refusing the hand which fate had done them. They looked at Death and they laughed. Yuuri wasn’t laughing though, only felt the distant prick of tears working their way into the corner of his eyes.
“Remember,” Mari continued, “You won’t be home on your birthday.” He would be at a competition, he would be skating his third Grand Prix Final. “Don’t be careless, Yuuri,” and her eyes were soft and tired, and he felt it, as tired as she was, only he had yet to bear the full burden of the curse, as she had for so long.
“Was dad careless?” he asked quietly, more to the lingering silence than to her, but she shifted forward and pull him into a hug, and she smelled of smoke and chlorine and cloves.
“He’s dead, isn’t he?”
He was all nerves as he finally left for his competition. His mother hugged him three different times, and even Mari hugged him again, and it was as many hugs in so many days from her, rare but welcome all the same.
Minako accompanied him, as his coach, and she kept sharp eyes on him all through the flight, the taxi ride, even as they checked into the hotel and she handed him his key card just outside his room. And it was only while he fumbled with the door and his heavy baggage that she offered an explanation, his nervousness beneath her gaze clear as crystal. He was always nervous before competitions, but now he was more so, but not because of her gaze.
“Your mom wanted me to keep a close eye on you,” she told him, holding the door open so he could heave his luggage inside. “Said she had a bad feeling.” And it was unlike his mother, and perhaps Minako realized as much. The intensity she usually had was gone, now, replaced only with a soft smile.
He feigned surprise, but he wasn’t in the slightest. Minako had always been like a second mother to him, and so she understood the nervous feelings of a mother. “I’ll be careful,” he promised her as he finally dropped down onto his bed, and nodded and then left him alone. Him and his bags and the circle of iron around his neck and the dying light of the room as the sun set outside his windows.
He would be eighteen at midnight, and he ran a finger across the chain where it lay beneath his shirt. He was scared, suddenly, more frightened than he had been since Mari had first laid it all out for him. His breath caught in his throat and his anxiety caught him tight around his heart like a vice grip and he dragged his hand down to clutch at his shirt there, pulling the cotton into a fist. He cried, and he rarely did, now, but it was too much, all of it. A competition, his birthday, Death. Death wouldn’t get him that night, but one day. One day he would.
No, Yuuri wouldn’t allow it. And the resolve calmed his nerves only a bit and his breathing slowed, finally, into something relatively normal. He wouldn’t allow it, he wouldn’t . He would defy Death, just as everyone in his family once had, but he would succeed where all others had fail. He and his sister were the only two left, and he had to make it, otherwise everyone else snatched up by Death would have failed in vain.
He fell back into the bed, tired and jet lagged and body still tense from his brief bout of anxiety, but he had quenched it for now, recalled it back for tomorrow, when it would strike again before his short program, as it always did. But that would be a problem for tomorrow, he still had to deal with the problem of the night, first.
Before he left, he had asked Mari, “What will he look like?” and she had shaken her head and responded, “Not how you would expect,” and she had left it at that and he hadn’t understood, had struggled to put an image to the title Death but all he could summon up were images of gruesome spectors and robed monsters with scythes.
What he woke up to was different, and he understood now what she had meant, why she had not elaborated on it. It was just past midnight and he knew only because it had to be for Him to have come, and he cracked his eyes open to a light that was almost blinding, a silver, ghastly glow. It hurt to look at it, but within it was the silhouette of something that might have been human, perhaps once upon a time. He averted his gaze, to where a hand, human but with the same glow about it, hovered above his ankle, where it lay beneath the blankets.
Yuuri was scared to speak for a long moment, his breath caught in his throat, his heart pounding fast in his chest. And around his neck, the iron burned white hot and hung heavy, begging to be removed, and he reached up and touched it before yanking his hand away. Mari had neglected to mention that, how bad his flimsy protection would pain him in the presence of Death. Perhaps she had not had opportunity enough to learn for herself, as rarely as she left the onsen. Whatever the case, the pain brought tears to his eyes and he sat there, horrified and anxious, nothing but a flimsy piece of metal between him and his death.
“It’s you,” he said at last, throat scratchy. His hand shook where it had come to rest in his lap, an air of sadness and fatigue and anguish hanging about the room that made it almost difficult to breath. This was Death, a spector, a shadow of a human. This would be what would come for him, eventually.
“It is me,” Death said, and his voice was nothing like he looked: accented with an ancient dialect, steady and almost kind. Death, who came to kill him, sounded almost pleasant. Death turned his eyes on him, and though he could not see it, he felt it, a powerful ancient gaze that froze him to his spot. “Soon,” he continued, and Yuuri felt faint. “Soon, I’ll come for you.”
And Yuuri blinked and he was gone, leaving only the unpleasant feeling his gut, the cold chill of the room, to tell him it hadn’t just been a dream, he had really been there.
He slept only fitfully through the rest of the night, and he woke feeling ill, the iron chain now a heavy burden where it hung around his neck, only a lingering pain to remind him of the visit from earlier that night. Mari had never once mentioned it, but it seemed fitting, all the same: the pain, the weight of it all. They looked Death in the eyes with their protections, their flimsy, halfhearted attempts to ward themselves from him, and they mocked him. And Death didn’t like it.
He spent too long pushing through his grogginess as he prepared for the day’s events, splashing his face with cold water to wake himself up, taking long, deep breaths to push down any coming anxiety. He was tired, he was too tired even for his own anxiety and it settled in the pit of his stomach, making him queasy, setting a steady tremor through him. By the time he slipped on his costume and the iron ring, shoving the necklace into his bag, he thought he would be sick and he felt he might faint at any second.
And the pain from the night before remained, a disgusting red ring around his neck that lay blessedly hidden beneath the heavy collar of sparkles and rhinestones that spread downward into the pitch black of his outfit. And the ring sat cold and heavy against his finger, as the necklace had previously done. It made him all the more weary.
By the time Minako came for him, he was fighting down yawns. She took one look at him and clicked her tongue, setting about him wildly, fixing his hair, his makeup, adjusting his collar and, with a gentle motion, his posture. And by the time she dragged him out, his bag over her shoulder, track suit pulled on over his entire ensemble, he looked every bit as presentable as he needed to be. Minako was good at that sort of thing, presentation. Presentation was the foundation of the entire routine, she had told him once, laid the framework for all the rest, for properly conveying the passion he needed to make it through.
His short program was third, and he warmed up only briefly to conserve his energy. And Minako continued to fret over him as a mother might, but more so as a coach would. “Will you be okay?” she asked him, smoothing out the looseness in his hair once more. He shrugged out of his jacket and dropped to a bench to double check the laces on his skates, the fit of them, because that was more important than all the rest.
“I’ll be fine,” he said, and he would be, because all of his usual fidgeting was lost to his exhaustion, but he could skate, and he would. It was what he did best, and he would do it best again.
He took to the ice only moments after the applause finally died down from the previous skater, and Minako stood by the rinks edge, his hands in hers as she walked him through what to do, gave her usual motivational speech. And then, when she was done, she smiled large and excited and he felt it rejuvenating him. “You’ll do fine, Yuuri. You always do.” He gave her one last nod and handed his guards over, finally skating out into the middle of the rink, doing a few warm up laps as he did so, to a small smattering of applause.
And as he began, he thought of anything but Death, pushed the curse far from his mind, even with only the small ring between him and it, far less than the necklace had been. He might have been able to wear it beneath the costume, as high a collar as it had, but it was snug and it would have shown, bumpy and awkward.
Then he began, his music drifting our softly across the now silent rink. And he landed every jump flawlessly, as he had practiced, but many were still simple, only one quad in among them all, but he had practiced and practiced and that was all that mattered, now, him and the ice and the melody of his music, the choreography that was more than routine, now. His heart raced as he moved, beat harder and faster with each jump landed successfully, each step sequence done flawless, and they were his strongest moves.
And as he came down from his final spin, dizzy, spots dancing across his eyes, arms raised out to the crowd in the last few seconds of his performance, he felt eyes on him. Eyes that were distinctively not those from the people in the audience, but a particular stare that was reminiscent of his midnight guest: ancient and cold and setting the pain from his ring into a steady throb until he wanted to wrench it off, but he didn’t.
Death was watching him, and he tried to pick him out from the crowd, looking for any glow, any hint of the silver spectre that had appeared to him just after midnight, but there was nothing there, and he finished his program, arms extended outward, seeking the presence, drawing his eyes to him, and he knew Death as there, watching.
And then he had to leave the rink, and he skated back after his many bows, after snatching up an errant bouquet that caught his attention. Minako was waiting for him and threw herself into him, enough so to nearly knock him over, her eyes dancing, and he laughed, feeding off her energy, and the eyes on him now forgotten, though the absence of pain in his finger told him he was long gone. She practically dragged him to the kiss and cry, and he sat jolting his leg, worn out but excited all the same.
He’d done well enough at his previous Finals, but never enough to place. But his ranking put him second, at least until the free skate, and he only felt all the more excited.
His curse was forgotten.
And he was awake and livelier the next morning, as he prepared for the free skate. Until he was slipping into his outfit, this time a blue ensemble, more formal, with a collar. And he snatched up the necklace and had it halfway over his head before he realized himself. He didn’t have the ring on yet, and he’d almost torn off his only protection carelessly, and his blood ran cold, his mood crashing down.
Don’t be careless , Mari had warned him, but there he was. And the repercussions of carelessness—. He would die, the instant Death was able to draw him into his frigid hands. He could’ve died from a thoughtless action, and his hands shook as he slipped on his ring and pulled off the necklace, dropping it into the sink, staring into the mirror at his now pale face.
Minako was all the more concerned this morning than the one before, and she caught him by the shoulder, looking him over. “Did you not sleep well?” she asked quietly and he shook his head, shaking a few strands of hair loose. She licked a finger and combed it back, a motion he was too familiar with from her.
“No,” he croaked. “Just nerves.” And nerves was a good enough excuse.
By the time he touched the ice, all of his thoughts were now on the curse, where it hadn’t been before, and he skated with fear, with a hesitation that he desperately hoped the judges didn’t notice. But his routine was again as planned, jumps done correctly, only one quad turning into a last minute triple, and the announcer was a constant drone in his ear, pointing out every flaw, but he hardly cared.
The first sign of Death’s presence came again in the burn of his ring, and then he saw him as he launched into the last jump, locked eyes with stormy blue ones, a gray haired man standing at the edge of the rink, dressed not quite formal, a sport jacket thrown on over a button up. His hair was long, hung loose and wild about his shoulders. And he was nothing like Yuuri expected, and he nearly lost his footing as he lifted from the ice, but he landed it with only a shaky movement in his ankle. And as he finished, he looked to where he had been, hoping to see him again, heart thudding in his ears so loud it drowned out all other sounds, but Death was gone.
He took bronze.