The drowned man, washed out and chill, might have said he was a curious mix of knowing and forgetting. He might have said he'd been here for a long time, as measured in seasons and storms, though not nearly so long when counted against the great age of the lake itself. The silt-buried stones at the bottom spoke to the gouging weight of the ice that had birthed his home, but yet offered no insight towards his own origin.
He might have told stories about the things he'd seen, described the delicately yellow butterflies with black-banded wings that appeared in the warm season, or the nights so crisp and clear the stars seemed almost within reach. He might have asked why he could name the fat carp, the speckled loach, the elaborately finned greylings that found their way to his lake, but not himself. Never himself, though he was sure he'd had a name once too.
He might have said a lot of things, had there been anyone to say them to.
One year, after the grass and reeds had died but before ice could do more than rim the borders of the lake, a tiger prowled up to the shore. It padded silently through the snow, touched its nose to the water, then sat to stare with tawny chatoyant eyes.
The drowned man stared back from his seat on the felled and waterlogged trunk of a once mighty tree. He'd been combing his fingers through long silver hair, soothing himself with the repetitive task.
"Hello," he said. The tiger flicked its tail, but stayed a while before turning to wind away through the spindly birches, disappearing into the underbrush.
It was the best conversation the drowned man could remember having.
The ice became a thin dark mirror the first time it froze each winter, allowing the drowned man to gaze into his own face and wonder. He was shaped like a man but looked so much a thing of winter, with his pale skin, pale eyes, pale hair. It was hard to guess if he'd ever been warm, pink and alive like the men who very occasionally visited the area.
He did not like to think about the men, lonely as he was, and it was well they moved with purpose and did not linger.
The drowned man was not cruel, he did harm to no one and nothing. His presence gave pause to neither the shyest doe picking her way through the wetlands, nor the feeblest minnow darting between his toes for shelter. He was not predator, not prey, not part of the cycle at all.
He was, in fact, as dead as the log that had become his preferred perch. It too had drowned even, one year when the lowlands flooded worse than usual.
The downed tree did not burn at the thought of men though. It wasn't curious, didn't want to speak with them, to draw them them in with pursed lips, flaunted legs, and crooked fingers. It didn't long to drag them in and hold them down, so they could know how it felt when the air ran out. It was simply dead, and men had not felled it.
The drowned man didn't like to think about it.
Of all the creatures to visit his lake, the cranes were the strangest. Such large ungainly birds on the ground, black and red on white, they moved stilted and sudden on tall legs. They were loud, honking at one another whenever they were awake, and voracious. They ate the young reed buds that grew in the spring, and the dragonflies that hovered over the water; they ate snails and salamanders and once a young fox that was too slow. They were able fishers, long necks and beaks driving forcefully into the water after passing prey.
They came to his lake, they hunted and ate and honked. And, astonishingly, they danced.
One crane would throw its head back, sinuous neck arched, and loose a fluting call. It would spread its black tipped wings and hop, fluttering through the air. Once one had started, others would join, and soon most of the flock would be bobbing and honking.
The cranes were unquestionably the drowned man's favorite.
Sometimes the birds would form pairs during the cacophony, would bow to one another and inch closer, until they were unmistakably dancing together and not just in the same vicinity. One of the new pairs moved to the far side of the lake, flattened an area in the reeds and built a nest together. They protected the corner they'd claimed fiercely, and the drowned man was happy enough to leave them to it.
Before long there were new voices coming from the nest, their crys high and thin. The creatures that emerged were even stranger than their adult kin, gangly bodies fuzzed with yellow down instead of stately feathers. Those came later, growing in as the young cranes toddled after their parents, learning to forage in the marsh.
The weather began to turn, as it must, and the lake was painted gold by the reflection of yellowing birch leaves. The family of cranes, all members now fully fledged, lit out one day headed south.
The drowned man watched the sky from just below the surface of his lake, and wished them well.
After the cranes had gone, the drowned man put his feet beneath him and walked through the shallows. He felt a bit like one of the tall birds, took slow steps on long hinged legs. He stopped, toes curled in the mud, the water at the shore not even deep enough to cover them.
He tried to take a step forward, to set a foot on solid ground.
The next year, the cranes came back. He hadn't expected it, wasn't sure they were even the same ones at first. But they danced together and built a nest in the same place, and the drowned man was convinced.
They came back that year, and the next, and the next after that. It brightened his sedate existence, the burgeoning certainty that he would see them again.
One of the eggs hatched late. He had not even known there was a second egg. Its sibling was already out of the nest and exploring when a new cheeping voice rang out for the first time.
He worried for the little bird, but it seemed determined to survive. It was louder than the rest of its family put together, refused to be forgotten or ignored. It left the nest in half the time most chicks took, snapped at anything potentially edible that crossed its path, and pursued fish obviously too big for it with unerring focus.
It was still so small though, when the weather began to turn.
One morning the drowned man emerged from the depths and found the family of cranes gone. The smallest crane, still with yellow down clinging to its body, sat in the nest and was quiet.
The crane had not moved for hours when the drowned man, at a loss, tried to rouse it. It hissed and pecked, flapped its stubby wings angrily if he tried to touch it. He brought it the smallest minnows he could find instead, and those it accepted with only token rancor.
He told it the story about the tiger; it seemed to like that.
It was gradually persuaded to leave the nest, to take up the hunt again, but still the drowned man worried. He could not keep the little bird warm with his own cold body, could not take it under the ice with him when winter came.
It grew more feathers every day and could glide across the lake with increasing ease, but there was such a long way to go, and no one to show it the way.
The drowned man could not fly away, could not even leave the water.
It might be enough. South and east of his lake were more wetlands, more lakes, waterways flowing through sphagnum bogs and trickling over grey-green stones. Head that way long enough and he would reach the great Amur river, which he could follow all the way to the sea.
After that he didn't know.
He looked around his lake, every inch known and familiar, and at the growing crane busily harassing the local fish population. He put his feet beneath him, dragged pale fingertips over the water, patted his favorite log fondly.
Then he turned south and east, where the lake transitioned into reed choked marsh, and started walking. The crane loosed an alarmed honk as he left, launched itself forward to land loudly in the water behind him.
Unseen, the drowned man smiled.
When Katsuki Yuuri was twelve, his sister taught him how to fold origami cranes. For luck, she said. Then she teased him about liking Yuuko from school, and suggested he get ready to fold the thousand paper cranes for their wedding.
Yuuko started dating another boy in middle school, and Yuuri kept folding cranes. One day he took several down to the beach, along with his father's old camera, and submitted the resulting pictures as an art assignment. His teacher recommended entering them in a youth photography contest, which he won.
Surprised and jubilant, he took more photographs, entered more contests. He didn't always win, but sometimes he did, and slowly his bedroom walls filled with prints and prizes.
His parents bought him a better camera, bought film and lenses and sent him to school in America when the opportunity arose.
He came back to Hatsetsu to photograph Yuuko and Takeshi's wedding. Mari made fun of his disgust at camera-phone portraits, but helped him fold cranes for the radiantly happy couple.
Yuuri didn't know what he was doing. He'd finished his degree, finished his internship, and promptly balked when offered a steady job. Half his brain regretted it, but the other half rejected the thought of shooting one more overdressed beautiful person. With every subject posed, lit, and made up for idealized perfection, he'd lost track of what beauty meant to him.
So, here he was, back in Japan to take pictures of cranes.
Hokkaido in winter got more snow than even Detroit, but at least the cranes were real this time. His shots would be used to promote tourism, yes, but also conservation. Although local efforts had hugely boosted the island's population of red-crowned cranes, there were still fewer than three thousand left in the wild, and what remained of the habitat on Hokkaido was being pushed ever closer to saturation.
Yuuri didn't know how to save them, couldn't conceive the international cooperation required between Russia, Korea, China, and Japan. What he could do was show the the world how beautiful the cranes were, how worth saving. He arrived in Kushiro City determined to do his best.
Two weeks later Yuuri was back in town. He returned from his trip to the wetlands convinced that his cameras were too heavy, and also that his fingers might never thaw all the way through. He went down to the concrete lined banks of the Kushiro river to catch the sunset.
The sky was beautiful, dressed in pink and gold, the riverfront quiet and deserted. Yuuri stood at the river's edge, reached to adjust his lens, then yelped in surprised betrayal when cold fingers fumbled and dropped it. If it made a sound when it hit the water, he didn't hear. He looked at his spread fingers, then at the river's opaque surface, unable to believe what he'd just done.
When a single white arm emerged from the river, lens extended delicately towards him, he took it without thinking. "Thank you," he said and then, "what?" The arm was gone though, as if it had never been.
He edged away from the river, but something kept him from fleeing entirely. Maybe it was the politeness learned growing up in an onsen, or the stories of kappas that had inevitably pervaded his youth. He hadn't a scrap of food on him, but he folded a colorful brochure into a passable crane and bowed low to drop it onto the water where the arm had been.
He felt slightly ridiculous, but took care not to lean too close to the water anyway. He left without looking back, resolved to never think about it again.
Had he looked he might have seen the top of a head, two eyes and a forehead draped in silver, rising to the surface to watch him go.
The drowned man was unsure. His crane, now white and black and almost grown, had been safely delivered to the wetlands upriver. He could only hope it would learn to get along with the other birds, that it wouldn't be lonely.
This land was strange; the rivers were filled with creatures he did not know and men roamed almost everywhere. He had no place here, but neither was he keen to return to sea.
He'd been forced to cling to an enormous metal boat to cross the sea, crane perched on his shoulders or held under one arm for the duration. It would be easier traveling alone, but the prospect made him sad as well.
He'd been dithering near the mouth of the river, undecided, when the man had cried out. He'd returned the glass and metal bauble on a whim, for he had no use for it and the man clearly wanted it back.
The man dropped something else into the water, flimsy paper moulded into a recognizable shape. It was a crane, and he wondered how the man had known.
Yuuri still wanted to photograph the sunset. He had a perfectly valid reason to return to the river the next evening. If he also brought kappamaki from a nearby restaurant, lined them up carefully against the edge of the embankment, well, who would ever know?
Nothing happened while he watched, so he turned his back deliberately to fold another crane. When he dropped it into the water before leaving, the kappamaki were gone.
The drowned man took the first paper crane, cradled it carefully, and raced upriver to show his traveling companion. The disagreeable bird immediately tried to eat it.
The next night he shared the little rolls, but kept the second paper crane to himself.
Yuuri brought nattō. Then he tried soba, and nasu, and kobacha. He bought brightly colored paper, folded crane after crane. He talked while he did it, absentmindedly soothing lines into paper, back always turned to the river.
He found metallic gold paper, and dropped that crane into the river with particular pride.
The next day, before he could even unwrap fat combini onigiri, the arm appeared before his eyes to shyly place a stone on the concrete. It was gone as quickly as it had appeared, but Yuuri dutifully swapped the stone for a rice ball.
Stone might have been underselling it, actually; it was bright red and deep black, smooth and shining. It might have been jasper, or some kind of opal. Yuuri had brought enough onigiri to share this time, he ate with one hand and held the stone with the other.
"I haven't made this many cranes since my friend Yuuko got married," he told the expectant silence behind him, spreading plain white paper as he did. It was subdued compared to the flamboyant gold that had elicited such appreciation, but Yuuri had a plan.
When the crane was whole between his hands, he pulled markers from his bag. He filled in the black plumage on the wings, carefully contoured the markings around the neck and face. He finished with a few strokes of red to the top of its head.
"There," he said, displaying his creation to the empty river. "The legendary tanchōzuru. They're supposed to live a thousand years and grant wishes to people who help them. Though personally I've never seen one a day over forty."
"That's still pretty impressive for a bird," he mused as he dropped the crane.
The drowned man couldn't resist showing off the latest little crane, though he wisely held it out of reach.
"Look," he said, "it's even smaller than you."
The no-longer-smallest crane retreated to sulk, stood on one leg and tucked its head under a wing.
Something suspicious was happening when Yuuri arrived at the river. There was some sort of scuffle going on behind the embankment, splashing and quiet shushing audible over the ambient noise of the city.
"Hello?" he called, hesitant. For a moment the sounds dropped off and everything was still.
Then two arms burst into sight, proudly holding out a very real, very angry, very endangered red-crowned crane. It beat its wings at the water, where someone unseen was choking on giggles.
"What?" said Yuuri.
The befuddled question was lost under triumphant honking as the crane escaped and fled across the water. Yuuri watched it go with wide-eyed bemusement.
The drowned man tried to keep his ears above the water, listened whenever the living man spoke. He didn't understand, but his eyes would drift closed, eyelashes kissing his cheeks as he focused on the words.
He hid when the man peered over the edge, didn't dare say anything back. The drowned man was not meant to keep company with the living. He wished the man no harm, no harm, but it was better that he stayed back from the water. It was better that he stayed out of reach.
One night the man leaned out, pointed to himself, and said, "Yuuri. I'm Yuuri."
The drowned man understood that well enough. He'd have answered, despite his best intentions, but he had no name to give.
He was glad his crane had taken to following him on these trips. It could be relied upon to loudly interrupt, to distract him from the man's rapturous attentions. He remembered the way it had watched the largest carp, swimming languorous and unafraid of infant jaws. Perhaps it knew what it was like to be hypnotized by something it could not have.
The drowned man dove beneath the waves, looking for something that might interest the man, apology and entreaty both.
Whatever was in the water kept bringing him things. Yuuri had a collection growing in the small apartment he was renting for his stay on Hokkaido.
There were loose coins of various currencies, shards of sea glass, and softly scalloped shells shaped like fans. Yuuri laughed out loud the day he found a single, very clean, very well shined golf ball waiting for him. The next day there were two.
Yuuri briefly considered gifting them to his old mentor Celestino should they continue to accumulate, but rejected the thought of ever giving them away. He went out and found mochi instead, left three white balls sitting silhouetted by the fading sun.
He really should have been worried, it wasn't anything like normal to be exchanging gifts with an unseen creature that lived in the water. Unseen except for long, unbelievably white arms that appeared sometimes, presented him tokens prepared with such care.
There was never enough time to see much, but Yuuri had an impression of muscled forearms and graceful fingers.
He silently promised he'd never make fun of Phichit's thing about Cher again. She might be old enough to be their grandmother, but Yuuri had lost the high ground.
I love her for her twitter, he could almost hear his friend say. Also you're a Philistine and I hope your monster boyfriend eats you.
"I think you'd like Phichit," he told the waiting quiet.
It had snowed, on and on through the night and into the next day. Still, the wind blew riotously, and he was not sure the man would come.
He did, but the drowned man could not hear him over the passing tempest.
He grabbed at the lip of the embankment with both hands, pressed his forehead to the strange grey surface, and held himself as close as he dared.
A hand brushed his. If his heart hadn't already been still in his chest, it would have stopped then. His grip tightened instead, rough edge of the quay pressed unforgivingly into his palms.
"It's okay," said the man, said Yuuri, and the drowned man understood that well enough too.
There was a light touch to the top of his head next, and he couldn't help but look up, staring helplessly into dark eyes.
Yuuri made a noise like his own heart had stopped. The drowned man dropped back into the water, was gone before he could hear anything more.
He fled to the deepest water he could find, folded his body up small, hung weightless in the dark. It was no comfort. He pressed his face into his hands and wondered why it hurt like dying.
It...was not a kappa. Not unless the stories were very, very wrong. Nothing that beautiful would need to trick people into the water; they'd go willingly.
That kind of beauty was a lure, was a warning, the kind of enticement that made sailors breach their boats on the rocks in lovelorn pursuit.
Yuuri should have been afraid, but there was nothing baleful in those sea-blue eyes. There was startlement and sadness, something shuttered and restrained.
He'd looked as though he should be dressed in glittering hoarfrost, but Yuuri just wanted to take him home and stuff him under a kotatsu. He wanted to wrap him in something soft and wait for him to stop looking so cold.
Yuuri wasn't afraid, not until the man in the water didn't show up the next day.
Three days later he was on his knees, bent over the water, tears dripping off his nose.
"Please," he said. "Please."
Things were changing. The fisherman's wharf came alive in preparation for Kushiro City's winter festival. Ice sculptures and lights took over the stretch of river Yuuri was used to having to himself.
"I have to leave soon," he said, bent over the river on his knees. He must have looked mad, and maybe he was. "This isn't...I'm not from Kushiro. I have to go."
"Please," he said. "Meet me here tomorrow, at least to say goodbye."
A hand rose out of the water, stroked the side of his face. He felt cold, damp fingers against his cheek, his jaw, his chin. He wanted to take the hand and press it to his lips, but didn't. He closed his eyes and nodded his head once, firm.
"Okay," he said. "Tomorrow."
Yuuri didn't sleep that night, he stayed up folding cranes. He didn't have time to fold a thousand, and it hadn't worked for Sadako anyway, but he didn't know what else to do.
The festival was in full swing when he arrived. It was far too cold for yukata, but Yuuri had pushed his hair back, donned slacks and his best trenchcoat.
Their meeting place wasn't the liveliest part of the festival, but there was too much foot traffic passing by. Yuuri waited a while, hoped he was being watched, and started to walk towards the docks. He thought there was a ripple in the water keeping pace beside him.
He was so tense breathing came hard, his brow furrowed and head downturned. He didn't know what to say.
He walked away from the lights of the festival, past the commercial docks, out to where ramshackle wooden piers jutted into the water. He stopped on one of the wide ramps used to load small craft into the river.
Somewhere in the distance, music started playing. He walked down the ramp until he was standing, just barely, in the water. He considered pulling off his loafers, but before the thought could coalesce a figure rose up before him, shining and resplendent in the moonlight.
The man was tall, his body strong and shapely, his features European. Not a kappa, not anything he could name. He was very naked, and Yuuri got a little lost in the balletic play of muscle as he moved.
"Odorimashou-ka?" he asked without thinking. The very beautiful, very naked man just cocked his head.
It was as good a plan as any, so Yuuri switched to English and tried again. He bowed this time, arm extended in invitation. "Would you like to dance?"
The man looked stricken, but still he reached for Yuuri's hand. Yuuri pulled him in and took his other hand too, mind faltering but motions sure.
The man let Yuuri turn him in slow circles, swaying with the music that drifted over the water. Yuuri's feet were soaked and freezing, dampness creeping up the fabric of his slacks. His partner's feet were bare, vulnerable against the wet concrete.
Their dance was nothing elaborate, just slow circling, hand in hand. They got closer, until their foreheads were almost touching, but Yuuri didn't take him into his arms. It seemed too forward to throw an arm around the man's bare waist, for all that the simple dance felt as intimate as anything Yuuri had ever done.
Yuuri was shivering but unwilling to let go when the man came to a sudden stop, eyes dropping to where their feet straddled the waterline. Yuuri had swung himself back onto land, not even noticing through soaked loafers.
The man shook his head, regretful, and pushed at Yuuri's shoulders ever so gently. When Yuuri didn't step back, the man took his chin, held on as if to emphasize the chattering of Yuuri's teeth. He pushed one hand lightly at Yuuri's chest, and took a step back.
Yuuri jerked forward, grabbed his hands before he could go. He bowed again, kissed each captive hand, felt warm tears falling against their combined clasp.
Then he let go, stepped back, and cursed his useless hands that couldn't hold onto anything. They looked at each other, separated by two steps and one insurmountable line.
Yuuri closed his eyes, braced himself, and walked away. He almost wished the man would lunge and drag him down into the water, that he had been that sort of monster after all.
The drowned man watched, despondent, as Yuuri disappeared.
His crane landed nearby.
"He danced with me," he told it. "I wish…"
The crane sighed, aggrieved, and pecked his foot. He stepped away, heel landing carelessly above the water as he retreated. He looked at his foot, then back at the crane, incredulous.
"Really?" he asked. The crane just honked loudly and turned away, apparently done with him.
"Yuuri!" he exclaimed, and took off running on shaky legs.
Yuuri heard someone frantically calling his name, had barely turned around when he was tackled by almost six feet of heavy naked man.
"Yuuri," he said, then stopped, blinking. "I think my name was Victor." He sounded stunned by his own pronouncement.
The ground was hard beneath him. There was cold water seeping through his clothes and an impossibility astride his lap.
"What," said Yuuri.
Yuuri bundled Victor in his trenchcoat; he was broad through the shoulders, but so slender that it almost worked. Victor held his hand and Yuuri took him home. He let Yuuri towel him dry with pleased mystification.
Yuuri regretted the nest of blankets on his unmade bed, but Victor dove for it with alacrity, clutching at Yuuri until they were positioned to his satisfaction. Pinned and supine, he stroked the silver head pressed over his heart.
"Warm," mumbled Victor, and "Yuuri."
Victor, Yuuri learned, had a rather selective memory. He'd immediately mastered the kotetsu, but would stare in bewilderment when faced with a dishwasher. He'd once seen him "forget" both English and French in front of that Canadian model, JJ.
Whatever power had let him join Yuuri on land hadn't made him any less strange. He'd walk barefoot in winter, careless of the cold. He maintained some sort of strange friendship with the crane on Hokkaido, meaning they had to go visit every winter. He once scared Yuuri half to death by falling asleep in the bathtub, only his knees and the tip of his nose protruding.
He forgot to breathe sometimes, when he wasn't talking or pressed close to Yuuri. Of course, he generally was pressed close, refused to be parted if he could avoid it.
Yuuri had taken Victor to work with him, let him play assistant, seeing how disconsolate he was if left behind. It took thirty minutes for the people on set to realize he was prettier than any of the models, and not long after he'd booked his first job.
Victor enjoyed the spotlight, preened happily for the camera, let estatic hair and makeup teams play with his long silver tresses.
But only if Yuuri was the photographer. He couldn't complain about the work, though Victor was unduly smug about his ploy for Yuuri's attention. He was across the room now, talking excitedly at a severe looking fashion director.
Yuuri thought his life might be perfect. Victor didn't have a pulse, but he slept with his ear over Yuuri's every night. He was vaguely worried Victor wouldn't age, but there were three golf balls and a golden crane on their bedside table, and they could handle anything as long as they were together.
As long as Victor smiled every time he met Yuuri's eyes, and reached for his hand whenever he was near. As long as he said Yuuri's name like it was his favorite word, wiggled in delight when surprised, and narrowed his eyes wickedly when he caught Yuuri watching.
He bounded back to Yuuri, apparently delighted by the bundle of fabric in his arms. "Yuuri," he said. "Look."
He spread his prize out. It was the elaborate Uchikake another model had been wearing, magenta and gold, embroidered with cranes.
"How in the world did you charm that off Lilia?" asked Yuuri.
Victor's smile somehow broadened further, heart-shaped and precious. "I told her I wanted to wear it at the wedding."
"What?" said Yuuri, then, "Oh...Oh! Okay."