By the time Yuuri is eight, he has only seen four soul marks up close.
The first soul mark he sees is his mother's. It is a purple and red spot on her left forearm, high on the soft flesh towards her inner elbow, and an exact replica of his father's. Like many matches, his parents do not mind if their mark is exposed; they do not flaunt it, because they are not the kind of people to do so, but neither do they flinch when they absently roll up the maroon sleeves of their yukata.
"It doesn't hurt?" Yuuri asks when he is young, long before puberty hits and his mark manifests. He does not like the look of his mother's unique mark; it looks like a day old bruise, if bruises were permanent and perfectly circular.
"No," Hiroko laughs, her eyes crinkled in the corners. "At least, not in the way you think it does."
Yuuri is skeptical. Like all children, he is too young to understand the hidden meaning behind his mother's reply; unlike most children, however, the mystery clings to him and fills him with anxiety.
"Are you sure it doesn't hurt?" he asks, thin and cautious, when his older sister Mari begins to manifest at twelve.
"It doesn't feel like anything," Mari says with a shrug as she idly scratches at the darkening mark, a brown spot on her shoulder that—if Yuuri squints—looks like a gingko leaf. "It just is."
Marks are private things and, often, the only people who know about them are immediate family members and close friends. There are exceptions, of course. Mark baring varies across cultures and, in some cases, bloom in places that are difficult to cover: across the cheek or chin, on a finger or the back of a hand, in the corner of an eye or in the cradle of a palm. Yuuri's ballet teacher, Minako, is one such person.
"Tiny, isn't it?" Minako whispers one day after dance class, as Yuuri waits for his sister to finish her club activities and pick him up from the studio. "My mark."
Yuuri blushes. He knows it's rude to stare at a stranger's mark even if it's intentionally bared, so he quickly averts his gaze and pretends not to know that—up close—the small, dark thing under Minako's left eye looks like a rosebud waiting to unfurl.
"S-sorry!" he stammers. His fists tighten and he braces himself for a scolding. "I didn't mean to—!"
Yuuri is interrupted by a loud guffaw. He jumps in his seat, startled by the noise, and looks back up instinctively; he is surprised to see a mirthful grin on his instructor's face, wide and full of teeth.
"Don't apologize, Katsuki-kun," Minako assures him. "It's okay to be curious."
Yet despite Minako's declaration, it takes Yuuri months to look at her directly. He does not know why the sight of another person's mark unsettles him; he only knows that it does, and he tries his hardest to avoid the subject.
For a time—for a little over three years—it works. Then Yuuko, who is halfway through fourteen, turns to Yuuri and says, "Can I show you something?"
Yuuko's mark is petal pink and amorphous, a faint, cherry-sized splash of color near her belly button. It is so pale it is nearly invisible against the ivory of her skin. Yuuri feels his face heat when she shows him. It is not unusual for close friends to share their marks, but something about the one-sided exchange makes Yuuri feel strange, as though he stepped off the wrong foot into a jump.
"Did it hurt?" Yuuri asks, his tongue thick in his mouth.
"No." Yuuko shakes her head as she pulls her shirt back down. Yuuri does not think she is conscious of the way she presses her fingers down on her mark. "I just got into the shower a couple weeks ago and… it was just there, you know?"
Yuuri does not know. He just turned twelve, and most boys manifest between the ages of thirteen and seventeen.
"Why do you ask?" Yuuko says. "Are you worried?"
"No," Yuuri answers honestly. "I just…"
Yuuri does not know how to describe the anxious flutter he feels beneath his breastbone whenever he sees a soul mark. He wants to say it feels too intimate—like he has seen the heart of secret he was not meant to understand—but he cannot name such nervousness without also talking about the faint underscore of his anticipation. His emotions feel like they're being balanced on an uneven rocker; if he doesn't want to fall, he cannot lean either way.
"It's okay," murmurs Yuuko as the silence stretches between them. "I understand."
The quiet words don't feel like platitudes and, briefly, Yuuri hopes that his mark will bloom identical to Yuuko's. He has always admired her skating and is grateful for her kindness. It would be nice, he thinks, to be her match.
Yuuri's vague hopes are dashed less than a month later when Yuuko has an accident during practice. It is a nasty fall, the kind that makes Yuuri gasp and Nishigori swear.
"Yuu-chan!" Yuuri calls as he quickly skates over. Nishigori is not far behind; he immediately kneels when he reaches her, his hands hovering in a strange show of uncertainty. "Yuu-chan, are you okay?"
"I think so," Yuuko groans in response. "Just let me—" She winces as she unfurls from fetal position, as she rolls from her side onto her back. Her sweater rides up and exposes her belly. "Yeah."
Nishigori goes still. Yuuri glances at him—Nishigori can get a little strange about Yuuko, especially during the competitive season—but the wide-eyed, slack-jawed expression on his face is not one Yuuri expects. Normally, Nishigori falls in some degree between stoic and annoyed, so his surprise is… surprising.
"Nishigori?" says Yuuri hesitantly at the very same time Yuuko shrieks, "Takeshi!"
Yuuri looks down and immediately wishes he hadn't because Nishigori's hand—his bare, blunt hand—is splayed possessively over Yuuko's soul mark. Every muscle in Yuuri's body tenses. Touching someone else's mark without permission is a violation; seeing it makes a bubble of wrongness rise in Yuuri's throat.
Then Nishigori whispers, "That's mine."
Yuuko's gloved hands—closed over Nishigori's forearm like vice—loosen. Her eyes get bigger and her lashes, already damp from the hurt of her fall, flutter against her flushed cheeks as she blinks. Then, small and soft, she whispers, "What?"
Nishigori shifts all his weight to his knees and then uses his free hand to lift the hem of his shirt over the powerful line of his stomach. Helplessly, Yuuri watches as Nishigori exposes his own soul mark. Hidden behind a sparse veil of hair, Nishigori's mark is petal pink and amorphous, a faint, cherry-sized splash of color near his belly button. There can be no denial:
Yuuko and Nishigori match.
Upon this realization, the visceral not-quite-nausea feeling in Yuuri's throat is immediately replaced by a sharp stab of mortification. Mark baring is supposed to be a private, intimate act—many people regard it as one of the most important moments in their lives—and here Yuuri is, crouched on the ice, sitting beside Yuuko and Nishigori as they stare at each other in unconcealed wonder. He knows that the situation is unusual, but that knowledge does not stop him from feeling like an intruder.
"I'm g-gonna—!" Yuuri stammers as he stands, his legs wobbling uncharacteristically beneath him. He cannot find his balance. "I—I should—!"
Neither Yuuko nor Nishigori pay attention to Yuuri's attempts—they are too absorbed by the sight of their mark to pay attention to anything else—and Yuuri turns and flees before an excuse can pass his lips. His blades cut sloppy and hard into the ice. Consumed by embarrassment, he does not focus as he steps off the rink and stumbles towards the bench. He keeps his head relentlessly down as he fumbles with his laces; he does not want to trespass on Yuuko and Nishigori's baring more than he already has.
It takes Yuuri an eternity to remove his gear, throw it in his gym bag, and leave. The frigid air nips at his burning cheeks and ears as he runs out of the arena. Winter is nearing its deepest, most bitter days and even Yuuri, who spends long hours on the ice, thinks it's cold. His lungs sting when he inhales. This sharpness, however, is not enough to distract him from the memory of Nishigori's hand as it closed over Yuuko's mark; it plays over and over again in his brain, a terrible and unending loop. The harder he tries to ignore it, the clearer and more stark the images become.
Overwhelmed and distracted by the incident, Yuuri relies solely on his muscle memory to find his way home. He immediately drops his bag when he arrives, wiggling out of his boots and shrugging off his coat. He will be scolded later for leaving a mess in the public entryway, but at that moment, he does not care; all he can think about is the warmth of his bed and the safe cocoon of his blankets. Heedlessly, Yuuri sprints up down the long hall and up the stairs. The quiet solitude of his bedroom is a relief, the shock of adrenaline dying as soon as he bundles himself in his sheets and sinks into the mattress.
It is in this draining aftermath that Yuuri—spread thin and unsure—falls asleep.
"Are you okay?" Mari asks that evening as Yuuri pokes idly at his dinner. "You're acting weird."
"Yeah," Yuuri murmurs distractedly, elbow on the table, cheek smushed into the heel of his palm. He is groggy from his late nap and—though his earlier panic has subsided and turned into careful, avoidant apathy—he still feels a numb buzz beneath his skin.
"Wanna talk about it?" she says.
Yuuri looks up from his picked-at meal, alarm sparking in the back of his brain. He knows that his sister means well; however, he also knows that if he tells the truth of what happened, she will laugh at his discomfort and tease him. It will not be done out of maliciousness nor meanness, but misunderstanding, as Mari has always been more comfortable about soul marks than Yuuri.
"No." Yuuri shakes his head. "I just had a bad day at practice."
"Anything specific?" Mari pries.
"No," lies Yuuri.
"Ah," Mari exclaims, devoid of any emotion. Yuuri has never been able to tell if she believes his falsehoods or if she merely lets him get away with telling them. "Well, you know that sometimes those things just happen, right? Bad days? Sometimes for no reason. The best you can do is just—" Mari pauses momentarily, her shoulders rising in an exaggerated shrug. "Accept it, I guess, and keep going."
"Yeah," Yuuri says. "I can—yeah."
Mari nods and, thankfully, drops the conversation. The rest of their meal is spent in comfortable silence, interrupted only by the distant murmur of the television in the main room and the quiet clatter and scrape of their chopsticks against their plates. It is peaceful; not so much so that Yuuri can forget his anxiety, but enough for him to softly thank his sister when they finish. She smiles at him, ruffles his hair, and says,
"Anytime, kiddo. Anytime."