It started off as a small suggestion. Just a helpful idea. Advice.
Yuko had blurted it out while she tried to console Yuuri. He sat on the floor, in the corner of the supply closer, his little body curled around his knees. He tried to hold the tears back, but they fell in fat droplets from the side of his eyes. He really did try, tried as hard as he could, because he knew how childish he was being. He had to be a big boy. But every time he tried to stop, he was reminded.
“It’s okay, Yuuri,” Yuko whispered softly, sitting before him and stroking his arm. “It’s going to be okay.”
Yuuri took a moment to glance at her. She smiled gently, but he felt his chest tighten more and pressed his head into the crook of his elbows. He couldn’t stand it. He couldn’t stand his weakness. He wanted to tell her to leave him wallow in his misery, but he also wanted her there for comfort.
Yuko tried to continue her comfort through words, “I’m sure it didn’t go as badly as you think, Yuuri. No one was making fun of you.”
Yuuri wanted to say that he knew they were, he had seen their faces as he had fallen on the ice, for the sixth time. Those that weren’t wincing with pity were instead laughing at him.
“You’re young. You almost landed one of the jumps! They shouldn’t be laughing when they’re too scared to even try. You’re so brave, Yuuri!”
He didn’t feel like it. He wanted to tell her to stop. Her words weren’t comforting him. But he knew that sounded rude – she was only trying her best to calm him. And the words were catching in his throat. He was choking on his own breath.
He could remember the class’ faces. He had been so sure that he could do a simple jump, not even a spin, just a jump and land it. He’d practiced before when he was alone, and although the landings had always been shaky, he always landed it. Always. And he was so excited to show the teacher, to show the whole class that his hard work was really paying off.
But as he stood in the middle of the rink, the pressure got to him. He could feel all of their eyes watching him, waiting, judging, some whispers already settling through them. With every second he waited, the more he became aware of them watching, and the more he became nervous. He felt the energy coursing through him, his body turning cold, the sweat seeping from his pores. His breath was coming out in short bursts. The world spun. But he had something to prove. He had been proud of his achievement, and he wanted to show them all.
But he fell. Someone from the audience told him to get up and try again. He couldn’t remember who, but he did what they said despite the pain in his knees. He had steadied himself, gritted his teeth, and tried again. And fell. Again. Again. Again. And Again. By the fourth time, the blood was rushing through him so quickly that he couldn’t hear the crowd anymore. He kept trying because he knew he could do it and because he knew that it would be pathetic to admit defeat now, in front of them.
But it was scary.
He would have tried more times than six, but the tutor had dragged him from the ice. He took him to the side to check over his injuries. Only a few bruises, the pain already wilting away under the course of adrenaline. The biggest injury was to his pride. When he could hear again, he could hear them all laughing.
He’d run from them and found the closest place he could hide, which happened to be the supply closet. Yuko found him there. She didn’t ask what happened. Someone probably already told her.
When she noticed that none of her words were reaching him, she sighed and settled down a little more comfortably against the wall. For a while, she listened to his crying, deciding to wait until he had cried it all out.
It was surprising how many tears the little boy could store inside of him. But when it did finally begin to simmer, Yuko pulled him into a tight hug.
“Were they scary?” she asked, her hand stroking through his black locks.
He nodded. He’d never been so scared before. He’d never been the centre of attention. He couldn’t help the nerves. The panic. He didn’t realise how much it would scare him. He hadn’t expected how intense it was.
“M-Maybe I…I should stop skating,” he pushed out. If the future meant he had to do this again, stand in front of people again, fail again, then he didn’t want it.
“No, you can’t do that!” Yuko gasped. She leaned back to look into his tear-stained face. “Yuuri, you’re too good to just give it up now because of some stupid kids. And you love it! You’d miss it too much.”
Yuuri looked down in shame. “I know, but I can’t do that again.”
Yuko thought for a moment, pressing her finger to her lips in thought. Yuuri watched her face, seeing the way her eyebrows shot up, her eyes shine, her mouth open when something did strike her. She turned back to him with a wide smile.
“You don’t have to face them again! You’re too good to be in that class anyway, and if I tell the tutor that they’re holding you back, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind giving you private lessons.”
“But the rink is never free for private lessons. There’s always someone there, always a crowd.”
“Is it the attention that’s scaring you?” At his hesitant nod, she asked, “Like you’re feeling too… open? Too vulnerable?”
“Like… Like they’ll always remember. Like whenever they see you, they’ll remember it.” With each word, she became just a little louder, as if she was closing in on something big.
“Um, Yeah?” Yuuri though couldn’t see where this was leading.
“Then it’s obvious!” She gripped his shoulders, smiling down at him. “Don’t be you.”
“If no one knows it’s you, then they won’t know you’re the one failing. They won’t make fun of you, and you won’t feel like they’re staring at you.” When she noticed he wasn’t catching up, she explained, “If you wear a disguise, then you can become anyone. Build a… character or something. Don’t be Yuuri, be someone else, someone who doesn’t care about people watching. Be confident Yuuri!”
“Disguise?” He cocked his head to the side, narrowing his eyes in his confusion. He hadn’t realised that the fear had finally dispersed and that the tears had finally stopped. Instead, his body was beginning to warm again and a spark was beginning to flare inside of him. Excitement, or the beginnings of it.
“Yeah! Like… um… a mask? Yes! A mask! You’d look so cool, Yuuri.”
“Isn’t that a bit… stupid?” Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew no mask could hide him. His chubby body would instantly give him away. But there was something appealing about the idea. He had the chance to start over again, to build himself into something he wanted to be, into someone who could do anything in front of an audience without letting their nerves get the best of him. Maybe he had a chance to overcome his anxiety!
“Of course it isn’t! And if it helps you, how could it be stupid?”
It was enough to cure the slight hesitation inside of him. With a gulp, he nodded his head and gave a small smile. “Okay,” he whispered.
Mask shopping only helped to strengthen the excitement inside of the little boy. They traversed the whole town, looking through shop windows for only the best. Yuuri was ready to accept any, just wanting what it was useful for rather than the design of it. But Yuko was adamant to pick out the perfect one.
“This is going to be a part of your new persona,” she had said. “We have to pick out a new face for it. It’s like picking a body part. You have to be sure.”
Yuuri still didn’t understand, but he waddled after his best friend with a grin on his face.
Eventually, they found what Yuko had been looking for. It was a simple mask, big enough for him to grow into – not that he saw himself wearing it for that long – and simple. It was a simple oval that curved along the edges, enough to cover his face, and made of hard white plastic. Black eyes had been outlined on the front in small circles with a thin film for him to see out, but no one to be able to see his eyes. Along the edges, an intricate, small red pattern had been painted, like a frame. He worried if it was too simple.
“It’s like a blank slate,” Yuko said. “Like you. You’ll start out as a blank slate, and then you’ll build yourself into what you want to be, using this.”
To go with it, they bought a simple black hoodie. Yuko explained that if he wanted to really hide himself, he could pull the hood over his hair, hiding it away and making it less likely that he was going to be noticed. Yuuri accepted it gratefully.
He spent that night on his bed, looking down at the mask in his hands, imaging the confidence it would bring him. He could hide himself. He could become anyone he wanted. He didn’t have to be Yuuri Katsuki if he didn’t want to, and he really didn’t want to. He didn’t have to be scared of failing anymore or anyone recognising him when he did. He didn’t have to face the laughs, the reminders, the pity! He hugged it closer to him, squealing just a little, a smile tugging at his lips.
Nothing could destroy his excitement. Not even his next class.
He sat in the empty changing rooms, tying his skates, his mask at his side, his hoodie already comfortably around him. He had done as Yuko suggested and taken himself out of his class, looking for personal lessons instead. And just as he had feared, the weekend brought out families to the rink. He would not be alone. People would see him fail.
He found his eyes lingering on the mask. He knew somewhere, even in his young mind, that this was a defining moment in his life. If he put it on, then he was changing something within him. He was telling the world that he wasn’t happy as himself, that he had to hide as someone else to be happy. He did like himself. He liked being Yuuri. But he also hated himself when he failed. He hated the shame it brought him, the tears he couldn’t stop. He knew that they didn’t mean too much, not in the long run, but in those moments it was hard not to dwell on the negative feelings. It was hard to love yourself when one little failure reminded you of weaknesses that you hated. Putting on the mask would help him develop the confidence he was lacking, a trait he so desperately wanted.
And if he didn’t put it on, then he would overcome them himself someday. Maybe. But if he did, it would take too long, and all his failures would be there for everyone to see, to see only him and his mistakes. He didn’t think he had the patience to wait, and he couldn’t take the pain that he would have to endure to get to confidence.
Wearing the mask was a short cut of sorts. Taking a short cut wasn’t bad, was it?
He secured the mask on, sighing when he felt the weight against his skin. He took a moment to appreciate it and to see if it really fit. The first thing he noticed was how easy it was for him to actually see; the film in front of the eyes was clear on his end, and the sides of the holes were surprisingly spacious, allowing him even his peripheral vision, if a little bit dimmed. The second thing he noticed was that he could breathe pretty well, even with the plastic pressing against his nose and mouth. It pushed the air over his neck, tickling it ever so slightly. He traced his fingertips over the mask, the smooth texture surprising him. He found that he liked it. He liked it a lot.
Already he could feel his nerves beginning to melt away. But not quite yet, not completely. He pulled the hoodie over his head, bringing it to rest just at the top of the mask, and suddenly he didn’t feel like Yuuri anymore. He was someone new. No. Not someone new.
He was someone yet to be created.
A warmth spread through his chest and he felt fuelled, energy coursing through him. All he wanted was to storm out into rink and prove himself – to build a new character and to show everyone that he could do this even if they didn’t know it was him. He stood and marched his way to the doors, holding his head high with every step.
As he stepped out into the rink, he noticed the families, the people, the noise, the bright lights. There were only a few people, hardly any really, but enough that it would have already begun to scare Yuuri. And yet as he glanced around, he found that he wasn’t feeling that familiar emotion. It burned low inside of him, easily contained. Even as the people stilled and their chatter died down when they noticed him, he didn’t shy away from the attention.
The rink was quiet as he made his way towards the ice. Every set of eyes were following his movement. His steps echoed in the large building. He counted them all. Three families, two of four and one of three. There was a couple in along the farthest edge. Two friends about to step on. His tutor. And they were all watching him.
Surprisingly, his confidence didn’t die as he leaned to take off the guards to his blades and stepped out onto the ice. It almost faltered, just slightly, when he came close to his tutor and saw the confusion on his face.
Of course he knew who he was. His tutor knew who he would be teaching today, and so he saw Yuuri under the mask. Just as Yuko would know, and his family too after he told them his plan the night before. They were supportive, but didn’t understand. They didn’t think it was going to be something he would stick to. But his tutor had always been encouraging, despite Yuuri’s failures and flaws, and when Yuuri thought about how he didn’t mind the man knowing, his confidence flared back to life.
After the initial shock, his tutor asked, “Can you see properly out of it?”
Yuuri gave a big nod.
“Can you breathe?”
“Just like before.”
“Think you can skate with it?”
Yuuri hesitated before he answered. “Yes.” In fact, he was pretty sure that once he secured his new persona, he could skate better than he was ever able to before. He could overcome his anxieties, and he could do what Yuuri lacked. He didn’t have to limit himself.
With the assurance, his tutor gave him a wide smile. “Then let’s get to it.”
He never expected the mask to work so well. He pushed himself harder in the practice. He jumped, attempted single rotations, and landed them. At first, they were still shaky, but as his confidence built, he began to land them properly. Not perfect, but the best foundation that he had ever been able to achieve before.
Even with countless gazes still glued to his back.
He didn’t feel so nervous anymore. He could actually focus on his skating and ignore the attention. Even their whispers weren’t enough to shake his confidence and he felt his pride swell within him. Maybe he could actually do it. Maybe he could actually enjoy skating without people judging him when he failed!
After little over an hour, he stood before his tutor, the sweat pouring from him, with the biggest smile that he had ever worn. Though it was hidden behind the mask, he knew his tutor could see his happiness in his body language. He wanted to continue. He felt like he could prove it to the world now. He wanted to get better and better and better again, to wipe away every mistake Yuuri Katsuki had ever made, replace them with the achievements of his new personality. No one would be able to laugh, not when he was the best.
“You did amazing today,” the tutor complimented, halting himself before he added Yuuri’s name without thinking. He ruffled the top of the boy’s head. “Keep at it like that, and you’ll be able to do some amazing things.”
He hadn’t even noticed that Yuko was watching. As he stepped off of the ice, she tackled him with a bone crushing hug.
“Oh my God, you were brilliant!” she gasped. “You were beautiful, better than I’ve ever seen you before.”
“It works,” he whispered, looking up into her face as if she was a goddess. He should start listening to Yuko some more, he decided. If she came up with ideas like this, who knew what they could do.
“It really does.” She pulled him in for a tighter hug again, lifting him from the floor. “You were a force to reckon with. Can you imagine what your new confidence and some proper training could do? You could become the best in the world.”
Yuuri grinned as the happiness flowed through his veins. It was addicting, this euphoria. It tingled at the tips of his fingers and the bottom of his toes, his knees almost buckling from the pressure and his heart soaring at heights he never thought possible. He couldn’t stop the smiles that were pulling at his lips, not even if he tried. He couldn’t remember being so happy.
It was why he continued with the lessons, never once forgetting his mask or hoodie. And soon enough, the lessons were becoming training sessions. They took up all of his free time (all that hadn’t been taken by ballet and Minako). Hours upon hours piled together, time flowing by at such a speed.
He’d started something of a reputation throughout the town. Often he would find his training sessions were gathering audiences. They would wait on the rink side and watch the young boy, clad in his hoodie and mask. There were a few of course who knew who he was, though they didn’t let on. But most came to try and figure it out. Rumours spread. Some children claimed it was them.
Yuuri found he didn’t care. He dedicated his thoughts to skating.
Sometimes though, when he was alone in the dressing room, the mask sitting next to him, he did think about how far he had come. Only a year had passed since he bought the mask. Not a lot of time. And yet it felt like a lifetime and a flash of a second, all at once. Skating quickly became what he lived for, and he knew he wouldn’t have become so dedicated had it not been for Yuko’s idea. It gave him a confidence that he would never have found otherwise. Yuuri Katsuki, just a small, nervous, anxious, weak boy would have given up before now. This new persona, it had given him everything.
And that was how he found himself doing something that Yuuri Katsuki never would have.
He entered a competition.