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A Heart of Blades||Cannot Break

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There are certain things that one doesn’t choose to share with their significant other. Or even with their closest friends. These pieces of information run the gamut from the miniscule to earth shattering, from something as simple as not liking the taste of a specific kind of fruit to potentially being the key witness in a murder trial.

Yuuri would like to insist that his secret isn’t anywhere near as melodramatic. He hardly thinks of it as a secret at all; all it is, is a facet of his past that he wants forgotten. By anyone except for him. Having lived it, he can’t deny that the experience is something that made him the person he is, but it’s simultaneously the kind of experience that he feels embarrassed to bring up. If only because it tends to invite pity. The only time it doesn’t invite pity, it invited social distaste instead.

Having been hell bent on returning to the competitive skating circuit after an unforeseen break of two years, Yuuri had decided early on that he didn’t need the drama. Where initially the omission had been unintended, occasional forays into the world of SNS and online forums had warned him well in advance that it would be a terrible idea to broadcast that part of his past. Especially as a child still struggling with physical therapy and attempting to catch up to studies and classes that seemed alien on the best of days to him after his…  Break.

He’d been tremendously lucky, having gone through the experience in Hasetsu. And being a Katsuki. His father’s clan had owned Yu-Topia over multiple generations, they were a fixture in the town. And everyone loved his parents. He and Mari were lucky enough to share a large part of that love solely by virtue of being the children of the onsen - it meant that Yuuri was never shunned the way some of the people he’d known were shunned in Tokyo and other parts of the country.

In spite of the terror that quaked in him at the thought of needing to face that kind of social discrimination, never let it be said that Yuuri couldn’t count his blessings. At least when it came to this. He took the good wishes of the people in town, kept his head down, and trained his heart out to pay them back. Even if a large part of that training was him trying to return to the world, the real world, with ice under his blades and actually feeling the chill of the air and experiencing different seasons all over again.

Blades back under his feet, where they belonged. Not in his hands. Flying across the ice, feeling the physical strain in his muscles and limbs, feeling strength augmented by daily exercise and remembering how it felt to believe in it without swiping the fingers of his right hand through the air and automatically calling up a status bar to check-

*

There is a reason Yuuri never tells anyone that he survived SAO when he he’d just turned thirteen. That he’d been locked into the death game as a noob who knew nothing about gaming in general, just out to take a break from constantly training day in and day out, tired of having no time to breathe between ballet and ballroom dancing and skating and school. He’d heard the more tech-savvy boys in his class gushing about it and had wanted, for once in his life, to enjoy something more normal, something other boys his age wanted to do in their spare time.

It had been a weak moment. One that Yuuri never stopped cursing himself for, not once in the two years that followed.

Yuuri had been a dime-a-dozen Japanese pre-teen, fooled along with so many other, older and better people by Kayaba Akihiko.

He doesn’t tell anyone he’d been involved in the entire episode. He’d rather be judged for his skating skills and his performance on the ice, and he judges himself on how much closer he’s gotten to Victor, chasing his shadow in desperation, having spent lonely nights in Aincrad nauseated by the thought of his body wasting away in a hospital bed Outside.

He doesn’t find it important to tell anyone that he survived the death game. SAO didn’t make him.

It certainly didn’t break him.

*

That said, while Yuuri never called attention to what he considered his ‘dark past’, even darker than some of his crazier costume and program ideas as a junior skater, he had learnt to accept that some things, once learnt, weren’t easily forgotten or set aside.

He learnt that the hard way, throwing a pen hard enough to slam it through a bull’s eye on the other side of the class. It had just been a stupid dare, the kind of thing teenage boys did to kill time. Yuuri had been trying to mind his own business, putting his books away after class and hunting for his bento, wondering if Takeshi and Yuu-chan would have the time to eat together when they were already in the high school building, when someone slammed their hands into his desk.

Instinct made him want to swing the heavy text book still in his hands right through the ambushing mob’s head. Rigorous retraining in social niceties made him control the reflex to instead duck down and hide the twisting expression on his face.

Glancing up eventually brought him face to chest with one of the louder boys in class. This might have been enough to make him cringe back if the boy weren’t also one of the friendlier boys in class, who didn’t begrudge Yuuri his friendship with their senpai and didn’t mock him for being an year older than the rest of them. Yuuri still isn’t quite sure how it happened; one thing led to another, and he found himself playing darts with pens and pencils and a sheet of paper stuck against the classroom door.

It should have been impossible, but apparently muscle memory trained through roughly twenty months in a death game didn’t go anywhere. Yuuri stared, just about as disbelieving as the rest of his classmates when his pen actually managed to hit and stay.

K’so, it’s half an inch in!”

“What?!

“How’d you manage that, Katsuki?!”

“Wow.

Yuuri hadn’t stopped to talk. He’d ducked into an embarrassed bow, rushed back to his bag, snatched up his bento and ran. Not without jerking the pen out of the door, though. It was better for everyone if he didn’t leave the evidence still struck through the scene of the crime.

There had only been four people still in class to witness his momentarily abnormal precision and physical strength. They were kind enough to not spread rumors. Yuuri proceeded to avoid talking to everyone, no matter who it was, for the rest of the year.

Later that same day, though, long after he’d rushed back home to hide in his room, refusing to talk to anyone no matter who it was, he’d waited till the bustle of the onsen had sunk into the quiet of slumber, late in the night. And then, he’d snuck into the kitchen on kitten feet, his stealth skill holding good somehow even in the real world. Possibly a combination of experience accumulated under the weirdest of circumstances (read: death game VRMMORPGs) and knowing the floorboards of his home inside out.

Finding knives that actually had the right weight amongst his mother’s collection had been the work of minute or two. Taking them out to the yard and finding a tree that wouldn’t attract too much attention was another minute. Ruining his mother’s blades by throwing them with frightening accuracy at that tree, though, was the work of an entire night, spent with a static-filled mind focused on nothing but honing his edge.

Mari, stepping out the next morning to sneak a cigarette when their parents and their patrons wouldn’t catch her, had gotten the shock of her life, seeing him curled up under a tree with knives clutched in his hands.

*

Bladework still came easy to him, even years after the fact. Yuuri still couldn’t pull off all of his old skills, not without the help of the system, but a large part of what he’d done day in and day out had sunk into his muscles as surely as dance and skating had.

It was very difficult to not go hunting for knives of some sort to stand in for his beloved set of daggers, though. He consoled himself with the thought that at least he had easy access to the kind of knives one bought at a store, especially after he moved into his own place in Detroit. His parents had been very supportive, but watching him run though kata, or more appropriately the equivalent of training exercises that SAO had provided them with, had worried his parents a lot when he’d been younger1. Less for what he was doing and more for the fact that it would keep his mind occupied with his life in Aincrad, something that every therapist asked to discuss the death game had firmly prescribed against.

Yuuri hadn’t been sure why, back then. Even if he hadn’t been one of the people so lost to Aincrad that returning to the real world had disillusioned them, Yuuri knew enough of himself and of the people he’d lived and worked with for two years to in w that denying their experience in Aincrad wouldn’t help anyone. Two years seemed like a drop in the ocean of time, but to Yuuri at barely a month after his thirteenth birthday, two years had been nearly twenty percent of the number of years he’d already been alive.

To the people that had lived it, Aincrad was as much a real place as any other, in the world. It was probably in bad taste, getting too lost in those old memories, but Yuuri could never do that. He had too much to live for, too much to work towards, and he’d already lost two years of training time. In the years he’d been separated from the world of figure skating, Victor had gotten so much better that watching the Senior GPF that year covered in blankets and still feeling weak had left him  reeling, nearly unable to breathe with the breadth of the emotion unfolding in his chest.

*

(He’d doubted himself, once. Just once. A little over an year into SAO and he’d begun to doubt all his memories of the real world, and he’d found himself idly wondering if Victor Nikiforov was someone he’d dreamt up, whose skating was so unearthly in the faint memories in his head that he couldn’t possibly be real. On days like those, the real world as a whole seemed unreal in the face of needing to fight every day, and train, and train some more, edging his way up in levels because there was no other way to stay alive and stay sharp.

He’d hated himself for the doubt right after, for doubting Victor, who had done nothing wrong. And had thrown himself at a dungeon that had been far too high for him, back then, had nearly died in the aftermath of his reckless urge to punish himself. The only reason he didn’t die was the kindness of a passing solo swordsman, having heard the altercation and having come past just to check and make sure everything was okay.)

*

For all that he lived so far away from Tokyo, and away from where all the acquaintances he’d made were most likely to be admitted in hospitals, a few of them managed to track him down anyway. Specifically Argo-san, who initially demanded a payment to keep his location a secret from the rest of Kirito’s little group, then sheepishly offered him a discount when Yuuri incredulously asked how she expected him to pay her anything as an elementary school student.

Apparently the legendary cut-throat mercantile sensibilities of Argo the Rat were alive and well even in the real world.

He’d managed to wrangle promises of not sharing his location with anyone, though she did confess that Kirito would probably figure it out whether either of them wanted him to or not. Yuuri had to agree with her on that – Kirito-nii had always managed to track down the people he watched over, whether they liked it or not. Yuuri had never been as close to the rest of the clearers who banded around Kirito, he was too uncomfortable in such a large group, but that had never stopped Kirito or his wife from welcoming Yuuri into the fold. And that meant Yuuri was very much one of the people whom Kirito kept an eye on, irrespective of whether Yuuri was willing to admit it out loud or not.

Yuuri had usually found himself bowing in the face of Kirito-nii’s doting, though. Being saved from certain death tended to inure you to your savior. And if that savior was the infamous Black Swordsman of Aincrad, well… There was a reason there were so many whispered rumors about Kirito’s offhand ability to slay unsuspecting players with his charisma. Yuuri hadn’t stood a chance, not when the older boy had been so willing to entertain not only his panic attacks but also respecting Yuuri’s at times desperate need for silence and space.

So Argo had finally let Yuuri get with secured promises to not tell anyone anything, but she did offer to share her mailing address and cell phone number with Yuuri. All of which she passed on free of charge, for once, which had been a relief. Returning to a world where you couldn’t earn money by taking down monsters had been jarring, to Yuuri. And presumably to everyone else who’d gotten used to being completely self-sufficient. Even if Yuuri was terribly relieved to be to be out, he had to admit that he missed being fully self-sufficient – a self-sufficiency that he hadn’t been able to fully return to until years later, when he moved out of Hasetsu and to Detroit.

 “It’s probably better that I don’t tell anyone where you are yet,” she’d said, right after Yuuri had threatened to cut the line. “Aa-chan’s still in a coma, along with close to three hundred other players.”

“What?” Yuuri had whispered, horrified, his hands clenching around the phone reflexively. He’d been trying to distract her, and trying to get off the line as soon as he possibly could because Argo scared him sometimes, no matter how seriously Kirito-nii had insisted she had good intentions at heart. But this was more important than the terror she inspired.

“Kii-bou’s been worried. Agil and I have been looking into things for him, and I’ve been doing research separately because it’s not right that they’re all still not out. Kii-bou would say that the game hasn’t ended till everyone’s awake and back to their real lives, right. So… I wanted to help…” she ended softly, and Yuuri had shivered just a bit before he forced himself to straighten up.

“You’re doing the best you can, Argo-san. I’m sure Kirito-nii knows that.” He’d said, as seriously as he could.

Argo had been silent, and for a long moment, Yuuri had felt like he was back at the boss meetings, faced with people who weren’t quite sure if he could really take care of himself. Yuuri hadn’t blamed them, honestly. Because he’d been tiny. He’d stayed tiny all the way till he hit fifteen, when he shot up like a beanpole.  It had wreaked havoc on his skating ability, since he’d needed to get used to a body that didn’t feel anything like his own, and he’d been forced to take most of a season off just to get his bearings back. But back when he’d been stuck in the months between twelve and thirteen, Yuuri had easily been the youngest and the tiniest player in the boss meetings, and saying anything at all had left him feeling oddly like an adult and a child stuck in the same frame, because while the other, older players had been willing to listen to what he had to say seriously, they’d always looked a little surprised to have him present beside them as a peer.

The illusion shattered when Argo gave a sudden snicker, and Yuuri felt his cheeks burn when she had finally spoken up.

“Nihihi, Kii-bou was right, Yuuri-chan! You’re so sweet.”

“A-Argo-san!” Yuuri had complained, making her snicker with audible delight.

“Just for that I’ll let you know if I find anything out, free of charge!”

Yuuri had paused for a moment, and suspiciously asked what, exactly, she’d offer free of charge. Since she was being a little too nice, even for a dash of sentiment.

“Oh, just if I find Aa-chan,” she’d replied, and had finally cut the line herself with another nasally little laugh.

Yuuri had been left staring at the phone, wondering if he should be worried or not.

*

Things had gotten relatively clear a while after, when the RECT Progress scandal had come out. Yuuri had been left staring at the TV screen, shaken, and more than a little relieved that he hadn’t gotten involved in any more games, no matter how tempting the stories about independent flying with wings in a VRMMORPG had been. Yuuri had learnt his lesson about listening to the stories of his classmates the first time around.

He’s relieved Asuna-san and Kirito had gotten out of the mess okay, though. For all that nothing had been said about either of them in the news, something told Yuuri that that was only because they were still minors. However… odd it was, to think of them as being too young to be named in the news. Yuuri didn’t even need a confirmation of his suspicions, though Argo had been kind enough to give him a ring and let him know that Kirito and the others were safe. Something about her tone told him there was more to the story, but he rather pointedly didn’t ask. He didn’t want to be charged, after all. And Yuuri could tell that the only reason Argo was being kind enough to call and not just mail the information to him, as she must have mailed general messages to anyone from SAO who deserved to know, was because Kirito-nii had watched out for Yuuri a lot, towards the end.

Yuuri had tried to do the same. He’d been young, younger than anyone else in the Clearers, and had still been struggling to figure out the Unique Skill the system had seen fit to give him, but that didn’t mean he was willing to be taken care of with no returns. That ‘him’ had been left behind to die back on the lower floors, when Yuuri had decided to grit his teeth and step into the wilds outside the Town of Beginnings on his own with only his starter gear to protect him.

He’d nearly died that first day out. And nearly died a whole bunch of times after. He’d spent nights camped out in trees and shaking when he hadn’t been careful and got stuck out too late to circle back, with mobs that were too high-levelled for him to beat roaming the field beneath him. But he’d managed, somehow, till he had enough mats and experience under his belt to get better gear.

No, Yuuri didn’t need to be taken care of at all, not by Kirito or anyone else. But… Kirito-nii had made it easier, back then. Watching out for him ever since he’d caught Yuuri solo grinding in the dungeons before the first boss battle they’d actually been in together.

Yuuri had demanded to know why he was getting special treatment, once. Just once, when Kirito had tagged along on one too many side quests and trips out into dungeons for no other given reason than ‘being bored’ or ‘being in the area by coincidence’. Yuuri hadn’t been suspicious in the beginning, and had even been willing to let it slide the first fifteen times because Kirito had actually been the least patronizing clearer-level player Yuuri had encountered, on the higher floors. But he’d had to snap at some point. And he’d been embarrassingly close to tears, because he’d thought Kirito-nii was different, that he trusted Yuuri to know his own limits, and Kirito… had smiled. Painfully awkwardly. And said that Yuuri reminded him of his younger sister outside. And of some kids that he’d taken under his wing, once, guild members on a lower floor.

He hadn’t needed to say anything more about the guild members. The darkness in his eyes before he turned his gaze away had been enough to tell Yuuri that none of those kids had survived.

And so, Yuuri had caved. And suffered himself to be babied, every once in a while, if only because it seemed to make something in the older boy relax just that little bit. Yuuri hadn’t been all that close to the rest of Kirito’s friends, or to anyone else in the game, but even he had to admit that his bond with Kirito had been strong enough to last even after they’d all been freed.

He admitted to it. But that didn’t mean he was actually ready to talk to him immediately, or anyone else from SAO. Not yet, not when Yuuri had finally come to a point where he was skating somewhere near his ability before SAO and before his body had changed.

Argo-san was a cheating cheat who didn’t count, because even if she’d managed to track him down all on her own, Argo-san was called Argo the Rat for a very good reason. She’d been considered the best informant SAO, and from what he’d heard even a majority of other MMOs, had seen so he couldn’t say he was surprised that she’d managed to find him.

But he’d feel so much safer if he could reconnect to other players on his own terms.

…not that he didn’t think Kirito-nii wouldn’t track him down all on his own, at some point. And if he didn’t have the patience to look on his own, he’d probably pay to get the info from Argo-san - she’d give it to him, too. Once she decided Yuuri had spent enough time getting his life together, she’d revoke the nastily high price she claimed to have put on his location.

But Yuuri would deal with that impending meeting of his two worlds when it actually happened. In the meantime, he had owed it to both his family and to all the people who’d died in those two years in SAO to actually pay attention to the things that mattered in his life. And that meant focusing on school, on his RL friends and family who’d been worried sick about him and on his dream.

Surely Kirito-nii would understand that his dream of skating on the same ice as Victor Nikiforov was important enough to dedicate all his energy to increasing his skills as an ice skater. Or, at least, that it was just as important to Yuuri as clearing the Death Game and returning to RL had been, once.

*

…to be honest, Yuuri suspected Kirito would understand exactly how important that dream was to him. He’d probably smile, pat him on the shoulder, and then proceed to tease him as viciously as Mari-nee had when Yuuri’s poster count had first reached double digits. He’d probably do it with a perfectly mild smile on his face too.

Silica-chan had shot him a pained glance the first and last time he’d brought up the subject of Kirito-nii’s mild-as-milk smiles and his nasty sense of humor. And he still couldn’t tell why Agil-san and Klein-san had looked so amused2.

*

It takes Yuuri a while, and concentrated effort, but his efforts bear fruit when his body starts to feel a little more like his own, nine months after SAO had ended. The next time he speaks to the physiotherapist the hospital had assigned him, with his mom and Minako-sensei hovering in the background, she actually seemed serious when she’d smiled and said there was an excellent chance of Yuuri being able to succeed in his dream. The relief that hit him then had left him wet-eyed and faint, clinging to the arms of his chair while his mom squealed in delight and Minako-sensei burst into actual tears. They’d both thrown their arms around each other, incandescent enough in their joy that it had almost been too difficult for Yuuri to look back at them, instead focusing on the words of his doctor talking over the sounds of them whispering fervently to each other.

He’s been sticking only to doubles of everything, and training triples on his toe loop for the last month, but the doctor’s verdict means that Minako finally relents and says he can start trying for triples in the other jumps. The triple axel had rather pointedly been kept off his regimen for obvious reasons, and it makes him complain more than once while he’s cooling down after a day of training. Minako-sensei weathers his grumbling for roughly a week before she slams a hand down against a bench at the rink, making him startle in the middle of a stretch.

“No means no,” she said, voice harsh. Yuuko’s mom, who’d been a junior-level figure skater in her youth before she’d thrown in the towel and who’d actually been responsible for Yuuri learning any jumps at all, nodded seriously from where she’d been seated on the same bench.

“You’re pushing yourself too hard, too fast, Yuuri-kun,” she said kindly, and Yuuri scowled down at the concrete by his right knee, still stretched out.

“This isn’t fast enough. How am I supposed to level up enough to try for the regionals if I don’t grind at all?”

He’d muttered the words mostly to himself, switching legs so he can stretch out his left side, but it takes him a few seconds to notice how unnaturally still and silent the two older women had gotten. When Yuuri actually looked up, wondering what had happened, he’d found both Minako and Yuuko’s mom staring at him, faces pale.

“What? What’d I say?” Yuuri had asked, uncomfortable.

They both traded glances before Minako-sensei sat down beside him, gingerly setting a hand on his back.

“What?” he repeated heatedly, because Minako was treating him like she thought he was going to break right there by the rink. And she hadn’t done anything of the sort since he’d first started physical therapy.

“It’s nothing, Yuuri-kun,” she said, voice soft, and bundled him up into a hug that smelt vaguely of perfume, smoke and plum wine. The combination was noxious enough that Yuuri had choked, trying to pull away, but he’d given in eventually. Because Minako-sensei was a force of nature, and even if he’d been in training to build muscle and start filling in his STR bar all over again, he wasn’t anywhere near strong enough to push her away from position of little to no leverage.

“You still have time,” Nishigori-san3 murmured, her voice just as gentle as Minako’s, “You don’t have to rush ahead all at once, even if you need to train. Take at least a full season so your body can adjust, Yuuri-kun. You’re still growing.”

The words make Yuuri stiffen even further in Minako-sensei’s grasp, because she had a point. Yuuri had been trying not to notice how his limbs seem to be growing in spite of two years of relative malnourishment, or how his voice cracks strangely when he least expects it. He’s growing hair in strange places, which honestly freaks him out more than a lot of other things because he’d gotten used to the smooth, digitally rendered body he’d been in for two years – and his RL growth spurt had been making it all too obvious that bodies didn’t work that way.

About the only good thing about the timing of the growth spurt is that his body had already been at zero after coming out of SAO. He had ingrained muscle memory from those two years, or at least it felt like he had ingrained muscle memory from those year for all that he’d never actually held a knife in hand until he’d woken up in RL. And it makes his ability with those knives a little shaky because his weight, height and reach are all changing slowly but surely – but the lack of actual muscle mass meant he was nearly relearning skating from the ground up. Nishigori-san had been impressed he’d been able to skate at all, when he’d managed to get himself to the rink after being stuck on his back for the first month or so out of SAO.

Yuuri knew leveling up took time. It had taken him hours on end of grinding to get anywhere at the lower levels in Aincrad – and he’d been shunted back down to level one, now that SAO had ended. But the reality of it – the reality of needing to go slow and waiting because his body was working against him, was next to impossible to swallow.

“But I need to level up,” he mumbled into Minako’s shoulder, hating how small his voice sounded.

Yuuri hadn’t been sure why she’d started shaking even with her arms tightly around him, but he’d patted her on the back anyway.

*

He’s finally allowed to try for the regional championships right before his seventeenth birthday. The months leading up to Nishigori-san agreeing to sign him up as representing the Ice Castle had been difficult, particularly since she’d still wanted to give him more time to recover.

Even if he wouldn’t say anything about it out loud where someone could hear him, not after how Minako and Yuuko’s mom had reacted the one time he’d mentioned level grinding out loud, the longer he spent training the more it felt like he was preparing to immerse himself in a main quest. And even if it wasn’t exactly right, to think of it that way, Yuuri really did feel like his dream was the main quest of his life, now that he’d well and truly settled back into RL. And if his dream was the main quest, it only made sense that to view the small-time exhibition skates that Nishigori-san and Minako had signed him up for, once he’d gotten better, as side quests. Right?

Yuuri had been at the end of his tether, because he’d spent a whole two years being completely in control of whether or not he immersed himself in a quest. And not being able to decide personally if he was ready to graduate from the side quests to the main quest for himself had made him increasingly agitated. Because it felt like being back at his first ever pre-battle meeting as a clearer, with nearly everyone in the room looking like the wanted to send him back out. He’d been a training junkie as bad as Kirito-nii, according to Asuna-san, and even he was sick and tired of being forced to train without actually being able to see whether all his level grinding had borne fruit or not.

Yuu-chan had thankfully butted in before Yuuri had erupted about any of that out loud, though. For all that she’d grown older along with Takeshi when he wasn’t around to see it happen, she still seemed to understand him better than anyone else. And she’d been able to tell just how close to snapping he’d been. So Minako and Nishigori-san had finally relented, though they kept saying that he ‘shouldn’t feel bad if he didn’t do as well as he wanted to’ and that he ‘had to start somewhere’.

“I just want them to trust me when I say that I can do it. Not to try and make me feel better about myself.” Yuuri had said, once the forms had been mailed to the JSF.

Takeshi’s face had been screwed up in confusion, but he’d looked oddly understanding anyway, clapping Yuuri on the back and saying that they would figure it out when he actually got on the ice and whopped the competition’s ass. Yuuko had burst into giggles beside them, while Yuuri had flailed madly in place before giggling a bit himself.

The weeks leading up to the actual championship are… odd, for Yuuri. And familiar in a way that he really hadn’t been expecting, when he’d been in training. They pass with an icy clarity, like the world he’s seeing is suddenly sharper than before, with each day making it harder to consciously eat food, to pay attention to other people and even to focus on anything other what he’s doing while practicing his jumps and his other program components while at the rink.

He didn’t notice just how his change of personality had alarmed his parents, not to mention Nishigori-san and Minako-sensei, until Mari cornered him one night at the rink.

“I don’t know what’s up with you,” Mari-nee said, her voice cutting through the dark and nearly making Yuuri crash back into the doors he’d just locked, “But you need to stop.”

It’s difficult to look back at her while simultaneously trying to ignore the way his brain was lurching, and the way his fingers were ticking, telling him to go for his menu and get a weapon out before it was too late, but he does it anyway. Because even if she’d sprung a surprise attack on him when he was least expecting it, this was Mari-nee. This was his sister, not some mob trying to sneak up on him in the dark. 

From the wry look on her face, though, Yuuri didn’t think he’d quite managed to hide his reaction.

“Those are bad for you, y’know,” he muttered back, trying to lean casually against the doors.

Mari just raised her brows, her gaze shifting to the rink that was hidden behind the locked doors to his back, then back to meet his gaze. And exhaled another cloud of smoke, tapping out a bit of ash from the tip of her cigarette before bringing it back to her lips.  Yuuri wrinkled his nose at her, but he didn’t say anything. Point taken, Mari-nee.

“Kaa-san and Tou-san are getting worried, y’know.” She said, mild, her tone the exact same as his had been, and Yuuri actually winced, curling in a bit on himself.

“Why would they be worried? There’s nothing wrong with me.”

He mumbled the words out, but even as he said them, he knew he didn’t actually mean them. His parents had seen him get anxious before exams, and in the novice championships when he’d been younger, but even Yuuri knew the way his anxiety affected him had changed since SAO. He’d seen the signs, but he’d been trying to ignore them until Mari had decided to corner him.

Mari stared him down, first looking incredulous and then her brows slowly furrowed as she straightened, her arm lowering to hang by her side.

“…Yuuri. You haven’t been eating.” She said slowly, sounding like she was trying to avoid setting him off. It made him frown back, irate.

“I know I haven’t been eating as much as usual, but-”

“Yuuri, you haven’t eaten all of today.”

That? That made him stiffen in surprise. He tried to think back to when he’d eaten last, because surely it hadn’t gotten that bad, but he realized with a sinking feeling that he couldn’t actually remember.

Mari was beginning to look a little horrified, and it was disturbing to see that expression on his sister’s face. Not when Mari-nee had been one of the most composed people he’d ever known his entire life. She was like a rock in the center of the ocean, you could try weathering her down but she wouldn’t ever move.

“I was there when you ate breakfast yesterday, but you were gone for the rest of the day. And you went to bed soon after you got back home. And I know I saw you skip breakfast a few times before yesterday, but- Yuuri-”

“I’ve been eating!” Yuuri snapped back, but no. No, he hadn’t been eating nearly as much as a person should, back in RL.

He’s a little horrified himself, now that he’s actually trying to break it down inside his head. Yuuri had skipped meals across the days leading up to a boss battle while in Aincrad, since it had felt like a waste of col to spend it on food when he could spent it on gear and healing crystals, or any mats he might need to upgrade his pre-existing gear if he happened to run low right before they needed to go in. He’d always made sure to get a good meal in to boost his stats right before the main battle, but- he didn’t think he’d been-

This was RL. He knew this. He knew it, so why-?

He jerked upright when he felt hands on his shoulders, and when he looked up, it was to find Mari leaning in, her cigarette no longer in sight and the worry plain in her eyes.

“I need to get you home,” she whispered, and Yuuri flinched away. She dragged him back close for a hug, though.

“Does Minako-sensei know?” he asked in a tiny voice.

Because that was more important than anything else. If Minako-sensei knew he’d been skipping meals leading up to the championship, she might decide he wasn’t ready enough to compete. Not when there was even a miniscule possibility that he’d do well and get seeded into an international event. It was all or nothing, with Minako-sensei – once she’d agreed to let him apply for the championships she’d decided to treat it as a full skating season, international events included, and had begun to work with Nishigori-san to train him accordingly.

Mari took in a deep breath, but she let it out without saying anything. She didn’t actually need to say what was on her mind, though. Yuuri knew her well enough to hear the ‘that isn’t what’s important, little brother’ that was on her mind.

She just hugged him tighter, and tucked him under her arm to lead him back home. Yuuri let her sit him down in the kitchen afterwards, quietly calling out instructions while she prepared a pot of rice porridge for him. It didn’t sound all that appetizing, but her claim that it would be light and easy on his stomach made him remain silent.

“I’ll sit with you. And remind you if you forget.” She offered levelly, later.

Yuuri considered that, chewing slowly, and then set his chopsticks down before bowing his head in thanks. His sister rolled her eyes before letting her gaze drop back to the magazine she was curled up with on the other side of the table, but Yuuri could easily see the smile tucked into the corner of her lips.

*

The trip to Okayama with Minako-sensei isn’t all that worrying, and from the soft smile that’s been on Minako’s face since they actually set out, Yuuri could tell she was… proud of him, for what it was worth. Proud of how well he was handling himself.

Yuuri didn’t think he was handling himself all that well at all. There was worry building in his gut, heavy and inexorable. It made him feel like the world was slowing down, possibly like he was slowly getting submerged underwater, but all of those things were familiar as ever, even if they hadn’t happened to him as much or as often as they used to. Combined with how crystal clear everything feels, despite the heaviness of his limbs, Yuuri had the sinking feeling that he… really wasn’t going to be okay, when the skating was over and done with.

It’s a single day. It’s only a single day, but Yuuri had felt this way before and he knew he needed to warn Minako-sensei before it actually happened. But he just didn’t know how.

They’re already set up at the rink side, well after the warming up and practice are done and Yuuri had found out when he would be skating, before he manages to convince himself to say anything at all. Minako-sensei tries to pat him on the back, then hold him by the shoulders to say that he’s going to be fine, but he somehow found it in himself to grit his teeth and cut her off.

“I’ll be able to finish skating,” he said, voice tight, and she slowed down in her speech, the surety of his tone actually registering, “But- I may not be okay. After.”

“Yuuri-” she started, looking confused, but he shook his head, and lifted his hands to cover hers where they still rested on his shoulders.

“I may not be okay, after. I- I had to be okay. During.” Yuuri said, haltingly. “I couldn’t freeze up. I kept freezing up in the beginning and- I almost got killed. It kept happening again and again and I-” he broke off, and stared up at her a little helplessly.

Minako stared back at him, her eyes huge in her head.

“Yuuri-kun-”

So-” he broke in hurriedly, because he knew he wouldn’t be able to start again if he stopped, “I should be okay while I’m skating. I may not be comfortable talking to anyone when I’m done. But I think I should be okay at least till you get me back out and away from-”

“Do you want me to reserve a hotel room for us?” she asked him directly, when he found that he couldn’t say any more. Her voice was thankfully muted enough to avoid even being heard by the other skaters and coaches that were milling about by the rink side.

The offer nearly makes Yuuri wilt with relief, because he hadn’t actually wanted to ask for anything of the sort. Even if the thought of needing to get back on a train and travel, in public, surrounded by too many people and enclosed in a metal cage that was moving too fast for him to get off, had only been adding to the leaden ball of discomfort that had been lodged in his stomach. Minako-sensei didn’t even look angry, or disgusted, she just squeezed his shoulders and gave him a toothy grin.

“Just go and skate your heart out, kid, leave the rest to me.” she said, and Yuuri nodded.

By the time he actually had to step out past the boards, Yuuri’s mind felt as placid and clear as any other time he’d stepped past a set of wrought iron doors, surrounded by other clearers and ready to walk to his death.

*

Yuuri does better than he thought he did, at least as far as staying on his feet after his programs are done. He somehow manages to make second place on the podium – and he only manages that because the favorite for second had a bad fall towards the end of his free skate. To the point that he rockets down to fifth and Yuuri gets pushed up from third.

Yuuri might have felt nauseated by the fact that he medaled because of luck and not skill, but he’d been too busy trying not to break down in public after the ceremony was over.

When he actually comes back to himself, hours later, he finds himself in an unfamiliar room, shivering under a blanket, tucked between the nightstand and one of the beds in as small a ball as he can make of himself.

Minako-sensei was on the other side of the room from him, under a duvet of her own, snoring in her sleep.

Oh, he thought weakly, his lids shuttering.

His eyes felt gummy, and his cheeks felt tacky. When he pressed his face to his knees, hands fumbling at his sides, he found that Minako had surrounded him in pillows and put a bottle of water down for him in easy reach. The clawing sensation that starts in his chest and pushes its way up to his throat is horrible in that, he should be done. He should be done and-

He didn’t remember what it felt like, to have someone trying to take care of him when he couldn’t take care of himself. Not after he’d broken down after defeating a boss. He’d been alone for so long and- Even after Kirito had fallen in with him, and Asuna-san had tried to take care of him after she and Kirito-nii had gotten together, Yuuri had usually been too fast with his teleport crystals for either of them to get till him. And he’d had enough safe houses and inns that he frequented across the lower floors that they never would have been able to guess where he’d disappeared too accurately. Kirito-nii had managed to figure it out a bunch of times anyway, somehow, but it happened rarely enough that Yuuri was usually left to tend to himself.

Minako-sensei feels like unconditional love, whether he wants it or not. Whether he’s ready for it or not. And that hurts.

“Yuuri?” she slurred, voice heavy with sleep, but somehow having been able to tell that something was different. Even while dead to the world.

“I’m okay,” he whispered, and heard the rustling sounds of cloth being rearranged on the other side of the room.

He didn’t bother actually looking up, but he wasn’t surprised when she crawled closer, tugging her duvet with her.

“Can I hug you?” she asked him softly.

He nodded, and found himself wrapped up in her arms all over again.

“Please don’t tell kaa-chan,” Yuuri mumbled into her shoulder, once he’d managed to calm himself down again. “Because I don’t want to make her feel sad.”

“Oh, you silly boy. This wouldn’t make her feel sad, she’d just want to be there for you.” Minako muttered back at him, ruffling his hair.

“I don’t deserve it,” he replied, voice scratchy in his throat, eyes burning enough that he was afraid he’d start tearing up all over again. “I didn’t- Minako-sensei, I shouldn’t have gotten that silver med-”

“If you think someone else deserved it more than you, get gold in the sectionals and prove that it wasn’t a fluke.” She said, firm, and Yuuri clung to her and sobbed. The sounds erupting from his chest were ugly enough that he felt embarrassed to be making them, but Minako hushed him softly when he tried to say anything, and just let him cry.

“I’ll try,” he croaked later, once he’d cried all he could bear. “I’ll try, Minako-sensei.”

“That’s the spirit.” Minako said, and Yuuri could feel her smiling into his hair.

*

He doesn’t get gold, finally, when they travel to Fukuoka for the Western Junior Sectionals. But he does get silver, this time managing to stay above the bronze medalist by a five point lead. It’s not as good as it could have been, but it’s a whole lot better than how he did at the Chi-Shikoku-Kyushu Regionals.

The JSF apparently decided that it was enough proof of him making a comeback, as the letter he received from them about successfully having qualified for the Junior Grand Prix came with a personal note of congratulations for his return to skating.4

Yuuri’s parents were so proud of him that they discussed having the letter framed in the dining hall. He only managed to make them stop with help from Mari-nee – and not without bribing her with the offer to take over her chores for a month. Of course, Minako and Nishigori-san tried to do the same when his parents gave up – Minako wanting it in her dance studio, and Nishigori-san chiming in that it made more sense to have it at an actual ice skating rink. The only reason they didn’t actually have their way was because Yuuri made use of what little he had left of his stealth skill to steal it out of his parents’ room one night, making sure that it was never found again.

*

He holds on all the way through to the finals, somehow, but he only manages to get till fifth place. When he gets back home, half convinced that he’ll have find some way around both Minako and Nishigori-san to actually level grind the way he wants to, the way he needs to, to get anywhere near good enough to someday skate on the same ice as Victor, he’s met with his parents and sister beaming at him in the waiting area of the airport.

It’s unexpected enough by itself that he stops short, apprehensively wondering who was managing the inn, and nearly gets bowled over by a tiny, curly haired form that throws itself at his shins. When he looks down, it’s to find the cutest little puppy he’s ever seen, and his heart turns to mush in his chest.

“Oh wow,” Minako-sensei said from behind him. “Hiroko-chan, if you’re going to get him a puppy, I should at least rate an entire bottle of plum wine to myself.”

Yuuri distantly hears his mom laugh and say something about Minako having enough of a tab at the inn that she didn’t rate anything of the sort, but he’s too busy dropping to his knees and hugging the excited little puppy to himself. It’s tiny enough – he’s tiny enough that he’s overflowing with affection for everyone and everything, and Yuuri knows the little barks and the way a small tongue is determinedly trying to cover his entire face in licks is just a side-effect of that affection, but he can’t help the delighted giggles that are overflowing from him.

“What are you going to name him?” Mari-nee asked him, coming forward to crouch down beside them both.

“Vicchan,” Yuuri said, not even needing to stop and think it over. Because Vicchan might be tiny, and more chocolate colored than the gray-champagne shade he knows Victor’s Makkachin is, but there was no other visible difference he could see between the two dogs, and how could he even dream of naming the puppy anything else?

Mari chokes, and doubles over, close to cackling.

“Of course. Of course.” She said, and Yuuri was too happy to really take offence.

He had to shove her over when she started leering at him though. Because he just had to.

*

He might have only made fifth place at the Junior GPF and ended his skating season that year, but he made up for his poor showing the next season round, and won gold. Pushing past the closest competition with an easy fifteen point lead.