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It didn’t register, at first, that there were smooth scales under his fingers instead of rough fur. Yuuri was just looking for comfort, in whatever shape and form and dogs were the best form of comfort.

Even now, when his heart was screaming from losing Vicchan and having stayed away only to gain public humiliation and nothing more, dogs were the best form of comfort. His fingers scratched and searched for knots of fur to bury into, and found instead scales to hook his fingers behind and that was fine. That was the same thing. He buried his fingers, then his head into his hands, and cried.

He made an odd noise, the dog he’d clutched. Belonging to one of the spectators probably, hanging around the benches while the humans crowded around the erect stage. Viktor Nikiforov was up there now: proud and tall and elegant and, unless something went drastically wrong, soon to be victorious. Viktor who’d already earned the crown of Digimon King two years in a row. Viktor who’d no doubt win his third and why had Yuuri thought it was okay to dream that high, to spend his allowance and some of Mari’s on cards and play with Phitchit and his other friends, Guang Hong and Leo, until his fingers had more paper cuts to count.

He worked so hard, they’d laugh. Too hard. It was just a game but still, there were amazing people in the game. Like Viktor, who’d donate his winnings to the animal shelter and played with the little kids who were far behind him in skill just so they could have fun. And Yuri Plisetsky, little pint-sized Yuri who could still match wits with the best of them even with a deck full of cards other people had left behind.

Yuuri wasn’t amazing, not like them. He was mediocre in everything but he wanted to be something special. Sure, he danced and skated and wore makeup but those things were him, who he was. They didn’t make him special in the least. They didn’t make him feel special. And that was okay too because he needed a sanctuary too, and they were those things. But this, this was a dream someone in junior high school could have and reach: a dream a child could reach.

But how could he have been so cruel? When was the last time he’d played with Vicchan in this park, instead of studying his cards with the miniature poodle in his lap, until he grew bored. And Vicchan was young and vivacious. Of course he grew bored. And he’d run around the onsen or go outdoors to play and of course he’d find trouble with no-one to keep an eye out for him.

Why hadn’t Yuuri thought anything when his goodbye to Vicchan had gone without an answered yip, instead of just assuming he’d gone into the backyard and couldn’t hear?

And why hadn’t he withdrawn immediately when he read Mari’s text, instead of trying anyway.

Too late now, though. He’d lost Vicchan because of his own carelessness and now he’d lost his chance to stand on the same stage as Victor too. And soon this sweet dog’s owner would come for him, and Yuuri would lose that one comfort too.

‘Hey, loser, what are you doing?’

Yuuri jumped and his hands tightened. The dog didn’t yelp, though. It should. Vicchan always yelps when he did.

‘Hey!’

Oh, right. Someone was talking to him. He lifted his head, only to be met with grey instead of brown or black. He blinked. Then blinked again at the not-quite dog-looking face staring back at him. Familiar, but not in a way different breeds of animals were familiar. Familiar like…

‘Monodramon!’ he yelped.

‘So now your eyes finally start working. How about your ears?’ There’s a pressure on his back suddenly, like someone’s trying to push him along. Except he’s not standing; he’s sitting and he’s not going anywhere quite yet. Neither is the Monodramon in his arms, whose twisted as Yuuri’s grip slackens and licks the tears away.

Yuuri lets him and turns. There’s Yuri Plisetsky with a foot trying to dig into Yuuri’s spine. It’s almost cute. It would have been cute if he cared, if he hadn’t just been bawling his eyes out onto something that only existed in the Digimon franchise. But his head had a fog in it now, from grief and humiliation and crying, and he could only stare.

‘You cried that much?’ the boy muttered. ‘Loser. Honestly, you made it into the championship tournament and that’s all you show.’

‘Yeah, I know.’ He didn’t defend himself. He didn’t argue. That was the way things had turned out after all, and the only comfort he could draw from it all was something that couldn’t feasibly exist.

.

He must have imagined it, he thought a couple of weeks later, when the fog had lifted just a tiny bit. Enough for him to go to school, though he begged out of going to their little hideout afterwards and playing more Digimon card games. Guang Hong and Leo nodded and let him have the space. Phichit poked him in class every day anyway: if not about Digimon (the reason they’d become friends in the first place), then homework, pets, the upcoming festival, and his low-key crush on Viktor Nikiforov.

Phichit meant well, and the constant badgering meant he couldn’t zone out and miss an entire class’s worth of material after the first one, but he didn’t want to talk about Vicchan or Phichit’s hamsters, or the new digimon movie that was coming out to celebrate its anniversary, or Viktor Nikiforov who’d, as predicted, cinched his third consecutive victory at the Digimon Grand Prix.

Still, he thought about all those things, and the dog who’d turned out to be Monodramon – but he simply must have imagined it. It was because he’d been in the tournament, because he’d still been there. Viktor must have just played it and the crowd cried it out, or something. Monodramon was Viktor’s favourite card, after all. The only one he never jogressed with another. It wasn’t his signature though: his signature move was jogressing and he managed combinations most could never put together. He was unpredictable, exciting, aspiring –

And Yuuri? He’d gone from being mediocre to being a failure on two fronts. To the point where he was hallucinating comfort from a Monodramon – perhaps Viktor’s Monodramon – because at least then he might’ve left an impression, however small. But that would have only worsened the humiliation. It was someone’s dog. It had to be someone’s dog, and they’d have come to find tears and snot dried out by the sun once the tournament was done.

And Monodramon was nothing more than a child’s fantasy brought to life in a card game, and picked up by a child prodigy.

Sometimes, Yuuri wished there were more dog digimon than just Doggymon. He was cute, but a troublemaker in appearance and canon lore and far better suited for someone like Phichit who lived for getting into trouble than him.

Phichit, likewise, lamented the lack of hamster digimon. Neither of them knew of any hamster digimon. But hamsters weren’t exactly common pets. Yuuri didn’t know anyone with them as pets aside from Phichit, and nowhere in person that catered specifically for them. But that was Phichit. And hamsters. Dogs were commonplace so why hadn’t a franchise aimed at children done more with it?

Well, there was Plotmon, he supposed. But Plotmon digivolved into Gatomon or Meicoomon, and both of them were cats. Nonsensical, and the root of many arguments between cat lovers and dog lovers – and apparently the reason that was Yuri Plisetsky’s signature line was because he couldn’t resist the chance to scorn dogs.

But cats hissed and scratched. Dogs… they wiped the tears away.

More tears rolled down his cheeks, and this time there was no dog to lick them away. Yuuri brushed them away himself, with his uniform sleeve.

Oh, he hadn’t even changed. He did that, slowly, and stared at his floor: so empty now that there were no cards spilt on the floor and no Vicchan to trip over. His parents had set up a shrine for Vicchan… and that only made things worse, because Vicchan was a part of a family to all of them and he’d just…

Sharp raps on his door interrupted those swirling thoughts. Must be Mari; his parents were gentler: never pushy, never scolding. But Mari was her own brand of supporting and maybe Yuuri might not have turned out very well if someone didn’t hold him responsible.

The door creaked open when he failed to answer immediately, and the smell of cigarette smoke hit his nose.

Yup, definitely Mari.

He rubbed his eyes one more time for good measure. His sister snorted, behind him. ‘Don’t bother, otouto. Nothing I haven’t seen before.’

‘Isn’t that line more suited for when you walk in on me in the private baths, or something?’ He twisted and rolled his eyes at her.

She rolled her eyes right back, far more practiced and effective. ‘Just wondering what you’re going to do now that the tournament’s over.’

‘Oh.’ Yuuri turned back to his bed, to the bare wall above it. He could still see the places where sticky tape had left marks and no doubt Mari could see it too. She also knew full well what had filled those walls before. And the floor. ‘Go to school, I guess.’

‘Well, of course. Education’s still compulsory for you.’ She rolled her eyes again, but she had every right to be proud of how her life had turned out. Sure, most people wouldn’t think much of a girl who’d dropped school in tenth grade and stuck around in her parents’ onsen until she was past normal marrying age. But Yuuri was proud of his sister, for defying society’s expectations and loving the onsen and being brave enough to give up any other dream that might have taken root in order to inherit it from their parents some day.

It was because Mari chose the onsen that Yuuri could choose to dream. But he was a fool and had chosen a child’s dream.

‘Nothing wrong with a child’s dream,’ Mari shrugged.

Yuuri didn’t know if he’d been speaking aloud or she’d simply read the words from the expression on his face. It didn’t matter either way.

‘I’ll support you either way… if you’re still dreaming, anyway.’

He heard that, loud and clear. If he wasn’t committed, then he was just wasting everyone’s time. But even if he was, even if he wanted to try again… ‘How can I? I could’ve spent more time with Vicchan instead…’

The tears started again.

Mari sighed, then gave him a quick pat on the head. ‘Dry up those tears, otouto,’ she replied. ‘Come on. You can’t take care of the customers with a face like that. Then I can finally get a smoke break.’

Yuuri snorted. Of course, she’d had an ulterior motive.

‘And if you want to rescue your cards, tou-san’s taking the trash out soon,’ she reminded.

A self-imposed time limit whose deadline was suddenly looming.

‘I know.’ He’d thrown them, when his face had been sticky with dried tears and snot and his heart had been in too many pieces to count. Even now…

And it wasn’t like their parents would have noticed; he’d thrown the whole box in, and it looked just like any other box that had been emptied out or filled with rubbish and tossed in the trash. He wasn’t the type to decorate his things. It was the stuff inside that mattered, after all.

‘If you think you’ll regret it, take them back for now. You can always throw them away later if that’s what you decide.’

That was true, in theory. But was he that strong? Or would his heart be so weak to chase after something with more than he could take back?

But wasn’t that what chasing dreams meant? Running as fast as possible, giving everything despite knowing you’ll never get it all back… ‘To make those sacrifices means you’re dreaming,’ Viktor said, when he first won the Grand Prix three years back. But he’d never said what his sacrifices were. He’d only smiled, as though there were no sacrifices at all.

But the smile was sad. Not like now; that smile was searching, waiting on baited breath…

Nobody else saw such things. They were hallucinations just like the Monodramon that had comforted him that day.

But he did want to know. He did want to see that face again.

.

He didn’t get a chance to go to the rubbish bags, because a soccer game had started up and so he was busy carrying drinks and snacks to and fro. Finally, Mari returned and Yuuri picked up the empty bottles one by one, leaving the empty trays and cups.

Mari glanced at him, understood, and took those back to the kitchen. He made a mental note to thank her afterwards… or perhaps this was what he’d earned, for taking half an hour of her shift when he was supposed to do his homework instead.

Not that he’d been working on his homework. But that was beside the point.

With an armful of bottles, he found the rubbish bags tied off and ready to be dragged outside. He eyed them. Surely one wasn’t quite packed?

Except he got distracted by something glowing in one of them, and dropped his armful on the ground instead.

They rolled and crashed and Yuuri stumbled back from the shower of shards with a shriek. His mother, from the kitchen, called a question and he mumbled back a reply: about broken bottles and the broom. It was an occupational hazard any place that served food and drink, but that hadn’t been mere accident: tripping over a rug or trying to carry too much. It was the glow: that had distracted him because there shouldn’t be anything in the garage that glowed.

Was it a fire? Someone’s phone?

He tore open the bag and stared. It was his card reader. And a single blue card amongst the normal green.

He was hallucinating again. He was just desperate for a reason to keep playing, a way to keep playing that now he was imagining his card reader calling out to him itself. Or maybe he’d fallen asleep on his bed and Mari’s interruption was just the start of a dream.

Either way, there was no harm in scanning the card, right? He did so, shuddering in the surreal feeling that enveloped him as the light danced off the splayed shards of glass.

He really should sweep those up. And double-bag the one he’d torn as well. And find a new box for his cards – and had he even decided to keep on going?

He blinked. His eyes watered and his head hurt from all those dancing lights and thoughts.

He blinked once more, because he thought he saw a pair of rather large feet.

No, the feet were still there, topped up by tufts of yellow hair and black pants.

Yuuri blinked a fourth time and looked up.

He was definitely dreaming now, because there was a Leomon of all digimon staring back at him.