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It starts off slow, as things like this typically do.

Mari begins ballet when she’s young. Minako’s been a family friend for so long that sometimes Mari wonders if Minako is immortal—a vampire or something. It’d be a lie if she said she didn’t initially give into Minako’s constant nagging to get her to come and try a class to check out her theory.

Unfortunately, despite many attempts to surprise Minako at weird times, Mari never catches her feeding on the blood of the innocents.

What does happen, though, is little Yuuri starts trailing her to classes.

Mama asks Mari to drag him out of the house, since most days it’s as if the poor kid is afraid of his own shadow. He’d happily spend his days tinkering around in his room, or playing video games, or doodling in his notebooks rather than be around any other people. But, weirdly, under Minako’s harsh tutelage—well, soft for her, but rougher than Yuuri’s ever had before—Yuuri flourishes. Mari still resents him for tattling on how she pushed him in the onsen the other day, but it’s kinda… nice. It brings a warmth to her chest to see her little brother finally find something that makes him that happy, even if she hasn’t found anything like that for herself.

So after Mari gives up on her hunt to prove Minako’s a vampire, she still walks Yuuri over to Minako’s place for his classes after school, instead of walking with her own friends.

Then the ice skating starts. Thankfully Yuuri has his own friends to follow to the rink; the dick that goes by Takeshi, and that sweet girl, Yuuko. She still walks him to Minako’s, but now his time is split between the two places. Mari spends her newfound freedom learning how to help out her parents at the onsen, and her friends laugh at her for smelling like cleaning supplies. Well, screw them. Real friends don’t make fun of people for helping out their parents.

Despite rationalizing it, though, a small rock of resentment settles into Mari’s gut, cold and easy to ignore unless it rubs against her insides just right.

It’s a good thing that Mari sheds her asshole friends, because it doesn’t take too long for Yuuri to find his muse, his Victor. Mama and Papa have to do more work at the onsen than ever before—they never explain exactly why their hired help stopped showing up, but Mari's not stupid. She's seen the other onsens shut down, she knows Yu-Topia Katsuki doesn't have much longer left if they don't start acting smart about it. So when they add on the financial stress of hiring Yuuri a coach, it's up to Mari to get him to his lessons and pay the woman that they'd hired.

Even if it means she has to quit out of her club.

She's only been trying out Kyudo for a couple of weeks, after finding out she kinda liked the power and control that a bow and arrow offers her. But it's not like they could afford for her to get her own equipment with Yuuri's ice skating, anyway. She thinks it's fun, but she doesn't find the joy in the twang of a successful arrow hitting its mark that she sees on her brother's face when he’s on the ice. And it's not like he ever asked her to give it up, he doesn't even know.

Mama knows, though. She can see it in that little wrinkle in her brow, her tone when she asks Mari how she is.

She says she's fine.

She thinks she's fine.

But she starts smoking around then.

And so of course it's Mama that catches her hiding, cigarette in hand, out behind the dumpster.

“You were taking too long,” Mama explains as she pauses in front of her. “Throwing out the trash doesn't take five minutes.”

Mari flicks the cigarette butt, shifting on her feet. “Sorry.”

Mama huffs. “No need to be so defensive, dear. You're old enough to make these choices, even if I don’t approve of them. You know the risk. I just wanted to make sure you're safe.”

Mari huffs a laugh. She's still a kid according to most people, and there's not much danger in Hasetsu. “Yeah, I see why you’re worried after that string of kidnappings in town. Oh, and the robberies, and the murders.”

“Oh, stop that.” Mama gently slaps Mari's arm. “I can't help it, you know. I worry about you.”

“There's nothing to worry about, Mama.” Mari gives a smile, small but true, before dropping the cigarette butt to the ground and grinding it out.

Mama hesitates for a moment before stepping closer and taking Mari's hand. “But are you sure you're all right?”

Mari freezes, all too aware of Mama's warm hand in her own. Despite being a tactile person, Mama quickly learned that her children were not the same, and was quick to respect what they told her. She only does things like that when it's important, when there are things so large or so hard she can't quite put it into words.

“I know your Papa and I are really busy lately, and you know we appreciate everything you've been doing for the onsen and your brother.” She squeezes Mari's hand. “But if you need us, or if anything's ever too much, we're always here for you. We'll always support you and your brother in everything, and I want to make sure you know this.”

Mari squeezes her hand back. “I know, Mama.”

“Good. Now come in and eat.”

And so she does, her steps a little lighter going in than they had been going out.

Things fall into a routine after that. Yuuri gets his dog, one that Mari makes sure Yuuri knows he’s in charge of. She has absolutely no desire to have anything to do with the smelly wad of slobbering fur—even if said fur-wad tries to hang around her. It’s almost like the dog knows she doesn’t want him around, and trails her as she does her chores because of it.

It works out, though. She graduates from high school, and of course college is a consideration. Maybe getting a degree in something business, considering she’ll be taking over the onsen when her parents retire. That is, assuming it lasts that long. They have a steady trickle of regulars, though, and Mari starts to make friends that way, joking with them and sometimes sharing a drink during slow times. It’s one of those friends that finally turns her on to boy bands, and honestly, she’s never had so much fun with any of her hobbies before. She used to make fun of the girls into them when she was younger, and oh how she regrets it now that she’s practically an otaku.

Nothing can stay the same forever, though. When Yuuri graduates high school he gets an offer from a college and a coach that’s too good to refuse. One problem, though: it’s in America. And the fact that Mari’s going to have to pick up Yuuri’s chores isn’t a problem—it’s not like he has much time for them between school and practice and competitions and Vicchan, anyway. The financial strain of his education isn’t something she worries about, either. They’ll make it work. They have to. And Yuuri’s been titled “Japan’s Ace” for a few years now, and that comes with a significant number of sponsorships, despite Yuuri assuring them all that it’s nothing.

Probably nothing compared to his precious Victor, but to the dying onsen? It’s a lot more than nothing.

No, you know what Mari’s problem is? She has to take care of the damn dog.

They drop Yuuri off at the airport and Mari won’t admit that she cried while her baby brother walked away from them. She remembers holding his hand as he rambled about dancing, then about skating, and then about Victor as they walked across Hasetsu, but now he’s walking alone, and where does that leave her?

When she gets home, she walks up to Yuuri’s room and sits on his bed, staring at the plethora of posters and magazine clippings that line the walls. It’s the only part of him that he’s left behind, his knickknacks and items he couldn’t bare ripped or broken. But his clothes are gone, the eternal mess of his desk it tidied. You can tell he was there, that this room was lived in, but it’s a skeleton of what it used to be—of what it should be. Because, who is Mari without her little brother? How can she keep him safe and keep him company when he’s half the world away?

There’s a small “borf,” at her feet, more of a grunt than a yip or a bark, as Vicchan settles against her legs and looks up at her with big eyes as if to ask, “Where’s Yuuri? He’s normally home by now.”

She reaches down and scratches his ear before she even thinks about it. “Sorry, boy. Looks like we’re in the same boat. We both built our lives around that stupid kid, now we’ve gotta do without him. Selfish.”

Vicchan whines, glancing around the room. Of course he can’t understand her words, he’s a dumb dog. Maybe sitting here like she’s waiting for Yuuri to come home makes her a bit of a dumb dog, too.

She sighs and stands up. “C’mon, you need to go out so you don’t crap in the house, and I could use a smoke.”

And that’s what starts Mari’s evening walks with Vicchan.

The house is empty without Yuuri traipsing in and out constantly. Minako starts hanging around more often without her star pupil to keep her occupied, and Mari becomes drinking buddies with her, too. Whenever Yuuri has a competition in home territory, even if it’s across the country, they both do their very damnedest to make it. Mari almost brings Vicchan a few times, but just the car ride to the vet stresses the fleabag out, so she leaves him behind. Mama teases her about spoiling him, but she brushes her off.

Still, it’s nice to see Yuuri. He constantly has bags under his eyes, and he always looks way too skinny—even if he assures her every time that his weight is healthy. At least she smuggles some katsudon from home to him for the competitions that he inevitably wins. It’s not as good as fresh, but you wouldn’t know that from the way he moans at every mouthful.

Mari tells Vicchan about Yuuri, and how beautifully he skates. She doesn’t really get how it all works, but even she can tell that he’s beautiful, that everything she, Mama, and Papa did to get him there was worth it. She knows that his goal is to meet Victor—the human one, she makes sure to clarify for Vicchan—as an equal on the ice, and in her opinion, he’s getting pretty close. Vicchan yips in agreement.

She wouldn’t say that she likes Vicchan, but she does find herself spending more and more time with him every year. She even started letting him sleep in her bed after that first year, and she may or may not sneak him scraps of food off of the dinner table.

And without Yuuri taking up so much time, being such a huge part of every single day, she takes time for herself. She goes to a few concerts, she pierces her ears, she plays with her hair. She has fun.

At least until the accident.

Mari and Vicchan are on one of their evening walks. Mari talks about the video call she had with Yuuri earlier, even though Vicchan was there and yapping happily nearly the whole time. He’s at the Grand Prix Final, and Victor will be there. It took so many years, but he’s done it, he’s reached his goals. But will he achieve them? She gets lost in her thoughts, and she doesn’t notice the car coming. Vicchan’s normally good about staying by her side without a leash, so she’s gotten lazy in watching out for him.

The car hits him dead-on.

The driver apologizes, but Mari can barely speak. He’s gone before the person had even gotten out of their car. They find a box so she can carry him home, and she wonders how on earth she never noticed how small and breakable he was. It took one second. He was alive, and then he wasn’t.

She’d never have his warmth next to her in bed again.

She’d never have another one of their evening walks again.

She’d never feed him scraps off the table again.

He’d never be able to see Mari again.

It takes until she’s nearly home before she collapses, kneeling over Vicchan’s box and sobbing. She can’t do this. She can’t bear this alone.

So she makes a mistake. She calls Yuuri.

He takes it better than she thought he would, but in that moment she can’t remember how Yuuri buries things, hides them away when he can’t handle them, ignoring them until they blow up in his face and there’s no fixing things.

She manages to make the rest of the way home, falling into Mama and Papa’s arms. She cries until she’s too exhausted to keep her eyes open, hating that she feels this way over a dog. A dog that she wishes she hated, that she wishes she cared for enough to keep him on his leash. But no, she’s stupid, and she’s the one who let him die.

By the time she’s wakes up in the morning, Mama and Papa have already sent him off to be cremated.

She makes her way through the day like a ghost, trying and failing to kill all of the habits she has set in place for the dumb dog. She’s half-way through filling his food bowl when she remembers he won’t eat it, and she calls for him at the usual times to go outside and take care of his business before she remembers there’s no business to take care of. She manages to fight the tears until it’s time for their evening walk, and then she can’t hold it back it any longer—she doesn’t want to. She lets Mama hug her and guide her away from the front door, seating her down between herself and Papa.

By the time she can see again, she realizes that the TV’s on, and that they’re watching Yuuri skate. Or, watching Yuuri try to skate. He keeps falling, and everyone keeps wincing, and it’s a disaster. And you can tell that he feels like one, too.

Mari’s gut drops. “I-I told him. I didn’t think…”

Mama takes her hand and grips it as the tears start up again.

“I ruined it.” Mari sobs as Yuuri bows on the TV, his face screwed up into a grimace. He probably hasn’t even let himself cry yet. “E-everything we did for him! What’s the point of all those things that I gave up, that we gave up if he just fails?”

She slaps a hand over her mouth a minute later. God, she shouldn’t say those things.

“But would you do it again?” Mama looks at her with a small smile on her face. “Did you do it just because you only wanted him to win? Or would you do it so long as it would make him happy?”

Mari fights back a sob. “B-but how can he be happy when I’ve ruined everything?” Not only did she screw up and let Vicchan get hit, she managed to wreck his chance of achieving his life’s dream. And hell, if she screwed up like Yuuri did, she doesn’t know if she could keep going. And it’s not like she even has Yuuri’s level of anxiety.

“Mari, you’ve ruined nothing.” Mama takes her face in her hands, making her look up at her face, so she can see the honesty there. “You’ve given up so much for your little brother—and don’t think I haven’t noticed everything you’ve done. You could have pulled back at any time, put your foot down, but you didn’t.”

“Of c-course I didn’t, I love him.” Just like she loved Vicchan. She bites down on her lip as fresh tears roll down her cheeks.

“And that’s what counts. He knows you love him, and even if he’s a little thick-skulled like your father, he’s realized it. He’s grateful. He doesn’t blame you, so neither should you.”

Mari collapses then, wrapping her arms around Mama and burying her face and her sobs in her clothes until the phone rings, and Mama leaves to talk to Yuuri.

After that night, she scrapes herself back up off the ground, taking her time to pay her respects to Vicchan when his ashes are ready to be picked up. She doesn’t talk to Yuuri as often now, but that’s okay. They both need their time to mourn, Yuuri having more than just a beloved pet to try and let go of. He’s coming home, and Mari isn’t sure how to feel about that.

She’s missed him acutely, a phantom limb not unlike the one that Vicchan left. But what does him coming home mean for his dream? What does Mari want? She’s never had dreams like his, nothing that she wanted to fight tooth and nail for. She’s okay with living life at the onsen, enjoying her boy bands and her local friends, even if sometimes she wishes for something like what her little brother’s found. And she just can’t imagine him giving something like that up.

Yuuri looks tired when he comes home, mind, body, and soul weary from months of tearing himself apart. She knows him too well to believe he’s been doing anything but that. She wants to talk to him, but it’s too hard to be honest with their family, Minako, and the guests hanging around. So when he goes off to visit Vicchan’s shrine, she trails shortly behind.

She slides the door open quietly, but not enough that she’ll scare him.

He turns to look at her, and there’s a pang in her chest, tight and so painful. Damn, how she’s missed seeing her little brother—but she never wanted to see him like this.

She leans up against the door. “Welcome home, Yuuri.”

“Mari, it’s been awhile.” He smiles and it’s a little, earnest thing that Mari can’t help but echo. “Sorry to visit while things are busy.”

Of course that’d be what he says. Needing a little courage to keep going, she reaches into her apron for a cigarette. “Hey, how long are you staying in Hasetsu? Will you help out with the hot spring?”

Yuuri straightens up a little. “Huh? Where is this coming from?”

“You went to college, even though you had to study an extra year. What will you do now?” Will he give up his dreams because of the terrible mistakes that Mari made, or will he keep going? She can’t ask that of him, she knows it’s not fair, but she wants to. She takes a breath, and lights her cigarette. “If you’re going to keep skating, I’ll support you, but…”

“I think…” Yuuri tries for words, seeming to be having as much trouble as Mari feels she’s having right now. “I need more time to think it over.”

“Hmm, okay.” She turns around to hide her smile, hide the relief flooding her face. “Well, go soak in the hot spring and relax.”

He’s earned it, after all.

Mari doesn’t know what she’s done to deserve such a brave brother, but she’ll keep doing her best to support him until she has no more to give. She knows that if she asked, he’d do the same. Mama and Papa would, too.

And that’s all she really needs, you know. Her family.