Yuuma slams his hands down on the desk with an expression as serious as he can make with his cheeks puffed out and his lips in a pout. “We’ve gotta save Shingetsu! He needs our help!”
Kaito seems surprised, perhaps expecting Yuuma to have a better reason for demanding they meet together in his fancy penthouse. “We’re travelling through space to get a guy who you still call by his last name?”
And this Shark can snort at. He leans back into the couch and smirks to himself. Leave it to Yuuma to make a friend in one day – a friend who consistently makes them both late for class, and who seems to come up with the newest and bizarrest ways to get them in trouble. Shark has had a bad feeling about Shingetsu ever since he started inviting himself along to group excursions, but now that Yuuma believes they ought to go save him from Barians, Shark is uncomfortable. Yuuma’s met enough Barians for the both of them, and why the rock-aliens went after Shingetsu is suspicious enough.
“And where exactly would we be going?” Shark asks, arms behind his head.
Kaito shoots him a scathing look, ever the adult in this situation. “Sargasso, weren’t you listening?” Then, in his deadpan voice, adds, “Or have you been daydreaming on the couch?”
Shark stands, affronted. “I’m glad you two just think you can jump through space to go after a guy you’ve barely known and an enemy that we definitely don’t want to know.”
“But Shark,” Yuuma begins, and Shark prepares himself for an earful, “Shingetsu is more than ‘just a guy’. He’s our friend. We can’t leave him when he needs our help. And besides, Astral says we should go after the Barians. We need to know more about them.”
“Know more about them?” Shark retorts. He’s taken up an offensive stance, fists balled. Yuuma doesn’t back down, yet Shark catches him flinch at his words. Kaito remains nonchalant leaning against the window. “If you want to know about them, ask your buddy Alit. Won’t he tell you what it means to be a Barian? Or ask Astral, since he seems to know enough about them to think we should fly into space after one.”
“Astral doesn’t know much about the Barians,” Yuuma admits, “but he still thinks we need to save Shingetsu. And we’ve won against a Barian before, so it’s not like I don’t know the enemy –”
“You don’t. You don’t know anything about the Barians, and that one you’re going after, Vector, doesn’t sound friendly.” Shark crosses his arms. “Far be it from me to stop you, but you’re walking into a trap by going after him.”
Out of the corner of Shark’s eye, he sees Kaito smirk.
“Have hope, Shark,” Yuuma says. “I’m going after Shingetsu no matter what. You should come to help me since he’s your friend too, but I won’t change my mind.” With resolve, Yuuma crosses his arms in front of his chest, mimicking Shark’s pose minus the stone-cold glare. Shark shifts away in embarrassment, cheeks growing hot because Yuuma’s staring at him and Kaito’s staring at him and geez, why did both of them team up on him?
After a moment, Shark clears his throat. “Fine.”
Yuuma’s face splits in a grin. “That means you’re coming too?”
Kaito snorts and lifts off from the window. “Why’d you bother arguing if you were going to go all along?”
Shark’s cheeks glow red; it doesn’t help that Yuuma’s still looking at him, and Astral is too (fuck, why does he have to see a naked blue alien all the time? Really, why is his life so weird?). But Shark agrees, Yuuma cheers, and Kaito kicks them out of his house because he needs ‘alone time’ and apparently pesky middle-schoolers can’t be around for that. Kaito tells Shark to walk Yuuma home, and Shark considers ditching Yuuma to go find his sister and tell her the “good” news. Yuuma can get home on his own; Yuuma doesn’t need protecting.
“I don’t hate the Barians.”
Yuuma huffs. “ No, you don’t understand. Like, there are bad Barians and good Barians, but that’s just a matter of opinion and per – pre –”
“Perspective?” Shark offers.
“Yeah, perspective. There aren’t just bad and good people in the world, and so I can’t say I hate all the Barians. I hate Vector for hurting Shingetsu, but I like Alit. All the Barians aren’t the same then, right?”
“I’d disagree with you, but you probably aren’t going to listen to me, now are you?”
Yuuma smiles and shakes his head. “I’m glad you’re coming with me to get Shingetsu, even if you hate the Barians.”
There’s a moment where Shark doesn’t quite hear what Yuuma says, and he swallows thickly because what he did hear sounded far too sappy for his ears. “It’s not like I wanted to go. You and Kaito pretty much blackmailed me into going for the wrong reason. If I’m going though, I’m kicking Barian ass.”
“Maybe Vector will hand Shingetsu back with a duel,” Yuuma muses.
“That guy won’t play fairly then.”
“Well, well, I’ll still duel him! I’ll duel him, and get Shingetsu back, and you’ll be there, and Kaito will be there, and Astral will help me win! Right?”
Their toes hit the gate leading into the Tsukumo household. There’s a single light on on the main level where Yuuma’s sister must be working late; the upstairs lights are all dark. Yuuma opens the gate and looks over his shoulder. “Hey Shark?”
“Have hope! See you tomorrow!” And Yuuma closes the gate in his face. Shark hears him thump up the steps, but instead of walking through the front door like a normal human being, Yuuma scales the side of his house and climbs through his bedroom window. Just before he disappears into his room, he turns around and gives Shark one more wave. Shark doesn’t realise he’s waving back until he spots his hand blowing in the wind, and he yanks it down and storms off down the street. Curse Yuuma and his kattobingu. Curse Yuuma and his big heart.
So Vector’s an evil Barian. Yuuma might disagree with him, but anyone who takes you into outer space and hangs the ultimatum of ‘duel your friend or he dies ’ isn’t a good guy in Shark’s books. Neither is Gilag who Yuuma says is just sad about Alit, who Yuuma insists a good guy.
So Shingetsu’s a Barian. That had been a surprise to them all. The entire duel had been a shitshow right from the start, and damn Yuuma had put them all in trouble just to go after a friend who’s first name Yuuma can never remember. Rei, like zero, like nothing. Perhaps that’s because Shingetsu Rei didn’t exists as Shark proclaimed on the ride back from Sargasso. He and Yuuma still tell vastly different stories about what happened in Sargasso, yet the point still stands: Yuuma forgives the Barians, and Shark hates them. Yuuma will always forgive the Barians, and Shark will always hate them.
Yuuma proceeds to prove this to him when they next find a mysterious stranger – he’s a Barian, Yuuma – in the woods after they hit something flying towards a set of ruins with a Number. The boy is crashed among the foliage, not looking particularly injured despite Yuuma’s claims that he’s grievously hurt and needs their urgent help. Shark takes one look at the guy and frowns.
“I don’t believe it,” he tells Yuuma. “Do you see anyone else around here? We just hit a Barian out of the intergalactic sky. Wouldn’t it make sense that that’s him?”
Yuuma looks up, eyes wide in surprise. “That doesn’t make sense at all! Look, he’s human! And he’s wearing glasses. And he’s hurt!”
Shark looks to Astral for advice, but there is nothing any other them can say to deter Yuuma. No one can confirm that this mysterious, grey-haired stranger is a Barian, and that is enough evidence for Yuuma to add him to their party and to drag them all into the ruins after Rio and Kotori. Shark tries to keep his eye on the mysterious boy, but it becomes impossible when he’s also looking at Yuuma. How can someone be so naive and trusting? After Vector, Shark had expected Yuuma to change ways and start making sense. If anything, Vector’s betrayal has cemented in Yuuma a burning desire to protect others: Astral, Shark, and now this stranger.
Yuuma trusts everyone. And Shark? He trusts next to no one. He can count on his hands the people he trusts, which may be only slightly above the number of people Kaito trusts.
Maybe he should be more like Kaito: calm, cool, collected, with a stick up his ass that maintains all that nonchalance.
Not an hour later, Shark wishes he trusted as few people as Kaito because then he wouldn’t be in this predicament where he’s hanging by a Barian’s hands oh shit. Shark wants to wriggle his hands free, but then he also needs to cling tight or else he’ll fall. And the Barian is staring at him. Oh gods, the Barian’s eyes are so dead and they stare into his soul. The hand in Shark’s feels like a human’s, moves the human’s, but it’s ice-cold and clenching his fingers so tight Shark’s bones might break.
“Are you gonna lift me up or drop me?” Shark shouts at the Barian when all the other does is keep staring at him. His response is a jerk upwards. Shark watches wide-mouth as the Barian disappears, and then he shoves his hands in his pocket, disgusted, and storms away. The cold stone around him reminds him of the monster’s hands around his own; Shark swallows a bitter taste in his mouth that stays long after he’s found Yuuma and the others.
“Where is Durbe?” Yuuma asks when he spots Shark - no hello, but perhaps that’s not necessary when Shark doesn’t want to be crushed by a Yuuma-hug.
“Disappeared, good riddance.” He catches Yuuma’s eyes and stares him down. “You’re stupid for trusting them.”
“He saved you though.” Yuuma brushes the tears from his eyes. “Shark, what if you fell and no one could save you? Durbe kept you alive.”
Shark huffs. Durbe could’ve done anything: save him, kill him, torture him. Durbe could have betrayed them all like Vector and still Yumma trusts the Barians. And that’s wrong – so, so wrong that it make Shark shiver and bite his cheeks. Someday, this forgiveness will go wrong. Someday, Yuuma’s going to have to stop caring about the Barians and care about his own well-being. Someday, Yuuma’s going to have to choose between the Barians and Astral, and Shark can’t imagine what choice Yuuma will come to.
It doesn’t make sense.
It doesn’t make sense in any timeline, whether Shark wants to believe he and his sister died or not, whether Shark wants to acknowledge what’s happening to his sister or what happened to him. It can’t be right, and if it is Shark still won’t believe it out of sheer stubbornness. He paces the length of his room, ignoring the way his reflection catches in the mirror. He sees himself and it’s not who he wants to see. He can’t be him , and Rio can’t be her , and he sure as hell can’t know Durbe.
But he does. Each time he’s in the mirror there’s another him looking back. This alternate Ryouga – Nasch – has gleaming battle armor and a long cape, and brandishes a sword and shield as if he’ll fight off these other humans with ancient tools. This Ryouga looks far too young to be a king, but then again no one else appears to be an adult in this timeline, so whatever goes, goes.
Yet Shark doesn’t want to think that “whatever goes, goes” when they are in the middle of an intergalactic war between Barians and Astralites. When the world is in such a shit place, why does his normal life need to flip upside down? Why does he have to pick a side, and more importantly why does he have to be against Yuuma?
You are Barian.
No, he can’t. His family and friends aren’t Barian. He doesn’t even like Barians. Hell, Yuuma would rather be a Barian than him.
There’s another flash of purple in the mirror. Before Shark can think coherently that it’s his hair, he smashes the mirror with one fist. Blood splatters across the surface, still not obscuring the flashes of purple as his reflection – as he – pulls his hand back and cradles it against his chest. Two knuckles are torn open from the impact; the mirror is far worse, cracked from corner to corner and shattered at the impact point. The glass on the floor is bloody and splintered under his feet.
Well, you’re still Nasch.
Shark hits the mirror once more with the same hand, this time leaving several dots of blood across the unshattered glass. He kicks the fallen bits to the side and wipes his hands down his pants. He thinks to himself, I can just ignore this. This identity doesn’t define me. I’m not a Barian.
And then he laughs, lowly, softly, with unshed tears in his eyes.
He turns tail and runs out the door, down the hallways with more mirrors and shiny shields that catch his twisted expression. He storms through the doors and out into the courtyard, until he can feel the rain on his face and the cold soaking through his clothes and skin and deep into his bones. He should be dueling. He should be fighting back against all this revolution, siding with no one, siding with Yuuma maybe if he stops sucking up to the Barians as if they are comparable to his soulmate.
The rain beats harder on his face. It feels like an abyss drowning him in tears. He tries to forget it all – forget Nasch and Durbe and Merag and Vector – but they’re all still there, and they’re all still here. Wiping the rainwater from his eyes, Shark heaves a sigh. They’ve found him.
He doesn’t come in until he’s shivering from the cold, and even then all he does his pick himself up and walk down the road, sans umbrella or any warm coat, to the hospital. The streets are filled with O-Bots and locals properly dressed for the weather, and they give him strange looks, as if they’re not quite seeing him as human. He isn’t. Shark is surprised he doesn’t feel at-home being drenched in rainwater; if he really was the Barian King Nasch, shouldn’t he be in his comfort zone?
He shakes the rainwater from his hair, wipes his dripping eyes and nose with his soaked hands, and steps into the hospital. The front office staff peer over their desks at him, but he keeps his head bowed and hurries down the hallway to another elevator, then to another hallway; his feet take him through a maze of corridors that he’s traversed far too often these past few years. The artificial lights blind him, but he still makes it to Rio’s door.
Her room is dark, with the only lights on the faint glow from the monitor screens tracking her vitals. She’s healthy except for being unconscious: her skin is warm, her chest rises and falls in a steady rhythm, and even a gentle smile graces her lips. Shark settles down at the chair beside her bed, careful not to spray her with rainwater that’s dripping puddles in her room. If she were awake, she’d be upright and berating him for not bringing an umbrella and for lying in the rain. She’d also tell him to stop whining about this newfound fate, and that he’s still Shark, still a dorky middle-schooler with an obsession with Sharks and Duel Monsters and –
Yuuma will forgive him. If Yuuma finds out he’s a Barian – because Shark will keep this a secret with his dying breath – Yuuma will still try to be his friend. He’ll be hurting himself all over again just to be friends with Shark. Shark won’t let him, naturally, but Yuuma will still try. Yuuma will tell him to “Kattobingu!” and to “Have hope!” or “Take hope!” or whatever ridiculous phrase he’s invented today. No matter what, Yuuma will continue to believe in him as a human or as a Barian.
Shark shivers beneath his jacket. Unless he wants to brave the storm again, he’s stuck in Rio’s hospital room. Careful to not soak his sister, he kicks off his wet shoes and peels off his wet jacket and socks. The green gems clink together when he tosses the Items to the floor.
“Caught in the rainstorm?”
Had Shark recognised the voice – a loud, nasally voice like Yuuma’s or a deadpan, sarcastic voice like Kaito’s – perhaps he wouldn’t have jumped out of his skin. However, it ends up being Durbe, someone Shark definitely doesn’t want to see. The Barian is in his human get-up, looking meek and dweebish and dry because he teleported into the room with his magical powers.
“You remember?” Durbe asks, flipping an odd-shaped rock between his hands. Shark catches it as the symbol on the Barian’s card, and he shivers. He’s seen what a Baria crystal can do, but this looks far more lethal. Of the Barians, Shark expects Durbe to be less violent. He’s saved them. He’s dueled Shark and spoke of all sorts of bullshit, but he’s not dangerous like Vector or Mizael.
Shark bites the inside of his cheek. He’s beginning to sound like Yuuma, forgiving Barians.
“Remember you? Sure, I remember you, Barian.”
Durbe frowns. “And you are Barian too. You’re Nasch, leader of the Seven Barian Emperors.”
Shark flinches. He tries to compose himself by laughing off Durbe’s words, though his voice sounds hollow and echoes around the bleak room. Shark shakes his head, this time spraying water on Durbe, and shrugs. “You’re stupid for believing that, but keep entertaining yourself with an implausible idea. I can’t be Barian.”
Durbe only smiles. He holds out the rock, which Shark can now see is the Barian symbol, and lets it illuminate the room in pink light. “You are Nasch, Barian King and leader of the Seven Barian Emperors,” Durbe tells him, voice creeping into Shark’s ears as if the Barian is right next to him. “I’ll have you remember who you truly are.”
And then he’s there. He’s there as Nasch, as a king with a sword and shield, and his sister is unconscious in his arms. Durbe is there too, dressed knightly and riding a silver stallion with wings jutting in wide, graceful arcs. Nasch’s hands shake from holding his sister, and so he cradles her tight and brings himself to the ground with a sob –
And then he’s somewhere else. He’s holding a little girl, wide eyes and bright smile so reminiscent of Rio and Merag, who hands him a white flower. He’s not crying, she’s not crying. The sky is alight with speckled stars shimmering from one corner to the next. The grass beneath his feet is soft and gentle, and when he takes in a deep breath and swings Iris in his arms, he feels at peace. A memory flitters at the corners of his mind: he’s at war. He’s at peace with the war that will reunite his people. He’ll stop Vector, not a Barian Vector but a tyrannous king, and the United Lands of Poseidon Ocean will be free.
And then there’s Rio. She stands next to him, a resolute pillar of hope and happiness, never fading from his vision. It takes Shark a moment to register that she’s not there, but her presence only brings him joy. I am with you, dear brother , she seems to say. On his other side is Merag, who looks similar but holds his shoulder in a different, but no less comforting, way. Nasch leans into their embrace.
And then it’s gone. They’re gone, Iris is gone. Nasch looks around, heaves a sob, and his eyes mist over before he sees the bodies. They’re all gone and he’s still here. His feet catch on the dusty ground where thousands of soldiers have perished. The battlefields are bathed in sticky blood that coats his shaking hands and stains his dusty armour. He checks soldier after soldier, looking and listening for any survivors. At the very least, Nasch expects someone to be alive.
His foot catches again on a body, this one smaller than all the others. Even through his wet eyes, Shark knows who he’s found. He loses all composure before Iris’ corpse: tears spill from his eyes and he sobs into her chest, cradling her body against his. She is still warm under the radiant sun that has peeked over the mountains. The battlefield glows red and pink from the sheer amount of blood soaking everywhere.
“I couldn’t protect you,” he mumbles, words catching in his clogged throat. “I didn’t do anything – fuck, I stole this from you!” Several sobs escape and he heaves forward to muffle them. “I was supposed to protect you, and I didn’t do anything.”
A warm, pink light pours from Iris’, dusting him in sparkles. Her body pulses twice before erupting in pink, Barian light and disappearing into the heavens. Nasch’s hands shoot up to grasp at her, but she slips through his fingers like rich silk. As the skies open up to blasts of warm sunlight, Durbe and Merag appear before him. They stand beside him, glancing up to where Iris has disappeared and speckled the sky in reds and pinks.
“I remember now,” he says, tongue dry. He swallows. “I remember who I am.”
Merag nods solemnly. “I remember too.” She mouths the words. “We went to the Barian World, Nasch.”
Nasch shakes his head. “We can’t be. The enemy we’ve been fighting all along, the enemy our friends are fighting against … it’s us. Yuuma and Astral and Kaito are fighting against us.”
Next to him, his sister appears to have adopted a similar, grief-stricken pose. Her eyes are crinkled in worry as she looks up at the open sky and at the Barian souls travelling to the world.
He grabs Merag’s hand and tugs. “I don’t know if I can break the bonds I’ve forged with them. I can’t betray my friends. I can’t be a Barian and trust them.”
It’s Durbe who speaks up. “Then they are not your friends. Nasch, Merag, we are Barians.” He levels his gaze on both of them and clears his throat. “Are you ready to meet your true friends in Barian?
Shark shakes his head to turn back, but with Durbe’s insistence, they teleport to a foreign land. Standing on an outcrop before a wide, red sea, Shark shivers at the new surroundings. Everything glows with a hellish, pink light that casts gruesome shadows over the bloody crystals. Hundreds of red souls emerge from thin air to greet him: families and communities, children and parents, all gather before him. He spots his troops in one corner, saluting his return. Iris clasps her hands together before him.
“Your Majesty!” she cries, and her words seem to echo and reverberate through the crowd of souls.
Durbe’s words ring above the chatter: “You are Nasch and Merag, King and Queen of the Seven Barian Emperors. This is who you are. You are home.”
The words ring a heavy note in Shark’s heart. Merag’s hand wriggles into his and she squeezes gently. Here they are, royal Barians before people depending on them to make things right. As much as Shark wants to drop his fate and leave, he sees the worry in their eyes. These Barians are his people and they’re looking to him for safety and duty. It’s not his appointed, sworn duty to protect the Barian people from the Astralians … which means –
Nasch swallows and squeezes Merag’s hand back. “The bonds we’ve formed are broken. I am no longer Kamishiro Ryouga, and you –” he glances at his sister “ – are no longer Kamishiro Rio. We’ve formed new bonds, and we’ll lead the Barian Emperors to victory.” A breath, long a painful, shattering his hope.
He doesn’t need hope. He needs strength.
“I am Nasch.”
As Nasch finds out upon his arrival to Heartland City, his presence is still wanted. Badly. By everyone. When Yuuma sees him, his face splits in the ugliest, uncontrolled grin that stretches his dimpled cheeks. “Shark!”
“I am Nasch,” he whispers. There is no dorky middle-schooler. There is no silly pranks or snappy comebacks to whatever Yuuma says. He doesn’t want to mock Kaito, who’s lying across the floor like a model glaring daggers at him. He can see Astral and his calculating gaze, watching each of his friends, the Barians, transform into their rightful bodies. Yuuma looks the most confused; not angry, hurt, or scared, but confused. He bites his lip and looks from him, to Merag, to Vector, down the line of crystallised bodies standing strong and together.
They are together at last.
“But Shark … you can’t be a Barian? You’re not some old King – you’re a student. You’re my friend.”
Nasch snorts. “I could never be your friend.”
If anything, that only makes Yuuma more confused. “But you are! You are my friend, Shark! We go to school together and we duel! We beat Heartland and Faker and Tron, and we saved all our friends! We’re your friends too, Shark! You … you don’t have to be an enemy. I told you I like the Barians and I’m still going to keep saying that.”
“But Yuuma,” Astral says, “the Barians are fighting for evil.”
“Shark isn’t. He wouldn’t.”
Nasch spins a Numbers card between his fingers. His expression stiffens when he catches Yuuma near-tears, grasping the Emperor’s Key with white knuckles. Subconsciously, Nasch reaches for his own shark-tooth necklace, still faithfully clasped around his neck. If Yuuma thinks he’ll pity him, then he’s far naiver that Nasch gives him credit for.
In an act of defiance, Yuuma rips off the Key, pointing it up to the dark sky. It catches on what little light has filtered through the gloomy clouds, appearing as a small beacon of hope to whatever brainless spew Yuuma’s going to say. However, when Nasch expects Yuuma to open his mouth, he is surprised to see Yuuma’s arm wheel forward. The Key becomes an arrow piercing through the air. It lands at his feet – one of the best throws Nasch has ever thought Yuuma could do.
“Is that what our friendship means?” Yuuma shouts. “You’ve forgotten who you are? So what if you’re a Barian? So – so what about all of this? I don’t care. I never did. I told you before that there aren’t just good guys and bad guys, and that means all Barians can’t be bad guys. If you’re going to call yourself a Barian, then fine. Be Nasch. But Nasch is my friend.”
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard you say,” Nasch growls.
“I don’t care.” Yuuma huffs, and his eyes glow Barian pink for a moment. “I’ll keep believing in you – in the Shark and Nasch who is my friend.”
From among the ranks of Yuuma’s friends there is a murmur of confusion. Yuuma remains resolute.
“What most important to you, Shark? What does it mean to be a Barian?”
Nasch drops the Key. His breath hitches, and to either side of him he hears his comrades suck in uneasy breaths. The last time Yuuma became this passionate, it was during hs duel with Vector. This feels different. At that time, Nasch remembers Yuuma screaming and shouting, getting angry and hateful with each of Vector’s laughs and taunts. Nasch isn’t taunting; maybe he should. But still, Yuuma shouting at him that he’s OK with him being a Barian is a joke.
Yuuma thinking he’s still on his side. He’s wrong.
“Barian?” Shark says. “You think Barians are equal to Astralians? You think we’re all the same and can smile together, all hope and rays of sunshine? Take a look around, Yuuma: the Barian World isn’t for you. And this?” He kicks the Key over the edge and watches it glimmer like a lost light to the ground. “Your hope is gone. Stop thinking we can all be together.”
For the first time, Shark sees fear in Yuuma’s eyes. He jumps for the Key and catches it in his dirty palms. At once, piercing light erupts from the necklace and shoots up. Shark opens his mouth to retort, but as if sensing the light of the Key, his Baria crystal glows with energy and connects with the light. He pulls back, catches Yuuma watching him with a horrified expression, and both of them are bathed in energy.
Shark stiffens and pulls back. His Barian skin bristles but does not burn away; nonetheless, he struggles to untangle himself from the raw energy that seems to have wrapped around his arms and legs. He’s bound in the spotlight that fractures just enough for him to spot Yuuma, faring far better than him in the heavenly plane. Yuuma’s radiant smile lights up the area.
“Hey, Shark? I’m going to forgive you with a duel. Promise me you won’t lose hope. I won’t fight a friend.”
Nasch swallows. “We’re no longer friends. Those bonds I’ve formed with you, I’ve shattered them.”
Yuuma keeps smiling. “Have hope, Shark.”
The light flickers and fades.