“Is…everyone okay?” Yuuma opened his eyes. He could feel warmth beneath his head, and see Kotori’s face, large and pale and blurred, floating above him. Her eyes were red, but she faked a smile as she stroked his hair and promised him that everyone was. It was a lie. The smile that Yuuma gave her back was real, and then the pain and darkness dragged him back down again, away from the waking world.
He could hear their dying screams in his dreams. Seven at once, more than he’d ever killed before in one go. And they had died with smiles, so certain they loved him enough to give it all up, so sure of him and his good intentions, their last moments warmed by Yuuma’s kindness. The Barians would be the ones with blood on their hands, reviled as killers, blamed for the loss for which Yuuma would be inconsolable. No one would ever blame Yuuma for their deaths.
But that was the beauty of killing people with kindness, after all. All you had to do was hold out your hands and pretend that you cared, and they’d throw it all away for you, fling themselves into the abyss, give you everything if you said they were forgiven.
Shark slammed hard into the ground, thrown by the force of his life points hitting zero, and Yuuma rushed to his side. There was dust in his purple hair from the fall, but he was smiling. It was pretty, and Yuuma reached for his hand, for the warmth of it, for the tenderness in Shark’s expression was usually hidden, masked behind grumpiness and his abrasive personality.
Then Shark started talking, and Yuuma remembered that Shark had thrown the duel (just as Yuuma planned). Yuuma had been worried about having to defeat Shark head-on, but it had worked out beautifully; Shark felt that Yuuma had just rescued him, so he’d continue to be loyal, and Yuuma was going to get to duel Tron, who had helped kill his father. Destroying him would have been nice, but instead Yuuma was going to fix him, redeem him, and then make sure his family belonged to Yuuma until the end of time.
Shark squeezed his hand as he begged Yuuma to defeat Tron. Yuuma stared down at him, only practice keeping his persona up, as the warmth lingered in his fingers even after Shark’s hand dropped and the paramedics took him away. The plan, he thought, this was just the plan, and yet when Yuuma had taken Shark Drake away there had been nothing there but fear, that Shark was going to be taken away, that Tron would win and Yuuma couldn’t keep him.
Yuuma had not known he had such power when he was younger. Other kids bullied him, and his talents weren’t enough to make him defensible, or special. He’d developed kindness, and persistence, and a sweet naive impulsiveness that endeared him to people, because that got teachers to be softer on him, got him extra allowance and bigger lunches, discounts at the food trucks, sympathy from his kinder classmates. Little things, to make life bearable.
And then Yuuma met Shark, and there was an opportunity there. Shark was better and stronger than the few classmates he could manipulate by miles. Here, Yuuma had thought dimly, was someone he could use.
It wasn’t until after their duel, with Astral dogging him at every step, with questions spinning in his mind, that it hit Yuuma. Astral had said if he lost, he died.
If Yuuma wanted, he could kill him. The thought sustained him. Yuuma wasn’t a great duelist, or strong, or intimidating. But he could be nice, he could be much, much nicer, if it meant getting to someday see the light go out in those eyes, if it meant silencing that clinical voice forever.
It was unexpected, that was all.
Yuuma told himself that as the sky lightened, and Shark tried to escape but Astral stopped him, because Astral, like Yuuma was good at seeing through people (not as good as Yuuma, thankfully). He hadn’t been expected Shark to try and fix Yuuma while he was lying injured in the hospital. He hadn’t even planned on Shark saving him — Mizael’s attack had been a nasty surprise, and it was only because Yuuma had worked so hard to make Kaito like him and kept Shark close that he’d survived it. Yuuma had needed time to figure out his next move — unlike some people (he thought resentfully of Astral as he scowled) he wasn’t a master strategist, just a talented actor — so he’d faked a breakdown over losing, so that no one would push him.
And even if Shark had — well, that was the whole point, wasn’t it? All those painful attempts at conversation, enduring Shark’s temper, his scowl, the way the light caught his eyes, the fine line of his jaw, the way Yuuma sometimes caught himself staring at Shark’s mouth and got flustered —
The sky lit up as a rainbow arced overhead, and even though Astral and Kaito were watching, and Yuuma had to pretend, it was nothing, nothing at all, no deception to chase after Shark, and cling to him, and bury his face in Shark’s jacket so that Shark wouldn’t see what it looked like Yuuma really smiled.
The Numeron Code.
The thought of it made Yuuma feel drunk. What was his power here, in the face of that — to get people to defend him, follow him, bleed for him was nothing compared to being able to reach out and tear open the universe, stitch back together into something new, better, right. Into a world where Yuuma could just have everything he wanted, without hiding behind the carefully constructed mask, layered under sweet words and fiery confidence. With Astral there, there was never a moment of peace. He could never relax and just be.
But if he had the Code, everything would be different. He wouldn’t need any of them. He’d have the power.
Euphoric, Yuuma pretended he was going to fight with Astral to the very end as his mind raced. What could he do, to get that power? What would he do?
Yuuma knew everything now. He fingered the Key around his throat, which was still hot to touch.
Nasch. That was his name now. And he’d been a king, and he’d lost everything, and now the Barians were all he had. They were enemies.
And Yuuma had planned for this, too, and he’d thought about how he’d coax Shark back to his side, how he’d sacrifice him up, too. Throw him to the darkness and step on his corpse, and now that Yuuma was there, Nasch’s tragedy heavy in his chest…Yuuma didn’t want to. Yuuma hadn’t been bothered by the other Barians and their sad deaths, or by Tetsuo’s loss, or by Kaito’s or Astral’s death. When the Arclights had decided they’d kill themselves without any encouragment, that had been a satisfying revenge. When Kaito had brought forth Numeron Dragon and then frozen, Yuuma had mostly been relieved.
But Nasch — but Shark — Shark was his. Even if he didn’t know it, even if he could never know it, Yuuma had made him. Yuuma…he shivered, the thought was frightening to admit…Yuuma wanted him.
He had everything of Nasch’s all his memories from every life, could make him do anything, and yet Yuuma could only think of the heat when they touched, the gentleness of Shark’s rare smiles, the way when Yuuma was with him the mask became real.
“It’s alright, Shingetsu.” Yuuma clutched at Vector’s hands. “I’ll stay with you. I’ll protect you.”
“Ridiculous,” Vector whispered, and Yuuma felt his grip loosen. “I can’t take you with me.”
It was a masterpiece of manipulation, Yuuma’s greatest triumph, and just for a moment, he let the serene smile slip and showed Vector his real expression. Just for a second, but it was enough: Vector saw, and his expression twisted in impotent rage, and he was absorbed into Don Thousand with that helpless defeated look.
And he and Shark were alone. It was almost over. The very air around them seemed to be vibrating with anticipation.
Astral started talking, and then they were interrupted by Don Thousand, who glowed and shifted and taunted and threatened, morphing into a naked man with long flowing hair and black skin, striking at the Earth with his chaotic powers. Shark was beside him; Yuuma was keenly aware of him, even though they weren’t looking at each other. Shark wouldn’t speak to him, even now.
A sudden, wild urge overtook Yuuma. If only he could tell Shark the truth, that he couldn’t care less about the Barians and Astrals and fate and saving anyone. Yuuma wasn’t his enemy at all, because if Shark would only look at him again, work with him, Yuuma would protect him. Yuuma was going to become a god, and he’d rewrite the world any way Shark wanted, give him all his desires if he would just stay with Yuuma, as he was, and accept him.
Yuuma swallowed all those words. It wasn’t Yuuma Shark liked, but the illusion Yuuma had created for him, and the truth would always have to stay buried. Yuuma knew that. He had always known that. His real self wasn’t likable, or lovable, or anything in between.
He woke to light.
It was white all around him, a void of nothingness, and Yuuma floated there, directionless, until he saw the Numeron Code above him. It was blue and red, and it came apart and reformed constantly. Even without touching it, Yuuma would feel the breadth of its power. His skin tingled, and the air tasted sharper in his mouth.
And there was no Astral there with him, whether because he were dead or because Yuuma was the one who’d calling the winning attack, Yuuma didn’t know or care. All he could think was that he had made it here, on the backs of the dead, to the ultimate power. And there was no one left to take it from him.
Anything I want, Yuuma thought as he snatched the card out of the air. It shocked him down to the bone. No — everything I want.
The whiteness filled up with images as Yuuma watched. Memories of his life, dreams he had — his parents coming home, getting perfect grades, people who’d follow him everywhere even if he was mean, cold, unsympathetic — and images of the Earth below, as people emerged from their homes, as the Astral World began repairs, as Shark stood there on the battlefield, looking at the sky, human, fragile, lonely…
“Never mind,” Yuuma looked away from the naked hope in Shark’s eyes. “Show me.”
His perfect world appeared before him. There Yuuma was, at school, and there were people all around him. They were all smiling, and laughing, and none of them ever looked away from him for too long. Yuuma listened in, letting the conversation wash over him.
It was mindless. They were dead-eyed, their voices rising and following in an artificial cadence, and their expressions always just off, just slow enough that they looked inhuman. Yuuma shuddered as he watched the new world unfold; it was a world where no one could interact with him meaningfully, a world where without the mask only magic could net him any friends, a world no better than the one he lived in now.
“I don’t know what to do,” his mother was saying, while the Yuuma of the new world slept. His father shook his head and held her, while they cried.
And Shark was nowhere to be seen.
The vision faded, back to the void, until Yuuma summoned up Shark again. He was pacing up and down the crater-spotted battlefield, among the shards of crystal that he crushed underfoot, eyes never leaving the sky. He was holding something in his right hand that he kept turning over and over.
It was Yuuma’s Key.
Yuuma stared at him. The familiar feeling was there, as it always was, of longing — for Shark, for Shark’s affection, for Shark’s everything, really.
“What would you wish for?” Yuuma asked, and the Code answered.
There were the other Barians, alive, and all the causalities of the war embracing, and Rio on the back of Shark’s bike as he drove, through a Heartland City that was completely restored. There were flashes of Nasch’s past, of a little girl with green hair.
There was Yuuma, at Shark’s side, and they were holding hands. They were on the docks while the sun set, Yuuma’s head on Shark’s shoulder. They were somewhere in the city, and it was cold, and Yuuma reached up to adjust Shark’s scarf and Shark kissed him —
— “Oh,” Yuuma said aloud. “I’d have to pretend, though, wouldn’t I?”
No one answered, but the future rippled again, and it was mostly the same, all the dead restored to life and Shark at peace, only Yuuma was noticeably absent this time.
“But Shark would be happy?”
This time it was a still image, just Shark and Yuuma somewhere the background was blurred, but Shark was smiling that tiny smile that Yuuma was always trying to elicit, and his heart lurched in his chest as everything disappeared, and he was back in the white silent nothingness, all-powerful and alone.
Yuuma stared down at the Code. Anything he wanted, and he was considering this? Giving it all to Shark, pretending to be the nice, sweet, heroic Yuuma Tsukumo, for what? Shark’s love for a person that didn’t exist? Shark’s happiness at the expense of his own?
But then again, if he made his perfect world and Shark couldn’t enjoy it, it wouldn’t be a perfect world, and how ironic it was, Yuuma thought miserably, that he’d used every single person who had loved him enough to die, and yet here he was willing to do the same thing — give something up, just to make Shark happy. Was this how they had felt?
What an awful feeling, and yet…Shark…
Yuuma closed his eyes.
“I’m gonna grant his wish,” he said, before he could change his mind, and then there was nothing.
Shark had fallen asleep.
Yuuma lay beside him on the floor, in the nest of sleeping bags and pillows they’d made, and curled close. He could hear Shark breathe, and reach out and feel the steady thump of his heart.
It was much easier than he had thought it would be, pretending all the time — in part because it was natural to be nice to Shark, and in part because he had been doing it for so long that it had become almost a part of him. It was harder now to slip out of the mask, and think about using people, when Shark would just give him things, if he asked, if he leaned in and kissed him and whispered in his ear.
It was a little harder with everyone else, because they never suspected, and Yuuma sometimes wanted to lock himself in with Shark, forget everyone else, and couldn’t. But they were much less irritating now. Yuuma could appreciate the magnitude of their sacrifice. He could enjoy their company, remembering that his real self could never have them as friends. And when Yuuma made other people happy, it made Shark happier somehow, too.
Yuuma rolled over him, letting their foreheads touch, Shark’s chest rising and falling beneath his own. He was younger when he slept. The frown lines smoothed out, and his lashes left long spidery shadows on his face.
The truth was there, in his throat, crying to be let lose, but it was much quieter these days. Yuuma suppressed it — the lie was so much sweeter, the lie would make Shark happy, and in the end that had been as close to a perfect world as Yuuma and all the godlike power of the Numeron Code could manage — and let his head rest on Shark’s shoulder.
“Stay with me,” he murmured, and he dug his fingers into Shark’s shirt and held on. Shark was his, after all, made by his manipulations, gifted with all Yuuma’s power could give him, and Yuuma would never let go, not when he still had the power to keep him.