They woke up screaming.
Feet smacked the floor as arms twisted against bed sheets, desperately trying to wrench themselves free from the bed. She hit the ground face first and laid briefly stunned against the carpet, before he shoved himself to his feet and immediately ran into the desk, hips screaming with pain.
Everything was wrong, so wrong, it didn’t feel right, her body was too small and light, his was too heavy and there were extra phantom limbs he didn’t didn’t remember having. Wings—where were their wings? They were missing—oh god, her back ached and screamed for their missing parts. He could barely see for the dizziness and black spots flying over his vision.
They caught sight of themselves in the mirror over the desk—pale, flat face with an open, panting mouth, mussed shaggy brown hair that was matted to a pale forehead by sweat, glowing eyes, one in orange and one in green—and promptly fainted.
When Judai woke up again, light was streaming through the window and onto his face. His body felt so heavy, like he was sinking into the carpet. He couldn’t lift his arms. Everything was too heavy…
But he remembered his name. He remembered his name and he no longer felt the terrifying phantom pains from wings that weren’t there. His mouth didn’t ache from missing fangs. He was Judai again.
At least, mostly.
Yubel? he thought, his voice echoing in his own head. Yubel.
There was no answer. There never was.
He ran his tongue over his dry lips, and forced himself to sit up.
Once he managed to slump into his chair, he found his haggard face in the mirror looking back at him. Brown eyes again. He was himself.
But he really…wasn’t.
Who was he?
Combining himself with Yubel hadn’t made many outward changes. He looked older, he thought, but that might just be his exhaustion. He thought maybe his chin was a little sharper, his face a little lacking in the baby fat he’d had when he’d first arrived at Duel Academy. That could just be normal growing up, though.
His eyes fell to the desk, where his cards remained. Untouched for weeks, now. He turned the top one over.
To little surprise, Judai found himself looking at Polymerization.
He chewed on his lip, studying the card. When he used this card in battle, it took two creatures, and made them something new. Something that was a little bit of both of them, but new, nonetheless.
He looked at himself in the mirror again, and like some sick ‘spot the difference’ game, he tried to find where he had changed.
We fused, he thought at Yubel, or perhaps, the part of him that was Yubel. We fused, but I didn’t change. Where are you? Am I just…you now?
His shoulders slumped, and he couldn’t look himself in the eyes anymore.
Who am I, now?
* * *
His fishing rod didn’t even move; the water was too quiet. It was a silent sort of day: no wind, no sound drifting down from Duel Academy. He wondered briefly how everyone was doing. The others had come to visit a few times. He hadn’t seen them. He had been trapped, at the time, in another attack of not knowing who he was, of remembering Yubel’s and Haou’s and Judai’s memories all at once.
He didn’t want anyone to see him like that.
He didn’t want anyone to see him at all.
Something fluttered at the edge of his vision, and he turned towards it. His heart jumped—for a moment, he thought it was Winged Kuriboh. He hadn’t seen his friend in weeks.
But it was just a bird, he saw with disappointment. It hopped down onto the pier beside him and tilted its head, beady black eyes considering him.
“I’d share a worm with you if I had one,” he said apologetically.
The bird just stared. And then it was fluttering away again, leaving him alone. He sighed as he looked back down at his unmoving fishing rod. This was pointless. He should just go back to his room and hide under the covers. He wouldn’t have to think about how Winged Kuriboh had vanished since his return.
He felt a tug. Blinking, he looked up at his rod. Was it moving? He tugged on it gently. No…it hadn’t come from his rod.
The tug came again. It was…from the base of his stomach, he thought. More in his head than in reality…
His eyes burned. He blinked. Was he having an allergic reaction?
And then there was a whisper, hissing past his ear, all too familiar.
Look, Yubel insisted. Look.
Judai gasped. He dropped his rod and it went tumbling into the water. He scrambled to his feet and spun in a circle—no Yubel.
“Yubel?” he said. “Yubel, you’re here, aren’t you? You’re still—you’re still conscious, like me, you’re here, right—”
Look, Yubel said again, insistently.
“Look at what??”
His eyes still burned and he tried to blink it away, let it disappear. He felt the tug at the base of his stomach again, like Yubel curling her claws into him.
Something popped. The burning in his eyes spiked, and all at once, he stopped trying to stop it. Immediately, the pain faded into a cool wash of relief.
Winged Kuriboh smacked him right in the face with its fuzz and he oofed, stumbling back.
“Aibou!” he said, his voice cracking with relief. “Aibou! I thought—I thought you left!”
Kuriboh snuggled into his neck, chattering excitedly as its wings fluttered against his face.
It didn’t leave. You forgot how to see it.
Yubel’s voice crackled across his mind and he gasped. He spun around again with Kuriboh in his arms.
“Yubel?” he called. “You’re here, right?”
But Yubel was quiet again, and he felt his eyes settling. He looked down at his hand, and for a moment, he saw a flicker of gray and talons appear across it.
You’re still here, he thought, inhaling. You're still here. I just...forgot how to sense you?
He curled his free hand into a fist.
How do I reach you?
* * *
Getting his sight back was easy. Learning what else he could do was not.
Judai scrunched up his nose, pressing his back into the tree for balance. He curled his hands into claws and tried to coax the shadows to stay. They gelled reluctantly to his hands, slithering from under the trees and building on top of each other to reach him.
You're bad at this.
Judai didn't even have anyone to glare at, so he just scowled.
“I'm trying,” he said.
Yubel's voice was inconsistent. He had a feeling she was having as much trouble figuring herself out as he was. It was probably hard for her to talk.
“Do you know how to do this?”
The shadows dribbled out of his hands before he could hold or shape them and he kicked the shadowed ground irritably. He was trying to use the shadows to make armor, the way that Haou had, once. It made his stomach twist to remember wearing that armor, but maybe he could make his own. Armor was always a good idea.
No. That was always your power, not mine.
Judai hesitated, biting his lip.
“What are your powers then?”
Yubel didn't respond, and for a time, Judai thought that she had blipped out again, disappearing into the recesses of his mind.
But then he felt his skin shudder and shift, like there was something underneath it that wanted to get out.
Let's see, she said.
* * *
Judai couldn't help himself. The whoop burst out of his lungs as he swooped low over the trees, almost crashing into them. But his wings were strong, incredibly strong, and he righted himself with ease, soaring back up into the stars again.
His wings beat powerfully from his back, and they felt so right. There had been no pain in letting them loose, letting them unfurl from his shoulder blades and take their rightful place again. It felt like he had been missing these for ages—or maybe that was Yubel.
In the back of his mind, he heard Yubel laughing. It wasn't the cold, crazed laughter from before, but instead a pure, excited sound. They were flying—they were flying again, and her excitement was bleeding into his own soul until he was laughing too, punching the sky in front of him as he soared through the night.
It was a shame that they ever had to land, Judai's ankles protesting as he hit a little too hard and stumbled. He wasn't sure how to put the wings away, so he just fumbled to fold them against his back for now—working new limbs was hard!
“That was incredible!”
Wasn't it?? Yubel said, her voice breathless.
For just the barest moment, then, he saw her. A projection of her, standing next to him; she was taller than him by a full head, her hair the same messy purple and white, her eyes a gleaming dichromatic orange and green, wings folded against her mottled gray and black skin. And her face was alight with a huge, almost childlike smile of pure and utter joy.
And then she was gone again, and he was staring at nothing.
His hand reached up to his chest and curled into his shirt above his heart.
But she wasn't really gone, right? She was never gone anymore.
* * *
Do you hate me?
Judai looked up. He had crunched himself into a corner on the bottom bunk, the blanket almost pulled up to his ears to keep the nightmares away. He could just barely see himself in the mirror from here.
Lately, when he looked in the mirror, he found Yubel looking back at him.
Her eyes gleamed in the darkness like a cat's, and he could only stare for a long time.
“No,” he said.
How can you not?
She leaned forward in the mirror, lips suddenly pulled back from her teeth in a snarling sort of grimace.
I'm the reason you're having those nightmares. Me. How can you not hate me?
Judai shook his head.
“I did it,” he mumbled. “It was my fault.”
It never would have even happened if not for me.
“I'm not pushing off my own fucking mistakes onto you,” Judai hissed.
Yubel glared at him.
There is a difference between pushing off your mistakes, and accepting that not all of them were your fault.
“Oh are you a psychologist, now?” Judai snapped, with a little more venom than necessary.
Yubel flinched, and he immediately felt guilty.
“I'm sorry,” he said, his voice a whisper. “I'm sorry. They're your nightmares too. I see what you've seen—what happened to you.”
I can deal with it.
“It was my fault.”
No, it wasn't.
“If I hadn't sent you on that...on that ship.”
He could see it as though he had been there himself. The cold, desolate isolation of space, no one to hear him screaming as the light burned at his very insides, ate away at everything that he was until the only thing left was obsession. Tears bubbled to his eyes as Yubel's memories—his memories, now—assaulted him.
He pulled his head under the covers.
“I'm sorry,” he said.
Stop apologizing. I'm the one that should be sorry.
Judai shook his head. And eventually, Yubel faded into silence, so that when he peeked up to see the mirror again, he was looking only at his own pale face and brown eyes.
“I'm sorry,” he whispered again.
Yubel grumbled in his soul.
We're both to blame. And we're both the same, now. So forgive yourself.
* * *
“Do you hate me?” he asked.
He could see her clearly, now, her projection standing beside him. There was something a little bit different about her like there was about him. She was tall, and yet still shorter than she had been when she had been separate from him. Her body was more lanky and straight, like a teenager's body, and her face a bit rounder. She had gotten softer. He had gotten sharper. Somehow, maybe, they were meeting in the middle.
What a ridiculous question. I could never hate you, Judai. I have always loved you.
Judai wasn't sure if that was what he wanted to hear. He looked down at his hands against the backdrop of the ocean that stretched out before them. With ease, he switched his skin from pale flesh to hard gray scales, and back again.
And besides. I am you, now. It would be the height of foolishness to hate myself.
She said it with such matter-of-factness that Judai almost laughed.
“Humans are actually pretty good at that.”
Yubel only sniffed, as though that were the most ridiculous thing that she had ever heard.
Judai licked his lips and stared back out at the ocean. There was a world out there. A world he hadn't even seen yet. Did something like him...like her...like them...fit into a world like that?
“I'm not really sure who we are,” he said. “Am I you? Are you me? Are we the same, or are we separate beings?”
Yubel's eyes flickered to his, and when he looked up at her, she had brown eyes, just like him. His eyes tingled and he knew that his eyes were hers right now, orange and green and faintly glowing.
We're what we've decided to be, she said. Isn't that just like everyone else in the world?
Judai laughed. He didn't even know what to say to that.
“I'll take it then, I guess,” he said. “We're in it for the long haul. You, and me. Figuring this out together.”
Yubel smiled, brown eyes warm and excited.
You and me...both of us, she said.
“Yeah. Both of us.”