He has lived in the shadows for a month now, and it’s been long enough that he knows not to trust the darkness.
Without Astral, the days are long and the nights are longer, and Yuma lays on his side in his hammock and wishes that he’s anywhere else. Some nights he wishes that he doesn’t exist at all. Without Astral, there is something missing in his soul, and his chest feels hollow, and he can’t ever seem to focus properly. Yuma curls on his side in his hammock and he wishes that he doesn’t exist.
He goes to school, and he smiles, and he tries. He is breaking, breaking, breaking, but each morning he looks in the mirror and he says, “you are okay,” and he believes it. His friends believe it. Maybe they have to believe it or they will break too. Yuma has to hold them together, but how can he do that when his veins are made out of despair and there are spiderweb cracks in his soul?
Ryouga doesn’t believe him, and Yuma doesn’t expect him too. But Ryouga is Nasch now, and he doesn’t speak to Yuma anymore, and Yuma feels very, very alone. He smiles at Ryo-Nasch anyway. Nasch never smiles back. Yuma finds it very hard to care when you’re a dead soul trapped in a living body.
He goes home, and he doesn’t eat, and Akari has stopped asking him why. He thinks that maybe she knows. She can’t know, Yuma hasn’t told her, but sometimes she looks at him and he thinks he can see all the way through him.
Eventually, he just stops leaving his room.
He lies in his hammock, and he doesn’t touch his duel cards, and he lies there until his eyes grow heavy and then he sleeps. His dreams don’t make sense - they’re fragments of hot and small and red and sharp - and he wakes up when the moon is still in the sky. He’s stopped screaming now. He’s grateful; it means Akari won’t climb up and ask him in a soft voice why he won’t get out of bed.
He still wakes up feeling like he can’t breathe. He thinks that maybe flowers have started growing on his ribcage, that feathers have been crammed down his throat and he chokes on them with every stuttered inhale.
He goes to sleep again and dreams of angels with decaying wings.
Yuma crawls out his window one day, his face wet with tears, because he’d woken up and rolled over and seen Number 39 - Astral’s number - staring up at him from the top of the deck. He screams at it, wants to burn it, but he can’t because he promised Astral, so he climbs out of his window and runs.
And he ends up outside the Barian mansion that Nasch owns. Yuma considers going home, or going far away, but instead he goes forward and he knocks on the door and he waits. He wants to see Nasch - no, Ryouga. He wants his friend. He wants Ryoga.
“Yuma.” Alit’s voice is soft but not pitying. Yuma thinks that maybe Alit has been where he is, thinks that maybe Alit knows what it’s like to want to be someone else. Alit must know what it’s like to lose someone and weep. “Are you here for anyone in particular? I have nothing to do if you want to go on a walk with me.”
Yuma does want to go on a walk with him, but he can’t because he needs to look at Nasch and see Ryouga looking back. He needs his old friend to see him because otherwise Yuma thinks those feathers will choke him to death.
Yuma smiles, and it’s thin and strained but it’s better than it has been all week so Alit leaves him alone about it. “I was looking for Ryouga,” he says and Alit flinches. It’s an answer. Yuma turns away because there’s no need for him to stay there anymore.
“Yuma-” Alit reaches for him.
Yuma doesn’t stop walking because really, he’s been waiting for this a long time. “It’s okay,” he says over his shoulder, and his voice is light. “Everyone leaves me eventually. Ryouga is just the next one in line.”
He leaves and Alit doesn’t follow him.
Yuma walks and walks and walks, and each step causes another flower to grow in his lungs, and each laboured breath is a promise that he’s still alive. Yuma wants Astral back, he wants Ryouga back, his Ryouga. He wants to go back to the beginning, when the Barians didn’t exist, and Vector was just a name he hadn’t heard and Shingetsu Rei was nobody to anybody. he wants to go back to when he and Ryouga would duel and smile and laugh and be awkward teenagers with crushes on each other. He wants to go back to when Astral would hover over him at night, always on guard, always making sure Yuma was okay.
He misses Astral and Ryouga, and it’s poison. It’s killing him.
Yuma takes another step, grows another flower, breathes another breath. The feathers in his throat shift. He’s choking on angel wings and they’re decaying in his throat and he’s breathing it all in. It’s in him now - the decay. He’d dying from the inside out. Astral and Ryouga have taken that part of him that is light and good and happy. Now Yuma is left with the flowers and the feathers and the falling apart.
He walks. He breathes. He breaks.
“You are okay,” he says and he believes it. Nobody is there to call him out anyway. Astral is gone, and Yuma is alone. Alone and lonely. What a terrible burden he must bear. “You are okay, and you will not cry. You are done with crying. You are done.”
Yes, yes he is done. He’s done with his friends, with the Barians, with duelling. The world may need him but he doesn’t need the world.
He walks, and he breathes, and he feels like all he has to do is scream and the sky will fracture and rain ash down upon him. He can do it, he thinks, because he has flowers growing in his lungs and he has angel feathers in his throat and he can do anything he wants to. Except that he can’t, because Astral is still gone and Nasch still isn’t Ryouga, and Yuma is still fractured. He can only destroy because he is destroyed.
There are footsteps behind him - the person is running after him - and Yuma has the childish urge to run away. He won’t, though, but he wants to. Instead, he keeps walking and lets whoever is chasing him catch up.
Another breath - another flower.
A hand on his shoulder and he stops walking. A feather sits delicately on his tongue as he turns around. Nasch stares back at him, and it’s not Ryouga because Ryouga never used to look at Yuma and see someone else instead. “Why didn’t you stop walking?” Nasch asks. “I was calling you.”
Yuma hadn’t heard him. “I didn’t want to talk,” he said instead of saying sorry, and Yuma knows that Nasch knows that he’s lying.
“You wouldn’t have come to the mansion if you hadn’t wanted to talk to me.” Nasch sounds tired, and Yuma thinks, That’s not fair.
Nasch doesn’t get to be tired. Yuma gets to be tired, because Yuma is the one who lost everything and gained nothing, and Nasch lost nothing and gained everything. Yuma saved the world, and Nasch only betrayed them. Yuma smiles, and shakes his head like he used to when he was being scatterbrained. “Nah, I was just going for a walk and got lost in my own head.”
Is this how Vector felt as Rei? Yuma thinks that he’s living a lie, that the smile he’s wearing is nothing but a cage for the feathers in his throat. Don’t let the angels out.
Nasch tilts his head, and his eyes narrow, and Yuma feels like the Barian can see right down the the flowers blooming on his ribcage. It makes him feel sick. He wants to go home now. “Yuma,” Nasch says, and his voice is quiet and Yuma wonders if maybe he should be getting angry.
“I’m really sorry for disturbing you,” Yuma says, and it’s not what he should say but he can’t bring himself to look at Nasch and talk like he’s talking to Ryouga. Yuma thinks that maybe now it’s sunk in that Ryouga is gone just like Astral is gone and he’s really, really alone.
Nasch reaches out again, but Yuma sees the claws forming and grabbing and he winces away. “Yuma,” Nasch says again, and he sounds pained. Something in Yuma aches. “Look, I know things have been hard for you after Astral left, but you came to me for something and I’m not letting you walk away until you tell me what it is.”
Yuma takes a breath, swallows down the angel feathers and feels more flowers grow in his lungs. “You look like him,” he murmurs. Nasch startles slightly. Maybe he hadn't really expected Yuma to talk. “You look like him, but you aren’t, and I think I’m giving up on you.”
Nasch takes a step back, and Yuma doesn’t follow him. He stares dully, and he feels the flowers stop growing. The feathers in his throat stop decaying, and he chokes, chokes, chokes and-
“I’m sorry Yuma,” Nasch says, and his voice is sad. “I know how much i meant to you. But I’m a Barian, and I can’t ignore that just to spare you.”
Yuma wants to scream and shout and wail and throw a tantrum. It’s what he would have done, once, back when he was so desperate to keep his friends close and his enemies closer. Now, he’s lost both of them anyway, and now he doesn’t know how to move forward in his life. What does he do when there’s nobody to fight, nothing to save, no stakes?
He doesn’t scream and he doesn’t shout. He doesn’t throw a tantrum. Yuma looks at the being that used to be one of his closest friends, and he lets him go.
He lets Ryouga go.
“It’s okay,” he says with a smile. It’s easier to smile, he thinks, when he’s already lost everyone. Sure, the Numeron Code revived them, Nasch standing in front of him right now is proof that Yuma regained the physical things he lost, but there’s more to it than that.
Yuma didn’t regain peaceful sleep, or the ability to breathe, or the spark that had lived inside him for too many years. Now Yuma is dark and hollow, and he smiles, and he knows that Nasch sees.
“Yuma,” Nasch says again, but he stops. Yuma understands - this is Nasch giving up, the same way that Yuma has given up. The time for winning has passed now, and both of them can’t bring themselves to fight anymore.
Yuma wonders if the Numeron Code could’ve brought back Ryouga. In the end, he thinks it doesn’t matter. They wouldn’t have regained what they’d lost anyway. Yuma himself has changed too much, and though the Numeron Code is great, Yuma’s anguish is greater. “I want you to tell the others something,” he says and he lets the mask fall. He thinks he sounds older now, aged beyond his years. He has seen too much and not enough. “I want you to tell the Barians that I forgive them. I want you to tell them that I can forget what they’ve done. And I want you to find Vector.”
“Vector?” Nasch repeats, wrinkling his nose.
Yuma laughs, and it’s a tired sound. ”I know you don’t like him - I don’t blame you. But Vector...I forgive him too.”
And Yuma finds that he has. Vector is hard to forgive, and Yuma can’t bring himself to forget, but Yuma knows what it’s like to be alone. To lost everything. To hate yourself. He knows, he’d seen it in Vector’s eyes. Maybe he’s blinded by Shingetsu’s face. Who cares.
Nasch doesn’t protest, just nods. “Will you come back?” He understands, then, that Yuma’s saying goodbye.
Yuma doesn’t have an answer for him. Instead, he takes a breath, walks forward and presses a kiss to familiar lips. He’s not kissing Ryouga, and he knows that, but he finds that they still fit. It’s a promise and an apology and a farewell, and when he steps away again, he finds that there are tears on his cheeks. There are tears on Nasch’s cheeks as well.
“You taste of feathers,” Nasch says wonderingly, and Yuma hesitates, thinks that maybe Nasch understands as well.
But Nasch doesn’t understand the way Ryouga understands, and Yuma knows it, and it’s okay. He’ll go on his own adventure, without Astral, and without the numbers, and without any threats of world domination.
Maybe Yuma will find Ryouga along the way.
He walks away without a word, and this time, Nasch doesn’t follow him.
Yuma goes home the long way.
He’s gone by the time Akari climbs up to the attic.