Warning: yaoi ahead (Yuma x human Astral)

The AR faded around them, but Yuma barely noticed when the holograms shattered. His lips formed a soundless "no" and he found himself unable to shout or move, because raw, instant terror didn't mean screams and sobs or pitiful begging. True terror meant silence, and he was so petrified he didn't have the presence of mind to cry out. He locked down.

What could he even say, he didn't know, because he never pondered over how to handle his last moments with his best friend. He couldn't possibly convey how much he cared or how much he believed in Astral, not in such a short amount of time.

In the end, when he managed to speak, his words were pathetic platitudes. When his brain failed to respond, his lips uttered the phrases most automatic, familiar, and trite.

"No," he finally croaked out. "No, you can't go, not without me. I didn't mean to lose. I didn't mean to...!"

He collapsed to his knees, gravel scraping dozens of tiny gashes into his skin, insignificant injuries compared to the hole being ripped in his chest, like his body couldn't focus on any pain except for his aching chest and lungs. His voice rose, as if he could prevent the unpreventable if he just shouted loud enough.

"It's not your fault, Yuma," Astral trailed off, sounding resigned, morose, but not overly surprised. He glanced briefly at his last opponent. "Or Kaito's."

Turning back to the distraught boy in front of him, Astral leaned down, his corporeal body flickering in the dim light of the darkening street, ghost-like and faint as he faded. He spoke urgently, desperate for his partner heard his final, sincere words.

"Yuma. I want to thank you...for being my friend."

The spirit continued vanishing as he spoke and Yuma could only shake his head in denial, incapable of accepting his helplessness. Astral gave him a slight smile, reaching out to touch his partner's shoulder even as his hand faded, inhuman, gentle hands seeking one last form of contact. Almost in a trance, Yuma reached out as well.

There was no one left to touch. His friend was gone.

"No," he choked, his fingers grasping at empty air. "No. Astral—"

"Yuma," Kaito called out neutrally, cutting off the horrified outcry. "Stand up."

Kaito's footsteps echoed on the street, the crumbled road crunching under his feet, but Yuma stared at him blankly, his glazed eyes looking directly at him but not truly focused on the scowling blond. He was instead trapped in the past, the last image of Astral replaying in his mind. He was oblivious to how Kaito watched with clenched fists and how Yuma, hunched at his feet, unnerved him.

"Yuma," Kaito repeated, more harshly this time. His expression remained stoic, but his sharp command betrayed his inner disquiet. "Get up!"

"Astral," Yuma whispered, his faltering voice growing hysterical as his head fell into his hands. "Astral!"

"Yuma," Kaito said again loudly, finally kneeling beside the other boy and roughly shaking his shoulders. The smaller boy rattled in his grasp. "Idiot, get a hold of yourself."

Lifting his head from his arms, the agitated teen focused on the blond duelist in front of him at last. For a moment, his gaze remained blank and disoriented, and then he remembered that Kaito was the one who defeated them, and it was all his fault.

Yuma violently shoved away the other teen's arms, before realizing in that same instant that he couldn't blame him. They had accepted the duel knowing the risks, Kaito had dueled fairly, and then Yuma had lost.

It was Yuma's fault.

"Astral's gone," he whispered brokenly, his head falling back in his arms. He curled up, drawing his knees to his chest. "It's all my fault."

He had lost, and now Astral was gone.

It was all his fault.

"What do you mean, Astral's gone?" Kaito asked coldly, the question coming out more like a command and disguising the shock that flickered across his features.

He wondered briefly if that meant he'd been dueling Yuma, not both of them, but no, he was certain that he had been fighting their combined strength. He'd struggled to win, which was more effort than he would have required to defeat the idiot alone.

The boy didn't answer him, and Kaito reached out to shake his shoulders again with choleric force. "What do you mean?"

"He was from another world," Yuma explained tightly, sounding as though someone was strangling him but wouldn't show enough mercy to just crush his throat and end it. "And if I lost, he would disappear."

"What?" Kaito hissed in disbelief, his eyes widening. "Then why were you dueling? This duel—"

"Astral and I decided we wouldn't back down, no matter what," Yuma said miserably. "But...Kattobingu didn't work this time. If I was just a better duelist— If I'd won—"

"Idiot," Kaito breathed, unable to believe his rival was gone forever, and that he was the one who had sacrificed his rival for his own means.

The duelist tightened his grip on Yuma's shoulder, and he could feel the smaller boy trembling violently in his grasp. Or maybe that was both of them.

It didn't matter. He let go.

He didn't mourn. He prioritized Haruto's well-being over his rival and Yuma without hesitation. Besides, they weren't even his first victims. He had stolen plenty of souls; he needed Numbers, regardless of who he hurt in the process. He regretted nothing. He couldn't regret.

Taking a deep breath to clear away the unwanted thoughts, he reached over to nimbly pick up Yuma's discarded duel disk, and the boy didn't even notice, still trapped in a timorous daze. Kaito flipped open the case holding Yuma's Number cards and focused on the necessary, not the ideal.

Only to find that nothing was there.

"It's a lie," the boy whimpered, even as Kaito narrowed his eyes suspiciously at the empty card case. "He wouldn't go anywhere without me."

Kaito briefly considered the possibility that the Numbers cards had disappeared with Astral, but no, the Numbers cards had never disappeared from his victims before.

Then again, none of his victims had ever escaped with their souls before, either.

"It's a lie," Yuma repeated, as though saying it twice would make it so.

Kaito blatantly disregarded the tears now streaming down the teen's cheeks. He knew he could offer no comfort even if he wanted to because he was the one responsible for the loss in the first place. He suspected Astral had been taken instead of Yuma.

And the Numbers had disappeared with him. Kaito normally absorbed the cards without making contact, but this time he had needed to walk over only to verify that there were none.

"Where are the Numbers cards?" he demanded, trying one last time to receive a coherent response.

The teen's head was still buried in his arms, showing no sign of acknowledgement. Again, he roughly shook the other boy's shoulders, but the action proved pointless when Yuma didn't so much as look up.

Kaito closed his eyes, forcing himself to rationalize the situation.

They'd had a normal duel, with Yuma seemingly talking to himself but in reality had been strategizing with Astral. Kaito had nearly lost, but in the end, had pulled off a narrow victory. After dealing the finishing blow of their duel, Yuma had promptly turned away, more concerned with Astral than his opponent, and after a flash of light the boy had collapsed in despair.

A flash of light. Light required energy. His eyes snapped open. Scanning over the shivering duelist in front of him, Kaito searched for a possible source, his eyes stopping abruptly when they reached the Emperor's Key.

He had stolen the necklace before. Supposedly a key connecting humans to the Astral World, he ascertained that it did contain otherworldly powers, although he didn't believe it so blindly as Yuma. He lacked the trust the boy had for this 'Astral', and what he saw of the key could easily have been mimicked by modern day technology.

Reaching out cautiously, he grasped the key carefully, tugging gently. The other boy continued to stare ahead, his eyes looking eerily dead. Kaito stood quickly, hiding his unease and regarding the key thoughtfully.

He needed to save his brother. To do so, he needed the Numbers cards, and for that, he needed facts.

Somehow, Kaito had a hunch that the truth lay with this key.


"Hey," Tetsuo said with a grin, reaching out to ruffle his friend's hair with a rough but gentle fist. He forgot, for a moment, how recently Yuma didn't ever seem in the mood for such teasing.

Indeed, Yuma didn't shout in protest, try to escape, or recklessly challenge him to a duel. Tetsuo was reminded again that his friend no longer enjoyed play-fighting or trading insults, and appeared to have aged four years in the past four weeks. It was the worse kind of feeling, he thought, to lose a friend even when they were right there in front of you.

The grin quickly faded and his arm drew away, but no one could ever claim he lacked determination, because he forced the corners of his mouth back up and tried again.

"Yuma, let's duel," he repeated. His friend looked up with a start, as though he'd just noticed the other boy's presence.

"Oh, hi, Tetsuo," Yuma mumbled, standing quickly from his seat. He edged around his classmate even as he forced his own smile on his face. Tetsuo thought it looked more like a grimace.

"Hey," he said for the he-lost-count time. "Do you want to duel?"

Yuma's smiling grimace intensified. "Aw, too bad, I can't today. I promised my sister I'd run an errand for her before I go home. Sorry."

"Oh," Tetsuo said dubiously, although his friend didn't seem to notice.

"I'll see you tomorrow," Yuma continued casually, recovering his usual cheer quickly and lazily reaching up to place his hands behind his head. His smile smoothed out, so practiced that it almost looked real.


"Tell Kotori 'bye' for me," he said brightly, with his voice just a little bit off pitch and his words just a little bit too carefree. Tetsu frowned, but Yuma didn't notice, didn't want to notice, because if he did he would know that for all the effort he put into his act, he wasn't actually fooling anybody.

He skirted around his friend, walking away with a deliberate sheepish smile before turning away. He made sure to throw back a carefree wave.

As soon as his back was turned, his lips uncurled and the laughing lines around his eyes smoothed out, vanishing without a conscious effort.

His friends worried about him, he knew. It had been a month since Astral had disappeared, but Yuma only missed his dueling partner more and more as time passed. He couldn't always hide it.

Astral would want him to be happy, his friends told him. But why the hell should he be happy, then, if Astral wasn't around to see it, anyway?

For his friends, Yuma faked a smile. He could manage a small smile and a little acting so his friends didn't suffer along with him.

He still felt empty.

He told himself he'd recover from this is no time, and soon he'd really be okay, not just acting like he was. If he didn't, then he'd just have to perfect the acting. He was already getting better.

Yuma blinked, finding himself in his room without really remembering how he'd arrived. He recalled leaving the school, but he couldn't remember the walk. Sighing, he collapsed in his hammock, only mildly disturbed by his lack of awareness. He spaced out so often now, sometimes he didn't even notice the lapses in his memory.

It was ironic that although he wanted nothing more than Astral's companionship, he avoided all other offers. Errands for his sister, a sudden interest in doing his homework (they never believed that one), or even saying he was going to search for someone to duel. Anything to avoid them. His friends were company, but they were the wrong company.

And for thinking that way, he didn't deserve their comfort, regardless.

The lies only became worse. Later he would reenact epic duels he had never fought, tell them about his wins and losses even though he hadn't so much as looked at his deck since Astral disappeared. It wasn't an express effort to avoid it. He had just lost any inclination to duel.

So maybe Yuma was having a harder time getting over Astral than he let on. But as long as he didn't show it, he concluded he could be as miserable as he wanted. He wasn't selfish if only he suffered.

A loud and obnoxious tap on his window interrupted ceaseless self-pity.

He ended up falling out of his hammock, his arms flailing before inevitably landing gracelessly and painfully on his knees. Scrambling to stand and glare furiously at the perpetrator, he was shocked to see Kaito's robot, Orbital 7, perched on the half-open window.

"Orbital 7?" Yuma asked, somewhat confused. He was torn between remaining in his apathetic stupor or faking emotion for a robot. "What are you doing here?"

"Toma," Orbital 7 exclaimed, waving its mechanical arms anxiously at the sight of him. "I bring a message from Kaito-sama."

Yuma frowned, but didn't feel the motivation to remind him that his name was actually 'Yuma'. Besides, the sudden announcement of his rival interested him far more, especially since Kaito had caused Astral's disappearance.

"Kaito?" Yuma asked warily, his voice lacking his usual light-hearted idiocy and energetic demands. He decided the robot wouldn't care whether he put in the effort or not. He stepped forward, ducking under his hammock. "What does that guy want?"

"Lord Kaito wanted me to give you a message," Orbital 7 proclaimed dutifully, his metal arms still moving frantically as he spoke. He didn't seem to notice or care about Yuma's uncharacteristic lack of enthusiasm.

Yuma waited with dull patience, unaware that the message would snap him out of his dead, zombie-like existence of the past month and redefine his entire life yet again.

"He knows where Astral is, and he wants to make a deal in exchange for the information."

Oho. Is Astral dead? Is he? Is he? :D

...Eheh. Wouldn't be much of a story if I killed him off in the first chapter, would it? ;) (answer: No. No, it wouldn't be.)

Reviews are very much appreciated. :)