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99 Kame Apartments.

Yuma read the address again and then glanced up from the slip of paper to warily eye the door in front of him. Yes, he had officially reached 99 Kame Apartments.

He had promised Kaito all of the Numbers cards for those two simple words and a couple of digits. He had left his sister and grandmother with only a note and no goodbyes, impulsively departing for the first train and disregarding the consequences.

Yet for all his sacrifices and recklessness, Yuma wasn't sure he would find Astral.

He didn't even know if Astral existed.

Kaito insisted that Yuma had been conversing with a real person and not a computer, but this person lived in their world, and most certainly did not exist as an 'energy being' from another galaxy. Astral was Asutora Sekai, a first year college student who worked part time at KaibaCorp and lived in a humble, earthly apartment.

Yuma had been standing in front of his apartment for several minutes, repeatedly reaching up to knock and then lowering his hand before he ever made a sound. He was vaguely aware that his hesitation probably merited embarrassment on his behalf, but residents passing by him on their way to Saturday errands gave him no more trouble than an inquisitive glance. Apparently Asutora Sekai did not suffer from nosy neighbors.

He wanted Astral to be alive. Of course, if this Asutora was him, that would mean his friend lived peacefully and safely, but selfishly he also yearned to trust. Astral had told Yuma that if they lost a duel he would die. Surely he wouldn't have lied about his very existence.

And if his friend had really deceived him all that time, secretly laughing at how gullible and how stupid Yuma was even while pretending that they were comrades, then he had to wonder if they had ever been friends at all.

He thought he might hate Astral if he had truly lied and acted and faked through every moment they'd had together. He clenched his fists tightly at the thought, almost overcoming his qualms of announcing his presence because at least knocking on the door would give him something to pound.

Even so, regardless of if it meant he'd been manipulated and his trust betrayed, he couldn't bring himself to walk away. He needed to see for himself that Astral wasn't dead.

He lifted his hand to knock.

Before he had the chance, however, the door opened with a click and his arm froze in mid air, his fist still posed to tap. His mouth fell open, an indistinct garble coming from his throat, and the man on the other side of the door stared with undisguised shock.

Then the man, with the pale blue hair and startling yellow-green eyes, broke into a soft smile. "Yuma."

He didn't need Kaito to tell him that this person was Astral. The smile, the eyes, the voice. Different, yet exactly the same. If Astral was a human, then this was exactly how Yuma would have imagined him.

Given the situation, he didn't need to imagine anything.

The person who was Astral but wasn't at all reached out with thin, graceful fingers—not blue, but instead an unusual white, the pale skin of someone who didn't often see the light of day and when he did he only burned—to touch him, and maybe pull him into an embrace.

Yuma flinched away and stepped back. The smile on the man's lips faded and distress replaced his former delight, his hand drawing away but unwilling to return to his side. It twitched, as though it wished to reach for him again and feared the result, but Yuma didn't feel an ounce of guilt. He realized now that he would never see Astral again, because Astral wasn't real. His friend was nothing but a role, and now the actor who had brilliantly played the alien accomplice had finally dropped the character.

"Yuma—"

Astral was human. He was a young, normal human just a few years older than himself. A living, lying human. Yuma felt his eyes burning, a combination of relief, humiliation, anger, and joy all threatening to pour down his face. Astral lived, but in a way, he thought this was almost worse than death, because now it was like his friend had never existed in the first place.

Both of them watched each other for one long, surreal moment, and then the first tears leaked out, breaking the temporary spell. He didn't notice at first, too caught up in his own turmoil of emotions, but Astral—no, it wasn't Astral, he reminded himself—reached out to touch his face, to wipe away the droplets sliding silently down his cheeks.

Yuma flinched away again, stumbling backwards and an uncomfortable nausea consuming him. He violently rubbed away his tears with his own sleeve and while his eyes were still moist, they narrowed in anger. He glared at the floor, not ready to meet the eyes of the imposter, and decided he despised this man. He'd mourned Astral for over a month. He'd felt like he was suffocating in loneliness and burning with guilt.

And the whole time, Asutora Sekai had uncaringly, leisurely gone on with his life while knowing how much Yuma had missed him.

He turned sharply on his heel and broke into a run, his footsteps pounding and doubtlessly irritating tenants on the lower floors. He ignored the dismayed call of his name, yanking open the door to the stairwell without hesitation and dashing down them as fast as he could. All he wanted now was to get away from Astral and his human body, his human name, his human life, and his stupid apartment-

"Wait, Yuma!"

Glancing above him, he saw the man looking down at him from a level above, peering down the stairwell with his arms braced against the rail. Yuma froze for a moment, and then started down the stairs twice as fast, and behind him he heard the man giving chase and pounding down the stairs as well. His anger was temporarily overridden by panic as he sprinted for the last set, the bone-deep animalistic fear of being caught pumping adrenaline through his veins.

He wasn't thinking straight anymore, all his energy now focused on fleeing, an irrational terror of capture suddenly driving him faster than he'd known he could run. As soon as he reached the bottom, he darted through the last hallway and out the door, hoping the man would give up once he reached outside.

No such luck. A few seconds later, he looked over his shoulder and saw that he was still being chased. Breathing hard but not pausing for rest, human Astral followed persistently behind him, even though Yuma was clearly faster.

He would have gotten away. Yuma always ran late, never stood still, and could shamelessly outrun his demanding sister when necessary (his grandmother was another matter, but that wasn't to say he didn't try). He prided himself on his expertise at dodging pedestrians and jumping down entire flights of stairs. In fact, all things considered, his pursuer did a fairly good job of keeping up, but after several blocks Yuma was noticeably gaining ground.

He could have left the man there. He wanted to, but even when betrayed and furious, it just wasn't in Yuma's nature to leave behind someone in pain.

The man wheezed, coughed, and struggled to breathe. Most disturbingly, however, was that even when hunched over and sounding like imminent death, Asutora still tried to keep running. He raced after Yuma on determination alone until he finally collapsed.

Yuma paused, running in place and preparing to start sprinting again at any second, but then fell still altogether. He waited for the man to start breathing normally and to stand, deciding he would continue running the moment he did, but he just kept coughing and coughing and coughing—

He hesitated. The panic of pursuit hadn't worn off yet and it defied all his instincts to go back within reach, aware that he could use Asutora's incapacitation as an opportunity to make a mad dash for the train before he recovered. Yuma considered the idea, taking a couple of uncertain steps away, much like a spooked animal.

Then, almost against his will and certainly before he consciously decided to, his feet started moving back to his former partner's side, kneeling next to him with his hands hovering worriedly over him.

It looked like an asthma attack, so Yuma tentatively searched the pockets of Astral's jeans for an inhaler. He glanced around, searching for help, but the nearest people were a few teenagers down the street who were too wrapped up in their own conversation to notice without him walking over and leaving Asutora on his own.

"Hey," he said, his voice increasing in volume and hysteria the longer he waited for a response, unsure what to do or if he should even touch the other boy. "Hey! What's wrong? What should I—"

His panicked stuttering was cut off when the other teen suddenly lurched forward, capturing him in a painfully tight embrace, wheezing for breath even as he leaned on Yuma's shoulder. He fell backwards under the weight, until they were sitting in the middle of the sidewalk in a one-sided hug. Yuma sat tensely, frozen in place while his heart pounded, experiencing a sick feeling at being caught.

"I'm sorry," the boy apologized in a pained, breathless whisper. "I'm sorry...Yuma."

Yuma felt his eyes water and his arms reached up, whether to push the man away or return the gesture, he wasn't sure. In the end, they fell limply at his sides. He leaned forward and although he didn't return the embrace, he rested his forehead on the boy's shoulder to hide his overflowing eyes, the tears both resentful and tender.

They sat there for a long time, taking no notice of the occasional passerby who gave them a raised eyebrow or a comment about 'kids these days' or 'get a room'. The man eventually regained his breath and pulled away. His face no longer held any strain, maintaining a cool and impassive gaze, an expression so distinctly Astral a stab of recognition overwhelmed him.

"Astral-" Yuma started, the alias out of his mouth even though he hadn't intended to speak, the unexpectedly distinct countenance shocking him into blurting out the name even after learning that the name was fake.

He added quickly afterwards, an angry reminder to himself, "No, Asutora."

"You can call me Astral," the man cut him off quietly. He sounded completely composed, but he gripped Yuma's wrist tightly, as though worried he might run away again. "It doesn't sound right if you call me anything else."

"Astral," Yuma repeated in a mutter, not meeting the teen's stoic gaze. He lifted the arm Astral wasn't holding and rubbed away the last traces of tears with his sleeve. Fixing a scowl on his face, he stood, dragging his clinging companion up with him. "You're not him. Let go!"

He shook his arm roughly, trying to break free from the grasp, but the man didn't flinch. For someone who had been trembling so weakly just moments before, he was surprisingly strong.

"No," Astral said simply, matter-of-factly. He adopted the same tone of voice he used to speak with when explaining a dueling strategy or a particularly complex card combination, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. "If I let go, you'll run away."

Yuma continued to struggle, almost shouting back that that was the point, except knowing that to do so would only strengthen Astral's resolve. He tried to pull away without comment, but either way, the grip on his wrist was an impossible vise to break. No matter what he did his chances of escape were slim. Yuma was never the best at thinking things through.

Astral always had been the strategist.


Note on Astral's "real" name, Asutora Sekai:

Asutoraru (アストラル) is the Rōmaji of 'Astral' in Japanese. I shortened it because that's a bit of a mouthful. 'Asu' means tomorrow, which I think fits, since Zexal takes place in the future. And 'tora' means tiger—and this is just a personal opinion—but Astral's gaze kind of reminds me of a cat.

'Asutoraru Sekai' translates to the 'Astral World', so no one would ever have the last name 'Sekai' in reality (I don't think). But I thought most English-speaking audiences wouldn't notice, so I figured it would be fine? Honestly, I just liked how it sounded. Haha. :)

Err, also note: I do NOT speak Japanese. So while I did my best with translation sites and what I do know, these names might not make any sense whatsoever. Eheh. I tried? :D

Please review? :)