The first few times, Kazuma thought he was jumping to conclusions, or misremembering. They were finally having a rematch, after so long, and he hadn’t wanted to interrupt that. But as familiar card after familiar card was laid down on the spread between them in just a couple of turns, the sick feeling in his stomach became impossible to ignore. With a quick ‘sorry, let me just-’ he’d lain his own down on the table and picked up Kazumi’s deck across from him. Sure enough, they were all still there. Even Shiranui, bright blue eyes staring back up at him clear as day.
“You’re still... using this deck?”The question just blurted out when he saw that, and when he looked back up at his brother, Kazumi looked as confused as he felt.
“Well, yes,” Kazumi said, laying what was left of his hand down too, “Why wouldn’t I?”
Kazuma gaped. He couldn’t help it. Kazumi didn’t seem to be joking - though it had been so long, he might not be able to tell now. But... but wasn’t the answer obvious? “After the way that guy treated you, you can’t seriously-”
Finally, Kazumi’s eyes widened in understanding. But he still shook his head, folding his hands in his lap. “Shiranui only did those things because he was being manipulated. I’m sure he wouldn’t have done anything like that if he hadn’t been tricked into thinking I deserved it.” There was a small pause, and he dropped his gaze back to his cards, still in Kazuma’s hands. “And... if it was true, and I was responsible for his comrades’ deaths... then I would have.”
“But you weren’t responsible, and you didn’t deserve it,” Kazuma said, setting the deck back down onto the table between them and leaning forward. Kazumi didn’t answer, and didn’t raise his eyes either. Mouth tightening a little, Kazuma felt suddenly how important convincing him of this was. “And sure, he was tricked into the Diffride and that whole mission... but a lot of the crap he pulled had nothing to do with that.” He remembered, clearly, Shiranui smiling with Kazumi’s face as he rubbed salt in every old wound. “He just did it because he wanted to.”
“That’s...” Kazumi looked up briefly, but Kazuma couldn’t read his expression before he looked back down. He laced his fingers together, shoulders still straight. “It’s true that he had no right to treat you the way he did. Even if he was... trying to get back at me, you had no part in any of it. He should have left you alone. I don’t mean to excuse that-”
Kazuma stood, slamming his palms against the table. “Then don’t excuse the way he treated you like shit either!” From his periphery, Kazuma spotted some other customers looking over at them. There weren’t many in the cafe - they’d picked it so they would be able to talk and play their game privately, after all - but it still would have been enough to make Kazuma settle back down normally. But- but Kazumi was sitting so still . He looked totally unphased. How could he be so calm about this? It made Kazuma feel like he had to be angry about it, to even get the point across. “He- he screamed at you to disappear! He told me to never come near you again! Even though you...”
And this memory was just as sharp, just as biting. Finally seeing Kazumi , just to watch him use every ounce of strength to apologize for existing. To try and say good-bye. None of that had swayed Shiranui’s feelings. Kazuma looked down, teeth clenched. It took another second before he could manage to say, “You know, right?” The flare of anger had receded, swallowed up by some awful mix of fear and guilt, and Kazuma sank back against the booth seat. “If no one told me what was really going on... I would’ve done just what that guy said. I would’ve given up, and gone home, and tried to forget everything about you.”
The admission - maybe an obvious one, but still painful to say outloud - hung between them and grew heavier with each uninterrupted moment. Finally, Kazumi said, softly, “That... isn’t what happened, though.”
“Only because we were lucky,” Kazuma said, voice raspy. He hated how transparent he felt, but... but if it made Kazumi reconsider, then he’d deal with it. “If Chrono hadn’t known the truth... it would’ve turned into something that couldn’t be fixed.” It was so easy to imagine himself giving up. He’d gotten so used to it. And knowing what he did now... it was just as easy to imagine what Kazumi might have done, if he was left alone in the aftermath. Much, much too easy.
Kazuma pressed the heel of his hand to his eye. He wasn’t crying, not even close to it, but the pressure was grounding. After a few seconds, he lifted his head to see his brother looking at him fully. One of his hands hovered awkwardly in the air, before returning abruptly to his lap. Kazuma decided to ignore it. “That guy didn’t care about any of that,” he tried again, relieved to sound steady again, “If that’s how he treats you, just because he thinks you deserve it... what’s gonna stop him if he gets tricked again, or misunderstands something? How can you trust him?”
Kazumi stayed silent, eyes fixed directly on him, for almost an unsettlingly long time. And then, all too abruptly, he said, “You’re right.” Kazuma blinked. His brother started smiling. “You’re right, of course. I don’t know what I was thinking.” He started straightening the cards back into the deck, pulling out his case. “In fact, why don’t we go to a card store? You could help me pick out a new clan.”
...Okay, that was what Kazuma wanted to hear, but it was. Really sudden. Kazuma narrowed his eyes. “What, right now?”
“Of course,” Kazumi said, snapping the case’s clasp closed. “You weren’t the only one looking forward to this match, you know. I don’t want to put it off again if I can help it.”
As closely as Kazuma tried to read him, nothing stood out as insincere. And... it really was a relief to hear. After all, Kazuma knew all too well how easy it was to just accept being treated badly; he didn’t want Kazumi to fall into that trap. “Okay,” Kazuma said, standing up and trying to sound as encouraging as possible, “Then let’s go, we’ll find a good one for you.”
That being said, Kazuma thought, he had to admit that he didn’t know a lot about the ins-and-outs of the different clans. He’d studied his opponents’ decks whenever he could, but that was more about specific builds and how to counter them. And he’d only ever used one deck himself; he’d never needed to do more thorough research on the clans themselves. The nearest card shop (he sent a mental apology to Card Capital for going somewhere else, but Kazumi’d said he wasn’t ready to see anyone from the U20 yet) was a few streets over, so he tried to use the time to talk with Kazumi about what kind of strategies he liked to try. But it seemed like Kazumi kept waffling whenever he made a suggestion. He’d smile and say “That could work”, only to accept the next suggestion just as easily.
It grated, a little. But Kazuma knew talking about theories and actually seeing the cards was different. Knowing what he did now, about Cray and the units, Kazuma felt sure that if Kazumi just looked properly, he’d feel a new connection with another avatar eventually. The rest would fall into place after that.
...Or, that’s what he’d hoped. But even face-to-face with different cards, nothing changed. Kazumi kept scanning the displays, making agreeable noises whenever Kazuma pointed one out, but never really getting excited about any of them.
He let it go on for as long as he could stand, but after maybe fifteen minutes of half-hearted responses, he finally had to say something. “Hey, what’s with you?” Kazuma asked, startled by the way Kazumi jumped when he did so. “You were the one who said we should come.”
“I... know,” Kazumi said, straightening himself back up, eyes still fixed on the cards, “It’s just- a little harder to pick then I thought.” He smiled, looking a little embarrassed. “Sorry, I’ll try to hurry up.”
Kazuma blinked, feeling uneasy. “I mean... it’s okay, you don’t have to rush. You just don’t seem really into it...”
“Sorry,” Kazumi said again, laughing a little, still looking straight ahead instead of at him, “I’m just being stupid, that’s all. I’ll pick something soon, really.”
Kazuma watched his brother carefully. The steady width of his smile. The tension in his set shoulders. The way he was still holding his deck, not quite to his chest, hands rictus stiff. And the image all came together. He was scared. Or, at the very least, extremely nervous.
A flare of alarm hit him, and Kazuma had to swallow it down. Had he really not noticed earlier...? “Hey...” he said, “Hey, it’s okay. You don’t have to make yourself do this.”
Kazumi flinched. “I’m- I’m not,” he still tried to insist, “I don’t... want to upset you, or make you uncomfortable when we play. I don’t mind-”
“And I don’t want you to do something just because I said to,” Kazuma said, more sharply than he meant. Kazumi winced, and his hold on his deck trembled a little. Kazuma took a breath, and tried to sound soft. He didn’t have much practice with it - he wasn’t really sure how to do it right. “Sorry, look, let’s... go sit down, okay?” He looked down, rubbing the back of his head. “I didn’t... really give you a chance to say how you felt. I’ll listen right this time, so...”
When Kazumi turned to look at him, it was like a spring being wound more tightly. Unbearably tense and ready to rip back at the first sign of release. It made Kazuma ache to watch. But instead of snapping, Kazumi slowly started to relax a little, and nodded.
There weren’t any booths like at the cafe, but there were a couple of benches against the walls. Kazuma led him over to one set closest to the corner of the room, and sat down. At first Kazumi just sat next to him without saying anything. Kazuma wondered briefly if he should prompt him again, but when he really looked it seemed like his brother was thinking. He didn’t want to interrupt that.
At last, Kazumi said, “When... when you were sent away, they got rid of everything of your’s that was left behind. What little there was in the first place.”
...Well, that wasn’t where Kazuma expected this to start. And though he guessed he kind of knew that already... having it confirmed wasn’t exactly fun. He shifted a little, but let Kazumi continue.
“There weren’t even... any pictures of you at all. The only proof left you even existed in that house is a pair of marks on a pillar.” Kazumi’s voice wavered a little, and he had to pause before he could finish, “That was all I had to remember you by. That, and Vanguard.” He ran a finger along the edge of his deck case. “Back then, these cards meant everything to me. They were the only link I still had to you.”
“I get that...” Why else had he stuck with his own deck all this time, if not that? At least partly. “But I’m here now. You don’t need to remember me like that. If that’s the only reason-”
“It’s... it’s not.”
Kazuma closed his mouth, and though Kazumi glanced up at him a few times, as if waiting to be interrupted, he didn’t say anything. Eventually, his brother kept going.
“You heard what Shiranui said, right? On Cray, most of these units are already dead.” Kazumi’s grip on the cards tightened, just a little. “If people don’t use these cards, then they’ll just... fade away here too. No one will remember them.” A steely determination, absent almost this whole conversation, finally sharpened his gaze. “Those units... they didn’t have anything to do with the Diffride, or Gastille, or anything. They didn’t do anything wrong. And they supported me, for years. If using them now will keep their spirits alive in some form... how can I throw them away?”
Ah... Kazuma’s eyes widened. He hadn’t even thought about that. Any of it.
But then Kazumi’s expression softened, and he said more quietly, “Even Shiranui. I know how much they meant to him. Better than anyone. At least if I keep using him along with all of them, they can still be connected. It might not be the same, but... it’s something.” He shook his head, looking almost helpless. “He was used, too. I can’t take him away from them. Not for something like that. I just... can’t .”
Kazuma fought down his initial impulse to try and argue again, and instead took a few seconds to really let what Kazumi said sink in. He sighed. “Okay. I do get what you’re saying.” He frowned a little, looking over at the deck in Kazumi’s hands. “It’s not as simple as I made it sound. And it does sound like you’ve really thought about it. But...” Despite himself, his frown kept deepening. “It still seems kind of messed up.” Kazumi flinched a little, which made Kazuma jump and wave his hand. “Ah- no, I don’t mean you. Just... the whole situation.”
His brother tilted his head, looking over at him. “What do you mean?”
“It just... doesn’t seem fair, I guess.” He leaned back against the wall, trying to pick his words carefully, “That even though you’re the one he hurt, you’re also the one who has to take care of him.”
A pained smile twisted Kazumi’s lips. “Well, if I complained about that, I’d be a pretty awful hypocrite.”
It took a second for the statement to hit home. Kazuma looked up, blinking, at his brother, who was carefully avoiding his eyes. “No,” he said, “No, okay? Just no.”
“Look, keep the deck if you think you have to. If you want to. I won't argue about that any more. But don’t... don’t put one stupid mistake you made as a kid on the same level as what that guy did to you, okay? They aren’t even remotely the same.”
Again, seeing his brother flinch and close up like that made him want to backpedal immediately. “I- no, you don’t have to apologize.” Kazuma tried to say more, something reassuring, but he didn’t know what. What was he even trying to reassure Kazumi about? He didn’t think he said anything wrong. He was just trying to get Kazumi to see he didn’t have to blame himself like that. But... he still managed to cross a line and hurt him, somehow. Eventually, he just leaned back again. Tried to figure out how he was supposed to handle this.
His brother... had always seemed so untouchable to him. As a kid, he was always calm, and always had something smart or encouraging to say. It felt like he knew everything. Even though now Kazuma knew the truth was more complicated, seeing how fragile how brother was still felt like a shock. And it made him realize all over again, how little he knew about taking care of someone.
It was Kazumi, again, who broke the silence. “You... say what he did was worse, but... I think you’re misunderstanding something.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” The words came out hard - but he was frustrated , dammit. He couldn’t sound any other way.
“You keep talking about me, like I’m just a victim, but...” Kazumi shifted a little, straightening himself back up. “I could have done something sooner. When the Diffride began, I didn’t... even try to fight back. I just let him do whatever he wanted. Even though he did listen, in the end. He might have... been willing to listen earlier, if I’d tried harder. If I hadn’t just given up from the start.” He smiled again. “It’s not like what I did to you. My choice isn’t any of your responsibility. But I...I do share the blame for the damage he did.”
In a second, Kazuma’s whole head went blank.
In the next, ‘The hell you do-!’ nearly exploded out right before he managed to get a grip and hold himself back.
Kazumi was smiling steadily, unflinching, and Kazuma was overwhelmed with frustration and just... hurt . Kazumi had thought about this way more than Kazuma had thought, but the way he’d done it had gotten him all tangled back up in the same problem that he’d gotten into when they were kids. He couldn’t just let Kazumi think like that about himself again. However hard it might be, he had to make Kazumi understand. That’s right - like Chrono had for him, he just had to push on, even if Kazumi didn’t want to listen right now, because eventually he’d have to...
...but. But when he had pushed, when he had left no room for argument, Kazumi was so quick to shift into something Kazuma wanted. Even though it made him anxious and on-edge, Kazumi was still ready to try and pretend as long as he had to.
Hadn’t it hurt, being ignored and told he just wasn’t acting or thinking right, over and over? Of course it did. He hated it, enough to make him want nothing to do with Chrono at times. And even though it worked out eventually, even though he had so few ideas of his own about what to do... he didn’t want to put Kazumi through that. Any of it. If Kazumi was going to agree with him, he wanted it to be because Kazumi really believed it was true. Not just because he was too afraid to disagree.
But he couldn’t just... let that statement go unchallenged either. He just- he had to be careful.
“That’s not how I see it. At all,” Kazuma finally said, turning to look Kazumi in the eye, “Even if you think you’re to blame, I don’t, okay? It wasn’t- it wasn’t your job to stop him all by yourself. You’re not gonna change my mind on that.” Kazumi’s smile faded, but he couldn’t read the blank expression that replaced it. With a sigh, Kazuma added, “Look, sorry, I... I don’t know how to say a lot of this. And you’ve probably noticed that my temper’s... not great. So, if I go overboard, please say so. I’ll back off, I promise.”
“It’s- it’s alright. You didn’t do anything wrong.” Kazumi started to say something else, then looked down and ran a finger along the corner of his deck case for a moment. “I’m sorry too. I might have... been goading you, a little.” He glanced up quickly, but couldn’t hold Kazuma’s gaze. “It’s just... hard to believe you’re not angry with me. That you’re really willing to do any of this.” He managed another smile - this one smaller, almost plaintive. “I’ll do better. I don’t want you to always have to watch what you say either.”
“Well, it’s not like I was never mad, you know?” Kazuma said, shrugging with what he hoped was convincing nonchalance. “It’s just- I mean, being mad didn’t... make me not care about you.” He felt his voice trailing off into a mumble, and pointedly didn’t look at Kazumi. Clearing his throat, he said, louder, “And it won’t now either. You’re gonna have to do a lot more than tick me off now and then to get rid of me.” Kazumi made a small noise that was more acknowledgement than agreement. And, well. What he said was already embarrassing enough. Couldn’t make it any worse. So he reached over and put a hand on one of Kazumi’s. “...We’re gonna figure this out. We’ve got time.”
Kazumi took a breath, then, as he released it, let one hand go from the deck to hold on to Kazuma’s. “Yes. No rush.” The way he said it, and the way he looked at Kazuma, almost made it sound like a question. So Kazuma gave his hand a squeeze, to agree.