Shiranui disappears with little fanfare. One minute he's there, a continuous pressure, filling up Kazumi's lungs and controlling his heart, pushing him under every time he starts to rise—and in the next he's gone, with a soft touch on the other's mind and an apology on his lips.
The memories come slow, one gentle wave after the other. The salt water stings, seeping into his wounds, his own regrets overlayed with Shiranui's. His own failures run parallel, and the need to do better, to do more, slowly pulls him back to shore.
The truth is that Kazumi was a terrible brother. The same way Shiranui was an terrible leader. Too much power, too little understanding on how to use it right. And weak, both too weak, easily falling under the spell of a being that only seeked to destroy what they held dear.
The same thing that pulled him back now drives him forwards. He failed Kazuma as a child, failed him again in the Under 20 finals, and then a third time when he let him get captured by Gyze's apostle. He won't fail him a fourth time.
It's only after a week of pestering his little brother for details of his life (pictures, report cards, everything) that Kazumi starts to realize that Kazuma's relationship with Shindo Chrono might not be purely platonic. There's a smile on his face when he speaks of Shindo, a brightness to his eyes when he describes all the shenanigans the other got him into.
Now, Kazumi might be oblivious at times—his year possessed wreaking havoc on his already meager social skills, but he's read enough shojo manga, watched enough teen dramas to know where this is going.
"Shindo Chrono must be important to you," Kazumi says, testing the waters. His intention is fairly obvious and it works in his favor, drawing out a blush out of his younger brother, cheeks dusted pink as he doesn't even bother to protest.
Normally that would be proof enough, but the thing with Kazuma is that he's always been a shy child, prone to getting flustered and blushing over the slightest things. And so, Kazumi copies down Asukawa Taiyou's contact details off Kazuma's phone. The resulting conversation is enough to make him grin from ear to ear.
After a week of being cooped up at home, restrictions start to get relaxed. They're riding high after a victory against Dumjid, the acquisition of a Zeroth Dragon, everyone in good spirits, and Kazuma won't lie, the mood is pretty infectious.
Shindo's invited the three of them out for lunch today, a sort of, we made it party for the Striders. The restaurant is nice—a fairly popular soba place in Asakusa. There's a bit of a line, twenty minutes or so he'd say; and since Kazuma, unsurprisingly, is the first one there, he makes his way to the back, and settles in to wait.
Shindo arrives in fifteen. He's flushed, a bead of sweat running down his face, shirt slightly rumpled. He takes a moment to catch his breath before addressing Kazuma.
"Sorry, I'm late" He says, as if that's something uncommon. "Hope you weren't waiting too long."
"I just got here," Kazuma lies, something he's called out on immediately, judging by the way Shindo eyes his spot near the front of the line.
"Taiyou texted me," the other says as they're led into the restaurant itself and seated. "Said he had a big project and couldn't make it."
"And he decided to text you now?"
Shindo shrugs. "He thought he'd finish it by last night—either way, it should be fine with just the two of us."
Kazuma nods dumbly, mind replaying just the two of us, over and over.
The menus are handed out, Shindo going over them with a critical eye, before deciding on some cold soba with their house special dipping sauce. Kazuma, as someone who's generally aware of the weather and doesn't fuck with winter, orders a warmer dish instead, something with plenty of broth.
There's another wait until the dishes are ready. Neither of them had ordered an appetizer, declined it as a matter of fact, something Kazuma was now regretting, so they fill the silence with small talk instead, sprinkled in with more than a few looks at the other customers.
There are plenty of families, both local and out of towners; plenty of couples as well, sitting across from each other on tatami mats similar to himself and Shindo. The most eye-catching of all though has to be this man sitting a few places behind Shindo, just out of the other's field of vision.
For a minute, Kazuma just takes it all in. The sunglasses. The open newspaper. The obviously fake mustache that clashes with his silver hair—silver hair, that much to Kazumi's horror, he recognizes.
He's staring at them too, Kazuma notices, from surprisingly well cut out eye holes in the newspaper. The newspaper shifts, its owner giving himself a pleased nod behind it, and a part of Kazuma wants to die right there.
Shindo, despite having his moments, is generally sharp and notices where his companion's gaze wanders.
"What are you looking at?" He asks, slowly turning. "Is there someone—"
"You," Kazuma immediately interrupts, mouth moving faster than his brain. He leans forward, a hand on Shindo's shoulder to prevent him from turning completely. "You," he repeats, slowly sitting back down, Shindo's gaze following him, because his brain didn't offer him anything better, now that it caught up.
Shindo clears his throat audibly. There's a hint of redness on his cheeks, Kazuma notices, a few shades lighter than his hair. It's endearing he supposes, especially with the slightly too loud shift into so what do you think of the weather. Kazuma is spared from anything more complex than fine I guess by the arrival of their dishes. Chrono starts eating immediately, offering Kazuma a few bites that he declines, waiting for his own dish to cool down.
Slowly, he takes a sip.
Out of the corner of his eye, he spots another by his brother's side. Shorter, definitely younger, with brown hair and the same awful sunglasses and fake mustache combo. He smiles at him, no school project in sight, and gives him a thumbs up.
Kazuma chokes and spits his soup all over the table.