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“Hey, Kazuma, can I talk to you for a minute? Outside?”

 

So far, so good, Chrono tells himself, even if he doesn’t believe it. Kazuma agreed to come with him, at least, the two of them wandering down the beach together until the noise of the others talking and playing has faded into the distance. Chrono leads, and Kazuma trails a few feet behind him as they walk, both silent, the sun beginning to dip over the horizon and bathing the sea and sand in a warm amber glow.

When he stops, Kazuma does too.

“I...” Chrono begins, trailing off before he even starts, half-expecting to be interrupted. Kazuma stays silent, watching him with a look of feigned disinterest. “I’m sorry.”

Kazuma frowns, but doesn’t reply.

“For... lying to you about Cray,” Chrono continues after a moment, turning his gaze out over the water. “And the diffriders. I should have told you everything from the start. As soon as I found out.”

Silence falls again, and something in Chrono’s stomach flips. It’s too late for him to be saying all this. The damage is already done, their fights with Kazumi – no, Shiranui – already lost, just like Kazuma’s faith in him, probably, and apologies can only go so far. If Kazuma wants to yell at him, he thinks, then so be it. It’d be well deserved.

“Shouldn’t you be saying this to everyone?”

Chrono jumps a little as Kazuma’s edged tone pierces the silence. The other boy steps up to stand beside him, gazing out over the ocean as well as his question hangs in the still evening air.

“Y-yeah,” Chrono mumbles, defeat creeping into his voice, but he catches himself – because no, this is an apology, damn it, he’s not here to make excuses or garner pity over how sorry he is – and he stops, straightens up, and continues, “but I wanted to talk to you first. You’re the one who knew the least. And he’s your brother, after all.”

For a time, neither of them speak. Sunlight twinkles over the surface of the water, the distant horizon lit up in a brilliant display of red and orange, stretching as far as Chrono can see in either direction. Above, though, blackness is starting to creep into the sky, and the air is just a little cooler than when they had set out, marking the slow approach of night. Idly, his gaze dips to the sand, untouched but for his and Kazuma’s footsteps and the stray pebbles and shells washed up at the high tide line. One stone, round and flat and glinting in the light, catches his eye.

It’s not far from his feet, so he steps over and picks it up, weighing it in his hand.

“It was really short-sighted of me,” he says, his previously prepared words finally deciding to free themselves from his brain, “all that stuff I said about him. I’m sorry.”

“About Kazumi?” Kazuma’s voice is quiet, guarded.

“Yeah, you know, all that” – and he puts on an exaggerated mockery of his own angry voice – “‘I don’t care if you’re diffriders or whatever, I just want to protect our U20’ stuff. Putting my own goals ahead of someone trapped and used against his will. I guess I really thought I could just finish it all myself, then and there, that none of it would matter because I could just... solve it, without anyone else having to get involved.” He sighs, looking down at the stone in his palm. “Then we could just... play Vanguard again, and have fun, and everyone would be safe. Even him.”

He curls his fingers around the stone, braces, and flings it out over the water. It skips over the surface once, then sinks with a defeated ‘plop’.

Kazuma’s stony expression cracks, and he laughs.

“...Wow,” Chrono says incredulously, after a moment. “I really thought that would go further.”

Without a word, Kazuma bends down and picks up a stone of his own, rough and pointed and absolutely not the right shape for–

He flings it, overarm, before Chrono can say anything, and it splashes straight into the water, sending ripples cascading over the surface.

“I wanted to hit you again when you said that, you know,” he says. “It felt like you were ignoring him. And me. Like all you cared about was winning the tournament.” Another stone goes sailing out over the water, and sinks just as quickly as the first.

Chrono’s heart sinks with it. He’s suddenly all too aware how cold the air has gotten.

“I know. I’m sorry,” he says again, for all the good it’s going to do at this point. If Kazuma wants to be upset, then he will, and he wouldn’t be wrong to do so. It’s not like Chrono’s done much to earn a second chance, after all. “I just... wanted to apologise. You don’t have to forgive me or anything, it’s okay.” Even if I wish you would.

There’s a pause. Kazuma throws the stone in his hand, turning as it vanishes into the water after the others.

“Well maybe I want to, huh,” he mutters, all but growls really, meeting Chrono’s gaze with steely eyes, “ever think about that?”

Another pause. “I–” Chrono starts, suddenly very unsure of himself, because honestly, no, he hasn’t.

“You’d better not give up on yourself just because you said a couple of stupid things, Shindou.”

Kazuma’s face breaks into a smile, half warm, half teasing, and Chrono’s own cheeks prickle with heat. Guilt claws at the inside of his chest, because this really isn’t how things were supposed to go, he’s supposed to be making amends, not being reassured, but he pushes the feeling down, holds on to Kazuma’s words. Maybe I want to.

“Y-yeah,” he says, “sorry.”

“And you’d better apologise to my brother too once we rescue him.”

 

I’m sorry, Kazumi, Chrono thinks.

The hollow-eyed, empty shell that used to be his friend turns to face him, movements almost mechanical as it raises its deck in challenge.

I’m sorry, Kazuma. I’ll bring you back, I promise.

Chrono raises his own deck in return. Gyze smirks, and its smile looks nothing like Kazuma’s, even though it wears his face. Chrono grits his teeth.

I’m not going to fail you again.