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Just as he remembers doing so as a child, Kazuma reaches out. Tears stained the card in his memory, though this time it’s real. Kazuma reaches for Luard. He tries to call out for him, desperately. But to no avail. No sound leaves his throat as an uncomfortable, prickly warmth overtakes his body.

From behind his hat, Luard takes one final glance at Kazuma and turns around, walking towards an abyss of darkness.

“I’m sorry, but this is where it ends,” Luard speaks remorsefully. “Goodbye, Kazuma.”

The Dragwizard is more distant than ever. Luard waited for Kazuma. Luard was there for him after years upon years. Hot tears prick at Kazuma’s eyes, and then, they fall. Endlessly. This time, he isn’t coming back.

 


 

Chrono Shindou, simply put, changed Kazuma Shouji’s life. One moment he re-built his childhood Vanguard deck, and the next he was whisked away by a boy with swirly hair.

Admittedly, Shindou was overbearing at first, butting his way into Kazuma’s life with no hesitation. Did this boy even have brakes? Or an ‘off’ button? But Kazuma soon found it to be normal, even somewhat endearing.

Before, Kazuma’s days were mundane. Time seemed to blend together and each passing day felt the same. Kazuma was hesitant to pick up Vanguard again for many reasons. But he was itching for something else to do. Shindou changed his entire outlook on Vanguard, and on life too. He helped Kazuma overcome the past and look towards the future— To open up a new world. And yet, Kazuma was still unable to repay him for that.

If this is the only way I can repay him... If this is the only way I can protect him, then so be it. As long as he’s safe, I’m fine with it.

Kazuma spent his entire life feeling inferior, feeling like he would never amount to anything. Naturally, that spilled over into all of his relationships. Not that he had anyone close until he met Shindou and Taiyou, anyway. At least Taiyou was always so cheerful, so bright. Much like his name. As much as Kazuma liked to tease the younger boy, he felt protective over him.

But Shindou did so much for him, even if the redhead didn’t realize it himself. Kazuma knew he would be eternally grateful to him, and the reasons to feel that way just kept piling up. If the two hadn’t met when they did, Kazuma didn’t know where he would be in life. Probably in the same place, he figures. Stuck and not taking anything seriously. Not doing anything unless he thought there would merits. Shindou pulled him out of that. Though Kazuma was reluctant at first, Shindou never gave up.

Haha. With the way I treat him, I wonder if he even knows. Shindou, I still haven’t told you. I...

Numbness. Kazuma can’t feel his body anymore. His mind races. He tries to fight it, but he can’t hold on with his quickly deteriorating mental state.

Luard… But Luard is gone by now, too. Corrupted. He’s there, but different. An aura of malice surrounds him now, rather than warmth and comfort.

It feels tight, suffocating him as if he was being crushed. An immense force overtakes him and his consciousness fades into the dark.

Even if you take my body, there’s no way you’re gonna beat him! Right? That’s right, isn’t it? It’ll be an easy win for you...  Chrono.

 


 

Chrono approaches what appears to be Kazuma, but the heavy air surrounding him doesn’t add up. It doesn't even feel like a person. The figure practically emates pressure. Who-- rather, what appears to be Kazuma turns around, facing him.

The sparkle in his eyes is gone. That familiar shine and look of passion amongst a sea of grey, gone. That brilliant smile, gone.

“You’re not…” Chrono trails off, shocked.

“Oh, you must be him,” Not-Kazuma responds. It’s jarring. It sounds like him and it’s his body. But it’s not him.

He’s gone. Chrono is never going to see that smile again. He’ll never hear that laugh he became so fond of again.

“Chrono.” Hearing his given name like this feels like a knife through his gut. Deep down, he always wondered why the blue-haired boy never called him by his first name. Eventually, he accepted it and figured Kazuma would come around someday. But this felt so wrong.

Chrono’s thoughts are cut off as Gyze speaks. “He was quite fond of you, you know? My vessel. His last thoughts were even about you.”

“You,” Chrono chokes out. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Oh, but I’m not. It’s truly fascinating, how deeply humans can care for each other. I’d say he was in love with you, even if he wasn’t aware of that himself. Poor Kazuma.”

“Shut up!” Chrono snaps. “Shut up and fight me! I’ll bring him back, I swear. Then I can hear that from Kazuma himself, not you! I'll bring him back if it's the last thing I..." He trails off, heart sinking.

“Interesting,” Gyze looks at Chrono expectantly. “I can see why he liked you so much. You two are incredibly different, yet at the same time so alike. Very well, I’ll entertain the thought for now.”

 

“Stand up, Vanguard!”

“Stand up, Z Vanguard.”