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Chapter Text

The tendrils wrapped about his form squeeze tighter, and Kazuma seems to instinctively understand. Gyze fought, and Gyze won, and now-- now-- it's too late. The ritual is complete, and he can't defy it.

There's a chill in his veins, like his blood is freezing, all the warmth and passion crystallizing little by little. It makes his limbs and head heavy, makes him feel like if he weren't suspended he'd simply collapse into himself. He can even hear it in his thoughts, like background static, crackling and humming.

He gave it all up. His potential, his future, his... everything. Chrono gave it all up for him. Kazuma only knows because slowly, slowly, Gyze is pouring into him, and the memories of the fight are becoming his own.

They're-- coming together, he realizes. It's not like a Diffride at all. It's more than that. His chest is starting to fill with something, something he can feel sticking and burrowing. It's starting to twist his heart out of shape, starting to make it-- foreign-- inhuman.

They're coming together, yes. Gyze envelopes him, sinks into his skin and muscle and bone, invades everything Kazuma is. It blankets his mind, his soul, his very being, horrible and powerful and strangely deliberate. Of course, it's so much power, too much power, especially for someone like him, small and squishy and so, so fragile. One wrong move and Gyze would obliterate that small-squishy-fragile him altogether.

It's not as agonizing as he would've figured. It's... sort of interesting, actually, feeling his core shifting farther and farther away from itself, feeling his everything melt down, feeling Gyze mixing into him more and more.

It's all so vast. It stretches out beyond him in all directions, endlessly, uninterrupted. He's becoming a part of it, becoming just as vast, and a shiver runs through him.

"I'm sorry."

Chrono, standing before him, says nothing.

Water laps at Kazuma's ankles, but he can't feel it. There's nothing else around them. No trees, no dunes, no animals. Just water and a grey sky and silence.

"I wanted to do something. I wanted to save you, just like you saved me." He reaches up with the butt of his palm and wipes a bead of dark muck from the corner of his mouth. "I really screwed that one up, didn't I?" With a sniff and a wince, he stares down at the stain on his hand. This image of Chrono is just that, an image, but he still finds he can't meet his eyes. "God... what was up with that awful play, anyhow? You had to try and be a big damn hero? You're better at this game than that." He laughs, but tears slip out with it. "Why'd you go and do that? When you've already done so much for me?" There's a choke, and everything collapses. "You didn't have to go down with me, too, you idiot!"

Kazuma flinches and gasps as Gyze gropes around in his form, leaving swells of energy that expand and contract, pushing and pulling like they just can't settle quite right. It forces something out of him, out of his heart, something warm and sticky and pink-feeling. It gushes out without pause, like a barrel with a hole shot through it, mingling with all the blackness and strangeness in his guts. He can feel Gyze trying to patch it up, smooth it over, but each attempt causes a leak somewhere else.

It's Chrono-- it's everything Chrono had ever given him-- it's love, love, so much love-- there's boundless room for it, even as his heart bends hopelessly out of shape. How could anything in this universe ever think, for even one split-second, that it could suppress all of it? Chrono's passion, Chrono's determination, Chrono's love-- they've been embedded so deeply into Kazuma, they've taken root and become his own, thriving stunningly, effortlessly. Nothing could weed them out now.

For as much as Kazuma becomes Gyze, he realizes, Gyze becomes him as well, and he closes his eyes. Gyze can't possibly come out unscathed. His love will attach itself to all that power, warp it in return. His love will grow vast with him, become something wider, something beyond comprehension.

He expects a struggle, but it never comes. Gyze's presence clings closer, and it's suddenly so full of promise. He smiles and sighs and lets it wash over him. Something new is going to come of them.

s̮͔͞o̵͈o̩̟̜̣͇ͅn͍͚̫,̨͚̝̤̟̙ͅ ̟̱w̧͍̲̖͈̣e̢͈͍̮̪̯ ҉̭̣wil̼l͇͚̺̞̯ ̜͚̞̯ͅs͔̻̤͎͎̤ee̸ ̬̫͕͕͙̟h̻̺̹ḭ̼̠̣̬̝͡m͈̙͉̥ ̧̮̱̦ạ̴̲̲ͅͅg͈a̗̘̝̘̦i̳n͏̺̱̝̜̞.̭͕̯͓̙̤

Kazuma nods.

Until then-- they patiently meld-- waiting-- waiting.

Chapter Text

He thinks he's dreaming, because he's still in bed, but Kazuma's face is inches away from his own.

Neither of them say anything. A stray shaft of moonlight sneaking in from the blinds has Kazuma's eyes glittering, and Chrono would probably be taken with it if said eyes weren't suddenly an unearthly shade of gold. It's been a day since he'd been discharged from the hospital, and only a couple more since his fight with Kazuma, and he's already having weird dreams about him.

"Why don't you say something?"

The words startle him, and he jolts up to shove Kazuma back on reflex. "Y-You-- You're seriously here!? Right now!?"

"Yeah." He doesn't seem too offended, at least.

The emotions that well up in Chrono's chest are nigh incomprehensible-- Joy-- Grief-- Shock (like when the killer in the mask pops out of a closet in a horror movie)-- Shock (like when you lean back in your chair a bit too far and almost tip it over)-- Shock (like when you come home from work and the dog is gone and you realize you left the back door open by accident). There's dozens of thoughts racing through his mind, and hundreds of words dancing in his throat, but in the end, the only thing that comes out of his mouth is: "Why?"

Kazuma furrows his brow. "You're acting like I'm supposed to be dead."

"N-No, I just--! You--!" Stop. Breathe. Chrono sinks his teeth into his bottom lip, hoping the pain will ground him. Then, he finally asks, "Are you Kazuma? I mean-- really him?"

The silence as Kazuma contemplates is agonizing. Surely, the question isn't that hard. "Sort of."

Sort of? Sort of? "The hell does that mean!?"

"I'm myself. I'm also Gyze."

Chrono tenses at the mention of that thing. "D-Don't screw with me."

"I'm not."

"Then... then how?" Chrono leans forward. "How can you still be Kazuma? 'Cause that thing I fought sure as hell wasn't him!"

"When Gyze takes a vessel, it doesn't just take the body. It takes everything."

The words are said like they make perfect sense, but Chrono can feel his blood pressure rising. "And what does that mean!?"

Kazuma sighs. "We're one, now."

Now that he's gone and said it, Chrono suddenly feels like maybe he shouldn't have actually probed. All the frustration leaks out with the drop of his stomach. "You're lying."

"I'm not."

"But--" There's a desperation in his tone he's trying to push down, but it's bubbling up anyway and he realizes he can't control it. "If I beat you, it'll be okay, right? You'll go back to normal, right!?"

Kazuma's unfaltering stare gives him an answer. It's not the one he's looking for.

"That's... no, that's not-- what am I supposed to do, then!?"

"Nothing." Kazuma shrugs. "We can't be separated. Even if you win, you can't have the old Kazuma back."

It's infuriating, seeing him act like nothing's wrong, like this is just something that happens to people. Like getting a tattoo, or pierced ears, and Chrono's here freaking out over nothing. "Did you come here just to tell me this!?"

"Don't be a dumbass. You know I wouldn't do that to you." Yeah, like Chrono can even tell what Kazuma would or wouldn't do at this point. "I'm here to ask you something important: I want you to become my Apostle."

Chrono's stunned. "Seriously?"

"I don't want you to be Diffrode, like the others. I just want you."

He laughs dryly. "Why? Even if I were to say yes, what would you get out of it? I don't even have a G-Zone anymore. I can hardly put up a fight."

"Because you're the one person I want to save. When everything ends, I want you with me. We love you."

He'd be appalled at the offer, if he weren't so confused. Despite it all, his heart still skips a beat. "... We?"

"Gyze and I." He scratches at the back of his neck. "I mean... I loved you. I've loved you for a while. Without you, I would've stayed a miserable punk who ran away all the time."

He's wanted so badly to hear those words, yet there's an ache growing in his chest as he tries to process them. "But without me, you wouldn't have become..."

"Yeah, that's right." Kazuma glances down at his hand. "Your loss was the last thing needed to finish the ritual. Without you, I couldn't have become Gyze. You've changed me twice, now."

"I... I did this to you." It hadn't been the first time Chrono had thought something like that. In fact, he'd thought it, then banished that thought, because in the end, all he had to do was win, and Kazuma would come back. It's not that cut and dry now, is it?

"It's fine. It feels good being like this. Feels like... I don't know. Like it was supposed to happen."

Chrono's eyes widen, tears pricking at the corners. "How can you say that?" The person in front of him is like an alien now, even when he still looks so familiar, even when the voice coming out of his mouth is the same as always.

"Because Gyze loved you, too. The Singularity that made its return possible-- of course it loved you. Then you went and brought us together. Hell of a coincidence, huh?" He shakes his head. "When we realized we both loved you... everything that was happening suddenly felt right. I saw how vast Gyze was, and how vast its love was, and I thought... I wanted my love to be like that, too. Anything less and it wouldn't be good enough. So, we became one."

"No..." Chrono can't hold it back anymore, and he chokes, "I didn't want this... I didn't mean to..." The blanket's all crumpled in his fists now. "I've loved you, too...! All this time! And yet I...! I couldn't even stop it! I turned you into this, and you're saying I can't even turn you back!"

Kazuma blinks, like he doesn't get why Chrono's upset. He reaches out to touch the other's hair, and gets a flinch in response. "Even if you could, you don't need to turn me back. Don't you get it? The being I am right now-- I was born out of love for you, Chrono, and your love for me was what caused it. That's proof it was fate. So stop crying already, okay?"

It's not that easy, not when he finally hears Kazuma say his name, all low and gentle, because it's not Kazuma anymore, it's something else. It's a monster that's taken Kazuma and twisted him all up, made his heart unrecognizable even to himself. He finds himself laughing through the tears, soft and pathetic. "If my love did this to you, then I wish I never had it at all."

Kazuma's quiet, for a long time.

It gives Chrono a good long moment to regret his words, because Kazuma means everything to him, and the thought of never having known him, never having loved him-- it terrifies him, selfish as it may be.

"If you don't become my Apostle, I don't know if I'll be able to protect you," Kazuma finally says, sitting down on the edge of the bed. Chrono had expected him to just leave-- to turn around and disappear and leave Chrono to chase after him uselessly. Instead, he's going and making himself comfier. There's some inkling of relief in it.

Chrono sniffs. "Then don't destroy everything, stupid."

"I have to."

"Why? Just because Gyze wanted to?"

"Its will became my own. What it wanted, I want."

"And why does it want that?"

Kazuma seems to get lost in thought.

Chrono wipes his eyes with the back of his hand.

"It wants... silence. There's been something screaming inside it, all the time, ever since it came into existence. It keeps destroying, because it thinks if it can destroy enough, the screaming'll stop."

Chrono pulls his legs up, resting his chin between his knees. "Do you hear it, too?"

"Yeah. Just a little, right now. I couldn't hear it at all at first, but it gets more noticeable every day. If I don't do something, it'll just get worse and worse."

"But what happens if destroying Earth and Cray doesn't get rid of it?"

"It will. It has to. I can feel it somehow. That's why I have to do it."

There's a hesitation to it, but eventually, slowly, Chrono scoots forward, until he's close enough to the other to wrap his arms around him from the side. "I'm sorry." He rests his forehead on Kazuma's shoulder. "I did this to you."

Kazuma smiles, even though Chrono can't see it. "I told you, it's fine. Once everything's gone, I'll finally find silence. I just don't want to lose you, too."

"I..." Chrono closes his eyes. "I can't let you do it, though. I won't let you."

"Man... I kinda figured you'd say that, in the end. It's still a pretty dick move, y'know."

"I'll save you. You and Gyze both." He clings tighter. "Some other way."

"There is no other way."

"Then I'll make one. If I'm the one who got you into this mess, then I'll be the one to get you out." He swallows hard, breathes out, breathes in. "Make me your Apostle."

"What?" Kazuma swivels around to face Chrono, swinging his legs up onto the bed, so he's on his knees. "You sure?"

Chrono nods, and Kazuma takes one of his hands with trembling fingers. As Gyze's emblem shines bright on the back of Kazuma's hand, its outline begins to appear on Chrono's own. "You won't be able to fight me like this, and your bond with your units will be severed again. If you try to defy it, you'll only suffer."

He expected it to hurt, but it's oddly warm, and almost-- comforting, in a way-- and he wonders if it's because it's Kazuma. "Even if you tell me that, I'll still try to reclaim my future. I'll still try to fight." The sigil's almost finished etching itself into his skin, and he thinks for just a moment that he could pull away, that he could refrain from making such a dumb decision-- but Kazuma's suffering, too, even if he says he isn't, even if he says he's fine. "Even if it hurts worse than anything I've ever felt, even if it's the hardest thing I've ever had to do-- I'll save you." He grins, bright and wide. "This is my promise to you, got it?"

Kazuma returns his own smile, but it's far more somber. "You're seriously the king of bad decisions, you know that?"

"Like you're one to talk."

A vow is made, and the last Apostle is born.

They flop down onto Chrono's bed together, worn out from the ritual, and neither say anything more. Chrono briefly wonders just how loud it is inside of Kazuma, but the other's drifting off peacefully, so it must be alright. He'll just have to work fast, before it gets worse. Together, they sleep.

In the morning, Chrono wakes alone, and wonders if he dreamt it all before looking down at the emblem on his hand. Rather than despair, it fills him with hope-- after all, ironic as it might be, it's a sign of their bond.

"Just believe in me, okay?"

Chapter Text

"You what!?"

"I became an Apostle."

The mark is right there on his hand, and it's not like he can hide it without it looking super suspect. So, when Tokoha and Shion meet him at the airport, he just... comes out and says it.

"It's not like I'm suddenly your enemy now or anything, though!" Chrono waves his hands around. "I did it because... well..." and he tells them, of the meeting a few nights ago, of Kazuma and Gyze. "I just thought... if he's in pain, then I wanted to share that pain, and this was what I came up with."

The panic on his friends' faces had long softened into concern. "But... it's going to be harder to save him like this, isn't it?" Shion asks quietly. "What if you can't get your G-Zone back now?"

"I'm not gonna give up," and the determination shining in his eyes certainly isn't lying. "It'll be harder, but I'll just put in that much more effort!"

Tokoha smiles. "Well, you'll have us, so you won't have to go it alone! We'll do everything we can!"

Shion nods. "If this is the decision you've made, then we'll support you."

He grabs their hands and grins. "Thanks!! You guys are seriously the best!"

----

"I can't feel you anymore..."

Chrono Dran stares down at Chrono from atop that familiar statue, tail drooping.

"But we still found each other, right?"

The little guy perks up, because-- hey, Chrono's right!-- and practically divebombs him in excitement.

Chrono reaches out to catch him, but Gyze's emblem shines and he bounces off air at the last second, as if there's some invisible forcefield around them both. He tries to scoop Dran up, but his hands are pushed away just the same.

They don't give up, though-- they can't afford it. So they keep reaching out, again and again, their palms shoving uselessly at the whole lot of nothing somehow keeping them apart. After half an hour of this, though, they slump to the ground, feeling like they haven't gotten anywhere.

Tokoha and Shion stand off to the side, watching in silence, trying to puzzle out some sort of solution, or at least something to try. How are you supposed to overcome bullshit eldritch magicks?????

"Oh!" A light switches on in Tokoha's head, and her face sure shines with it. "I have an idea!" She grabs Shion's hand and yanks him as she rushes over to Chrono's side, giggling as he stumbles trying to right himself while moving. "Gimme this real quick," and she lets go to take Chrono's, pulling him up to his feet in the same motion. "Take Shion's hand, too!"

Chrono glances over at Shion, a little bewildered, but the other just returns the expression, no answers to be found. With a slow nod, he does as instructed.

"Okay, Dran!" Tokoha calls, holding her hand out to him. "Here!"

Dran smiles, big and wide, before jumping up and grabbing on, dangling like a kid on the monkey bars. Once he's got a good hold, he extends one little paw to Shion, who gladly accepts-- whether Dran gets what's going on or just figures he oughta complete the circle is a mystery to Chrono.

"So... you wanna play ring around the rosie or something?" Chrono asks.

"No, dummy! I'm trying to help you!" Tokoha looks down at Dran, suddenly much more pleasant. "Can you feel Chrono through us, like this?"

"Hmmm..." Dran closes his eyes.

Following suit, Chrono concentrates as hard as he can on the little dragon at the other side of the circle.

"Oh... I can!" Dran suddenly shouts. "I can, I can! Chrono!" His tiny legs are a-wigglin', and Shion can't help but laugh.

Chrono grins. "Yeah! It's like we were never apart! You're a genius, Tokoha!"

Tokoha puffs out her chest, like some kind of particularly proud pigeon. "I just figured, Shion and I have bonds with you that are strong as can be, so we'd just have to be proxies for you both!"

"Then we'll all make a new bond together!" Dran exclaims. "A new future together!"

"Sounds like a plan," Shion says.

Chrono holds both his friends hands up in the air, as if showing them off to the world. "I wouldn't want it any other way!"

----

It's much, much later, as everyone else is asleep under the stars, when he feels something familiar tugging at him. It's not physical-- more like, a sensation that he's being wanted somewhere.

He tries to ignore it and go back to sleep, but it's like a mosquito in his ear he can't just swat away. Eventually, he huffs and crawls out from his sleeping bag and starts walking, guided by little else but that feeling.

After about five minutes with no real destination in sight, he rounds a boulder and surprise, there he is.

"Took you long enough," Kazuma quips.

"It's like, ass o'clock in the morning. Does Gyze not know how to text or something?" He's more dressed up than Chrono's ever seen him, in some kind of dress shirt and tailcoat ensemble, and-- damn, he looks really good. At least Gyze has fashion sense. Chrono's about to slap himself for thinking that one.

"I needed to talk to you in person. Without interruption." He gestures almost comically at the boulder. "You think I just called you over to this rock for funsies?"

"Okay, spit it out, then. You ready to stop this dumb world-destruction stuff?" Now that Chrono's looking at him, though, he notices there's bags under Kazuma's eyes, too. Those definitely weren't there before.

Kazuma shakes his head. "Listen, I'm not stupid. I can tell those guys are baiting us with those last Zeroth Dragons. Darkface had some ridiculous plan in mind, but I figured I'd try something easier first."

Chrono furrows his brow. He's not sure he likes where this conversation is going. "... Which is?"

"I'm asking you to get them for me. What else?"

It takes a few moments for Chrono to recover from the sheer audacity of the question. "You... really think I'm gonna do that?"

"Well, yeah." Kazuma shrugs. "You're my Apostle. Didn't think it'd be such a weird request."

"You already know I'm not gonna cooperate with you like this."

Kazuma sighs. "I know, you pretty much told me that to begin with. And at first, I thought... we're friends, and I love you, so I would let you do what you wanted, if it'd make you happy." He steps forward and reaches for Chrono. "I need you now, though, so I'm going to use you. Sorry."

The emblems on their hands begin glowing, and it feels like someone's shoved an icicle in Chrono's brain. He cries out, grabbing at his head, digging his fingers into his scalp like he's trying to pry out whatever's suddenly gotten lodged in it.

help me.

It hurts-- it hurts, it hurts, it hurts--

i need your help.

"N... No..."

The icicle's melting, filling his mind with a frost that threatens to numb his very thoughts. He keeps tugging and scratching, but it doesn't help, and his skull just gets heavier and heavier with the weight of Kazuma's voice.

devote yourself to me.

The words bounce around in his head like they're coming from his own brain, and he starts to scream, as if to drown them out.

why are you fighting? you said you wanted to save me.

"Not... like... this..." The more he struggles, the more pressure seems to build in his head. It makes his limbs tremble, makes his legs buckle under him. Another horrid cry escapes his throat as his knees meet the ground.

it's getting so loud. i don't think i can handle much more.

"P-Please... Kazuma..." He's gasping for breath, now, voice ragged, pain sapping all the strength he has. "You have... to trust me..."

Kazuma kneels down in front of him, gingerly placing his palm against Chrono's head.

submit.

Chrono shrieks, tears rolling down his face-- it's too much, too much. The words are like tendrils that envelop him, squeezing and crushing and suffocating.

you're my apostle, so submit to me.

They get so tangled up inside him, it gets hard to tell whose words they even are-- Kazuma's, or his own.

Kazuma leans in close, and his tone is low and quiet and so, so strong, "Chrono."

Something at the back of his mind snaps-- it's soft, but he hears it. Then his thoughts become fluffy and blank and he smiles, because all it took to relieve the pain was Lord Gyze calling his name.

He's tired, now, so tired. He scoots forward and wraps his arms around Kazuma and buries his face in the crook of his neck, even though the fresh tears on his cheeks make the collar of Kazuma's fancy new coat a little damp.

"Feel better?" Kazuma asks, running his fingers through Chrono's hair.

Chrono nods. "Mmhm..."

"Good. Once you're rested up, there's something I need you to do for me."

There's a nuzzle and a yawn and a muffled-but-content, "Whatever you want."

Soon, everything would come together--

"And the world will fall silent," Kazuma murmurs, so very pleased.

Chapter Text

"It's strange," Kazuma says, breaking the silence.

He's sitting on the sofa in the Apostles' base, Chrono's head in his lap, his fingers running through Chrono's hair.

"What is?" Chrono asks sleepily.

"The noise isn't as loud when you're near."

Chrono smiles. "Then I'll stay by you--" and with every word, he gives more of himself to Kazuma, "I'll stay by you as long as you need me--" and as Kazuma's fingers ghost across his cheek, he feels himself falling, deeper, deeper-- "Until everything's finally gone."

"I'm glad." Kazuma mirrors his expression. "We love you, Chrono."

With those words, there's nothing inside of him now, except love-- for Shouji Kazuma-- for Gyze-- beautiful, horrifying, overwhelming love. "I love you, too." He's buried in it, buried in Kazuma's love, buried in Gyze's spell. He isn't sure if he can be pulled out of it now--

Ah, but why would he ever want that?

----

When Chrono shows back up to the main control room, it's four in the morning.

Aichi swivels his chair away from the monitors at the sound of the doors opening. "Chrono-kun! You're alright!"

Chrono laughs sheepishly and scratches at his neck. "Yeah..."

Aichi practically launches himself up. "Your teammates have been sleeping over here waiting for you! I'll go get them!" He's out the door in a flash.

Chrono's already fishing around in his pocket as he approaches the control panel, eventually producing a flash drive containing the first of Darkface's latest efforts.

"It'll disable security for at least a few minutes," Kazuma had told him before dropping the little device in his hands. He finds a place to plug it in, and then his mission starts.

As he runs out the door, the lights suddenly go out, and alarms begin blaring. He pulls out his phone and boots up a handy map of the facility-- the second effort-- and heads deeper in. As long as security's down, the cameras are, too, but he knows the others will be heading exactly where he is, so he's only got so much time.

When he reaches the right room, the door's wide open, as if waiting for him. The Zeroth Dragons might've looked a lot more important before this, but now they're just laying on the floor like crappy commons someone didn't want. He scoops them up and turns on his heel, darting back out just as quick.

He sends a text to Kazuma-- just a keysmash, because that's all he can manage while running, and all the signal the other really needs-- and a reply comes a few moments later: "Stop."

So he does.

Then a nice big hole gets blown in the wall ahead of him.

When the smoke clears a bit, he peers out to see Kazuma a little ways away, just as they'd planned. He starts for him, but a voice from behind has him pausing.

"Chrono!"

He stops and looks back.

Shion's standing in the rubble, staring at him like he's got antlers or something. Tokoha and Aichi come up next to him, and neither party makes a sound.

"... What are you doing?" Tokoha finally asks, stepping outside, voice meeker than she'd intended.

Chrono blinks. "My job."

Shion clenches his fists. "You said you weren't our enemy!"

"That was before Lord Gyze needed me," and the three can't seem to find any light in his eyes.

"You can't!" Tokoha cries. "I don't know what they did to you, but you have to snap out of it! You can't give him those!"

He turns back to Kazuma, who's already halfway to meeting him.

Tokoha lunges forward, grabbing onto the back of his jacket and tugging at him. "Please! Chrono! You have to listen to me!"

He just twists around and shoves her away.

"Don't do this, Chrono!" Shion shouts, breaking into a run. If their words can't stop him, then maybe his fists will-- but as he draws his arm back, Kazuma reaches out to take the cards from Chrono, and a great force blows him over onto the ground.

Tokoha throws a desperate look at Kazuma. "Y-You're his friend!" She wants to move, wants to help Shion up, wants to do something, anything. Her legs just will-- not-- move!! "Why are you making him do this!?"

"He said he wanted to help me." Kazuma shrugs. "So he's helping."

"You bastard," Shion snarls through grit teeth.

It's the first time in a while Aichi's felt so useless. If the voices of his own teammates can't reach Chrono, then his own words don't stand a chance. He shakes his head before bracing himself and dashing to get between Kazuma and the rest of TRY3. At the very least, he can't let Gyze hurt them.

Kazuma laughs, even as Aichi's stare attempts to bore a hole between his eyes. "That's noble of you, but I'm not interested in staying any longer just to pick on kids, so relax." He turns away, Chrono right there at his side. "You guys only have so much time left, y'know. Don't waste it."

They disappear in a pulse of light, and all any of the others can do is watch.

The only sound, then, is the echo of Shion's curse.

---

"It's our fault," Tokoha says, staring down at her shoes. "We should've watched him-- we should've--"

Kamui flicks her on the forehead, and she squeaks. "C'mon, beating yourself up ain't gonna do any good."

"There wasn't any way you two could be prepared for that," Kai added.

"We have to save him," Shion says, looking over at Tokoha.

She slaps her own cheeks before returning his gaze with a nod, guilt quickly replaced by determination. "We're the only ones who can."

Kamui huffs. "And now that we've bungled our trap, we gotta bring the fight to them."

Misaki's already got her phone out. "I'll see if Chris and I can do any digging on their location."

Arata bites his lip. "And... Noa's gonna be there, too..."

Makoto takes his hand and squeezes it. "We better get that last-minute training in."

"Y-Yeah! You're right!" Arata grins. "We definitely can't disappoint him!"

Kazumi doesn't say anything at all.

"Alright! Everyone!" Aichi announces. "Do whatever you need to get ready, because this is our last hurdle!"

The rest of the room agrees, and preparations begin.

Chapter Text

"To be honest, I hadn't planned to fight you two."

The group had split up outside the mansion, an oddly scenic sort of place for a villain hideout.

"I'm way more interested in those guys behind you. We've got history, after all," and his voice is all sing-song.

Darkface had met them before they'd even seen the house. Kazuma had said something about keeping them from getting any further, but really, his own little revenge plot was the only thing occupying his mind.

"You probably won't back down, though, huh? Even though you can't win! What devoted friends you are! It's almost touching."

Misaki and Kamui agreed to deal with him, giving the others a chance to go on ahead. Tokoha, Shion, and Kazumi headed into the house to look for Chrono and Kazuma. The rest were distracted by a whistle, and as they turned to the source, they found Chaos Breaker already heading deeper into the forest the other way.

"I guess the least I can do is go ahead and play with you first." A 3-way fight table appears between them. "Maybe this time you'll finally entertain me!"

"We trained you as hard as we could," Kai says. "You can do it."

Arata and Makoto both nod before setting their starters facedown.

"You seem pretty confident you're gonna win," Arata announces, "but I'm gonna let you know that we're saving you and Noa for sure!"

"Ugggghh. You're still going on like that?" Chaos Breaker shakes his head before smirking. "Well, hurry up and saaave uuuus, then!"

"We're going to get you out of there, alright?" Makoto's looking at Chaos Breaker, but it's obvious his words are aimed past his body. "If you can hear us, just hold on!"

Somewhere in the back of his own mind, chained down by black rings, Noa stirs as the fight begins.

"You know," Chaos Breaker flashes a smile at Kai and Aichi standing behind Shin Nippon-- god, like parents at their kids' soccer game or something-- "I'm surprised you're letting them have a go at all. Surely, you're both as eager to catch up as I am. You don't just want to watch them fail first, do you? I did always admire that little sadistic streak of yours, Kai..."

"Focus on your game," Kai replies.

Chaos Breaker huffs. "So uptight! Did you forget how to enjoy yourself after we broke up?"

Arata blinks, looking back and forth from Kai to Chaos Breaker and back again. "... I feel like I'm missing something here, but I dunno if I wanna be filled in?"

"I-I think we should just continue our fight," Makoto says.

"Ooh!" Chaos Breaker grins. "Eager! I like it!"

The first several turns pass in relative silence. When Chaos Breaker opens his mouth, it practically startles Makoto.

"Hmm. This is sooo boring! Ride-- Chaos Breaker Dragon Crisis." He looks up from his field at Arata. "So, you know, I've done a lot of digging since our little meeting in Singapore..."

---

Makoto, Arata, and Kai stand at a crosswalk, chatting about what they'll have for dinner that night, waiting for the signal to change.

When Arata's eyes snag on a familiar face at the other side of the road, he doesn't say anything, doesn't even hesitate. Ignoring the blaring horns and screeching brakes, he rushes out into traffic.

Noa smiles at him before starting down the street, as if confident in Arata's Human Frogger skills.

Kai and Makoto yell at him to stop, but catching Noa is the only thing on his mind.

The signal just can't change fast enough. Arata disappears from their sight.

Noa rounds a corner and heads down an alleyway.

Arata follows like a lost dog.

"We've been looking everywhere for you!!"

"And look, you found me!" He brings his hand to his chest, Link Joker's emblem plain as day. "Knowing you guys missed me really makes my heart flutter," and the dramatics are laid on thick.

Arata furrows his brow. "So you really aren't him, huh... Kai-san told us about what happened, but I didn't wanna believe it..."

"Nope! Soooorryyyyy!"

"But he's still in there somewhere, right?"

Noa-- no, the thing in his body-- Chaos Breaker Dragon brings a finger to his chin, eyes floating up thoughtfully. "Hmm... I dunno. He hasn't said anything for a while."

Arata clenches his fists. "Let him out!"

"Oh? Why should I? If you give me a really good reason, I might!"

"'Cause-- 'cause there's no way he'd ever wanna get involved in all this stuff! He's your Vanguard, shouldn't you know that?"

Chaos Breaker shrugs.

"You...!"

"He knows the kind of being I am. He knew it from the start. In fact, he's probably thrilled I've graced his form!"

"W-Well... Well!!" It's true, of course, that Noa's never seemed bothered by the idea of his Avatar being one of the universe's biggest assholes. It always struck Arata as a little odd, but who was he to question what made his friend happy? It was a harmless choice in a game for fun.

Or, well, it was, until it became all too real, and now Arata's staring down the outcome of Noa's strange decision, trying to think of something more to say, some magic words that will turn the situation around.

"I'm still waiting on that really good reason. I think I'll give you ten more seconds, then the deal's off. You need me to count down for y--"

"You know, I think all the talk about you being a big bad guy isn't completely true," and he's shaking all over no matter how well he tries to steel himself, because he's definitely saying something stupid and he has no idea what's going to come of it.

Chaos Breaker's brows shoot up for just a second before he seems to realize he's showing some emotion that isn't Pure Jackassery. "Are you aware of the things I've done?"

"Yeah, yeah, I know! You're a huge jerk! But..."

"But what?"

"Noa wouldn't like you if you were really that awful!"

There's no reaction, at first. Then the laughter starts, and Chaos Breaker can hardly contain himself. "R-Really! Really, now!" Nearly doubled over, he manages to be comprehendable even through his fit. "You-- You're being serious! Incredible! Humans are incredible! If he didn't like me, I wouldn't be standing here right now!"

Arata isn't deterred by the laughter one bit. "Exactly! That's why you can't be entirely evil! 'Cause... 'cause Noa's a good person! So if you really are his Avatar... if you're really Noa's other half, there has to be some good in you, somewhere!"

The laughter stops. "Hmmmmm." Chaos Breaker takes a step forward. "You know, it was really funny at first, but now I'm kind of annoyed." Another step. "If you keep saying dumb stuff like that, people might start getting the wrong idea." It's the third that clues Arata in to the fact that maybe these steps are a threat, and he starts backing up in response. "Guess I have to set you straight, huh?"

As Noa lunges forward-- woah, not sure if he's always been that fast or what-- Arata's hardly got enough time to react before he's bowled over.

Arata yelps as Chaos Breaker shoves his knee into his stomach, pinning him to the ground. The other's hands find their way around his neck and squeeze, hard. His first instinct is to fight, to flail and shove and kick. Opting to ignore it, he simply lays there instead, watching as his friend's face twists with sick glee.

"You're not gonna try and stop me? I could kill you like this, you know?"

"But... you won't..." Arata chokes out, "you won't 'cause... Noa's my friend..." He smiles, even though his throat burns and his eyes sting with tears. "That makes you and me... friends, too..."

Chaos Breaker's mouth becomes a grim line. "I think I really will kill you." His grip tightens-- more-- more-- "No planet in the universe needs someone so stupid."

"Noa..." He's getting lightheaded, and weak, but still, he calls out. "No...a..."

Then Chaos Breaker murmurs, shut up, presses down as hard as he possibly can, and Arata's reduced to useless gurgling, then drool, then total silence.

His consciousness is swimming. Finally, dizzy and half-blind, Arata moves, reaching up.

"Little late for fighting back, don't you th--"

His fingers find the other's cheek. His skin is just as warm and soft as it's always been-- a small, nonsensical comfort.

Chaos Breaker's eyes widen. The symbol on his hand dims. "A... Arata..." Then it fades entirely, and he lets go.

Arata gasps, aching lungs going to work again. The world starts coming back into focus, and the first thing he sees clearly is Noa's frightened expression. "H-Hey..." He gives him a weak grin. "That kinda look... doesn't suit you..."

A sob loosens itself from Noa's throat, and he leans into Arata, stuffing his face into the crook of his neck and crying, crying.

Arata wraps his arms around him, rubbing circles into his back. "It's okay, Noa... everything's okay..." Well, not exactly, but probably about as fine as it can be given the alternative.

They lay there together in the alleyway for a few more moments before Kai and Makoto finally find them.

Makoto rushes to them, kneeling down. "What happened!?"

Arata pats Noa's back. "Uh, he was just so excited to see me, he tackled me... we've just kinda been chilling here."

Noa sniffles, then rolls off Arata and gets to his feet.

"Wait," Makoto says, but Noa's already passing Kai and heading back out to the street.

Arata scrambles up and rushes after him, grabbing his hand. "Stay with us."

"I... I can't."

"Please! Noa!"

"He's coming back out. I don't know what'll happen, then."

"It's okay! He-- He wasn't gonna do it. He was gonna let up."

Noa looks back at him, gaze all sad and lost. "How do you know?"

"'Cause he's... you, isn't he?"

Noa's quiet for a second.

He opens his mouth just as Arata can feel heat growing in the hand still in his grip.

"I... am really sick of you right now!" Noa yanks himself out of Arata's grasp and turns on his heel to face him. "This wasn't fun at all! All you did was waste my time! I'm really, really sick of you!" Despite their harshness, the words are carried on an airy tone. "Next time, you're going to entertain me properly. See you!"

With a smile and a wave, he's off. Arata wants to chase him, but everything hurts, and he doesn't think the guy's going to cooperate anyway. Not yet.

---

"Yeah?" Arata smiles. "You ready to quit being a jerk?"

Chaos Breaker groans. "See! This is why you aren't any fun! You won't give it up, even when you're wrong! Even when you were fighting that bug girl, you kept whining about--" and here, he puts his cards on the table to clasp his hands together, voice high and mocking, "--Oh! Why are you making them do this! They don't deserve it! You really do think your friend is an angel, huh?"

Makoto narrows his eyes. "What does that mean?"

"Why don't you ask him yourself?"

Noa suddenly finds himself standing across a table from his teammates, and he freezes up. "Oh... no..."

"Noa!" Makoto shakes his head. "I don't know what he's trying to do, but you don't have to play along!"

Noa swallows hard. "N-No, it's..."

He's never looked so meek, Arata thinks.

"I've been a coward all this time... hiding stuff from you guys, because I was scared of what you'd say." Rather than the faces of his friends, his eyes are fixated on his fingers, nervously working themselves into and out of each other. "I wasn't ever going to tell you. I thought if I just pretended like everything was okay when I was with you, then it really would be okay. But if I don't tell you now, you're just going to keep wondering about it, and... well, you guys deserve to know..."

"Deserve to know what?" Makoto asks.

Noa's voice is barely a squeak. "Why I picked Chaos Breaker." He stares down at the cards on his field. "I... I've been bullied. For as long as I can remember."

"Noa..." Arata would've never guessed-- Noa always seemed so cheerful, and confident.

"I've always been seen as weird, and weak, and easy to pick on. I didn't have any friends. At first, I was just sad, and lonely... but then, I got... bitter." Noa picks Crisis up and tilts it back and forth, watching the foil catch the setting sun's last rays. "I started thinking... it wasn't fair. It wasn't fair that people got to hurt me and get away with it. I started wondering what it'd be like to... to hurt them just as much. To make them suffer."

The other two simply listen. As Noa pours his heart out, it's all they can even think to do.

"Then, I found Vanguard-- and Chaos Breaker. He was horrible, but... he was strong, and he did whatever he wanted. Even when he was defeated, he just came back again. Anything that stood in his way got punished. I wanted to be like that. I wanted to be strong, and self-assured, and... cruel. So nothing could ever bother me again. So I could get revenge."

"But... you aren't like that at all, Noa..." Makoto says gently.

He lays the card back down and looks up. "Because I met you guys!" He sniffs and swipes away beading tears with the back of his hand. "You didn't even know me at all, but you-- you asked me to be on your team, and you were nice to me, and you-- you both ended up loving me, and I..." He can't keep from crying, as hard as he tries. "I felt awful... I felt like I didn't deserve it... because I'd thought all those terrible things, because I wanted them... but I didn't want you to leave me, either, so I just... I just never said anything. In the end, I'm horrible, and all I did was keep it from you..."

"No!!" Arata cries, so loud it makes Noa and Makoto practically jump. "You're not awful! Not at all!! You're hurt!!" He slams his cards down on the table and leans forward. "You should've told us, Noa!! If I'd known-- if I'd known you were being bullied, I would've done something!! I would've protected you!!"

Noa's eyes widen.

"You're the kindest person I've ever met," Makoto adds. "You're always there for us, and your smile always cheers us up... if there's anything you don't deserve, it's being treated like that."

"Yeah!! You're amazing, and everyone who's been mean to you's been missing out on one of the best people ever!! So it's okay!! It's okay, Noa!!" Arata grins.

"So you... you really don't think I'm awful? You're not-- afraid of me, or disgusted with me?"

"No way!" Arata exclaims. "We love you, and we're gonna help you through any trouble you have! Just tell me who I gotta beat up!!"

Makoto scratches at his neck. "Uh, I think beating people up might be going a little far, Arata..."

"Whaaaat?" Arata looks at him in disbelief. "How come?"

Through the tears, Noa manages to chuckle. "You... you guys..." That chuckle turns into laughter, and even though he's still crying, it's not for the same reason. "Thank you..." He grabs at his hand, and his teammates realize he's being leashed in. Despite it, he still smiles and cries out, "Thank you! I love you both! Thank you!!"

Then Chaos Breaker is the one smiling, but it's hard to tell if he's really smiling or just baring his teeth. "You're all so cute it makes me want to vomit."

"You can get in on the fuzzy feelings, if you want," Arata suggests.

"I think I'd rather just tear you and your fuzzy feelings apart."

Their fight resumes, going back and forth. A fight with an Apostle definitely isn't easy, Arata and Makoto realize-- but they didn't expect it to be, and they were taught by the best.

Chaos Breaker snarls, "Just because you can counter a couple of Locks now doesn't mean you're in a good position."

"Maybe try saying that again when you're in a better position yourself," Makoto replies.

"Fine, then! If you want to get crushed so badly, I'll grant your wish!" He grabs a card from his G-Zone with such haste it's a wonder the rest of it didn't go scattering everywhere. From the ominous glow it emits, Arata and Makoto know what's coming. "Devour my future and manifest! Zeroth Dragon of Destroy Star, Stark!!"

As the card meets the table, their surroundings suddenly distort. There's nothing around them now but the twinkling of stars against the deep blackness of space.

There comes a deep rumble, and then even the stars behind Chaos Breaker are swallowed up by a dark rift, a hole torn from nowhere by vicious claws. With a mechanical screech and the grinding of metal, the beast pulls itself from the void. It towers far above the fighters, its glare cold and alien.

"Stark loses 2 drive checks, but it can attack three times! The first one's going to Yasuei!"

Makoto grits his teeth before guarding. "No pass...!"

"You guys really do value your little bonds so much! You won't reject your friend, even though his heart's all messed up!" He flips his check. "Critical! Everything to Vanguard!"

"He's not the one who's messed up!" Makoto cries. "The people who've hurt him are!"

"Why don't you just give up and let Gyze destroy everything, then, huh? Nobody'll ever bother him again! The second attack is at Yasuei as well!"

"It's not happening! We're getting Noa back for sure, and doing everything we can to help Chrono and the others!" It's harder this time, but he manages another no pass. "And... after everything is said and done, we're going to help Noa feel better again!"

"You think you can help him? Some kid who's so warped he looks up to me? You can't change the past, so what else can you even hope to do?" His second check reveals a Heal-- his opponents have one more damage than him, but that's a small detail. "Power to Vanguard!"

"We can't change the past, you're right..." Arata says, "but we can make the future better! If Noa's willing to walk forward with us, then we'll lead him somewhere brighter!!" He grins. "And if you wanna come, too, then you can! Who knows, maybe you'll be the one who looks up to him in the end!"

Chaos Breaker's digging the nails of his free hand into the table. "You... You...!!" And his last attempt at hiding his annoyance finally fails. "I'll destroy that future with my own two hands, then! I'll reduce it to particles!! There won't even be enough of it left for Gyze!!" His eyes are wide and wild, like some kind of animal. "Then I'll tear those soft hearts out of your chests and run tests on your corpses!! The stupidest organisms in existence-- I wonder what the results of my research will be!?" He whips his head towards Arata in a frenzy. "The last attack is going to Gaia Emperor!!"

"J-Jeeze, you're pretty scary when you're mad!" Arata can't help the nerves in his voice, or the sweat rolling down the back of his neck. He doesn't have enough to guard it-- but he has to try. He lays down every guardian he has.

"You're still short, you know!?" Chaos Breaker's leaning forward, a cat about to pounce. "You think if you hope enough, you'll suddenly have more guard!?"

"Yeah," Makoto says, ditching a Heal. "He does, actually. G-Guard!" It brings the guard up to a one-to-pass.

Arata sighs. "Man, for a sec I was so scared you wouldn't have it!"

"You're still just barely hanging on! If I get a trigger, it's done! Last check!!" He flips the top card over.

Makoto doesn't even realize he's holding his breath until he sees the check's turned up a whole lot of nothing.

Chaos Breaker wants nothing more than to scream and crawl across the table and rip those bright eyes right out of their heads. Instead, he breathes, and manages to recompose himself. His rearguards are much easier to deal with-- they take one, the last damage they can afford, and block the other with the last cards Makoto can spare.

Strangely calm, Chaos Breaker destrides, then picks up his G-Zone and carelessly drops it to the ground, which comes back all at once, along with the trees and the sky and Kai and Aichi (who have no idea what just happened, because one minute Shin Nippon was there, then the next they weren't, but they came back just in time, and everything seems alright).

Arata takes his turn, having just enough to Stride. "Okay! I might not have much, but I hope you're ready!" And after activating its skill, he's swinging out with Gaia Devastate.

"I'm not going to let you through." Several guardians appear between them. "Three."

First check. "Critical! Everything to Vanguard!"

Second check-- nothing.

Third check-- another Critical.

"So what are you going to do, huh?" Chaos Breaker taunts. "You're not going to waste it on your Vanguard, are you? Do you really think you can pull one more?"

It's true Arata has one lone Rearguard, waiting in the wings-- but between him and Makoto, they've barely got any cards. Even without a G-Zone, he's not sure they can survive another turn. It's alright, though, because he's sure he's going to end it, here and now. "We're gonna save you guys-- me, and Makoto, and all our Units! We're all gonna save you! Everything to Vanguard!"

Chaos Breaker slams his hands against the table. "Go ahead, then! Do your last check! Show me another trigger! You won't!"

"Last check!" He flips the card. The glow of one more Critical warmly meets him. "Everything to Vanguard!"

The chains holding Noa back shatter, and he drops to his hands and knees. After the shock passes, he gets up, and Chaos Breaker is there, looming over him. Even after everything, he smiles.

"I don't think I would've ever told them without you," he says, voice fond. "I would've just kept it bottled up, and let it keep eating me. I know you probably don't want to hear it, but... thank you. I don't know exactly where I'm going to go from here... but I'd like you to come with me, if you could!"

"... After everything I've done, you ask me to stay at your side."

"It's silly, isn't it? But I can't help it. We're two sides of the same coin, aren't we?" He squats down and puts his hands on one of Chaos Breaker's bottom claws-- the other's so big, it's about the only part he can touch. "If I can grab a brighter future, then... I think... maybe you can, too. Maybe not soon. Maybe not even for a long time. Or maybe not ever. But it's okay to try, right?"

"Humans really are strange and foolish creatures."

Noa laughs. "We are! But it's kinda fun like that, y'know? And I guess if I'm spilling stuff, I'll admit... I still think you're pretty cool. A way better bad guy than any in the movies or comics!"

"Hah... well. At least you have taste."

Noa looks up, and Chaos Breaker is looking back down at him. He grins ear to ear.

The table disappears as Noa checks the last of his damage, and Arata dashes forward to catch him as he stumbles back.

"Noa!!" He lowers himself to his knees, bringing the other down with him. "You okay!?"

Makoto kneels down next to them and takes Noa's hand in both of his own.

Noa nods. "I'm just..." He yawns. "Kinda tired, that's all..."

"Seriously...?" Makoto cocks his head.

"What, like you didn't sleep enough in there already!?" Arata asks, knocking Noa's cap off his head and mussing his hair.

"Listen, doing nothing is super exhausting, okay??"

They laugh and smile together again-- it's really been too long.