Chrono took a look at the tree branch overhead. Definitely too high to reach. And the wall behind him was too tall and smooth to climb. Maybe he could’ve tried, but the kitten curled up in his arms, trembling and too scared to move, made that impossible. He frowned, biting his lower lip. At least it didn’t look hurt, and he only had a few scrapes and bruises from the fall himself, thanks to the bushes he landed in. But what was he supposed to do now? He looked back at the wall, checking for any sign of an opening. But it was all well-managed bricks in either direction.
His arms tightened a little around the cat as he heard footsteps. Squeezing himself between the bushes and wall, he tried to spot the source. A trio of adults, of course, talking and not noticing him at all. Maybe he could just ask them to help him get out... but he quickly shoved the idea out of his head. If he asked them for help, they’d probably want to know what he was doing in their yard. People didn’t keep walls up because they wanted strange kids to get in. And if they were really mad, they might want to talk to his parents.
Kneeling down to stay as out of sight as possible, Chrono wondered what the caretakers at the orphanage would do if they knew he’d snuck out like this. It was against the rules, he knew that. But he just... he just felt so restless lately. Always stuck behind the iron fence, always watching other kids walk past with their families and friends. And the caretakers were always so busy, half the time he didn’t think they actually knew whether he was there or not. So he didn’t think it’d be too bad if he just snuck out for a quick walk.
But... now that he was on the verge of getting in trouble, suddenly all kinds of awful thoughts were hitting him. If they were really mad and wanted to punish him... what if they stopped letting Mikuru visit?
Even the thought made his breath shorten, and he had to shake his head to dispel it. No, he wasn’t in trouble yet. All he had to do was find a way out, and get back quick. There had to be a door or gate or something somewhere . The kitten meowed softly, and he pet its head. “Don’t worry,” he whispered, “I’ll get you out too.”
If the grown-ups heard the cat, they didn’t pay any attention to it, because the footsteps didn’t come back. Chrono peeked over the bushes to make sure, but no one else was walking by yet. He could see some people in the house, through the windows, but they weren’t looking outside. If he just stayed hidden between the wall and the plants, he thought he’d be fine. And as long as he followed the wall, then eventually he’d have to find some kind of opening. Nodding to himself, he picked a direction and started headed off to the left.
But while this plan was great in theory, Chrono quickly realized that the property was much, much larger than he thought. He kept walking, but even after reaching a corner where the stone wall intersected with a more normal-looking wood fence, there was no sign of an exit. And the buildings were all so old-fashion, and there were less and less people around the further he went. It was... a little creepy. Like he’d fallen into an entirely different world. Everything was so quiet and still. He even stumbled across a pond, surrounded by rocks and trees, that looked like part of a picture book. Maybe he should turn around and look in the other direction? He didn’t have a watch or clock to tell how long he’d been in here, but it felt like forever. And the longer he stayed, the more likely it was that either someone was gonna find him, or notice he wasn’t at the orphanage. The cat meowed again, louder and more like a cry. It still wasn’t trying to move or anything, but that just worried Chrono more. How long had it been stuck in that tree, anyway? Maybe it wasn’t just scared, maybe it was hungry or thirsty too, or even sick.
“Onii-chan, did you hear that?”
Chrono jumped, and darted behind one of the larger rocks. Peeking out around it carefully, he noticed a pair of boys across the pond, sitting on a porch. It was the first time he’d seen any other kids since he got here... but he couldn’t believe they’d be any help. They’d just tell their parents on him, probably. He crouched back down and hoped they’d ignore it. He must have squished the cat a little, though, because it gave another loud, squeaky meow.
“Yeah, I think it might be a cat...”
“Shh...” Chrono whispered, petting the kitten some more in hopes of calming it down. He tried to figure out whether it was a better idea to sneak away or just stay still so he didn’t draw any more attention. But just as he made up his mind to try and get away-
“Oh!” A boy with long white hair and gold eyes, who looked a little older than him, had spotted him. Freezing up, Chrono couldn’t even stand as he walked towards him. “Um, hello there. Are you lost?” The boy with fluffy blue hair - he seemed younger, so maybe Chrono’s age? - was following, half-hidden behind him.
His heart was pounding, and Chrono couldn’t even speak. He just nodded stiffly, while the cat in his arms meowed again.
The older boy looked down at it, and smiled at him. “You were looking for your pet, I’m guessing?”
Glancing away, Chrono’s grip on the cat loosened. “...S’not mine.”
“Oh...” The older boy tilted his head. “Then, er, what are you doing with it?”
“It was stuck in a tree and... and I fell in trying to get it down.” Chrono looked at his shoes, shuffling them in the grass. “And now I can’t find the way out...” Saying it out loud like that, he felt kind of dumb. But he couldn’t have just left it up there. Not when no one else was coming for it. He just couldn’t .
“...I see. It sounds like you’re very responsible, trying to help it like that.” Chrono blinked at him. The older boy didn’t look like he was making fun of him - he was smiling very gently, and if anything he sounded impressed. It helped Chrono relax a little bit. “Is there a reason you didn’t want to ask anyone for help?”
After a moment, Chrono nodded silently. For some reason, that seemed to encourage the younger boy. “Um - if you want to leave without anyone knowing, I know a spot where the fence is broken.” The older boy seemed surprised at that, but didn’t say anything. “I heard some of the gardeners talking about it.”
“That’s great, Maa-kun!” The younger boy - Maa-kun, apparently, but that had to be a nickname - beamed at the praise, and the older boy looked back to Chrono and added, “Just let us clean up first, and then we’ll help you get out of here, okay?”
A little stunned at how easily that went, Chrono simply nodded again. He followed after them as the two boys headed back to the porch, picking up what looked like... cards? But they each had their own deck, it seemed. And they all had pictures on them. Chrono didn’t know there were cards like that - the orphanage just had one deck, and everyone shared them and played things like Old Maid. He felt a little curious, but now wasn’t the time to ask. When they were done, Maa-kun turned back to him and said, “Okay, I think it’s over this way.”
He led the way, looking kinda happy about it. As they moved away from the porch, though, there were a few adults off to the side of the house, chatting. Maa-kun almost yelped, and stopped immediately. He just started taking a step backwards, when the older boy walked confidently ahead of them out into the open. One of the grown-ups asked, “Kazumi-sama, is something the matter?”
The older boy nodded, and said, “I’m sorry to bother you, but have you spoken to Mother yet? I thought I heard her asking for you.”
As Kazumi (Chrono couldn’t even imagine using that honorific, he’d never even heard it in real life before) talked to them and started bringing them into the house, Maa-kun managed to shake off whatever was bothering him. Straightening back up, he grabbed the hem of Chrono’s shirt and tugged him towards the trees. Nodding, Chrono followed him, carefully petting the kitten to keep it relaxed. The two got pretty far, enough that it was difficult to see the house at all anymore through all the trees, before Maa-kun spoke again. “Actually, most of the fence is pretty old. The last time there was a storm, some places got smashed really bad,” he explains, peering further ahead, “I heard them talking about getting it all replaced, but hardly anyone comes back here, so they haven’t bothered yet. Just the stuff close to the house.”
“They can’t even take care of the whole yard right?” Chrono gaped, “What’s the point of having such a big one then?”
Maa-kun shrugged. “It’s just always been part of the house, I guess.”
“Sounds like a waste.” The orphanage wasn’t bad or anything. The yard was nice, and it wasn’t overcrowded. But that just made the idea of so much belonging to just one family even more boggling. How rich were these people...?
The younger boy glanced back at him with a kind of tense half-smile. “It is pretty weird, huh? If they don’t want it, there no reason to keep it.” Then he spotted something up ahead, running ahead and waving at Chrono to follow. “Ah, here it is! I knew this was the spot.” Sure enough, there was a break in the dark, heavy wood that made up the fence. There were some lighter boards patching up the gap, but they weren’t even really nailed in right. All it took was some wiggling, and one of them popped right out.
Chrono breathed a sigh of relief. It looked just big enough for him to fit through. “Thanks a lot. It would’ve taken ages to find this by myself.”
Maa-kun beamed. “No problem!”
They jumped almost in sync at the sound of footsteps, but the familiar voice calling, “Ah, there you both are,” eased any worries about being found out. The younger boy lifted an arm and waved at Kazumi, who smiled and looked a little embarrassed. “Sorry, it took longer than I thought to get away.” He looked at the fence. “So here it is, huh... I had no idea. Great job, Maa-kun.”
The younger boy’s smile managed to get even brighter at the praise, and he laughed a little bit. It was nice to see, but watching the two of them was... a little uncomfortable. It felt like scratching at a scab. Chrono looked down at the cat, who seemed to have fallen asleep at some point. “Um, thanks again. Sorry to bother you guys.”
“It’s no bother, I’m glad we could help,” Kazumi said, and turned that gentle smile back towards him, “Is it okay to ask your name?”
...It was really, really hard to say no to that smile. “Chrono.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Chrono. I’m Kazumi,” the older boy said, putting a hand on the younger boy’s head, “And this is my little brother, Kazuma.”
Kazuma pouted a little. “I was gonna tell him myself...”
Kazumi laughed, looking a little sheepish. “Sorry about that.”
“It’s okay.” The younger boy glanced back over at Chrono, and looked a little shy when he said, “Um. Since you know where this is now... you could get in this way too, if you wanted. No one ever comes out to that part of the house, usually, so it’d just be us. And next time we could play together.” Then he looked up at Kazumi. “We could, right?”
“Well, that’s up to him,” Kazumi said, ruffling his brother’s hair before dropping his hand back to his side and looking at Chrono again. He didn’t look nervous, exactly, but the confidence he’d had earlier wasn’t showing at all. “It is pretty safe there, but I’m sure coming all this way wouldn’t be easy... I wouldn’t want you to get in trouble on our account. So, only if you really want to. And if you’re sure it’s okay.”
Chrono paused, needing a moment to absorb the offer. They actually wanted him to come back...? The thought left a fluttery kind of feeling in his stomach. “I... I dunno if I can. But I’ll think about it.”
Kazuma seemed to take that as agreement, grinning already. Kazumi was smiling again too, but it seemed more polite than anything as he waved while Chrono snuck through the gap in the fence. Behind him, the two brothers put the loose board back into place. He paused for a moment, and looked down at the cat in his arms. What should he do with it now? He hadn’t thought that far. But he definitely couldn’t just put it down on the street somewhere. It was just a baby.
Scrunching his face in concentration, he decided, at least, to head back to the orphanage. He could see the street from here, and once he got back onto the sidewalk and saw the other buildings, he was sure he could figure out the rest of the way. Maybe he could say he found the cat out in the yard by itself. The caretakers would probably know how to find an owner. Even if they realized he snuck out, no matter how angry they were at him, they wouldn’t take it out on the cat. He was sure of that, at least.
In his second bit of luck that day, Chrono found he hadn’t been gone as long as it felt. And when presented with the kitten, the grown-ups were too busy discussing how to feed it and whether they should put up flyers for it to ask all that many questions about where he found it, or how he got scraped up. Just like he thought, it was so busy, no one realized he’d been gone at all.
A few days later, the cat’s owner was found. A mother and daughter came by the orphanage to pick it up. The little girl was so happy she started crying when she saw it, promising over and over that she wouldn’t let it get lost again.
Chrono watched the three of them leave. It was a good thing. That cat was going home to a family that had missed it all this time. He was really happy for it.
And almost a week later, after Mikuru called to apologize for not being able to make it that day, Chrono decided to sneak back out. He’d been wondering for a while now, and he really wanted to see if that fence was still broken. And if maybe those two boys were still waiting to see him again.
His heart was pounding the whole way there, and when he found the same off-color boards right in the same place, his hands shook while he pushed them forward and squeezed through. Standing in the yard again, he tried to take a breath and calm down. He didn’t really understand why it felt so much scarier this time, but there was only one way to get over it.
Once he’d put the fencing back in place, he started off towards where he remembered the porch being. Chrono felt like he knew pretty well which direction to go, but all the trees looking so similar made him doubt himself. The pond, at least, was helpful; once he spotted that, he knew exactly where he was. Even before he saw Kazumi sitting by himself, back towards him and head down. That, actually, made Chrono hesitate a little. Sure, Kazumi had been nice last time, but Kazuma was the one who actually asked him to come back, and he wasn’t anywhere in sight. Chrono took a step backwards, half-hiding behind one of the larger trees. Maybe it’d be better to wait until both of them were there.
But after a few seconds, he frowned and shook his head. No, there was no telling how long that’d be. And... and if Kazumi didn’t want him around and was just being nice for Kazuma, then it’d be better to find out right away. He didn’t want to be a nuisance and get between the two of them. Taking a deep breath, Chrono slowly stepped out into the open and walked towards the older boy.
“Um... hi,” he said, waving a hand. Kazumi jumped, before looking back over his shoulder towards him right away, eyes wide and face almost blank. For a moment Chrono wondered if maybe he’d waited too long and now Kazumi didn’t even recognize him. Then he broke into a warm smile, shifting to face Chrono fully.
“Hello! It’s good to see you. I thought maybe you wouldn’t be able to visit again.” Chrono nodded, not knowing how to respond to the switch into plain eagerness, especially directed at him. Kazumi seemed to notice, because he leaned back a little and asked, more politely, “Were you able to get the cat back home alright?”
Relieved, Chrono nodded. “Yeah. Its owner came and got it.”
“That’s great. I bet Maa-kun will be relieved to hear it too.”
“Is he busy right now?”
Kazumi looked towards the door, still smiling, but looking a little... not bored, exactly, but something close to it. Chrono wondered how long he’d been waiting here on his own. “Yes. He’ll probably come by later, though, if you want to wait.”
Chrono nodded again. He would have wanted to anyway, but the thought of leaving Kazumi sitting here by himself just cemented it. He sat down on the porch himself, to get a look at what Kazumi had been so focused on earlier. He blinked, heart skipping another beat. It was the same cards from the other day, all laid out very neatly in a few different piles. Before he could stop himself, he asked, “What are these all for?”
Right away, Kazumi’s eyes lit up. “The cards? They’re for a game called ‘Vanguard’. Have you never played?”
Chrono shook his head. “We don’t have anything like that at the orphanage.”
The light dimmed slightly, and Chrono wondered if he wasn’t supposed to mention that. But instead of saying anything about it, Kazumi just smiled again and asked, “Well, do you want me to teach you about it?”
“Do you mind?”
“Not at all! It’s my favorite game.” Kazumi beamed. “Alright... so, everything takes place on a planet called Cray...”
Kazumi was good at explanations, Chrono thought, as he launched into a whole story. The scene he drew describing Cray and its inhabitant was so vivid. His own deck was part of Nubatama, he explained, a clan of ninjas, all made up of monsters and dragons. He talked about the skill ‘Afterimage’ that they used, and how it was good for quick, sneak attacks that kept the units safe afterwards. The more he talked, the easier it was to picture. Attacks shrouded in darkness, living among treacherous mountains and deep forests. It felt like he could see it right in front of him.
“And by playing this game, we can go there too,” Kazumi said, holding up a card with a picture of a strong-looking dragon, its arms and wings spread, the name ‘Shiranui’ under it, “By using an avatar, we can fight alongside our allies, as their vanguard.”
Chrono felt himself staring. His heart was beating fast again. “‘Vanguard’...”
Kazumi nodded. “It means ‘the one who leads’.” He smiled at the card for a moment, before placing it back alongside the others. “That connection, that bond... you and your units both draw strength from it. It helps you to change, until you’re the kind of leader who can bring them victory.”
As Kazumi’s words sunk in, Chrono closed his eyes for a few moments, and just tried to picture it. A whole other world, full of beings who would fight alongside him. Who needed his strength, and would share their own with him. When he opened them again, he said, “I... I wanna try playing.” The words came out backed with a determination that surprised himself. Still, he just looked Kazumi in the eye and asked, “Can I?”
Right away, the older boy said, “Of course!” A touch of playfulness came into Kazumi’s expression. “Let’s see... I should explain all the rules first, and when Kazuma gets here, you can borrow my deck to play against him. I bet he’d love that.”
And all at once, Chrono felt himself smiling back. “Okay!”