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Tender Moments

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The nice thing about working at Kusanagi's shop, Yuusaku mused, was that there was just enough to do to keep him busy, but not enough to overwork him. If he was alone in the truck, he might have had different thoughts. But while Kusanagi handled the majority of the payments, he prepared the orders. Back when he had begun working at Cafe Nagi, there were three items on the list: hot dog, chili dog, and coffee. Nowadays, it was five: hot dog, chili dog, veggie dog, coffee, tea.

Kusanagi considered it a massive improvement.

"See, Yuusaku," he said as he leaned against the counters. "People really don't like change. They think they do, and once in a blue moon I'll buy pickles or something weird to put on the hotdog. But if I expand the menu, folks here are just going to pick the same dish every single time." His grin widened. "Sort of like someone else I know."

Yuusaku rolled his eyes. He ducked back behind the truck to pop the last of his hotdog bun into his mouth. Ever since he'd started working part-time at Cafe Nagi—a whole four years ago—he'd been eating plain buns. No dressing, no toppings, and no hot dog itself.

He frowned as Kusanagi's words settled in his mind. "Pickles?"

"Sure. People love changes."

"But ... pickles?" He glanced back at the truck's wares. Tucked into one of the walls was a spacious, albeit messy, pantry, toppling from the weight of bags of hotdog buns, containers of coffee, and several cans of tomato sauce and beans. Nowhere did he see any jars of pickles, but crammed to the corner and semi-hidden by more bun bags was a tower of cans of ...

"Tuna?"

Kusanagi shrugged. "Why not?" He turned away to take a customer's order, and Yuusaku returned to prepare the hotdog and tea. When he was done, Kusanagi was wiping his hands on his apron.

"What?" Kusanagi said. "If people don't like it, I just give it away anyways."

At this, Yuusaku raised an eyebrow. He'd never closed shop with Kusanagi, mainly because Cafe Nagi stayed open so long as there were customers frequenting the truck. He'd never wanted to work late into the night anyways, but it had also never occurred to him just what closing-shop entailed. In particular, he'd never asked just what Kusanagi did with the leftovers.

"To the strays," Kusanagi said with a wave of his hand. "They come round at night and wait for me to feed them."

"You ... feed the strays?"

"Course."

Yuusaku pursed his lips together and sighed out his nose the way an adult might start their condescending lecture to a teenager. "If you feed the strays, they will return."

Kusanagi snapped his fingers. "And that’s why I do it. Besides, I always have leftovers." Playfully, he bumped shoulders with Yuusaku, then weaved to the side to stir the chili pots and tousle the peppers and onions in a refrigerated container. "If you're so curious, you should stay until the end of the shift. They wait at the back of the truck away from customers, and there's always five or six of them."

"Of them?" he asked, and silently he prayed there were no raccoons, badgers, or other, larger predators waiting at the back of the truck. The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare would already have a field day if they found out Kusanagi was feeding strays from the back of his truck, but Yuusaku also feared for Kusanagi himself. What if a rabid animal attacked him? What if he caught a disease? He didn't know much about animals and which diseases they carried, but any animal lurking through Den City's streets would be ill and unwashed.

Kusanagi chuckled as he restocked the buns. "Oh, Yuusaku."

Heat burned on his cheeks. He reached for one of the dish cloths hanging on the stove and began sweeping bread crumbs from the counter into his cupped hand, even though there were only three tiny, visible nibbles. He needed something to do with his hands. Something that would stop the blush threatening to cover his entire face.

"They're such adorable strays though."

Was ... was that a baby-talk voice? From Kusanagi?

Yuusaku peered through his bangs.

Kusanagi's grin caught him like a net over his head.

"I've always wanted a pet," Kusanagi said. His clasped hands were pressed to his chest, right over his heart. Even in the artificial truck lights, his eyes shimmered. In any other situation, Yuusaku would have listened fervently; he would have wanted Kusanagi to keep talking. But they were two grown men talking about feeding strays, and the last time Kusanagi had gotten so choked up was when there was a devilishly-good sale on hotdogs at the store, and he'd thrown out his weekly bulk order just to buy the grocery store brand.

At the moment, Kusanagi looked even more choked up.

"I don't have time for a pet, not with running Cafe Nagi. Not to mention there isn't room here for a pet—then I'd really get fired from my job. But ... isn't it so sweet that the kitties come to me at the end of the day, like I'm their mother?"

"K-kitties?" Kusanagi was getting worked up over stray cats pawing and meowing at his back door. Yuusaku knew even less about stray cats than stray dogs, but any stray would return to a dewy-eyed man feeding them leftover hotdogs and apparently cans of tuna. The strays didn't truly care about him. They just knew that a good day's meal came from the white truck parked out along Stardust Road.

But he didn't have it in him to criticise Kusanagi. Anyone else he would have spoke his mind to, and on occasion Kusanagi heard his critiques too, such as the rebuttal on having a Weiner Dog Mascot dancing out front of the shop. But Kusanagi, with near-tears in his eyes and holding a tea towel like he was cradling a kitten, was the happiest he'd even been on a Saturday, the final shift for Cafe Nagi. He couldn't stomp on his friend's pride.

"Kitties?" he tried again, holding back the suspicion in his tone.

"Well." Kusanagi chuckled and folded the tea towel. "I'd say they're all full-grown cats, but to me they can all be kitties. Have to be at least six of them every night, sometimes more, sometimes less ... Mostly more. I swear they bring a friend each time."

Yuusaku held his lip between his teeth, forcing himself not to blurt out the first callous remark that came to mind. If Kusanagi wanted to feed strays, it was not his place to judge. They donated food to the local shelter to begin with, so it wasn't as if Kusanagi was tossing out perfectly-fine buns and hotdogs to strays rather than giving the leftovers to shelters. If the strays were a problem in the community, animal patrols would have caught them already. Throwing out the first critique that came to mind would be ignorant of the good Kusanagi was doing. Or so he tried to tell himself as Kusanagi bunched his shoulders up to his ears and cooed and acted like a damn fool in the back of the truck.

"I have photos of them, Yuusaku, here, come see! They let me take a photo a few nights ago." Kusanagi beckoned him over with a hurried wave of his hand. On his duel disk's screen was an entire album of cat photos, all taken from the back of the truck and featuring various strays eating out of two red bowls that looked suspiciously like the bowls Yuusaku used to drink miso soup stock from. The other detail he noticed was that there seemed like far, far more than six different cats in the photos. If he had to estimate, the number was closer to twenty.

Kusanagi enlarged the first photo in the album and zoomed in on a small, black and white cat. If he were more of a cat person, he would have known just what kind of cat it was, but with his limited knowledge, it just seemed like a basic cat. Black and white, four paws, two ears. Hungry mouth open and munching away on a hotdog.

"This one here comes every day, I swear," Kusanagi said. "She's a little fiesty one, always pushing to the front of the pack. She must eat a full hotdog alone. And this one." He swiped several photos back and zoomed in on an orange cat. "Gentlest soul I have ever come across. Eats like a damn horse though. Not sure how this cat isn't fat yet. Ooh, this little grey one! Pretty sure it's a kitten. And maybe this other black one is its sibling ... not sure if cats can have different coloured kittens."

Yuusaku swallowed thickly. "And all these cats come ...?"

"Yeah." Kusanagi scrubbed at the back of his neck. "Look, if you stay for the end of the shift, I'll introduce you to them all. I promise, they come every night."

He had no doubt the strays would all be there, but the last place he wanted to be was surrounded by dirty animals no doubt crawling through the truck.

Just then, Kusanagi's brows furrowed low over his brown eyes. "Wait, you're not allergic, are you? You haven't been feeling ill, wheezing, itchy—”

"No, I'm fine."

"Ah, good. Jin's terribly allergic to them. Has to take medicine just to come out here now, but ..." He shrugged and smiled. "Jin still thinks it's amazing all those kitties flock to me."

"Amazing," Yuusaku said under his breath. "But I have to decline. I need to go home tonight."

Whether Kusanagi knew he was making up an excuse—and a lame one at that, without any proper reasoning but just simply an unspoken 'I have better things to do'—he said nothing more than, "No worries, you can always see them another time. I'm sure they'll be coming for the rest of my career."

Yes, they will, Yuusaku thought.

For the rest of the shift, he cleaned and cooked with his mind focused on the tasks at hand. From time to time he or Kusanagi would share a story, but as long-time friends and co-workers, they had become used to each other's silence. They could go hours without either of them needing to fill the truck with redundant chatter, only to then burst into a colourful story. Often it was Kusanagi doing the talking and him doing the listening, but if a rant struck him, courtesy of Link Vrains' server malfunctions a la SOL Technologies' incompetency, he could march up and down the truck for minutes before he settled back in a huff.

But for this shift, whenever they spoke up, the topic always seemed to curve back to cats, specifically the mangy strays in the photos. Kusanagi would show him more photos, or tell him a story about the kitties, or even replicate their "adorable" mewling. Yuusaku didn't care much for kittens, but by the end of the shift, he was fortunate to go home for the night and think of anything but cats.

"Have a good day off!" Kusanagi told him from the truck.

Yuusaku hiked his backpack strap over his shoulder and nodded. The night was still young, but with the approaching darkness the street lights had turn on, and their bright, yellow light cast weary shadows over the plaza and down the road. In summer when it would still be daylight at seven o'clock, he would often wander down to the beach and sit on an empty part of the shore. But with autumn in full season, complete with crinkly orange leaves, chilly winds, and fast nightfalls, the only choice was to walk back to his apartment and tuck under his duvet.

He headed down the road from the plaza and through the little park just off from the road. During the day, he would hear children chasing each other through the grab or climbing atop the metal structure, but they had long since gone home. Instead, seated in a halo of creamy light was a single, white cat, fluffy around its head and ears but growing sleeker across the body. A pair of large, blue eyes stared at him.

Wonderful. One of Kusanagi's strays was already waiting for its meal.

Yuusaku marched through the park, hood up, hands in his pockets. The cold wind pricked at any exposed skin, and he regretted wearing just a light jacket.

Mew.

Meew.

Mee—

Yuusaku leapt out of the way before he kicked the white cat that shot in front of his legs like a bullet. The cat kept running and ducked under a park bench. Its little white body puffed out like a cloud, and its bright eyes stared back.

Yuusaku shook himself and kept watching. Damn cat almost got itself kicked—

Mew.

He stopped. Spun on his heel.

"What?"

The cat had come closer. Not far, as it didn't seem to trust him, but enough that Yuusaku could tell that it wanted something. Discreetly, he sniffed his palms for any lingering hot dogs smells, but he found only Kusanagi's fragrant lavender soap. Would that attract strays? Unlikely, but the cat was still crouched in front of him like a dropped loaf of white bread, and its all-too-expectant gaze was on him.

He spun back on his heel and headed out of the park. The next time the cat meowed, he didn't turn around. Unfortunately, Kusanagi's night time feeding must have trained all the local strays to think that any human would feed them. If he walked far enough away, the stray would get the picture and march right back to Cafe Nagi for its midnight feast.

Only the cat didn't leave him alone. Didn't stray more than ten feet away from him. It walked down the road on its little white paws, occasionally meowing or mewling or making some other unholy, annoying sound. When Yuusaku had to cross the road, the cat huddled under a tree or lamppost and followed him again when it was safe to cross and remain far enough away from him. Yuusaku refused to look at it the entire time.

The stray would get the picture.

He made it all the way to his front door without the cat stopping once. He turned the key to the door but held still. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the white cat sitting at the top of the outdoor stairs leading along the building to the second-floor apartments. At most, there was ten feet of space between them.

The cat nestled down once more into a little loaf.

Yuusaku sighed and slipped through the door, closing it behind him. He fumbled in the darkness to kick off his shoes at the same time as his hand tapped the dark wall for the light switch. He found it just as he got his other shoe off, and tiredly he pushed them to the wall and stepped over the genkan. Dribbles of moonlight came through the open window in his living room and kitchen, squished together into one room. His bedroom and bathroom were against the opposite wall. He hadn't slept in his bedroom all week, often passing out on the couch after staying up all night on his computer.

Tonight would be no different.

He grabbed a can of cold coffee from the fridge and a reheatable packet of rice from the cupboard, and brought both of them to the couch once they meal was ready. Last night's activities were still open across various tabs: search histories of gaming strategy guides and deck building sets; news articles for upcoming decks and cards, and SOL Technologies' recent achievements in the virtual world community. His duel disk lie next to his computer, alight with several messages from Takeru about dueling tonight.

Sighing, he spooned rice into his mouth.

And promptly choked, spitting rice granules across his lap, table, and keyboard.

The damn white cat was sitting form outside his window. It would have been better if it were doing something, say pawing or crying, but now it was simply staring at him. Voidless eyes. If he remembered correctly, this was how horror stories begun.

But he was also preoccupied with guzzling water before he heaved up a lung. His throat burned by the time the choking ceased, and he wiped his lips with his sleeve and focused on taking smaller bites and keeping his eyes on his keyboard. There was nothing to worry about ...

Curiously, he lifted his head.

The cat wasn't outside of the window. It was inside the house, seated against the window, once more a little, white loaf.

His blood ran dry. Just ... how? Had it snuck into the house before he closed the door? He never left a window open unless he needed to clear smoke from the kitchen during one of the rare times he cooked dinner, and unless there was a new hole in his apartment wall, the only likely reason was that the damn stray had slipped in faster than he could have closed the door. The feat seemed impossible, but the cat was still there, watching him with holes for eyes.

His duel disk was on the table, blinking with Takeru's notifications. If the cat had climbed up onto the window without him noticing, and hadn't moved since then, small movements shouldn't have bothered it. Yuusaku picked up his duel disk. Paused. Kusanagi had experience with strays, but he wouldn't know how to get them out of the house, only how to lure them in. Counterintuitive. Takeru ... Takeru had two lizards.

Sighing, he crouched in front of the computer and typed into the search bar: How to get strays out of house.

The first option was pest control. As much as Yuusaku hated strays, he wasn't about to have strangers come knocking on his door at this hour and get the cat out. He'd peopled plenty today.

The second option was luring the pet out. On the website were various treats cats might enjoy, and instructions to leave a trail for them out of the house where you could lock the door behind them. Though he'd berated Kusanagi for feeding the strays, this situation was different: he wasn't feeding them, he was luring this white cat away. In his cupboards he found a package of plain crackers that he hoped would entice the stray. Once broken into tiny pieces, he lined them from five or so feet away from the cat's perch to the front door, and then a larger pile of crumbs out on the landing, If this was one of Kusanagi's hungry strays, it would be looking for its meal.

Ten minutes later and the cat hadn't moved. Yuusaku sighed into his fist as he sat on the counter. The living room wasn't all that wide, at most six steps, but he'd set up shop at the furthest end of the room; the only other option was to hide away in the bedroom or bathroom and let the pest be, but he also didn't want to lose it. The fear of losing the cat in his apartment seemed much worse than having it in his house, and he didn’t want to spend all night looking for a creature no larger than a laptop.

From across the room, he could still see the open web page.

DO NOT PICK UP A STRAY CAT, it read in bolded letters. He was tempted to try his luck on that matter.

All the while, the white stray hadn't budged. It remained as a dense ball, sides puffed out. There was no collar round its neck. Other than white fur, its single distinguishing feature was a grey-blue tuft of fur above his eyebrow that was only visible in direct light. On the web there were no lost white cat advertisements, so this truly was a stray.

The first option of calling pest control began to sound even more tempting. If they could take the stray out of his house, he'd get a decent's night rest. Long-term, it would be better. Short-term, a nightmare. He sighed into his hands and slouched forward. Normally at this hour he would be logged into Link Vrains and dueling with Takeru, or browsing the general web and ignoring Naoki's incessant pings for duel requests. But if he logged into Link Vrains, he wouldn't be able to see the cat.

Grumbling, he marched back to the couch and sat down in front of the computer. The cat's wide, blue eyes stared back at him, following every single one of his movements. It hadn't moved a muscle, and something within its hunched form and flat ears made it seem ... scared. All the cats Kusanagi had showed him photos of had pricked tails and closed eyes. This cat was curled in a tight ball, tail curled round it, and ears ... flat on either side of its head

Cat body language, he googled.

Afraid, the website said. The damn cat was scared of him.

He leaned back on the couch with yet another heavy sigh. Then, rising once more, he scooped up the kibble trailed through his apartment and collected it into a little bowl. He filled another bowl with tap water and brought them both to the wall, a step or two away from where the white cat sat. The stray cat stiffened as he approached, but Yuusaku kept his movements slow and backed away once the food and water had been set.

He wasn't feeding a stray. Not at all.

He'd get rid of the cat in the morning.