Lightning coursed through his veins and Yusaku let it, relaxing his body as much as he could as the electricity tried to curl his limbs. It didn’t hurt as much anymore, but he still couldn’t move for a while after.
Eventually, he pushed himself back to his feet, readying his stance again. He hadn’t even bothered to take off the headset, so the field was ready as soon as he put his cards back in his deck.
The robotic voice rang through the speakers, claiming the first turn. That was fine, he could counter.
The turns went by quickly, neither player hesitating to set or summon, just playing the familiar cards as effectively as possible. Yusaku didn’t bother to open his mouth at all. The AI already knew the effects of his cards, so it was pointless to speak. Not like when he used to duel real people, and they were unfamiliar with the cards he played.
His chest tightened and he grit his teeth to ground himself. He couldn’t go getting distracted in the middle of the duel. He set a card and ended his turn.
As his opponent attempted to turn the duel in their favor, Yusaku couldn’t keep his thoughts in place. They kept going back to days in the sun, when he would duel, and he would laugh while doing it. The memories only made him lose track of the duel, and he missed the opportunity to use a trap, his life points lowering.
He tore himself back to the duel, away from the thought of how a breeze felt. It didn’t matter. What mattered was winning, not anything from the days before he was not counting , couldn’t let himself keep track of how long it had been. That would only bring the pain in his chest back.
A few turns later, and the screen flashed with the little ring of trumpets. He’d won his breakfast. He finally took the headset off as the slot for the drone with his food opened up. It carried the same plate as always, and he set the headset down before sitting in front of where the drone always landed.
He didn’t watch the drone as it descended, who knew what They would do if they thought he was too eager, and instead picked at his sleeve, where there was a bit of fraying in the fabric.
The drone landed, and he looked up, reaching for the mush that they always gave him. His hand froze, hovering over the tray, as he stared at its contents. There was the usual water, the three colors of mush in their little sections, and sitting on top of it all, a cupcake.
He snatched his hand away, eyes widening to stare at the new addition to his tray. Why was this there? What had changed to let him have this? There was nothing, that Yusaku was sure of. Not even over the course of the last few days had anything out of the ordinary happened. He wasn’t winning or losing more than usual, nor had he changed his routine at all. So why?
He started running over all the possibilities in his head, still clutching his hands in front of his chest as he stared at the abnormality in his carefully controlled world. For some reason, fall leaves kept brushing against his thoughts, the first signs that summer was over, and the sign for something else he knew about too…
Realization struck worse than any electricity and Yusaku gasped, scrambling away from the tray, shaking his head so hard that his neck hurt. It had been so long since spring, so long since he’d seen the sun.
He didn’t want to remember this. If it was real, then it had been, he’d been in here for -
He gripped his head, as if he could force the answer out and away . He didn’t want this. He’d done so well at forgetting, only a few stray memories of warmth and light and laughter lingering. He didn’t want to know.
Five months .
He swallowed the lump in his throat, gasping in a breath. It caught in his lungs, and he coughed to the rhythm of the answer. Five months, five months five months-
He clamped his hand down over his mouth, afraid of heaving up bile. It also kept the air in, and he held his breath for the count of three, then lifted his hand to let out a shaky exhale. He took another breath in, stopping when he felt the first hitch of a cough, and counted to three again.
He sat there for a while longer, just long enough to worry that they would take the tray away again for trying to wait to eat, then forced himself into motion. He stood up from the corner where he had shoved himself, taking the few steps back to the center of the room where the drone rested. He stared down at the tray, watching the cupcake for some sign, then let his legs fall forward, landing on his knees.
He ignored the sting and the thought of another bruise and reached out for the tray again, picking up the cupcake. He stared at it for a moment, turning it this way and that. It was a nice cupcake, from what he could remember of them. A colorful wrapper, chocolate icing, and yellow cake just barely visible between them. He took a moment to look at it more, then set it down next to the tray.
He ate the mush quickly, falling back into the familiar rhythm of the room. Once all the “food” was cleared, he took the cup of water and downed half of it.
He set the cup on the ground, and picked the cupcake back up. Some chocolate got on his finger when he did, and he transferred it to his other hand to lick at it. It burst into sweetness on his tongue, so unusual that he could hardly stand it.
He took another swallow of water, then unwrapped the cupcake. The first bite was sponge in his mouth, sweetness and softness that he hadn’t tasted in so long. The next was dryer, the cake soaking up the wetness in his mouth and taking it with it when he swallowed. By the fourth it was going down like sand, but he kept on eating.
He swallowed the last bite, picking up his cup. He drained the last of the water, gulping the remaining traces of the cupcake from his mouth. It still lingered on his tongue, the stickiness of the sugar coating his teeth.
He licked his lips, placing the wrapper of the cupcake onto the tray along with the cup, and the drone lifted off to its place in the wall. With a hiss as the opening slid shut, the room was back to the way it was, not a trace that anything out of the ordinary had been there but the taste in his mouth.
He was glad when the next meal came. It washed away the hope that was sour on his tongue.
It was a fairly normal day, by Cafe Nagi standards. There had been some activity in the network that had required attention earlier, but Yusaku had taken care of it and was now monitoring the state of things via laptop at the table in front of the truck. Summer break had just ended, and the leaves were starting to change color.
Yusaku was intensely focused on the screen in front of him, so much so that he didn’t see the other boy walk up to him until a red-tattooed hand was placing something onto his keyboard in front of him, and he stopped typing to figure out what it was. When he focused on the object, he whipped his head up to stare at Ryoken, mouth opening and closing as he tried to figure out what to say.
Ryoken wasn’t looking at him, instead staring off across the city plaza as he sat down next to Yusaku. “What?” He asked.
Yusaku swallowed, getting his thoughts in order. “What’s this for?” He motioned to the cupcake sitting on top of his keyboard.
Ryoken’s brow furrowed, and he shifted to face Yusaku better. “Isn’t it your birthday today?” Oh. That was today.
Yusaku glanced away, choosing to look at the cupcake rather than the searching eyes. “Yeah, it is. I just-” He gestured to the cupcake, that had chocolate frosting, with a little bit of yellow cake showing underneath. It looked too similar to how he remembered. “I just haven’t, really celebrated. Not for years.”
“Oh. I see.” Yusaku looked back up, to see Ryoken rubbing the back of his neck. “My apologies, then.”
“Don’t.” Yusaku emphasized his point by picking up the cupcake, inspecting it. “There’s no need to apologize.” They sat in silence for a minute, each occupied with their own thoughts.
Yusaku glanced over at Ryoken to see him staring at the table, finger picking at the whorls of fake wood. He glanced back at the cupcake. Might at well.
He brought his other hand up, peeling away the wrapper to reveal the side of the cupcake. He bit down on it, and the sweetness he remembered burst across his mouth. He chewed the cake, swallowing the bite once he was done.
Ryoken was looking at him again, and he kept shifting in his seat like he wanted to leave. Yusaku wasn’t going to give him the chance. “It tastes the same as back then.”
The words made Ryoken stop. “It should, it’s the same recipe.” He was avoiding his gaze again as Yusaku turned to look at him.
“That was you?” Came out as a whisper.
Ryoken looked back at him, eyebrow raised. “Yes?”
Yusaku opened his mouth to respond, and instead what came out was a huff of laughter. He couldn’t seem to stop, and he set down the cupcake to keep it from falling out of his hand. Ryoken was gaping at him now, completely bewildered.
Yusaku choked, and no, he wasn’t going to cry right now, and tried to explain. “I always thought, that it was a way for Them to get a reaction out of me. That they were reminding me of how long it had been since I’d seen the outside, to see how I would react to it. If I would fight harder or give up.” His vision was getting blurry, but Yusaku kept his eyes on Ryoken. “And the whole time, it was you.”
He was pulled into Ryoken’s shoulder, and Yusaku grabbed onto the sleeve of his jacket. “It was supposed to cheer you up.” Ryoken was speaking quickly, like he had to get the words out. “It wasn’t- I wanted you to have something.” Yusaku could feel him take a breath. “I didn’t want you to feel alone that day.”
Yusaku took a deep breath, centering himself, before pulling away to smile at the other. “Well you screwed that up.” He tugged the other closer by the sleeve. “But thank you.”
Ryoken still looked unsure, but he nodded. “Anytime.” He murmured.
Yusaku gave Ryoken one last smile before turning back to his computer. “You’ll have to bring by more of these sometime, they’re good.” He commented, picking up the cupcake again.
At his side, Ryoken chuckled. “I’ll be sure to.”
Yusaku smiled, quiet and content, and took a bite.