Little Lion Man
Disclaimer: Don't own.
Summary: You know, we used to be that happy. What happened?
But it was not your fault but mine,
And it was your heart on the line,
I really fucked it up this time, didn't I, my dear?
"Little Lion Man," Mumford & Sons
He asked the question shortly after attempting to wave down the waitress for the third time. Nursing what was left of his coffee, he lowered his hand in disappointment as the waitress nodded at him then distractedly wandered towards the table beside them instead.
She was about to offer him what was left of her coffee when he suddenly interrupted:
"You know, we used to be that happy. What happened to us?"
The question caught her by surprise.
He sat silently across from her in booth, leaning forward so his elbows rested lazily on the table. The collar of his black overcoat was pulled up to hug his unshaven neck and chin, and the dark circles under his eyes only revealed a fraction of how exhausted he actually was after such a long day.
They had been sitting there for about a half hour by then, just chatting politely as they looked through the window at the children running about the playground across the street. Somewhere in the middle of a discussion about the new prime minister and her promotion at work, he interjected that comment, so casually, so easily, as though it were nothing more than a passing shrug.
But the fact that he wouldn't meet her gaze told her this was something he'd been thinking about for a long time. He'd always been this way. As brazen and outspoken as he was in most things, when it came to his feelings and emotions, it always took an absurd amount of hesitant coaxing to get him to ask the kind of questions he was afraid to know.
"What?" she asked again, still somewhat taken aback by the sudden change in conversation.
He nodded at the group of laughing kids taking turns on the slide.
"You don't remember? We were like that once. That happy. You don't ever wonder what happened?"
She sighed, looking back at the playground.
"Taichi," she began carefully, "do you really think knowing the answer to that question will make things better?"
He thought silently for a minute. "No," he conceded at last. "I guess not."
"What happened, happened," she went on anyway. And then she added, "But moving on doesn't mean forgetting how it used to be."
"That's the problem, though, isn't it?" A small smirk played on his chapped lips. "It takes such a long time to forget…."
She shifted in her seat, unsure of how to respond. She was not used to him being so intimate and emotional. It came so rarely in this kind of gentle, shy way. Usually, he was a tornado of extremity and action. Rarely had he ever been otherwise. In fact, that was one of the reasons they had drifted apart.
"Are you happy, Sora?"
His voice was so soft and timid, so unnatural, that it could have broken her heart.
She smiled to herself a little, then turned and smiled at him widely. "I am. With you, right here and now. Are you?"
He returned the smile, lopsided and sincere.
"Mama!" a muffled voice cried.
They both looked up to the face of a young girl with bright red hair waving exuberantly on the other side of the window, her face smashed on the glass in a goofy grin. Her voice came in through the barrier in a foggy giggle, and Sora laughed.
Taichi smiled a little. "Well, it looks like someone's ready to go," he said.
"Probably," she agreed and glanced at her wristwatch. "We've got to be going anyway." She placed her hand on the glass over the small mitten-covered hand of her daughter's. She made a cute face at her, wrinkling her nose, and gestured with her head to come inside.
The little girl nodded, still grinning, peering through window at them. A tall blond man beside her gently tugged on her sleeve, and the child happily skipped down the sidewalk and around the corner to the entrance of the diner.
"This was nice, Taichi," Sora said as she stood up to count the bills for her portion of the tab. She smiled at him, "Let's do it again, soon?"
"Yeah," he said, just as the door opened, the bell chiming to announce the entrance of a small redheaded blur that made a beeline for their booth in the back corner, the blond man following closely on her little heels.
Sora immediately scooped her up. "Did you have a good time on the playground?"
"Good," she smiled. "Let's get home, okay?"
"And eat dinner?"
"And dessert," Sora promised. "Now, say good-bye, baby."
"Bye, Daddy!" cried the young child.
Taichi stood and leaned forward to kiss his daughter's forehead. "You be good, okay?"
He held her small little hand tightly in his for a silent moment, feeling a small pang in his chest at the thought of being away from this girl. Even though it happened twice a month, it was excruciating every time.
"We'll call when we reach home," promised Sora.
"Have a good holiday, Taichi," said the blond man warmly.
"Yeah, you too," he replied.
He stood there for a while after they left, watching them through the windows of the diner. Sora let the girl walk between her and her husband, hand in hand. They looked like a perfect family. Downing the last bit of his coffee, he set the cup down just as the absentminded waitress came by again.
"Refill?" she asked, not even paying attention to him. Her gaze was focused on the pad in her hands, which had a long order from the table next to his. She was frowning, chewing on her bottom lip.
"Yeah…," he said, trailing off as she left him suddenly, rushing off to the kitchen and leaving him holding out his coffee cup in mid-air.
He set it down once more, shaking his head, and sat back in the booth, staring outside at the street where his daughter and ex-wife had gone, new stepfather and husband in tow. Taichi wasn't sad, exactly. He had given up on being sad a long time ago, as it had served him little purpose to allow himself to become depressed. Not that he didn't have good reason. His job was a job, though it paid fairly well, and it was one of those kinds of employment that required a lot of office work that couldn't be done at home; his friends were amusing and comforting, but who really had the time for that sort of thing now?
There was little if anything to be said about a personal or social life, as most of his nights consisted of terribly made home-cooked meals or otherwise here at this diner, across the street from his apartment building, usually eaten while he worked. He ran for an hour every morning, and always caught the evening news, but little else distracted him from this solitary routine. Those two weekends out of the month when he had his daughter with him, though—those were good weekends. Good days, good nights. He'd thought about asking Sora for extended custody time, but he knew it was a lost cause. The entire reason it was decided she'd retain primary custody was work. He spent so many days traveling or otherwise late at the office in unpredictable hours that he couldn't have been a good attentive parent to an under-aged child, especially one who was still in the age of constant supervision.
It didn't help that the stepfather had a stay-at-home job. How was he supposed to compete with that? Not that he was interested in trying. He was a good man, a good person, a good role model to have around his daughter. Taichi was not unhappy to have him around, especially since his daughter also like him very much. He respected boundaries, never even asking to be called a variant of "Dad." Taichi felt no danger of being replaced.
Perhaps that was it.
Taichi knew he hadn't been replaced, simple moved off to the side.
So no, he wasn't sad or depressed.
He was just…lonely.
Somebody or something good to come home to, that's what he wanted. No wonder he kept his traveling and demanding job. Who would want to come back to an unpopular diner and an even more pathetic apartment?
Lost in thought, he did not see the waitress flip the "open" to "closed" sign on the front window and did not notice the emptying restaurant until the owner came out from the kitchen and called to him:
"Hey, man, we're closing."
Taichi blinked, surprised, and looked around to see he was indeed the last one there.
"Oh, sorry," he said, a little embarrassed.
The man smiled. "Don't worry about it. Honestly, you're out most loyal customer. You should be telling us when to open and close." Then he paused, studying Taichi in silence. "Are you all right?"
"Sure," said Taichi, counting the money in his wallet.
The man was quiet, then suddenly called out, "Mimi! Do we have any pie left?"
The waitress at the door immediately protested, "I was saving that, Daisuke!"
"What, for your cat? Come on, it's our number one client!"
The waitress grumbled under her breath as she dragged herself back to the kitchen. "I can't find it!" she called back in one last-ditch attempt to salvage her dessert.
Daisuke rolled his eyes, "Fine, I'll do it!"
The owner winked at Taichi, who was also protesting, "Really, there's no need. I'm fine."
"Don't even think about it," the man waved his comments aside. "It's the least we could do." And then he disappeared into the kitchen, exchanging places with the waitress, who came out to close the register. She worked in silence. Taichi watched her fingers move quickly over the keys, her brows knitted in concentration and her honey eyes frowning at the work in front of her. Then he turned away, lingering at the door as he waited, glancing at the clock over the top do the door.
"I'm sorry," said the waitress suddenly.
"What?" Taichi asked.
"About your daughter," she went on, without look up from her work. "I know it must be hard not to be with her during the holidays."
Taichi said nothing, surprised.
She looked up at him, pausing. "My parents got divorced when I was a kid, too," she explained awkwardly. "But I never once thought my father loved me or wanted to be with me less because I couldn't be with him all the time. I just knew I was special enough for him to fight to see me whenever he could. Those were always my favorite times of the year, growing up, those days when I spent time with him, just us."
"Oh," said Taichi, still stunned. He wasn't sure what to say, though her words did stir a little hope inside of his worrying heart. "Thanks."
"You're welcome," she replied and returned to her work in silence.
Then Daisuke came back, a white take-out box in hand. "Here you go. It's on the house."
"Thanks," said Taichi, awkwardly accepting the token. "I…appreciate it." He started to walk to the exit, stopping only when the owner called out after him again.
"You know, if you're not busy, I'm having a small holiday party at my house tonight. You can be my guest of honor. After all, you're probably single-handedly keeping my business afloat and this feisty girl employed," he smirked and teasingly tapped the waitress on her rear. She jumped, scowling and swatting his hand away. Daisuke just laughed. "It'll be fun."
"Thanks, but I'm not sure I'll be able to make it tonight," said Taichi, flustered because of the lack of time he had to come up with a plausible excuse.
Daisuke persisted. "Well, it's your decision. But if you change your mind, my place is right above this diner hellhole, same building, apartment 32-A."
Taichi made another noncommittal reply and left the diner, crossing the street and turning the block towards his own apartment. As soon as he stepped inside, however, he felt a wave of that isolation and loneliness hit him square in the chest. Everywhere around him there were papers, books, files, newspaper clippings, dishes and cups. A little girl's pink blanket was on the couch, covering a few stuffed animals his daughter had left behind from her visit that weekend. His laptop was still on, but he could tell even from where he stood that there was no new mail. Everything was quiet.
Everything was always so quiet.
Feeling the heaviness return to settle on his heart, he placed the box of pie in the empty fridge and worked on the computer for a little bit, turning the music on his iPod loud so he wouldn't have to think in silence. Before he knew it, it had gotten completely dark outside. Blinking the tiredness from his eyes, he stumbled towards the bedroom. Peeling off his layers of clothing, he turned on the shower and waited for the water to start heating up. And there he stood, letting the water beat down on his weathered, tired face.
He imagined what Sora was doing now. They must still be on the train home, but they were probably getting close. It was nearly two hours away, his ex-wife's new home. It was in a perfect neighborhood, the kind where he always wanted to have a family. Big gardens, lively foot traffic, friendly neighbors. Lots of places for children to go, like a park or ice cream shop. His daughter loved it there.
How he hated it here. How he hated it.
The door to the bathroom had been left open, and through it he could hear the phone in his bedroom go off. Neglecting to answer, it went to voicemail, and soon he heard Sora's voice:
"Hi, Tai. We just got home now. I wanted to let you know that—," and then his daughter's voice screamed, "I miss you, Daddy! Please have a good holiday! Don't have too much fun, okay because I'm coming back soon!" Sora and her husband laughed, and then Sora's voice returned, "Well, we all hope you have a good holiday, Taichi." Her voice became a little softer, "We'll talk next time, okay? Merry Christmas."
Taichi opened his eyes.
Suddenly, he shut off the water, stepped out of the shower and toweled himself dry. He spent an absurd amount of time fretting over what to wear, before settling on a pair of jeans and a white button-up shirt. Checking his hair in the bathroom mirror, he grabbed his keys and jacket, took a deep breath to calm his nerves, and left the apartment.
It only took him five minutes to reach Daisuke's apartment. He could hear the holiday music pumping though the speakers inside, the voices of several people joined in laughter.
Just as he was about to turn around and go home, another set of footsteps sounded behind him. The waitress had just arrived. She was wearing a short green dress and black tights, her hair still piled up in a bun, the way she'd worn it to work for the past three years Taichi'd known her as she continuously forgot to pout him another cup of coffee.
She paused, eyebrow arched in surprise as though she weren't expecting him. "You look scared."
The comment embarrassed him.
"I haven't really been out in a while."
She just smirked, reaching around him to ring the doorbell. Daisuke answered almost immediately, beaming at her as they exchanged a friendly kiss on the cheek. Then his smile widened even more when he saw Taichi. "Number one customer! You came!"
"Uh, yeah—," began Taichi, before Daisuke grabbed his wrist and hauled him inside.
"Hey, everyone," he shouted, waving his free hand towards the crowd. "Listen up! This is Taichi, who happens to be precious commodity and the honored guest for the evening! Make him welcome, make him drunk, got it?"
"Cheers!" the crowd laughed in unison.
Someone else came to press a can of beer into Taichi's hand, "Happy holidays!" said the bespectacled girl, before throwing herself into Daisuke's arm as the two shared a tipsy, sloppy kiss. Daisuke pulled back momentarily to gesture at Taichi, "Make yourself at home, all right? You're among friends here."
Taichi popped the top of his can, taking a long swig of it. It burned along the back of his throat in a pleasant, familiar way. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had a drink, least of all a drink with friends. With work and raising a daughter part-time, he hadn't even had the chance until now.
Or maybe, he just hadn't wanted it as much, needed as badly as now.
The rest of the evening (and well into the early morning) was spent in rousing renditions of holiday carols, terrible karaoke, and plenty of drinking games. Taichi found himself laughing for the first time in a while, talking to strangers who turned out to be friendly and even making several acquaintances. There was even one person who he'd known as a student in high school. They reconnected immediately, as though nothing had changed, and Taichi wasn't sure if it was the liquid courage running through his veins or the fact that this was the first time he'd really put himself out there in much too long. Everything was beginning to come back to him. His brazen outspokenness, his aggressive activeness, his wry humor—for once he allowed himself to be careless again, like he'd been when he first met Sora all those years ago.
He wasn't the same as he'd been then, though, and try as he could to pretend, there was no use in doing so. But then he realized that it didn't matter. He was having a good time, just as he was, without any pretending.
"Are you going to sing?" asked bespectacled girl, who he'd learned was named Miyako.
"No, he is not, because I am!" declared the waitress.
Mimi climbed onto the small platform in the middle of the living room where Daisuke had set up the karaoke. Taichi's old classmate, Koushiro, whistled. "Hey, it's Mimi! Everyone, quiet!"
"That's right, Kou!" Mimi declared, speech slightly slurred. Her cheeks were red and her eyes shining like Taichi had never seen before.
Everyone clapped and cheered as the song she'd chosen began to play. It was something Taichi didn't recognize, but he wasn't paying much attention to the lyrics. Sitting on the couch between an ecstatic Miyako and Daisuke and a friendly Koushiro, Taichi was just watching her sing. It must have been commonplace for this group of friends to see her sing. Everyone was getting into it, but not as much as she was. In one fell swoop in the middle of the first chorus, she undid the bun atop her head and her hair fell to her shoulders in a mess glide. Taichi had never seen her with her hair down before. He'd rarely even seen her smile before. She always seemed so grumpy and absentminded at the diner, never this confident. She was gyrating her slender hips, whipping her hair around, eyes closed with her microphone-less hand gesturing wildly, an all-out stereotype of the singing rockstar. Everyone was crooning, laughing, goading her on.
He didn't even realize he was staring until Daisuke leaned across his girlfriend and punched him lightly in the shoulder, winking.
Taichi made up an excuse of having to use the restroom (which wasn't actually a lie) and hurriedly left the couch, cheeks pink. When he returned, people were beginning to leave. He was getting tired but Koushiro persuaded him into playing another round of a card game, during which the resumed conversation about high school and their lives since then. Taichi was in the middle of talking about his recent job promotion when Mimi stumbled off the platform after her third turn at karaoke, wrapped her arms around Koushiro's neck, and planted a wet kiss on his throat.
It took several minutes for Taichi to remember where he'd left off, and several more to resume normal speech after lots of stumbling over words and faltering.
"What are you playing?" Mimi asked, leaning over the table.
Koushiro tried to pull her out of the way. "Gin rummy."
"I can help! I love this game!"
But Koushiro just laughed, hiding his cards. "Go help Taichi, he needs it."
"No, I'm fine," Taichi started to protest, but then Mimi appeared beside him, perched on the nearby chair she'd dragged over. She leaned in to peer at his cards. "Yeah, you need help." Mimi laughed, tipsy, and then smiled at him with wide honey eyes that made his whole body go suddenly warm. "You need a lot of help."
It was the way she'd said it that got to him. For a split second he wondered if she knew all along, all these three years, he'd been watching her, trying to get that second cup of coffee just to smell her perfume as she poured it, gazing off through the window onto the street night after night, weekend after weekend when his daughter left with her new, better, perfect family that didn't include him.
He must have imagined it though.
How could she know? She was just a waitress, a terrible one at that, and Taichi always kept how much his heart broke every time he had to come to that diner to say goodbye to the last thing in his life that made him happy every other weekend. He wore his mask well, too well sometimes. That's what Sora had always accused him of, that's what kept him where he was today for so long, until right now.
But then there was the way she was looking at him, like she knew.
She touched his shoulder almost affectionately. She looked like she was about to say something, but then Koushiro yelled, "Gin!" and the game ended and so did her attention on him.
Taichi had liked it though.
He wondered if that was why he always lingered for that second cup. The attention, her attention, someone's attention.
Shaking himself out of this self-reflective mood, he stood and shook hands with Koushiro. "I think I'm going to head home."
"Already?" Koushiro asked, visibly disappointed. "Well, all right. But don't be a stranger anymore, okay? We've got years to catch up on."
Taichi returned his sincere smile and agreed to do so, exchanging business cards. He was pocketing his wallet when Daisuke spotted him heading towards the door.
"Yagami!" he yelled, leaping over the platform in a race to beat him to the door. "What, you're leaving already?"
"I'm not as young as I used to be," Taichi joked, shrugging his shoulders.
Then they heard Mimi's laugh again, and Taichi looked back to see her wrapped up in Koushiro's arms on the couch.
"Anyway," said Taichi, reaching for the handle.
Daisuke held him back by the shoulder, "They're just friends."
"Mimi and Kou, they're friends. Best friends, but just friends. Okay?"
Taichi was stunned, "I—,"
"What, you think all I've done at that diner for the past three years is hang around in the kitchen boiling noodles?" Daisuke laughed. Not letting Taichi respond, he went on, "If you have to leave, okay, but I'll see you around for dinner some night?"
Still a little disorientated from the series of recent revelations, he managed to sputter out a vague answer though he didn't think he'd be going back, cringing again at the sound of her laughter. He didn't look this time, pretending again. "Yeah, sure."
"And, hey," interrupted Daisuke before he closed the door. "Make sure you get at that pie before it goes bad. It keeps terribly after a day or two."
Taichi just nodded, still working through recent events.
"Happy holidays!" was Daisuke's last words to him that night, echoed by a refrain from those left in the building. Taichi waved, faltering again when Mimi waved back.
When he did get home, he wasn't struck by the isolation and loneliness. Not for the first few minutes, at least. It wasn't until he flung himself on the couch, exhausted and sleepy from the late hour and the alcohol, landing on his daughter's left behind toys that he started to feel it again. He picked up ne of the stuffed animals, a little elephant he'd given her for a birthday present last year. Holding it tightly in his hand, he lay back on the couch, turning the television on to drown out the silence in the room. He stretched out under her pink blanket and watched a nameless show in silence, not really paying attention. He was thinking again. About that, about Sora, about his daughter and his job and his life. About Daisuke, Koushiro…Mimi.
Was he happy?
He purposely hadn't answered Sora when she'd turned his original question back at him. He couldn't lie to her. But now….
Maybe he just hadn't allowed himself to be happy for a long time, not since the divorce three years ago.
Maybe he didn't think he'd deserved it.
He hadn't, though. He'd done things he wasn't proud of while he'd been with Sora. At least they had a daughter to come out of that relationship, but little other good things, apart from memories of the better days.
But he'd been this way well before then, and Sora must have seen it and must have realized, too late, that she wasn't the one who'd be able to help him out of this feeling.
He needed to do it himself.
And he would. Today had been a start, however modest and hesitant.
Tomorrow, who knew?
He sat up suddenly, feeling a pang of hunger. He went to the kitchen to retrieve Daisuke's pie, but when he opened the box, he saw nothing inside. Instead, there was a sheet of paper with a phone number scrawled above a handwritten note, taped to the inside of the lid:
Call me Cupid.