A Diner Story
by Dev-Aki Basaa
It seemed like a pretty simple life. He'd been working here for several months now, living in the apartment above the liquor store. He spent most of his free time between the library across the street or the coffee shop next door - the one where the teen outcasts and disillusioned college students hung out. He always crossed against the light and had too many scars and calluses for a boy his age - 17, maybe. But no one was kinder, in his own subtle way, or more together. He looked aged beyond his years if you caught a good glimpse of his eyes and I think I worried about him from the first moment he stepped foot into the diner.
"The former Queen of the World is speaking again," Jimmy called out and the diner took notice. They usually did for her. Not all the commentary was pleasant, but no other figure who appeared on the old vid-screen garnered so much attention. Henrich had donated his own screen to keep behind the diner counter just to follow the war developments. He left it there through the peace process, as well. I swear, I saw it all from right here at the counter. I saw the news of Minister Dorlain's death, I saw them drag that young Gundam pilot with the long braid into captivity. I saw Colonel Une addressing the Heads of Colonies and announcing their acceptance of OZ. I saw it all end with the Gundams destroying that hunk of metal in the sky and I saw it all begin again when a little red-headed girl addressed the world. These days Miss Une addresses the press about Preventers, our former Queen takes second to our newly elected President and the only mention of Gundam pilots comes as rumors connected to the young Winner Corporation heir. It's been said that they all, the five, secretly work for Preventers and though that's just a rumor too, that seems right to me. Many of the war's old soldiers have joined that organization, it's only fitting that the heroes should too.
Kenji always took particular interest in the political news. He usually stepped away from the dishwashing station and hovered at the back swinging door between the diner and the kitchen. He never made commentary like Jimmy and Henrich did, but he was always there, watching. Henrich never cared about the breaks - he's a good boss - besides, the work always got done, quickly and efficiently. It was just Kenji's way.
Though having him around has certainly had an effect on our typical clientele. At first, Henrich was concerned, all these young girls coming into the diner sitting in wait for a chance to glimpse the 'hot dishwasher', as they referred to Kenji. But he never seemed to notice them - no matter how they fawned or flirted. He didn't pay them any mind and it never affected his work. Sometimes there were even boys who came in to ogle like the girls, but Kenji didn't acknowledge them either. I just don't think he realized how beautiful a boy he was. He'd obviously seen the inside of a gym - though, who knows where since the only gym this old town had went out of business three years ago. He had intense blue eyes and unruly dark hair that I always wanted to brush my fingers though and try to calm, but... You just didn't touch Kenji. It was never a stated rule, or anything, you just knew it would not have been welcomed. I often wonder what all he's been through in his short life to be the way he is. Henrich says I read into things too much. Anyway, Henrich was satisfied that as long as Kenji's admirers ordered something and didn't hog the booth for too long, it wasn't worth causing a ruckus about.
It worried me, however. Not the extra patrons, but I couldn't really say if he seemed lonely or not - you just didn't get those kinds of emotions from Kenji - but he had to be. I never saw him speak to anyone beyond us here at the diner and the occasional words if strangers addressed him. I never saw him spend time with anyone. Always alone - *always* reading. At night when we'd leave for the day, I'd often find him standing just outside the back door, staring up at the night sky. He'd never offer any information and I was often inclined to ask if he'd left family back on the colonies, but, again, I didn't because I frankly knew I wouldn't get an answer. I suppose you could say he was just a loner, but... Henrich disagrees with me, but I say he's missing something when he looks up at the sky like that.
Of course, Henrich thinks he can do no wrong (something I've never seen him think about the kids who've worked for him before), which is why he gripes about my fretting. Says I'm projecting problems onto the boy. I suppose he could be right, but some things just can't be ignored. You know, he was the only dishwasher who didn't complain about the hours - 7am to 7pm - the full hours of operation. Usually we had two part time dishwashers to split the day, a second part time cook to help Henrich through the lunch hour rush and a part time waitress to help me through the same. But Kenji wanted full time and didn't even blink when Henrich told him the hours. So, it's just me, Henrich and Kenji, with Bobby and my daughter, Zey, to help with the rush. We're a pretty good team.
But nothing Henrich said stopped me from worrying about Kenji, though. He was an enigma, a puzzle to be worked on slowly and surely, but also, I suppose, at some level, worrying about him filled the gap left by the son I lost in the war. Not to say they were anything alike - quite different in fact. Rainey had charm and charisma in spades. His laughter was infectious and he'd liven a room upon entrance. Sadly, I lost him to an explosion. Wrong place at the wrong time, they tell me. I don't really know what actually happened, they brought me the body, that's what I know. That's enough, isn't it? Kenji... Kenji just seemed like he needed someone to watch over him. He would never ask for such protection, but even the strong need to be weak sometimes. I just hoped he'd allow someone to be there when he fell.
It was a perfectly normal everyday when the young stranger dressed in black came into the diner. I noticed him only for the black cap he had pulled down low over his eyes and the long braid of hair that hung down his back. I just took his order and moved on, though, not paying him any mind. He pulled a mechanic's magazine out of his back pocket to read during his wait. I was fixing a few salads when I heard the swinging door swoosh open, knowing Kenji had come out to pick up the dirty dishes bin. But a gasp and the rattle of the dishes bin being dropped back onto the stand sent me whirling around. There stood Kenji at the bin, hands gripping the sides staring at the young stranger who stared back, both in equal frozen shock.
The stranger began as if to say something when Kenji picked up the bin and left for the back room. The stranger just stood there for a long time before leaving in a rush, like the devil had caught his tail - or maybe, in his case, braid. When Henrich called me over to say that Kenji had asked for the rest of the day off, I was hardly surprised. He called in sick the next day as well, something he'd never done before. I figured that was probably the last I'd seen of him. Wasn't the last I saw of the young stranger, though. He came in the next day, early, and spent most the day here. He'd periodically pay his bill, leave a huge tip, and go out for a bit. Soon enough, he'd be back and would sit for the longest time, sipping cup after cup of coffee. He didn't ask any questions, or pester anyone and I didn't offer any information. I wouldn't say I was rude to the boy, but I wouldn't say I was nice either. He'd upset Kenji and that's all I needed to know. And yet, at the end of the day, I'd never seen a more dejected soul when he realized it was time to leave and he'd be going home empty handed. It wasn't the reaction I was expecting, so, I guess I didn't really know what to think.
When Kenji came in to work the next day, I almost panicked. I knew that young man in black would be back. He didn't seem the type to give up so easily. I wanted to warn Kenji and almost starting rambling on about black clad strangers with braids, but he was behaving as if nothing had happened and I began to wonder if maybe nothing had. I didn't know who that young man was and I don't really know who Kenji is. It wasn't my place to be butting into his life. So, I did nothing, besides offer several nervous glances at the back room door, when the young man returned. He didn't have his hat on this time, and for the first chance I saw he had large blue eyes - a color that bordered on violet. He ordered, just as polite as before, and waited for his omelet, sipping on coffee. When the bin filled, ready to be picked up, I considered doing it myself, but never got the chance. The back door swung open and Kenji walked through, with all the calm confidence he always had. The young man in black looked up and then stood, approaching Kenji. He waited at the bin, hands gripping the sides, expecting him. I don't know what I thought would happen - that he'd arrest him, shoot him, start yelling. But he embraced him, arms wrapping around Kenji's neck. Kenji just stood there, eyes closed. I could see tears collecting under his eyelashes. The entire diner's attention was pinned on the pair; the din had dropped to nothing.
"I thought you were dead," the young man with the braid said.
"No. Just lost," Kenji answered.
The young man began to speak again, but Kenji pulled back and placed his fingers on his lips, silencing him. "Not here."
The man with the braid turned around and looked at us in the diner as if for the first time realizing we were there. For as focused as he was on Kenji, I wouldn't be surprised if it was. Kenji took him by the hand and led him outside. It was a bright sunny day and they stood against the building, just beyond the window. With them out of sight, the diner returned to a chatty normal, but from the reflection off the entry way glass, I could still see them and stared, riveted, to their reunion. They talked, mostly, the stranger far more agitated of a talker, Kenji answering him in the simple clipped way he always did, no doubt. There was a little arguing, a little laughing - mostly from the young man in black - but the only other contact between them was when Kenji reached out and brushed bangs out of the other man's eyes. Neither spoke for a long while after that. That was the last day Kenji worked for us. He apologized numerous times for not giving us any kind of warning for his leave - Henrich never did complain, either - but he finished out his day while the young man sat in the diner, ordering food occasionally. I couldn't wipe the grin from my face though, for how happy that young stranger looked every time Kenji came into the diner to pick up the bin of dirty dishes or refreshed my glasses with clean ones. Even Kenji, in a very subtle way, looked far happier - or at least, less burdened - than ever before. Perhaps it was only in his eyes, which seemed to warm when his gaze fell upon the young man in black. For his part, the young stranger's mood had changed highly from the two days previous and today he struck up a conversation with Jimmy about the state of our budding new government. Jimmy complained about everything, but this young man knew his politics and killed every argument Jimmy could think of. In the end, Jimmy slapped him on his back and bought him a slice of pie. The young man never did introduce himself, but waved goodbye to us as if long lost friends as he and Kenji left the diner at the end of the day.
It's almost silly to keep calling him Kenji since I know that's probably not his real name.
I saw him again several months later on the vid screen. It was that Lady Une again, announcing that, yes, per rumors, some of the former Gundam pilots had been working secretly with Preventers, but now all five were with them and they were being touted as the new crack team of agents. I wasn't sure if I was surprised or not. I guess I should have pieced it together long ago because, really, how many young men wear their hair in long braids? I'd seen that young stranger as a boy, dragged from his big black Gundam.
Kenji was his comrade. And probably something more.
The two of them stood very close together on the platform, during the announcement, touching frequently. The young man in black tended to put his arm around his shoulder. I half expected the old Kenji I knew to shrug off the touch, but I suppose it's all about the source. That same exuberant wave that young stranger gave as he'd left the diner, greeted the crowd on hand. I know Henrich and Jimmy recognized the two of them - I could see the shocked look on Jimmy's face - but, like me, they said nothing about it. If anyone else noticed, they didn't say a word either. The diner day continued as normal, the din waxing and waning with the passing hours, but I never once heard Kenji's name mentioned. I'm sure they never guessed that the quiet, young dishwasher who worked long diligent days was the same boy who had twice saved the world.
I'd say I hope he's no longer lost, but by the look on his face as the young man in black leaned close to whisper in his ear, I'd say instead that it's not necessary to worry about such things anymore.