I worked the rest of the day waiting tables, cleaning rooms, and delivering tankards of mead with the straightforward proficiency I had mastered over the past two years of being broken. I could work through the apocalypse (at least, emotionally and mentally speaking) as though everything was normal if I had to. We’d been getting more customers over the past few days, according to Hal, so I did my best to keep up with the flow. I still hadn’t gotten over the newness of working around people dressed in tunics and scars and swords being commonplace, so the distraction helped—not that I needed the distraction. I was fine. I was completely fine.
“You alright, miss?”
I glanced at the grizzly man who asked this as I set his meal and drink before him. I’d seen him every night since coming here, so I supposed he was a regular. It was hard to tell how old he was beneath his black beard a shaggy hair and brows.
I gave him my best business smile. “Why do you ask? Is there something amiss?” Yes, please, so I can fix it and bury it along with my shame and disappointment three hundred miles below ground.
“You ain’t doing anything wrong,” he said quickly, somehow reading my concerns. “Just…you seem a little down.”
“Well, I can’t be happy every day, but I’m doing well enough. It’s kind of you to ask,” I straightened, and since all the other customers were seen too and Milly hadn’t shouted me back for something, I thought I had a moment to satiate my curiosity. “You’re here every night. Is there no missus at home?”
“Nope,” he said, popping the ‘p’ as he lifted his tankard. “Just me and the forge. And after a day roasting alive, the last thing I want to do is cook, so I figured Hal could use the extra coin, and it ain’t like I got anyone to spend it on.”
“Oo, you’re a blacksmith? How impressive. I’ve never met one.”
“Never met a…” he squinted his eyes at me. “I knew you looked mighty high class, but I didn’t think you were that high. You a runaway noble, miss?”
“Oh, no, just…a sheltered merchant’s daughter. Or use to be. Nothing special, promise.”
He didn’t look like he believed me, but took a moment longer to eye me up and down. Something behind me caught his eye and he scowled.
“A warning from a good neighbor to the friendly lass, don’t be so willing to talk about yourself to a lonely bachelor like me. People might start getting ideas.”
I glanced behind me, but only saw more patrons, mostly men, turned to their food, their conversations low murmurs. The women who came through always came with male travel companions.
Still, I blushed. It was yet another cultural faux pax I had yet to learn on my part.
“I’m sorry, I-I didn’t mean to be, I’ll just…”
He looked as though he were about to say something else, but I had turned and run off before he could.
But I didn’t return to the kitchen or to the bar for more work. Instead, I went to the backdoor and out into the cobblestone courtyard. Closing the door quietly behind me, I hunched down on the steps and hugged my knees.
“So, big brother,” I whispered. “Since I scared off your hero, does that mean I’ve failed and can come back now?”
A chilly night breeze pulled up goosebumps from my arms. Crickets creaked slowly, and the murmur of lives on the street and in the surrounding buildings rumbled along.
Since no big light came to sweep me away, I took that as my answer.
I closed my eyes and let the buzz of the life around me soak in. I could smell the faint scent of urine beneath the clean breeze. Besides that, this place could have been no different than anywhere else on my earth.
My butt had grown numb when soft footsteps entered the courtyard. I didn’t look up, not wanting to break the zen I’d manage to rest into. It was a blank space with no emotion or thought, where half-formed dreams waltz around like old-world Disney cartoons. Even when they came to a stop in front of me, I didn’t lift my head from my folded arms and knees.
The muscles on my back prickled upward. The numb I’d been trying to hold back shattered and my eyes started to burn. I wanted to dig a hole somewhere and hide.
“I…I didn’t mean all those things I said.”
After much hesitation, I looked up to view the scrawny, bald figure of Gus, still only wearing Hal’s old shirt.
My first instinct was to cry out at his dirty feet and tug him inside for a warm bath and food, but I held that stupid horse back. No need to embarrass myself further.
Unfortunately, that little bit of effort pushed the first tear on my face. I rushed to brush it away before he could see, but the hollow-cheeked face was already frowning that knobbly, big frown.
And at the sight of that, and in some desperate attempt to save myself some dignity, words came bubbling out my mouth.
“No, no, it’s okay, I was acting like a creep and—and—you’re right, I was desperate to-to baby—but I didn’t mean for you to like me, I wasn’t worried about, I mean, I don’t need you to love me or anything, that’s not why I did all that. It just hurt—it hurt so, so much to see you like that, it was like I was looking at my dead babies again, you were even all gray like them and still and little and cold—and—and–“
I croaked. Like a frog. Something very hard, dark, and cold had risen up from my gut, filling up my throat till I couldn’t breathe let alone speak.
Why? Why was this coming back as though it had just happened? When had I become so raw and sensitive? It had been over two years since then, three even if you counted the first baby. I’d gone to therapy. I’d gotten away. I’d even died and gone to a different world. Why was I seeing this all so clearly again?
Gus’s clammy, cold hands slapped on either side of my face, forcing me to take a gasp of air.
“Stop,” his face had twisted up into something pained. “Stop, right now. Stop thinking. I already said I was sorry.”
I croaked again as more humiliation rose up to add even more to the mess my insides had become. He didn’t need to see this. He didn’t have to see this. Who would want to see this? Why was I putting him in a spot like this by breaking down?
“I’m sorry,” I somehow managed to squeeze out. My tears were already streaming down his fingers. “I’m sorry.”
“No, I’m the one that’s supposed to be sorry. All you did was save my life.” He gave a hard sniff, eyes brightening. “It doesn’t matter why you did. I was dead, and you saved me. And I was an ass—I was a big fat asshole just because I got afraid. So stop crying. Stop thinking about—about dead babies or whatever shits in there, just stop.”
I tried. I really did. I pushed aside his hands to ball my fists against my eyes, urging the black rock my insides had become to soften and go back down. I ducked my head between my legs and forced myself to breathe, to not think again, to not feel.
When my strangled back sobs retaliated with hiccups, I once more felt Gus’s small, cold hand on my back and his form sitting at my side. I could hear him sniffing.
“I’m sorry,” I couldn’t help but whimper again, pushing my words in-between sniffs and hiccups. “I didn’t need you to love me, I didn’t-I didn’t even think that—“
“I know, I get it. Please.”
“I just wanted to help. And I was a creep.”
“You weren’t a creep.”
“I was so a creep. I don’t get how this country works. I keep—I keep messing up…”
“You’re a foreigner? Figures.”
“You should have seen how this—this guy just looked at me, like I was a freak—so I get it, it’s okay if you say I was a creep.”
“For the last time, you’re not a creep. Stop. I said stop, come on, you’re fine.” He gave another heavy sniff, then a grunt of annoyance followed by a long sigh.
Then both his arms were around me in an awkward embrace, his arms terrifyingly skinny. It was almost like he had never hugged anyone before.
Some time later, Hal found us like that, half-frozen and crusted over with snot. He gave that smile which always gave me the feeling that I’d swallowed a whole cup of something warm and sweet, and brought us back inside. Gus let me clean his feet, but only after I’d cleaned off my face. He ate the food I brought him. Then, blushing, and desperately trying to look casual, he tugged me into bed with him, threw the blanket over us and turned over.
“It’s fine,” he said.
I hugged my pillow as I felt the warmth of his bony back pressed up against mine.
“Okay.” I said.