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Three Little Words

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The seat creaked underneath your weight. The bar was so dimly lit, it was as dark as the night outside. (The moon was hidden by the heavy clouds that threatened rain.) How the bartender managed to make and pour his drinks in this near darkness, you did not know. It must’ve been his old hand, muscle memory. Your eyes lingered at them, the burly hands that had seen many a bar fight between drunken or pride-wounded explorers. Your glass of whiskey - your fifth? sixth? - lay empty on the counter, begging for more to fill it. You stared, at nothing in particular. You were just staring to stare, to have something to do because you knew without it, you would do something… unthinkable, drastic even. It was strange that just staring - sitting quietly, calmly, staring - could keep you from doing something that would have everyone who ever knew you from going into a tizzy. The corner of your mouth barely twitched upward, a snort barely making its way up your chest, your eyes barely squinting into a smile when he spoke.

“It’s that time again,” he said with that deep, burly voice that you somehow found soothing. Reminded you of the father that you left buried in the ground of your hometown, the father you loved and missed dearly. You ignored what he said just a moment ago, remembering when you had mentioned that to him. He just barked out a laugh, finding the whole thing rather absurd. Entirely absurd… until he looked back at you, seeing the sincerity in your eyes. “Kid, you’ll make me blush! Saying stuff like that…” he said with another hearty laugh.

“The only thing that can make you blush,” you said, “is a fine glass of ale, Cass.”

He laughed again, this boisterous laugh that drew the attention of the other bar patrons. All of them smiled and laughed with him, even though they didn’t know why they were laughing in the first place. People in this city were like that… “Kid, you know me as well as I know the back of my own hand!” He clapped that hand on your shoulder, you wincing a little at how heavy and hard it was. “Hey, wait… what the hell is that?!”

You laughed a little, quietly - almost silently - at the memory. Though that laugh was near silent, Cass heard you. You were the only person in the bar after all - for some strange reason - and the only other sounds came from the barkeep himself. “What’s got you laughing, Kid?”

You shook your head, not giving an answer as you had done many times before. Whiskey slipped past your lips and down your throat. A burn, satisfying as it was painful, filled you with the only ounces of content you allowed yourself.

“I gotta close up the shop, Kid. Gotta kick you out, sadly.”

You huffed. “You say that because you can’t get anymore money out of me.”

“You come every day, Kid, from opening ‘til closing. That’s plenty of time to leech money off ‘ya!” He laughed as he wiped his hands with that dirty rag he used to clean every glass in the place. You eyed it, remembering to buy him a new, clean set for tomorrow… well, today rather. He eyed you in the near darkness, searching for a smart remark or hint of laughter on your face. He didn’t find it, you thought, because he just grumbled something you couldn’t make out. His heavy feet moved from behind the bar and next to you. The sound of the stool creaking made yours seem like a faint whimper in the night. Maybe Cass should lay off some of that meat he’s always talking about, you thought rather meanly.

He didn’t say anything for a long while as he sat next to you. You were sure he was trying to find the best way he could talk to you, about you and everyone else, without offending or hurting or angering you. He didn’t know you were past it all at this point. You were past everything for that matter.

You wanted to take another sip of whiskey - just to do something - but you had already drained the glass into nothingness. So you just sat there, twirling, spinning the glass as though it was one of the troubadours who took to dancing and performing in the town square after their adventures in the labyrinth proved too hard and too much on them. You had joked about that to the bard of your own guild - your former guild - and he smacked you upside the head. “No way I’d lose my dignity like that! I’m a professional!” Again with the barely upturned corner of your mouth, of your eyes, snort barely moving up your chest.

“A professional somewhere, sometime, but not here and now,” the axe-wielding woman of your group remarked.

“And what do you know about fine, artistic music, huh?”

“I just know that what you play, you oh so fine lutist, is nothing but garble and untuned notes.”

He blushed and blanched at the same time, if that's even possible. “Wh— well, excuuuse me if I don’t take the word of some axe swinging warrior to heart!”

“Never said you had to.”

“You basically did.”

“When did I do that?”

“When… you just did, okay?”

“Not okay, but whatever makes you sleep at night.”

You stared at the spinning glass, having it take you back to a happier time in your life - in this town - when Cass finally found the words he wanted to speak.

“Are you okay?”

You paused, the empty glass tilted to the right. It felt as though your heart had stopped for a beat. It had been months since anyone had last spoken those words to you, since you staggered out of the maze of forest as you barely managed to cling to the last inch of your life. Since you woke up from what apparently was a week and a half’s worth of rest. Since that soul crushing moment of finding out, of remembering what had befallen you all.

“I doubt that’s the right question to ask…” Cass was quiet. “The real question is, will I ever be okay?”

For the first time that night - perhaps since you came back - you laughed out loud. Not laughing with tears in your eyes and down your face; laughing for the sake of making someone else feel better; laughing, manically at that, as you stood with a gun to your temple. No. You were simply laughing… though it was obvious that Cass thought you were laughing like a man who had just lost the last piece of his sanity. You were sure that was the truth, but you didn’t dwell on it for more than two seconds. You got up from your seat, glass in hand, and rounded the corner until you were behind the bar counter. Cass made no objections, just watched in the quiet that was oh so unusual for him. You poured yourself a tall glass of whiskey and drank half of it in two gulps.

The ghost of the smile you had just a few moments ago lingered on your face. Your eyes had grown cold, foggy as they stared at nothing in particular, tears unshed beginning to form. “And to answer that question for you… no.”