He stumbled in, rainsoaked and bedraggled, his head drooping and his shoulders slumped. I turned back to Miss Marlis. "I might do just one more customer tonight. But I might not. That okay with you?"
She nodded, and I marched over. "Good evening, sir," I said in my sweetest voice. "May I get you a menu?"
He looked up. "No, I already—what are you doing here?"
"I work here."
He looked around the dim room. "You work—here? You're a waitress?"
"Yeah," I said, letting the mask of formality slip. "You know what you want? I'll grab it for you."
"Just—a Cola, please," he faltered. I nodded and held out my hand. He dumped the money in my palm, and I went back to the counter and grabbed a Cola. As an afterthought, I picked up a Shake for myself and went back to the table.
"Here you are," I said, and slid the Cola across the table. He pulled the top off as I sat down. "So, what's the matter?"
"Nothing," he said, and took a mouthful of Cola. I raised my eyebrows at him and waited. He didn't look at me, but after a moment he said, "Actually, it's not nothing."
"I know." I folded my arms on the table and rested my chin on them. "You want to spill? You don't have to, of course, but I'd be happy to listen."
"I don't...want to talk about it," he said, and looked away. I didn't answer, just waited. I knew him too well for that.
There was a pause, and he still didn't speak. Three heartbeats passed—slow, hard heartbeat that I could feel in my throat. "Shouldn't you be working?"
I shook my head. "Nah. I'm done for the night."
He still didn't look at me. His gaze darted around the room, resting on his folded hand and on the door and on the chandelier above our heads. At last he buried his face in his hand and said, "I suppose I'm just missing something."
I studied him. "Missing as in loving, or missing as in a piece?"
He frowned and looked right at me. "Is it possible for them to be the same thing?"
"Sure," I said. "Like if a piece of you is lost, and you wish it was back."
I waited for him to say more. I wasn't sure what was stranger: drinking in all the details of him I'd forgotten, or feeling like I still knew him like a brother. Before he walked in, I couldn't remember what he looked like, no matter how often I tried to conjure up the image of his face. Even now I couldn't remember what he looked like when he was smiling. But I still could recall the way he acted, how whenever something was bothering him he would say it was nothing, then change his mind; how he would say he didn't want to talk about it, when he actually did. I could still remember what his laugh sounded like.
When he didn't speak again, I did. "So, what is it you miss? The crowds? The attention?"
He looked at me. "I'm not certain I know what you mean."
I gave him a half-smile. "Come on. I know you. Unless two years have changed you more than I would have thought possible, you want to be in front of an audience, entertaining them."
He frowned, then shrugged. "I'm not sure. Everything, I suppose." He looked thoughtful. I was patient. "It sounds too...silly," he said after a moment.
I laughed. "Have you forgotten that you're talking to the queen of all silly? Come on, spill."
He sighed. "I suppose what I miss the most is making people laugh," he said. "There, now I said it. You may now laugh." He closed his eyes and tried to look dignified.
I shook my head. "Why should I? That proves my point!"
He opened one eye and said, "Your point?"
"That somewhere," I said quietly, "you actually do have a heart."
He gave me a skeptical look. "So you've said."
I glared at him. "And it's true!" I considered, and then said, "Remember that day, when I came into the room looking real sad, because I'd just lost my real special necklace?"
"Perhaps..." he said thoughtfully.
I went on, "You were arguing with someone, Nassy, I think it was. And she heard the door shut and looked at me, and stared giving me this silly pep talk, remember?"
He nodded. "I believe so."
"Do you remember what you did?"
He frowned and shook his head.
I grinned. "You looked at me over her shoulder," I told him, "and you made the silliest face I'd ever seen. To this day, I don't think I've seen a sillier expression."
He opened his mouth to speak, then shook his head. I kept talking. "I saw it, and I started to smile. That made you keep doing it, and I started giggling and then laughing and laughing. and every time Nassy turned around, you stopped doing it and glared at her like you were just waiting for her to finish with me."
He considered this. "I believe that sounds familiar."
"See?" I insisted. "A lot of times, you would grind everyone down. It frustrated me so much. Mostly I don't think you were trying to," I said, noticing his surprise. "It was just the way you did things. Usually, it was when you were trying to be nice, but somehow you would slip something in that wasn't very nice at all."
He looked like he wanted to speak, but I held up my hand to silence him. "But when someone—especially me, just because I'm always happy and cheerful—was real disappointed and sad, you stopped being quite so mean. You didn't make it obvious, but you made them happier. You would do something nasty to someone else, sometimes, but not too nasty—just because it would make someone else laugh."
He shrugged. "Perhaps you're right."
I giggled. "You say that too much."
He scowled. "I do not. Other people are very rarely right, so why would I say they were?"
I laughed even harder. "I meant 'perhaps,' not that I was right."
I finished my Shake and rested my head on my arms again. "So of course I'm not going to laugh. Sometimes you can be such a dummy." I laughed again, and then became serious. "If you miss performing so much, why don't you perform?"
He shrugged. "I'm simply being cautious."
"It's been two years, though. Most people have forgotten your name."
"I'm keeping low because of the ones who haven't forgotten my name, the ones who haven't forgotten my face."
I looked at him. He looked so pathetic, almost wilted, like a plant without any sun. "Do you want something to eat?"
He shook his head, stopped, and nodded. "Not much. Some fresh pasta sounds nice, though."
I went up to the counter. The inn was emptying out, but there were still people left. "I'd like some fresh pasta, please."
Miss Marlis glanced at something over my shoulder, and found a plate of hot fresh pasta. She did something I couldn't see, and then turned back. There were two forks in the pasta. I grinned and carried it back.
"Perhaps that's a bit of an excess," he said, then looked at me quizzically, holding up the two forks.
"One of those is mine, thanks very much," I said cooly, and snatched one. He kept looking at me with that odd expression, until I said, "Eat."
We were both silent for a bit, eating the fresh pasta. Halfway through it, I stuck the end of a noodle in my mouth and sucked it up. He laughed and did the same. The noodle seemed to be stuck under the pasta, and I leaned in. I was only mildly surprised when I found his face only a few inches from mine. He cut the noodle in half with his fork, and we both sat back in our chairs, grinning.
A few more minutes passed in silence. At last, he stood.
"I probably won't see you again for a while," he told me. "I'll be traveling west in the morning." He walked to the door and waved to me. I waved back and said the word in my head as he said it aloud. "Ciao!"
The door closed behind him, and I shivered with a sudden draft. I wasn't even surprised to realize why he'd emphasized the word west. I would see him again soon. Tonight, in fact. He would be waiting at the west gate. I couldn't stop smiling as I walked upstairs to my room. I hadn't known how much I missed him until he came back.